The late, great comedian Jack Benny (who was also a very fine violinist) was known for his (supposed) stinginess spending his own money. In a classic TV skit, Benny was accosted by a robber who commanded him to stick up his hands and demanded “your money or your life”.

With his characteristic lengthy pause that morphed into an expression of indecision and consternation about what to do, Benny replied to the impatient robber, “I’m thinking it over”.

How would you respond if you were in this situation?

I recalled a comment years ago by a young musician who told me, upon moving to New York City to establish a career, that his parents warned him that he would “probably wind up eating cat food” with the implication that their son would not earn a sufficient living as a musician to afford better nourishment.

I recalled reading a wonderful book when writing my Dissertation in 1987 (published in 1966 and reprinted in 1968) “Performing Arts: Economic Dilemma” by two Princeton economists, William Baumol and William Bowen. Their astute and comprehensive analysis of the performing arts illustrated why the cost of music performance (which included the emotional and time commitment to practicing and performing ) is steeper than the rate of inflation and is not likely to change. For example, it will always take approximately 30 minutes to play a classical or romantic piano sonata or 45 minutes to perform a classical or romantic symphony. When practice and rehearsals combined with the life long costs (mental, physical, and monetary) of music training are added to this equation, an enormous investment is dedicated to an activity that cannot, unlike the production of a car or other commodity, be shortened to produce a more efficient product in less time and keep up with inflation in the marketplace.

I have long been aware and am continually reminded through my professional contacts and through my patients seeking careers in music and the arts, that fees for service are typically not commensurate with years of training, expenses, and living wages. Yet what other occupation commences in childhood, when the musician unknowingly, begins an instrument that may become his or her life’s love, professional work, and economic livelihood?

For the record: musicians have HAD a high rate of unemployment or under-employment after years of highly specialized training. Data from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrate that 65% of all artists (e.g., musicians, visual artists, architects, actors, dancers, writers, and photographers) are better educated than the overall labor force. Since 2009 there has been an 8-9% steady unemployment rate for musicians (2006 data already showed 21% unemployment for this population.). Job security and wealth appear not to be the primary magnets for individuals pursuing careers in music and the arts.

More recent NEA and the Bureau of Census data illustrate continued erosion of the arts since the 2008 recession. 2010 census data show that unemployment rose faster for artists than civilians 2007-08. Artists left workforce more than general population. NEA data in 2014 show that all types of musicians earned less than typical U.S. workers (with exception of super-stars.) The job market for musicians and artists remains, regrettably, unstable.

Yet it is amply clear that a career in the arts and music can produce what
Baumol and Bowen label as “psychic income” – the intrinsic joy and pleasure of spending one’s life as a musician. These authors add that one needs “real dollars” (as well as “psychic income”) to pay bills and afford a comfortable (not opulent) life style. How often have you been invited to present or perform with the proviso, “we really want you to come to our city and give a program, or lecture, or recital – or all of the above…….but our budget is limited. We hope you understand and will be able to be with us nevertheless.

How often have YOU decided to accept an invitation, knowing you love what you do, feeling that you would like to contribute to the musical life of city X, but also realizing that you will lose a good chunk of private income when you take off work to travel and offer programs that cannot compensate for your time and expertise? Undeniably and understandably, “psychic income” influences what you do since musicians love their work and naturally want to be appreciated, in demand, promote the arts , and applauded. Invitations, compliments, and feeling wanted are seductive to one’s self-esteem and sense of self. These factors also impact income.

Occupational choice is one of the most important decisions we makes in a lifetime. For musicians, it appears that the music occupation chooses the musician!!! Music becomes one’s life and a definition of who one is as an individual and professional.

    Music is one’s life

As a musician, how would you reply to this robber?

Please write a response below so we can continue this conversation.