There exists a stereotype that all artists/musicians should be starving, working gig-to-gig, hippie-like, sacrifice-for-the-love-of-your-art poor. I’m sure this stereotype, like most generalizations, exists for a reason. But when did being an artist/musician no longer become a respectable choice for a career? And should this career not also encourage us to give back to our community, too?
In ancient and not-so-ancient times, actors and musicians were regarded as the history teachers and storytellers of their cultures. The Christian churches regarded their musicians as essential in following the rituals of worship, and those musicians also gave a tithe to their church. Royalty may not have treated all of their musicians with respect and dignity, but many a famous composer from several eras were regularly employed by such courts. In many countries, the musicians are still highly regarded as essential to the culture and heritage of the people. Yet, in America, it appears that unless you are a top 40 act/artist, you should always have a “day job” or other means to “fall back upon” if you decide to become a musician. Even the public thrives on the story and wants their top 40 artists to rise from poverty, playing dive bar to dive bar, and learning of their struggle and story to “be discovered and make it big.” It seems to be the premise behind all the music and talent television shows of recent years, including “America’s Got Talent” and “The Voice.” If you don’t have a good back-story, then they really are not interested in you or your actual talent. A good back-story is essential for reality television.
Why can’t a person be a successful musician without having to come from dive bars or living at the poverty level? Does this struggle make them a better musician? Or more talented? Or more or less devoted and driven to succeed? And when does one determine that he/she is successful?
For me, the back-story is not the important part. I don’t usually share much of my back-story since I don’t consider it essential. Did I come from poverty – absolutely yes. Did my single mother with sole custody and no child support do whatever it took to ensure I had a good education – yes. Did I have teachers who believed in me and pushed me – yes. Did I work jobs that I really did not enjoy in order to pay my bills and never incur student loan debt – yes. Do I now have a lot of experience – yes. To me, the important part is what are you doing right now to work toward your goals to be a successful musician? Are you taking lessons or master classes? Learning new music? Going to auditions and learning from the feedback of the judges? Being a mentor to other musicians? Asking other musicians to mentor you? Seeking out opportunities that will either aid you promotionally or simply personally?
One key way to work toward your goals is to actually support the arts that support you, too. I know this sounds strange asking a “starving” artist to actually give money to support the organizations that employ them, but I see it the same way a company does with its stock options for employees. Corporations have shareholders; oftentimes, the shareholders are physical employees of the company. They are investing in their own future with the organization that employs them, too. Why can’t artists do the same with their arts organizations?
Most arts organizations are 501c3 tax-exempt, which means all contributions are tax deductible (in most cases) from the individuals who donate to them. This includes musicians who work for these organizations, whether by contract or on an as-needed basis. I personally donate to several arts organizations, and have done so for many years. I made it a part of my budget to donate to my college music school, as well as summer arts camps and arts facilities. I have donated money and time to the very symphonies that have written me checks and offered me contracts. Was it millions of dollars? Not hardly! But even a small portion of each event adds up to a larger number to continue support of that organization. Even my non-musician friends choose to support the arts when they learn that I, too, write a check to that organization.
I often give to charities and arts organizations my most treasured resource – my time. In the past two years, I have given over 1000 logged hours of community service and volunteer time, in addition to tens of thousands of hours in the past few decades. Yes, this is gratifying to me personally, and the organizations have been extremely appreciative. But my time does not always allow them to meet their payroll or pay to keep the lights on in the facility. Those things still require physical currency, and I know and understand this. That’s why I also write checks. And attend or purchase tickets to concerts and buy physical CDs to support fellow musicians.
I’m not wealthy, but I’m not at the poverty line, either. Even when I was barely making above minimum wage, I gave to the arts. $10 here, $5 there, $50 to the scholarship fund at my alma mater. It adds up. If every musician gave even $1 per service to their symphony, that amount could expand the season, expand the library, or even give every musician a raise. If every performer gave $1 for every show he/she performs in a performing arts facility, the facility could upgrade dressing rooms, have actual working restrooms (you know what I mean if you’ve ever performed in older facilities), or possibly even allow them to build a new facility better suited to the needs of the community. Bonus – every donation could be a tax deduction!
Whether it’s going to see a local band perform somewhere, writing a check to an arts organization, or buying a ticket to an art exhibition, that’s supporting the arts. We as musicians ask everyone else to support to the arts, but do you practice what you speak? Our actions speak louder than words.
Jerry and I are proud to be founding donors of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, Florida.