How to Tell If You’re an Amateur Musician

220px-John_Frusciante_creativecommons2We all like to think that we’re beyond categorization. And to some degree, we are. To be human is to be flexible and multifaceted.

But that’s not going to change the fact that throughout your entire life, others will categorize you, just as you do to them. It also won’t alter the reality that there are times when categorizing ourselves can be extremely helpful. After all, if you don’t know where you are and where you’d like to wind up, it’s pretty damn hard to figure out just how to get there.

Life may be more about the journey than the destination, but with all else being equal, it sure helps to have a path. Even if you have to hack it out for yourself with a machete.

What Makes a Professional?

Ultimately, there is only one thing that defines a professional musician: He or she makes a self-sustaining amount of income from music.

It doesn’t matter if the musician is a composer or a player, or whether the income is from live performance, recorded music, jingle-writing or music lessons. It doesn’t matter if he takes home $10 an hour or $10,000. It doesn’t even matter, necessarily, if she is part-time or full-time. The very act of interacting with the marketplace in a sustainably profitable way is all that separates the professional from the amateur.

When we think about this, it’s important that we not pigeonhole professional musicians with an overly-narrow set of expectations: For some professionals, an album might be a major source of income. For others, it might be a calling card that helps drive their other, more stable sources of income. And what works well today might not be what works tomorrow.

It’s also endlessly worthwhile to remind ourselves that becoming a professional musician is not a question of taste, artistic merit, talent, or even skill at any one musical task. Those things can certainly help, but they are not sufficient. Hell, they’re not even prerequisites. (Just ask Billy Ray Cyrus.)

Being a professional musician is merely a question of figuring out what goods and services the market is willing to pay for, and then figuring out how to deliver one or more of them in a way that doesn’t make you poorer each day.

We all do this in some arena of our lives. (So long as we manage to avoid perpetual unemployment.) Some of us just happen to have choosen to do it with music.

What is an Amateur?

According to the French and Latin roots of the word, to be an amateur is to be “a lover.” One who loves, and one who does out of love. How amazing is that? Why would we ever, in our right minds, stigmatize such a word?

There’s really only one answer to that: Insecurity. It is only an insecure professional, straddling both worlds, woefully uncertain of his or her standing, who would ever stoop to denigrating amateur musicians as a class.

The reality is that amateur musicians are usually professionals’ best customers. They are active participants in musical culture, who are often willing to throw down tremendous, sometimes senseless amounts of money, just to engage.

And that is their key point of separation: Professionals must seek a sustainably profitable return on their investment. If they consistently lose money, then they are failing at their jobs.

Amateurs on the other hand, if and when they “lose” money, are not failures at all. Are you “losing” money when you go rock climbing, take in a movie, paint someone a picture, run a marathon, or join a community theater? Allow me to be the first to say hell no.

Whether they do it consciously or not, amateurs effectively take their cash and use it to say: “This is valuable. This is important. I want there to be more of it in the world. I want to support this. Just being around it is its own reward. And I’m willing to pay more for what I think is the most worthwhile.”

They are, in a word, lovers. And without them, there is no need for professionals at all.

Why Amateur Musicians Should Embrace Their Role

Of course, these boundaries can be fluid—many of today’s professionals began as amateurs—but they’re still useful.

It’s also fine and healthy to consider yourself an aspiring professional. (That sure sounds a hell of a lot cooler than being a failed one.) Just admit what you are at the moment—at least to yourself—if you ever want to have a hope of crossing that line.

Try as you might, you will simply never find your way out of quicksand if you start off by telling yourself that you’re already on solid ground. The same is true about getting by in the music business: As difficult as it is in any case, it’s outright impossible to figure out how to get where you want to go unless you first admit where you are.

Of course, not every musician should aspire to be a professional. If you allow yourself, you can have an extremely satisfying artistic life without being a professional artist at all.

Straddling Two Worlds Can Tear You Apart

It can be very difficult to serve two masters. At some point, it’s wise to decide whether you’d like to pursue music professionally (even if it’s part time) or as pure art or therapeutic recreation.

Some professionals even retire into an amateur-style love affair with their craft after they’ve made their fortunes (or once they’ve given up hope of ever doing so.)

Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, for instance, recently declared his lack of interest in ever making money from his music again. Discussing his recent abstract solo album Outside with Billboard, he said:

“I needed to specifically make music that I know wouldn’t sell in order to learn things. And I’m gonna keep doing that for the rest of my life.”

This is not the first time for Frusciante – he’s gone back and forth between these two worlds before. Unfortunately, it’s hard for an outside observer (and possibly Frusciante himself) to tell which one of these arrangements has made him happier in the past. (And as much as I love so much of his music, I’d never wish his apparent discomfort with himself, and his role as a musician upon anyone.)

The conflict he feels leads him to say some very questionable things at times: “In this environment of music and the way that it’s being consumed today,” he says, “I think we’re seeing the ill effects of business-minded thinking being applied to artists, and artists learning to think more like businessmen and more like celebrities than musicians.”

If Frusciante thinks that the dire straights professional musicians have found themselves in today comes from musicians being too business minded in their thinking, he has another thing coming. But maybe he’s suggesting something different: Maybe some artists don’t have to be professionals to be artists. Maybe they don’t need to engage the marketplace at all. Maybe some of us don’t need to put their music up on CD Baby or iTunes or Spotify to have whole and fulfilling artistic lives. Some of us might be better off without it.

In any case, adopting the amateur’s attitude apparently allows Frusciante to focus on making music that makes him happy, rather than thinking about what others want from him. And that’s hugely important to recognize:

“I really don’t think of myself as a performer anymore. It was never something that came naturally to me. It was something that I adapted to, but it was never really an expression of who I was…I’m not a performer. I don’t appreciate the effect that audiences have on me, because for me music is something that comes from inside of me. And music is something that I immerse myself in, and when I’m in front of an audience, I can’t ignore my surroundings and I can’t ignore the way they make me feel. They make me feel good, the audiences. But then I find that I’m not so much reaching inside myself to create something, but I’m more trying to meet with their expectations. And I’m trying to do something that’s entertaining to them. And that’s just not me. I’m not interested in meeting people’s expectations and I’m not interested in pleasing people.”

Sometimes, by sheer fluke of luck, a musician might take this kind of approach and end up making a self-sustaining amount of money regardless. (This has an unfortunate knack for happening after they’re dead.) But any artist who’s able to do so consistently? Chances are it’s not a fluke at all. Chances are it’s the product of concerted effort, dedicated—at least in some part—to figuring out what the market is willing to pay for.

If you find yourself thinking otherwise, it’s wise to remember that there’s a huge market for romantic, although not entirely true, stories. So buyer beware.

The Freedom of Being an Amateur (And the Servitude of the Professional)

Frusciante’s choice demonstrates one of the things that is so powerful about being an amateur: By definition, amateurs have some other source of income, and can therefore afford to do with their music entirely as they please.

They can afford to care exclusively about their own enjoyment, and perhaps about that of their close friends and family. They simply don’t need to think about what the marketplace for music is willing to reward. And if the marketplace isn’t buying what they’re selling Who cares?

For more than 99% of musicians and artists, this is a perfect arrangement. If this is the kind of arrangement that’s perfect for you, then embrace it. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. It’s not only okay to be an amateur, it’s a very beautiful thing.

Professionals, by contrast, provide goods and services to people who want those goods and services enough to pay for them. Professionals are by definition, servants.

This too can be beautiful, and it has its own kind of purity: A doctor is a servant. So is a professional writer or accountant or plumber or photographer or anything else.

How the Two Interact

It is amateur musicians who initiate, share and promote the culture of music. Professionals are mere servants of that culture. (They’re also the ones who make the money there is to be made in music, because doing things that other people want you to do for them is the stuff that pays.)

The amateur’s job is to love music, and to engage with it deeply. It is the professional’s job to figure out what music lovers are willing to pay for, and then deliver it, consistently. This is no small task.

Professional engagement with the music world is intrinsically difficult: It’s emotionally laborious, and although it demands incredible discipline, it can be incredibly unsteady work.

Therefore, when professional musicians do figure out how to deliver what people really want and need and are willing to pay for, they can and should be rewarded handsomely.

Make Your Choice

By now, you should have enough information to figure out whether or not you’re a professional musician of some kind: Either you regularly generate significantly more income than you pay out for activities that relate to the “doing” of music, or you don’t.

If you do, you’re a professional. If you don’t: Congratulations. You’re either a successful amateur, or you’re a professional who is currently failing. The choice is yours to make. Only by making that decision can you happily move forward in either of those two directions. (Just remember that neither choice is more valid than the other.)

I wouldn’t recommend a professional life in music for everyone, just like I wouldn’t recommend that very many people try to become professional writers or actors or athletes. Not only is it far more difficult to make a living at any of these pursuits than with the average profession, but they are also things that can be inherently worthwhile and enjoyable without being paid a dime.

Taking that last realization to heart is what being an “amateur” is all about. Contrary to the senseless negative stigma that can go along with that term, being an amateur is a very beautiful thing. And it’s time for more of us to embrace that word.

What is the Value of a Professional Musician?

Although amateur musicians do just fine by themselves, they benefit undoubtedly from the existence of a professional class of musicians—just like amateur athletes and chess players benefit from supporting a professional class in their fields.

The professionals get paid to figure out the way forward. We charge them with striving to show us the way to new and higher heights. They blaze trails and uncover new paths to mastery because we ask them to, and because we reward them for it. They take criticisms for us, and show us how (and how not) to handle success, failure, defeat, adoration and public scrutiny. They give us something to talk about with one another, to bond over and to appreciate together. They satisfy our guilty pleasures and fuel our aspirations.

As fluid as they may be, the boundaries between professionals and amateurs may be eternally useful. It is only when they become completely confused—as they are now—that we find ourselves in a lot of trouble: Amateurs find themselves unhappy and unfulfilled, and professionals find themselves unpaid and out of work. We’re seeing too many of both these days.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist

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