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The Musician - A Profile

Article from International Musician & Recording World, November 1986

Who you are, what you're worth, your chances of success... Geoff Wills analyses the average musician

The brain of Einstein? The riches of Rockefeller? The talent of Tchaikovsky? Dr Geoff Wills dissects the average musician...

If you have total recall, you'll remember with startling clarity that some time ago I carried out a large scale study into the effects of stress on popular musicians. If you haven't — probably the majority of you — this earth-shattering fact will have sunk without a trace a long time ago. Regardless of all that, out of a welter of data, all sorts of facts and figures emerged about pop musicians, and if you've ever thought about becoming a professional musician yourself, or if you're just generally interested in musicians, you may find these facts interesting, from the point of view of confirming, disconfirming or clarifying any feelings you might have had about musicians in general. How do they compare to the punter in the street? Are they morons? Are they geniuses? What sort of personalities do they have? Do they earn a fortune? If you've always wanted to know the answers to these burning questions, they will be supplied forthwith. At least, approximately.

My survey sample of musicians covered the whole field of popular music, including Jazz and commercial music as well as Pop, but within the sample, there were 106 people who could be classed strictly as Pop musicians. 62 were Pop band members, and 44 were Pop session musicians, and I thought it might be interesting to compare the two groups. With regard to the ages of the Pop band members, 37% were aged under 29, but the biggest percentage — 52% — were in the 30 to 39 age group, and a further 11 % were in the 40 to 49 age. So if you've passed the 30 mark, do not despair. Adjust your hair transplant and hang in there. You may still make it. The Pop session musicians were older than the Pop band members overall. 19% were aged 20 to 29, 55% were aged 30 to 39, 21 % were aged 40 to 49, while 5% were over 50. So the message seems to be that when that youthful image fades, head for the studio. Alternatively, the experience that only age brings is invaluable as a session musician.

Pop musicians are about average educationally compared to the general punter, although they're a bit below average at the lower end of the scale in terms of possessing 'O' and 'A' levels. On the other hand, they're a bit above average when it comes to having a degree. About 9% of the public at large have degrees. So anyway, you don't need to be an educational genius to be a pop musician. And interestingly, Pop session musicians are slightly less well educated than Pop band members, even though they make more money overall. But more of that later.

At what age do Pop musicians turn pro? 64% of both band members and session musicians were pro by the age of 20. 36% of band members turned pro between the ages of 20 and 25, and 36% of session musicians between the ages of 20 and 30. 66% of musicians had worked in a non-musical job on leaving school, pointing to the fact that Pop music still isn't the respectable profession that the great British education system trains you for. You still have to take a calculated risk before giving up your respectable day job.

Are band members the marrying kind? 42% were single, and a further 10% were either separated or divorced. Therefore, over half the sample of Pop band members were unmarried, and this ties in with the fact that the life and work of a Pop musician can put pressure on personal relationships. In fact, in the survey that I carried out, Pop band members found that pressure on personal relationships was significantly more stressful for them than for other groups of musicians, such as Jazz and commercial musicians. Undoubtedly, factors such as extensive touring abroad can have a lot to do with this. It seems that if you're going to have a successful relationship, it helps if you've got a partner who understands the musician's lifestyle and who likes music. Looking at Pop session musicians, only 31% of them were single, but 16% were separated or divorced. So again, only about 50% were married, emphasising the conflicts that can arise between marriage and music.

In a previous article I discussed the sorts of things that popular musicians as a whole, including jazz and commercial musicians, found stressful. But what are the highest pressures for Pop band members? According to my survey results, the number one pressure was that of coming into conflict with recording, management or agency executives who are involved in the musician's career, and who don't share musical ideals. The second highest pressure was that of finding it difficult to get a good recording or management deal. So, for the band member, the artiste-versus-businessman situation is still a big problem. A record company's main motive is to make money, so it's unrealistic to be an unworldly creative genius. It's not enough to be able to play. It's essential to be able to understand contracts, when negotiations are going on with managers, agents, promoters, music publishers and record companies. The musician needs to understand the complexities of record royalties and song copyrights. He should also make sure that tax payments are taken care of, so that he isn't faced with large tax demands, or even fines for neglect or wilful default.

There were a number of other pressures that Pop band members found significantly more stressful than other types of popular musician, and these included personality clashes with, or jealousy of other musicians and coping with criticisms in the music press. The cultivation of a thick skin, therefore, is not without its benefits. Interestingly, one thing that pop band members found significantly less stressful than other musicians was the effects of noise when the music is heavily amplified. This is a bit ominous, considering that they make the loudest music, and taking into account the dangers of high sound levels.

In comparison, pop session musicians feel far less stresses, and rate the above mentioned pressures much less highly than Pop band members. In fact, Pop session musicians rated several pressures lower than all other groups of popular musicians. They tend to cope much better with feelings of nervousness in various playing situations.

Turning now to the topic of personality, it appears, not surprisingly, that Pop musicians resemble in a general sense people working in other areas of creative activity, such as writers, artists and actors. One thing about Pop musicians is that they appear to be above average with regard to Type A personality traits. What's a Type A personality? It's someone who has an intense striving for achievement, is competitive, impatient and feels under pressure from deadlines. Pop musicians do come across like this, since some of their main preoccupations are artistic self-satisfaction and a high level of performance. In the general population, only about 10% of people have high Type A personalities, but in Pop musicians it's more like 20%. Also, Pop musicians tend to have higher than average levels of anxiety, and in this they also resemble creative people in other areas. Interestingly, guitarists came out as having the highest Type A personalities and the highest anxiety, so this seems to bear out the image of the neurotic guitarists, always worrying about his sound and twiddling with the knobs on his amp.

Another interesting point that emerged was that Pop session musicians have higher Type A personalities than Pop band members, but lower anxiety levels. This points to the fact that, to be a successful session musician, it helps to be perfectionistic, competitive and to be able to keep nerves under control.

We come now to what is undoubtedly the topic of greatest interest in this profile: namely, what do Pop musicians earn?

Well, it emerges that, overall, Pop session musicians earn more than pop band members. Of course, most Pop musicians wouldn't mind being megastars, but only 14% of Pop band members earned over £20,000 a year, and 71% earned less than £12,000 a year. On the other hand, 70% of Pop session musicians earned over £12,000 per year, and 30% of these made over £20,000. So this could be something to bear in mind when deciding which direction your musical career should take, not forgetting as well that it's not unheard of to get £4,000 per week in the backing groups of certain international superstars.

So now you know how you compare to Pop musicians in terms of age, education, personality and earning power. The interesting thing is that, compared to Pop band members, Pop session musicians seem generally better off — they're less stressed, less anxious, and they earn more. So if you have the right personality, plus of course the musical ability, this might be ultimately the most satisfactory direction. For others, of course, the magnet of Pop superstardom will never lose its attraction.

Highest Stresses for Pop Band Members

1. Coming into conflict with recording, management or agency executives who are involved in a musician's career, but who don't share his musical ideals.

2. Finding it difficult to get a good recording or management deal.

3. Personality clashes with, or jealousy of other musicians.

4. Coping with criticisms in the music press.

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Nov 1986

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Geoff Wills

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