A few months ago MusiCares, a nonprofit organization that provides a range of safety net resources for musicians, partnered with the Princeton University Survey Research Center to publish a reporthighlighting the challenges and opportunities that musicians face. The 1,277 musicians who responded to the questionnaire were asked not only about their financial state, but also about topics that included health issues, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Take this as a spoiler alert, because I’m going to jump right to the conclusion of the report:
The survey findings described in this report suggest that many professional musicians face a multitude of problems, including high levels of depression and anxiety, high rates of substance abuse, relatively low incomes, and work-related physical injuries. And while many musicians find features of a musical career particularly alluring, the life a musician presents many challenges … and the rather disturbing findings call for further monitoring of the conditions faced by many musicians, and support for those musicians who suffer from severe emotional, physical, and financial hardships.
When you’ve chosen to follow your artistic passion, hopes, and dreams, this report reads like the directions to a highway from hell. I’ll bullet point a few of the statistical findings:
* The most common income source is live performances, followed by music lessons and performing in a church choir or other religious service.
* The median musician in the U.S. earns between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.
* Sixty-one percent of musicians said that their music-related income is not sufficient to meet their living expenses.
Many musicians shared that they most liked the “opportunity for artistic expression, performing, and collaborating with others,” as well as the “aspirational and spiritual aspects” of being a musician. So much for the good news.
Performers have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than the general population, and 72 percent of women musicians — who are already disproportionately underrepresented throughout the music industry — report that they have been discriminated against because of their sex. Sixty-seven percent report that they have been the victim of sexual harassment. And 63 percent of non-white musicians stated that they have faced racial discrimination.
While Americana-branded music and all its various “inside the big tent” sub-genres has grown in popularity over the past dozen years, my personal unscientific observation is that for the majority of musicians there is a marked deficiency in the nine‐factor analytic model of conceptions for the desire to be famous. That’s a fancy way of saying they don’t necessarily strive for “superstar” status and financial success and even if they did, it’s doubtful they’d be very happy if they accomplished it.
Edward Deci, a professor at the University of Rochester who was speaking about his research into success and happiness in 2009, put it like this: “Even though our culture puts a strong emphasis on attaining wealth and fame, pursuing these goals does not contribute to having a satisfying life. The things that make your life happy are growing as an individual, having loving relationships, and contributing to your community.” (This man clearly has never flown on a private jet to Paris for a lunch date at the Guy Savoy restaurant with 21-year-old billionaire Kylie Jenner to munch on whole-roasted barbecued pigeon, oyster concassé, and monkfish among aubergine caviar with sautéed ceps.)
Let’s flip the switch and talk about what it looks like to be defined as successful by many people: money. Take a look at Forbes‘ list of the wealthiest musicians for the year 2017, beginning with the top ten:
1. Diddy ($130 million)
2. Beyoncé ($105 million)
3. Drake ($94 million)
4. The Weeknd ($92 million)
5. Coldplay ($88 million)
6. Guns N’ Roses ($84 million)
7. Justin Bieber ($83.5 million)
8. Bruce Springsteen ($75 million)
9. Adele ($69 million)
10. Metallica ($66.5 million)
Bruce is probably the closest thing on this list to a down-to-Earth working-class-value folkie musician (cough, cough), and if you want to find the people who occasionally wear cowboy hats you’d find Garth at #11 with an annual income of $66 million, followed by Kenny Chesney at $48 million. Going deeper on the list, the elder generation are represented by Elton John, Sir Paul, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Both Flea and Anthony Kiedis turn 56 this year.) Hip-hop artists dominate the rest of the top 25, along with a few women who are best defined as pop singers that can dance like crazy and have superb social media skills.
Almost every musician in the survey reported that 75 percent of their income is from live performances, but there should be a giant asterisk next to Jimmy Buffett’s name, since most of his $50 million annual take was not directly from music but rather his chain of restaurants, hotels, and casinos. In discovering that Buffett has a net worth of over half a billion dollars, I’ll never look at a parrot, lime, or bottle of tequila the same way. And ditto with Diddy: He made $70 million by simply selling his Sean John fashion line and cashing out.
When I consider many of the musicians I know who travel by car or van from gig to gig, hang out at the merch table after their show to make a couple extra bucks selling stuff, and either crowdsource or borrow from friends and family to record an album, pigs are likely to be seen flying across the sky before they make the Forbes list. And with the exception of maybe three dozen Americana performers that I can think of, they’re destined to stay mainly in the world of small venues, house concerts, and, if they’re truly lucky, a slot on the festival circuit and a month or two each year in Europe and Scandinavia. They likely won’t be making a fortune, but success is best measured by your heart rather than a bank statement. Keep on truckin’.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.