"When are you going to wake up and realize that if you are not making a living playing music then you are not a professional musician?" That's what Don Moye, drummer for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, told me in 2001.
When I came into the Chicago jazz scene ten years earlier, in 1991, I was an ideological seventeen-year-old kid with a dream of becoming a full-time, professional concert soloist. I immediately discovered that the scene was fragmented between North Side and South Side factions that traced the socio-economic borders of ethnic neighborhoods. I had arrived during a period of transition from the old guard to the new generation of jazz musicians soon to be known as the “new sound” of the Chicago underground. I wanted to make a name for myself and learn how to play authentically the music of my birthright.
For years I tried to establish a name for myself, playing all the jam sessions and pick-up groups, bouncing from club to club. I got my nickname, "Savoirfaire," for my ubiquity on the scene. "Savoirfaire is everywhere." I was constantly asking questions of the "successful" jazz elders about the inner workings of the music business. It was a double-edged sword. I got advice that boiled down to one-liners like "you've got to fake it to make it.” I find one-liners distasteful. Without specific, detailed information, they do not help you to develop useful strategies for success. Like clichéd licks, they tend to become substitutes for original ideas.
So I joined the musicians union and was inducted into the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) the same year. There were more lessons to learn regarding music and business than I expected. The economics of making art in any form is exceptionally challenging. I had read all the books on the business, yet I was only earning an average of $40 a day. All professions have standards for a living wage, best business practices and a historic precedent for a successful career. Music is no different. However, many musicians, even today, will rationalize realities in order to keep their egos intact. According to the Department of Labor, the median federal income is $38,000 for musicians. The median income for a single Chicagoan is $51,600. Do your math, do your homework, make a personal budget and document everything professionally. Calculate how much income you need—daily—to be productive. Budget your projects and performances accordingly. Treat your art as a business; because that's what it is. You are an entrepreneur capable of hiring sidemen and promoting and selling your product.
Calculate how much you will need for health care, savings and retirement. All too often musicians and artists undervalue their art at one extreme and overvalue their ego at the other extreme. It takes a high sense of self-worth to be an artist in the first place. You have to believe you are investing your time in cultivating a valuable skill. After all that investment—time spent practicing, purchasing the proper equipment, producing a sound that you think is worth sharing with your community—why undervalue it by performing for free?
The over-eagerness of the "aspiring" artist/musician has eroded the Chicago music scene to the point where most businesses don't consider it necessary to pay for live music. You can find a significant number of local festivals and "non-traditional " music venues that allow amateurs to play for exposure. Chicago is a wonderful, culturally-rich city with sprawling networks of serious artists practicing various disciplines from music to dance to culinary and visual art. There are resources here from federal, state and city grants, and from local not-for-profit arts organizations including the Chicago Federation of Musicians union. I have come to believe that upwards of 80% of public performances are not paying musicians at a living wage. A very small percentage of musicians are actually making a living at venues that have the budget to pay them.
I believe that few people who consider themselves musicians are really interested in performing for a living. I attribute this to the pervasive myth that there is no value in music as a profession, a result of the "fake it to make it” falsehood. Too often musicians will play for exposure or for free or for the price of admission without any guarantee. And most venues find it appealing to save money by allowing their venues to bill "aspiring" acts. Each musician’s path is unique. We all have different goals and skill sets, but we must pay more attention to the effects our collective choices have on how we present our work. If it’s not worth being properly compensated, why not just perform for your friends? Why perform at a public venue? (Ironically enough, for me street performing has actually been the most rewarding, both personally and financially. I can perform with little overhead cost and people respond to the music immediately.)
Ultimately the measure of success in anything is a matter of personal priorities. Mine are, and have long been, very clear to me: “Today, I will play something truly inspiring that will bring peace and balance to the world.” I think of myself as a “Light-Being” placed on this planet, in this realm of existence, by the Creator to bring peace and balance through sound. I am responsible for the lives of my wife and children. This is who I am. That is my purpose. I ask, “How may I be of service to you?”
And I provide my service at the highest level of performance. I will be performing for someone, somewhere, because this is what I do for a living, every day. I have measured my success as an artist by the quality of finished projects, the ability to pay my bills, raise a family and improve technically as a musician.
As Fred Anderson once told me, "Keep your instrument in your hands and everything will work itself out." I'm still living, so he couldn't have been far off. I would add as well that you should work to this end: Find a sustainable balance that suits you, and don’t diminish professional standards in the art form.
Samuel "Savoirfaire" Williams is a classically trained professional jazz violinist. In 2000 Samuel was voted into the Chicago Chapter of the elite jazz organization AACM. After releasing three independent albums of live recordings, Savoirfaire was discovered by Bob Koester, owner of Delmark Records, and received critical international acclaim for his album “Running Out Of Time"(Delmark 562). Savoirfaire continues to perform with his group Savoirfaire Jazz Quartet and has recorded numerous albums and International Jazz Festivals worldwide as a session string player for Otis Clay and R Kelly. Savoirfaire continues to trail blaze as a composer, producer and arranger breaking down industry barriers by integrating contemporary jazz with other forms of music such as hip-hop, rock, and world music.
Courtesy of savoirfairejazzviolinist.com