Musicians are Athletes too: The Professional Entertainer Debate

There is a huge rift between expectations and pay between professional musicians and professional athletes. For the sake of comparisons, when I say professional musicians, I’m referring to classical and jazz musicians as even at the peak of success, they do not make nearly as much money as popular musicians even though they put in significantly more work (I’ll go into this argument later). Similarly, regarding my definition of “professional athletes”, I will be referring to football, hockey, basketball, and all those sports that pay their players obscene amounts of money regardless of whether they win or lose.

What sparked these thoughts? I recently picked up my violin again for the first time in months. I didn’t play much because my wrist hasn’t been in the greatest shape, but Doris, if you’re reading this, be proud of me because I’ve only mostly been working on scales, etudes, and Bach. Playing the violin again reminded me of many conversations I had with musician friends throughout the years. Having spent lots of time around musicians of all sorts growing up, we all joke about growing up and living in a paper box – we only say this half-jokingly. Almost every professional musician I know has to work at least two or three jobs; sometimes those jobs have to do with music, but a lot of the time those jobs don’t. Two examples of this that immediately come to mind:

    1. A friend of mine had a plumber come in to fix his kitchen sink. The job took long enough that the plumber had to take a break for lunch. The plumber, who saw that my friend had a Steinway in his living room, asked if he could play it. My friend, initially surprised, agreed and led the plumber to the piano. After a few minutes, it became apparent that our friend the plumber was no amateur. When asked what a man of his skill was doing plumbing pipes instead of playing piano so wonderfully, the plumber sighed and said that plumbing paid significantly more than piano (he had gone to Juilliard for piano performance) and he had a family to feed.

    2. I was chatting one day with a paramedic from Rural Metro while my crew was transferring care of a patient. He had asked me what I was studying at school (my “day job” as it were…this was funny because I was volunteer) I found out that he had been a double bassist at the Eastman School of Music and had been laid off from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra years ago. He had to sell his bass to make end’s meet while in paramedic school. I can’t describe in words the expression of sadness, loss, and pain he had on his face when he related this story to me. For the non-musicians, when you own an instrument and it is your constant companion through learning and making music, it becomes much more than an instrument – it becomes an extension of you, a medium through which you can express your inner-most thoughts and feelings. For a musician, having to part with that companion bears the emotional trauma of losing a limb.

Before moving forward, I want to address my earlier point about excluding popular musicians from my categorization of “professional musician”. Yes, I know that pop musicians rely on their music-making for their livelihood, thus embodying the very definition of the word “professional”, but these musicians irk me on so many levels because with the advent of auto-tuning, songwriters, and covering covers of covers, there are very few actually talented pop musicians out there; they crawled their way to the top of the charts through sex appeal, good looks, or a very good publicity agent and did not become popular by writing their own music, lyrics, and trained every day for many years. I could launch into a rant about who I think is a good pop star and who isn’t, but that would be a whole other article in itself. I should reiterate that I don’t think that all popular music stars and bands are bad – I’m just saying an overwhelming majority of them are.

Continuing on, the foundations of becoming a professional musician or athlete start very similarly: both start from a reasonably young age, and both require many hours of practice. Musicians are expected to practice 6-8 hours a day in conservatory and athletes are expected to be at practice or at the gym 2-4 hours every day. Some are naturally better than others due to physical advantages, others have a better mind for the task at hand and excel. Both require extreme amounts albeit different types of endurance and discipline to train and play. In the attempt to jump to professionalism, only an equally small percentage of both athletes and musicians “make it” and are able to make their living solely on what they love to do: successful athletes land big contracts with a team of their choice, while successful musicians obtain a tenure job in an orchestra or win a major competition and gain a contract as a soloist on tour. Everyone else falls through the cracks and are forced to either find supplemental income or change fields completely. Unfortunately, this is where the similarities between the fields end.

If we objectively inspect the feats both musicians and athletes achieve, I think that they are equally impressive. A violinist can play upwards of 300-400 notes a minute; a baseball player can hit a ball travelling over 90 miles and hour over 400 feet without breaking a sweat; an orchestra of 80-100 can play and breathe together as one; an football offensive line can coordinate and run intricate plays where everyone knows where they need to be – I can keep drawing parallels between the two fields for ages. Yet, the expectations between music and athletes are completely different.

A baseball player who can hit the ball and get on base 33% of the time is considered to be an extremely competent baseball player. The highest batting average of all time was 0.440, or 44% of the time (source). The most celebrated basketball players generally hit 50% of their shots from outside the paint. People scream and cheer for these sorts of percentages. In contrast, the best musicians have to hit upwards of 97% of their notes or else people start to take notice. Less than 95%, you’re most likely to get booed off the stage and people are going to demand refunds.

Athletes also get sponsors for…just about everything. Uniforms, shoes, equipment – you name it, the athlete gets it. At a certain level, instrumentalists who get good enough have the opportunity to borrow instruments worth millions of dollars from museums or private collectors, and pianists are generally provided pianos at the concert venue; everyone else, however, is expected to buy their own instrument and upkeep it. To give a rough example, a good professional quality violin goes for about 6-8 thousand dollars; a flute of similar quality goes for 7-10; a double bass, like the one my friend the paramedic had to sell, runs about 12-15 thousand. This doesn’t include the upkeep of strings, cost of the bow, rehairing, and all of those other expenses that musicians have to pay out of their own pocket.

And now the biggest discrepancy of all: pay. Professional athletes get paid on the order of millions of dollars for anywhere between one and five year contracts; the best-paid musicians make less than $100,000. Realistically, most make between 30 and 50 thousand, which may seem like plenty for one person, but when family and life expenses come into the equation, this does not leave much wiggle room. How do two professions that start so similarly in dedication and practice differ so much in expectations and compensation?

There are many factors, but I believe that at the end of the day, it comes down to interest. It is sad, but it is true. The number of people and/or amount of money people are willing to pay to go to sporting events outstrips the number of people going to classical and jazz events. It has gotten to the point where orchestras have started to lose their funding and had to disband (source 1, source 2). This saddens me greatly because, yes, sports are fun and entertaining, but I believe that we as a people need music (Steven Pinker can go f**k himself).

I guess the whole point to this whole article? To raise awareness of the amount of work that musicians have to put in – as much as, if not more, than athletes. To impress upon you the importance of supporting the arts. To basically whine about the unfairness of the system. I know that there’s probably nothing you or I can do about these discrepancies, but maybe you’ll go out and appreciate the time and dedication a musician puts into their craft for so much less money due to their love for it, and if your plumber asks if he can play your piano, let him, because perhaps he had to sell his love in order to survive.

Photo credit: Athletes and the Arts


5 thoughts on “Musicians are Athletes too: The Professional Entertainer Debate

  1. Excellent post! The same could be said for jugglers, who are often not considered athletes either, but I am doing all I can to change this. I too often feel sad over the fact that some supremely talented musicians I know have to do something else for a living because their talents aren’t appreciated by most of society. And don’t get me started on auto-tuning and all the gimmicks used in the pop music world.

    • Yes! I’ve known a couple of professional jugglers, one of which worked at Barnum & Bailey’s way back when. You guys are totally athletes. Respect.

      I’m glad you agree on my sentiments regarding popular music 🙂

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