Okay, so you’ve had enough of the good ol’ US of A, or you’re just restless. You want to put those two years of middle school Spanish to work, or you heard that the cost of living in Berlin is really low. Whatever the reason, Europe calls.
After experiencing Europe’s enticements through international tours, many high-caliber musicians have gone on to settle down across the Atlantic. To us rank-and-file freelancers on the other hand, the idea of Tuscan villas and French girlfriends seems like a pipe dream. Villas aside though, settling down in Europe is a very realistic possibility for versatile musicians looking for a less-beaten path. In this article, I want to talk about some logistical questions that often pop up when people think about moving abroad, and offer my story as inspiration.
There’s a lot that could be said here, but for musicians there are some specific advantages to living in the Old World. Not least among these is the exchange rate. As I write this, www.xe.com reports a rate of 1.29 Dollars to the Euro. Rates in the last couple years have been as high as 1.60, which means your 100-Euro gig at the local Schnitzel Shack will magically turn into 160 bucks when transferred overseas. Okay, it’s not that simple: if you live in Europe, you’re not only earning Euros, you’re spending them too, and the cost of living in cities varies greatly (and don’t forget taxes!), but you get the idea.
In my opinion, the biggest draw in Europe is the audiences. They’re attentive, they’re receptive to artsy experimentation, and they’re willing to pay for good music. As a jazz musician, I am constantly surprised how deathly silent the room gets as soon as a band takes the stage, even in the dingiest of dive bars. There is an inherent respect for musicians in Europe: introducing yourself as such will yield widening eyes, and “ooohh.. when can I come see you play?” as opposed to the response I usually got in the USA, which was a smirk and a “yeah, but what do you do for a living?”
…and then there’s the rest:
- the chance to learn another language and culture
- meet really interesting musicians with completely different backgrounds
- cheap health care
What do I have to do legally?
A lot. Consider this another plate to spin if you plan on moving abroad. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I want to be held accountable for anybody that reads this and does something silly, so I’m only going to make a couple of suggestions. For further info, go to the US State Department website.
As an American, you are allowed to travel for 3 months as a tourist in Europe. After that, you need a visa. You’re also not allowed to earn money in Europe without a visa, though some countries thankfully offer special artist visas for those with proof of musical training and sufficient means of income.
There are two avenues you can take which simplify this whole process.
Avenue 1: Enroll
A university education in continental Europe costs very little. In the German-speaking world, you’ll be looking at less than €1,000 per semester, more likely around the €500 range. As a student, you can get a special visa that entitles you to live, study, and (to a limited extent) work in Europe. I know, you’re a pro: you’re done with school, you want nothing more to do with ear training tests. If it makes any difference though, Europeans study a lot later in life than Americans, and they dabble in university courses long after they’re done, so you won’t be the only adult around. That, and nobody said you had to attend university, just enroll.
Avenue 2: Teach English
Europeans speak pretty good English in general, but they’re always looking for a chance to improve. Little did you know that the language you grew up speaking could turn into your most valuable skill. It’s really the perfect day job: it’s specialized labor, so you can get away with charging as much as you would for music lessons, plus it’s flexible if you’re just giving private lessons or tutoring. As far as certification, many people go through certified TEFL courses before getting their feet wet, but it’s by no means a necessity. Your American-ness and an ability to improvise convincingly are really all you need. Because you’re doing a job that is specifically tailored to foreigners, your road to a visa is much easier.
I studied abroad in Vienna when I was in college. During that time I polished up my German and made some connections with other American expatriate musicians in the city who encouraged me to come back when I graduated, so I did. I started working at an American institute during the day, though musical work became frequent enough that the day job became more of a burden than a boon, so I quit.
Nowadays I freelance as a musician in styles such as opera, jazz, hip-hop, Austro-pop (don’t ask) and Balkan. The change in musical culture has been refreshing, though frustrating at times (the stereotype about Europeans having trouble swinging is partly true), and the prevalence of experimental and/or high-brow music sometimes makes one long for a good ol’ wedding gig playing Top-40 hits. In general though, I’ve been very happy over here, and I think for some who are jaded with the musical culture in the states it’s a great change of pace.