Choosing Music (and/or Money)

I distinctly remember when I started telling people I planned to go into music.

It wasn’t some grand announcement—I mean, I was a junior in high school—but the way people reacted, you would’ve thought I’d just proclaimed I was going to major in winning the presidency.

I expected kickback from my parents’ friends and associates; I grew up in a family of math- and science-oriented people, so most of the adults who knew about me through my folks assumed I was going to take after one or the other and go into computer science or engineering. To be fair, I’d always done well in math, but it was never something that was going to make me happy for the rest of my life.

What I wasn’t expecting, though, was judgment from my friends and allies at school. Yes, I was serious. No, I wasn’t going to major in music while doing pre-med or pre-law courses. Yes, this was the endgame. No, I wasn’t going into music education (a popular choice for my other career-oriented band friends). I was going to compose, and be a composer, and do composition-driven things. (A private teacher once told me in all seriousness that I didn’t have the work ethic to major in performance, so that was off the table, but that’s a story for another time.)

The worst part? I was arguing with the modern-day equivalent of a brick wall: a strong cohort of fellow nerds who were pursuing jobs in computer science and engineering and biology and law and things that generally came with high earning potential. Add to this brew the fact that we grew up in Silicon Valley, hotbed of people who get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to “go to meetings and answer emails,” as my dad puts it, and most people my age were focused on finding jobs that made them money. They didn’t understand why I was going into something like music where I’d struggle to make rent when I could work a nice cushy job at a company who’d pay me exorbitant amounts of money.

The argument was always the same: “you’ll never make it.” As they saw it, because I had basically an ice cube’s chance in hell of being Halsey (or maybe Taylor Swift, at the time), music wasn’t going to work out for me. For them, classical music was stagnant (and being all-knowing high school students, it was only cool if it was Beethoven or something really technically difficult), jazz was an interesting but small niche, and the idea that I was going to focus my career around composing pretty much broke their brains.

And then I went to college. And then I went to grad school. And somewhere in there, I realized what they’d missed.

For every one Halsey in the world, there are dozens, hundreds of musicians who pay the bills and get by playing background music at dinner parties and second trumpet parts in community orchestras. There are countless people who hustle hard and book themselves solid with teaching gigs and performances and clinics and master classes and whatever else they can take who still find time to practice, maintain their health, advance their art form, and live. For every successful touring artist there are so many more musicians who are content to set themselves down in a single city and stay there, because touring does rough things to yourself and your relationships, and taking horns on planes is always stressful. For everyone with a million followers on YouTube or SoundCloud, there are legions of us who are eternally thankful for the hundred or so people who listen to our music and appreciate our artistry.

And we still manage to be okay.

The thing they missed was that if making it only translates to making money, you’re going to have a hell of a time in the music world. But if making it includes making a life, a creative practice, a portfolio of income streams, an infinite number of adventures? Things might turn out just fine. ♦

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