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Becoming a professional musician: I failed

I don’t want to play lots of gigs, and I’m done feeling guilty about it.

On May 17, 2011, I played bass with some friends in a jazz gig and earned $30 from the City of New Westminster, and I earned money for the first time in my life. I had been playing music seriously for a year or two, and I was becoming a professional musician.

A friend told me, “There’s probably 50 people in the world who work as a professional jazz guitarist full-time, but I want to be one of the 50.” I wanted to join the Canadian 50 as a bassist. The opportunities would follow the pratice, and a long career in music would come.

I had a wonderful high school band, gigs to attend in the Vancouver jazz scene, and university ahead of me. The plan was:

“to attend Capilano University’s jazz studies program which may lead to a performance or teaching career.”

I dropped out after about 12 months.

My career since then has had three overlapping parts where I:

  • Worked my way from hired bassist to general manager at a small music non-profit, approximately 2014-2019
  • Co-founded a fun, profitable folk band that played about 30 to 40 gigs per year while releasing a debut album in 2018
  • Worked as a bookkeeper for a non-music business

And here are some confessions about them:

  • While I had the non-profit position, I was excited to spend more time not playing music
  • The best part of co-founding the band was plowing hundreds of hours and $5,000 into the album with no expectation of getting it back
  • I prefer doing and running projects to going on the road and playing gigs, even when the projects suck and the gigs are awesome

I have felt guilty about all of these things

Many friends, family, and colleagues have co-signed and influenced my music career. Have I let them down?

I once confided in some colleagues that these feelings were on my mind. They said things like this, although these are paraphrases:

“You’ll always be a musician.”

“Eventually, you’ll want to come back to the bass.”

“I know you, and deep down you’re an artist.”

Then I stopped listening to anything people said that sounded like this, because it’s never helpful.

I spent 2019 and am spending this year outfitting my independent music career. That means I now have my own record label, publishing company, solo-operable admin systems, and suppliers who can help me produce basically any project of any size.

You know what I haven’t done?

  • practice my instrument or study with a teacher
  • teach music lessons (outside of a tiny crew of New West people, love you folks!) or become certified as an educator
  • play gigs or recording sessions regularly

Empirically, I’ve failed all three, even after 10,000 hours of progress accrued over the years. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not bragging and also not writing off future studies or instrumental practice. The failure has happened in the recent past and in the present.

I think any identity of ‘professional musician’ that doesn’t require those three bullet points is wrong. So, this is the sense in which I failed to become a professional musician: I don’t have it as a career identity.

I worked for a decade on the skills I would need for becoming a professional musician

A downside of what’s easy when you’re a kid or a teenager is that the questioning only comes as you grow into your own life.

I defer now to people who still have the same pursuit of the discipline. No one who needs to hire a professional musician should hire me for that job until they exhaust the list of everyone they know. That list should include the majority of my friends.

Observing my friends who became professional musicians, many while graduating with bachelor’s degrees and teaching certifications, has been inspirational. Every year, the work they do becomes bigger, more innovative, or more heartfelt. They also make increasing impacts as educators. Hopefully my projects are good enough that I can afford to hire them regularly! A projects-based career seems to suit me better.

None of this means I dislike playing instruments, recording music with people, etc. In fact, I’m working on my own music right now. But I’m doing that to do business in music, not to be a professional musician. Instead, I want to:

  • Ship music projects that people will love
  • Own the rights on these projects as much as possible, because I believe in them and in myself
  • Help build careers for talented people

That’s all. At some point, I might no longer have the instrumental skill to play on my own professional projects. That would be fine, because the mission in the above bullet points will continue uninterrupted. I’m just leveraging the musicianship that I’ve developed over the last ten years to get started.

I don’t want to play lots of gigs, and I’m done feeling guilty about it. If you hear me talk about failing to become a professional musician, know that I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of you if you did become one.

By Will Chernoff

William Ross Chernoff—known as Will to friends and colleagues—is a jazz musician, podcaster, YouTuber, and writer. He records and performs under his own name, William Chernoff.