Music: Work or Play?
By Professor Joan Cartwright
[March 25, 2016] Most musicians begin their careers at four or five years old and continue until they die. Does the term play effect people’s thinking about what musicians really do? Does the action of playing music mean that musicians do not work?
In my 40-year career as a vocalist and songwriter, I have run into stone walls getting to the next level. I started singing at a theater in Jamaica, New York, at the age of four. By eight, I was a headliner in the annual Bernice Johnson Dance Recital. Mother doted on my Shirley Temple curls and my outfits of shiny tinsel and crinoline-lined, lacy dresses, not to mention the ballet, tap, and interpretive costumes my parents paid for.
I studied piano with a woman whose name is long forgotten. But her stern face never encouraged me to learn. I was 27 when I met Gerald Price, the musician whose demeanor catalyzed my growth as a vocalist, pianist, and composer. My harp teacher, Caliope Proios, with whom I studied for two years, listened to my life stories as she showed me the difficulties of changing pedals and string fingering.
In the seventies, my formal education involved music, but I dueled my B.A. with Communications, a new department, separate from English. Television production fell under this banner, with radio, journalism, marketing and advertising, while The Medium is the Message (1964) by Marshall McLuhan led me to do everything to get the message out that I am a musician and I have something to say.
For the first 10 years of my career, I was paid to do what I love – sing. But I was told that singing for free at benefits was good ‘for exposure’ by a singer friend. However, I decided that we would get more exposure standing on a corner, taking our tops off than performing at benefits. Finally, I told people, “I can do it, but I cannot ask musicians to work for free.”
After all, I worked (or played) with grown men and women who had children to feed and bills to pay. Every doctor and lawyer has pro bono cases in their filing cabinet that comprise less than 10% of their case load. But a musician, who plays for a living, is invited to perform at benefits at the ratio of three benefits to one gig. This had to stop and I was the only one who could stop it.
In 1990, I traveled overseas to sing in Switzerland, where I was treated with dignity. Europeans do not see musicians as people who play. Music is work. So, I was paid well and given lots of respect. When I returned to the States, in 1996, people treated me better than before I took the step across the big pond. I determined that musicians must leave the comfort of their homeland in order to be appreciated at home.
Ten years later, I had completed a five-month tour of Asia, and people in Atlanta, who never thought of me as a professional before, seemed to take me more seriously. In China, I worked at two clubs, where I did not make as much money as I did in 1990. Musicians’ pay always reduces, while the cost of living rises. That is ridiculous. People think musicians do not pay bills. After all, they spend their lives playing instead of working like other people.
The truth is that musicians do the job that doctors and lawyers cannot do. In one hour, musicians heal hundreds, even thousands of people. The right song keeps a couple from divorcing or pushes them to see that they are not right for each other, saving thousands of dollars of legal deliberation.
Music permeates the planet, bringing joy to all who hear it. People enjoy a concert more than they do a hospital stay or sitting in law office. Yet, they will pay doctors and lawyers extortionate fees and squint, when they get a high quote for a band of four or five adults to perform at a wedding or office party, where they will be enjoying themselves because of the music!
I am befuddled at what people will pay for and what they want to get for free. Learning music is not free. You pay for lessons. You pay with your time to practice. You continue to learn more music. You must stay in front of the pack in order to be seen, heard, and appreciated. Producing music is not free. Studio time is extremely costly. Paying musicians to perform your music is expensive, even if they are your friends. Mixing and mastering music is expensive (up to $100 per song). Duplicating CDs, producing videos, and marketing music runs into the thousands. But getting paid for a gig can be the hardest part of a musician’s job.
Finally, unlike most professionals, there is little in the way of retirement or insurance funding for musicians, who do not belong to the Musician’s Union, which few musicians either can or will afford. Musicians give joy to others throughout their lives and, unless they have a hit song or record, they have very little income to fall back on in their old age. Most die destitute, leaving little inheritance for their spouse and offspring.
It is uncanny. What brings people the most pleasure, rarely sustains those who create it. But the beat goes on and, somehow, musicians find venues where they can keep the music
playing. (918 words)
McLuhan, M. (1964). The medium is the message. Understanding media: The extensions of man. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf
Diva Joan Cartwright is an internationally-known vocalist, composer, and author of 11 books. She holds a BA in Music/Communications from LaSalle U, in Philadelphia, PA; an MA in Communications from FAU, in Boca Raton, FL; and is a doctoral candidate for a DBA in Business Marketing online at Northcentral University, in Prescott Valley, AZ. Since 1997, Joan has been the CEO of FYI Communications, Inc. and, since 2007, her non-profit, Women in Jazz South Florida, Inc. with 304 members promotes women musicians, globally. In 2016, WIJSF released its 6th CD of the music of women composers. Joan hosts an online radio show, MUSICWOMAN, featuring women composers at www.blogtalkradio.com/musicwoman. Joan’s personal CDs are Feelin’ Good (1995) and In Pursuit of a Melody (2005). She owns MJTV Network with her daughter Mimi Johnson and she is actor in the sitcoms Last Man and The Siblings produced at www.mjtvnetwork.info. In 2014, Joan was honored in Atlanta, GA, as the first Lady Jazz Master. In 2016, she was honored as one of the Top 25 Women of Color in Business and Leadership by Legacy Magazine. She has two children (Michael Serrano and Mimi Johnson), five grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. She is retired from music performance and resides in Sunrise, Florida. Currently, Joan is a professor of Speech Communications as Southeastern College in West Palm Beach, Florida.
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