What the Economic Recovery Means for Musicians

Two years ago, I wrote an article about finding work in the midst of the recession. Part of the advice I gave was to focus on building clients at schools and churches, as they seemed to be the only institutions surviving the financial crisis.

It’s time for some new advice.

Now, certainly, I’m no economist. I took one, required, econ class in my whole life and I spent most of it looking pretty glassy-eyed. I can only tell you what I’m seeing in my own career and you can tell me in the comments below if you are seeing the same.

The Five Employers of Musicians

There are 5 basic employers for musicians.

  1. For-profits (i.e. corporate gigs, cruise ships)
  2. Non-profits (ballets, symphonies)
  3. Individuals (weddings, parties)
  4. Education (schools, universities)
  5. Churches/synagogues

As soon as the recession hit in 2007 (it came early in the arts), the first three on that list took a big hit. In 2008 I was working a sweet guest performer gig on a big ‘ol cruise ship in Hawaii. Then one day the act got canned and replaced by a juggler. They said one juggler was cheaper than the seven of us. That’s showbiz for you.

Once the recession came in earnest in 2008 non-profits in the arts started closing up shop. Famous theaters from California to Akron to New York closed their doors for good between 2008 and 2010. Nearly every symphony orchestra in the country took a pay cut, including untouchables like the Chicago Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Honolulu Symphony folded altogether and the Charleston Symphony was nearly turned into a community band. Eleven Broadway shows closed in late 2008, taking 150 musician jobs with them.

It got pretty ugly. I’m sure you remember.

Run and Hide

Many of us, myself included, retreated into academics and churches. They seemed to be the only organizations hiring musicians at the time. Before the recession hit I’d never played a church organ in my life, but when a church gig opened up in the Bronx in 2008 – you bet I learned!

I also landed an accompanying gig at NYU. It was a great gig and NYU – a university as big as a municipality – seemed too large to be impacted by the recession.

As I said, I’m no economist.

In late 2009 it was clear that universities were losing the value of their endowments at an alarming rate. Eventually this loss of equity began to impact the number of accompanist positions as well. See? Trickle down works.

Churches held on much longer, but eventually they have also felt the hit. The Archdiocese of New York recently announced the closing of 32 schools, and a list of church closings is bound to follow.

The Recovery

The end of the recession was announced last year by people smarter than me, so I suppose we should believe them. The guys on Wall Street are certainly back to making money.

Economic indicators, like the recent increase in consumer confidence, seem to suggest that we’re in the middle of the recovery, even if unemployment is still at 9%. Obama is prodding the private sector to start hiring again (they’ll need to make up for all the public sector jobs that are about to be liquidated with the new budget…).


So what does this mean for working musicians? Here’s my updated advice:

  • With the slash in the federal budget that’s almost certainly going to come out of our new congress, I suspect we’ll see more cuts to arts funding in public schools. Couple that with the school closings that churches are facing, and we have a looming arts education crisis.

    My prediction, though, is that the private sector will take up (some of) the slack here. If schools decrease or lose their arts programs, after-school programs, arts camps and private teachers will see an increase in business. In my work I’ve already seen an increase in teaching gigs for these kinds of supplemental arts education programs.

  • Did you see that consumer confidence is at a three-year high? Christmas sales at the big retailers did pretty well, too. That’s good for us.

    For this reason, and the one I just mentioned above, now is the time to start building your teaching studio back up to where it was before the recession. Read our article on starting your teaching business. Greg wrote some great advice in that article, and I suspect your hard work will get more traction this year than it did in the last 3 years.

  • Remember the 5 employers I mentioned above? I think the first 3 are starting to come back (for-profits, non-profits and individuals). Here’s the thing though – they are coming back, but different.

    My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. Like many that lived through that time, they had an amazing talent for saving money and planning for the future. Their lives were forever colored by the difficulties of the Great Depression.

    The Great Recession has taught our generation lessons as well (topics like: What is a subprime mortgage and how can it ruin your life?). I think the post-Recession costumer is going to be more savvy and receptive to added value.

    So whatever your product is – your new album, lessons, a new concert series, etc. – I think you’ll get a lot more interest if you are able to raise it’s perceived worth with some kind of incentive. Try quantity discounts, hand-made packaging or access to members only content – or maybe something no one has thought of yet?

  • I think jobs with for-profit corporations are on their way back. Cruise gigs, tours, corporate gigs – I can’t prove it, but I think we’ll slowly see these gigs creep back into our lives over the next two years (right in time for the 2012 elections, how about that?). I know that I’ve started to get calls for the kinds of gigs I thought had gone extinct entirely: concerts, tours, new musicals, etc.

  • The arts were one of the first sectors of the economy hit by the recession, and I think we’ll be one of the last to recover. I can’t help but feel that non-profits will take the longest to recover, as they are privy to the financial support, and whims, of both private and public funding.

    May the NEA and it’s (soon to be cut) budget save our ballets, symphonies and operas. Amen.

There’s Still a Long Way To Go

Again, the arts will be one of the last industries to recover fully, so while I think we can feel positive about our future – I know we’ll also have to wait patiently for it’s arrival.

I do think, though, that we should be using this time to build our businesses, careers and brands so that when the recovery does finally hit us – we’re ready to ride it as far as it will take us.

Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of MusicianWages.com and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

14 thoughts on “What the Economic Recovery Means for Musicians”

  1. Hi
    We are in total agreement of your article, it is well written and we have featured it on our news desk…

    Good Work, look forward to more articles, If only there is voice like yours in Asia, Who speaks the reality of our industry.

  2. Dave,

    I think the only people who are going to be paying for the great Arts recovery you imagine are the 2% who benefited from the renewed Bush tax cuts. The rest of us are not going to be seeing a comeback. NYC is the place where the robber barons roost, and from what I know, the trickle down from their bonuses might make it seem there’s a recovery on the way, at least until we villagers take to the Hamptons with pitchforks and torches some balmy July night.

    There’s a little interview with the 2 guys in the “New York R Section” here..They are making $100 for 5 hours of work, not including schlep time and cab fare. In one of the most expensive places to live in the USA. I think musicians should remember that while the minimum wage is currently $8/hr, a living wage is quite a bit more, especially in an urban area. The Portland musicians union started to address this, but with the current fascists in control of the government (by fascist, I mean the use of the word as prescribed by Mussolini) and trying to dismantle all unions, i don’t see a lot of daylight ahead. Wisconsin is the bellwether.

    1. JP,

      I understand your frustration, but I don’t agree with you. I’m seeing new trends in the freelance musician economy and I think things are turning a corner now. None of us make the kind of money they are making on Wall Street, but there is money to be made as a musician. You have to be smart and know what to look for and this article is just a discussion regarding which way to look.

  3. I am a 59 yr old player, berklee alumni, In 1970 I played a frat gig at georgia tech in atlanta, 4 piece band , we made 250.oo for the whole band, I played last night at a local pub, the pay 41 years later??? take a guess, thats right 250.oo nuff said.

    1. That’s a rough comparison only because college frat gigs pay way more today (they don’t skimp on their party budgets), but club gigs don’t.

      However, I’ve had this discussion on a broader scale with my wife many times. Here’s an excerpt from the book Strapped by Tamara Draut, referencing statistics from the US Dept. of Education:

      Typical earnings for young males with a bachelor’s degree or higher have declined, from $52,087 in 1972 to $48,955 in 2002.

      I don’t think there’s less money to go around, it’s just distributed far less evenly. Jobs in the arts tend to be on the bottom of that chain of distribution. Couple the declining perceived value of music with declining living wages for most Americans, and it’s no wonder musicians have to find different ways to make a living.

  4. @ Dave,
    When you say that things are “turning the corner”…maybe for the top 2%, but quite the opposite for us other serfs. I wasn’t implying that any musician (entertainer perhaps, but not musician) should be making anything like the Wall Street criminals (the 2% who are big urban muso employers, either directly through functions, or indirectly through being Broadway ticket buyers etc), simply that I was disagreeing with you agreeing with the happy talk coming out of DC. re the economy.

    @Dave C: My friends in the UK call collective commiseration/complaining/bitching, “having a moan”, which sounds about right to me, as I play a lot of Blues ;) And being from the same ahem age bracket as you , as are a lot of my muso friends, our collective moan level is very high lately (part of which is the reason I speculate that Dave and Cam have this place going). There’s an article here by Cameron about the NYC R-section that I have commented on, that you will find interesting. but..the time is for action on this. Certain basics have to be agreed on , like the fact that music has intrinsic value, and not just “value added” worth, etc etc. And a good hard look at why there are unions in the 1st place (to protect workers from being exploited, and to make sure people who work in an honorable profession (like being a musician) are paid at least a living wage. This is anther article though, and I have derailed this enough, my apologies Dave. On Wisconsin!

    1. As the guy that provides most of the pre-publishing feedback on most of Dave’s writing here, maybe it should be my job to make sure his sarcasm is clearer. I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t agree with all the “happy talk” but instead is just pointing out that this is what DC is spinning.

      What really matters is what any of us are experiencing, and it seems like some of the gigs Dave mentions are coming back. I’ve started feeling it a little, as my earnings from sites like iTunes are starting to get a little better, and I also landed a non-profit corporate gig, who would have never had the budget for a jazz trio the last couple years. Although I have a feeling you and Phil might point out how little that gig pays compared to the good ol’ days.

  5. JP and Phil – You’re referring to the systemic devaluing of musicians’ wages over the past 40 years. Of course I agree that that’s a problem in our industry, no one can argue with that. But that’s not what this article is about.

    This article is about the re-emergence of private-sector gigs, looming problems in religious and public-sector gigs and the continued uneasiness in non-profit work.

  6. @Cam: AFA as that stat- real dollars/adjusted for inflation? That was 9 years ago as well, it’s worse now. The stat that came home to me recently was that around 50% of the population makes less than $500 a week. No health insurance either..good luck.

    @Dave: It’s one thing to mention a re-emergence, but if that pays nothing or 50% from 3 years ago, then what is the point?

    Not to mention Phil’s story..25% of what he made 40 years ago.. because adjusted for inflation from 1909, sorry Phil, 1970, $250 in 1970 is up by a figure of 4 in today’s dollar, iow, $250 in 2011 was worth $62.50 in 1970, Phil’s take of $62.50 FOR HIMSELF in 1970 for playing at Alpha Dog Mu compares to the $15 and change he made last night ..apples to apples, adjusted for inflation. and to tell you the truth, we didn’t play anywhere for $15 back then..especially them berk a lee grads. We’d tell you to GFY, .. standard pay in a Class A tavern was more around $40, or $160 a night now (and a living wage could be made even at that level, look up the average middle class salary for 40 years ago), ..so what Mr C was getting at (I think) is that here he is (me too) a seasoned player, with 40 years of experience, making 25% of what he made as a pup. That’s the real scary stat. You think our brothers and sisters in the trade unions are doing this? There certainly are people trying to pull this on them, but look to Madison.

    Ok, a walk around the block is needed.

    1. Yessir, those figures are adjusted for inflation and presented in 2002 dollars (no doubt worse now). And for those with no college degree, there was a 30% drop.

      However, I’ve got to agree with Dave that focusing on opportunities that exist is vital for the musician industry.

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