How Live Performers Can Pivot, Prosper, And Still Make Art

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Photo by Rodrigo Ruiz on Unsplash

“Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. Yet it is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself…We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self. “ — Arthur Schopenhauer

magine a world where live music does not exist, where, in a twisted Bradbury-like plot, musical instruments, instead of books, are combusted on pyres.

It is a world with no orchestras. No bands. No buskers getting by. No musicians crazy enough to live by music so that the world could breathe.

None of the electric performances that make your hair stand up. None of the visceral drama that sears the soul.

What remains is a portable listening experience from a digital device.

It is a world the pandemic has made all too real, that none of us in the performing arts could have seen coming. Most live shows are still canceled indefinitely, with many an artist out of work. This uncushioned impact of COVID-19 on the live performance industry hit too close to home, with my band gigs as a major casualty. The fallout in our small rock and blues community here in Manila has been difficult to watch, with death knocking on the doors of ailing musicians and favored bars. But it is a familiar quagmire, one that I have been observing at arm’s length for years and now watching more closely for possible opportunities.

After all, there has been a stronger push for holding ourselves accountable for our environmental neglect, with the pandemic sounding the death knell for a withering future and nudging us into action. But I would argue that the performing arts should figure well too in this global upheaval. While much of the rhetoric focuses on health, climate change, and sustainability, with more pro-active CEOs recognizing the impossibility of doing business on a dead planet, one cannot navigate life without the moving power of music and live performances either.

“If only a few hundred people of the next generation get what I get out of music, then I anticipate an utterly new culture. There are times when everything that is left over and cannot be grasped in terms of musical relations actually fills me with disgust and horror. “ — Friedrich Nietzsche

Music is life

Have you ever asked yourself what you would take should your house get caught in a blazing inferno? These folks have, and a couple of them have included the erstwhile iPod and a great-aunt’s violin in their would-be survival kit.

Or how about which top five albums you would have to be force-fed in the rare event that you get stuck on an island? (Mine would be Led Zeppelin IV, Moving Pictures by Rush, Lang Lang Rachmaninov, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.)

We tend to ask these things facetiously but they underline a basic human necessity — art, of which music, according to Proust, is the purest form. It gives our lives meaning. That is why we make so much of it.

And yet why is the performing arts, which is the main focus of this essay, consistently undermined? The job of the performer is not easy. It takes years of training and hours of rigorous practice. It demands discipline and stamina, both physically and mentally. But many performers, despite having genuine talent, are forced to submit to a steady sinecure rather than hoping for a paycheck from gig after gig. I know I did. I love making music. I love rousing crowds, but not at the expense of the security afforded by a regular paying day job.

Then comes the pandemic, shuttering small venues, shows, and the staff that run them in one chilling blow. The artist, steeled by years of struggle, would attempt to break free from its grapple, uploading videos online for upliftment. But it’s now 2021 with no end for the virus in sight, no vaccine forthcoming for us citizens of developing nations, and no livable income from digital uploads.

What else can artists do to cope?

No going back

First, we must accept that what is gone is gone (at least, for a very long time):

  • The stage that can barely fit a 5-man band, because the bar owner could barely keep the joint alive
  • The unsanitized rented equipment and sound system
  • The hanging around with bandmates at small tables because the bigger ones are reserved for paying customers
  • The act of singing without some form of protection
  • The crowd in front of the stage from whose dancing or bobbing heads I depend on for energy to perform at a high level

The last one feels like the biggest loss because live performance is a two-way street. There can never be real art from an artist without her audience. You get what you give — presence and participation — and it is those two things that YouTube as a last resort can never enable.

The real tragedy is that most musicians, especially those who do it full time, earn their keep through live shows. Try to validate this by asking any working musician you know who has either recorded music, sold albums, or streamed music on Spotify. She will likely tell you that none of that brings in the cash she can live on. What sustains her, and bigger acts like the Stones or U2, are ticket sales and merchandise from gigs and touring.

According to Business Insider:

U2 made $54.4 million and was the highest-paid musical act of the year in 2017, according to Billboard’s annual Money Makers report. Of their total earnings, about 95%, or $52 million, came from touring, while less than 4% came from streaming and album sales. Garth Brooks (who came in second on the list), owed about 89% of his earnings to touring, while Metallica (ranked third) raked in 71% of their earnings in the same way.”

Without gigs, a regular musician will be forced to do something else. Without concerts, the rockstars we idolize must confront the hard reality and responsibility of looking after a full entourage, which may include assistants, sound engineers and roadies who are now out of work.

Same dilemma, different scale.

The art continues

The day folds up like money

if you’re lucky. Mostly

sun a cold coin

drumming into the blue

of a guitar case. Close

up & head home.

Half-hundred times I wanted

to hock these six strings

or hack, if I could, my axe

into firewood. That blaze

never lasts.

I’ve begged myself hoarse

sung streetcorner

& subway over a train’s blast

through stale air & trash.

You’ve seen me, brushed past —

my strings screech

& light up like a third rail —

Mornings, I am fed by flies,

strangers, sunrise.

-Busking by Kevin Young

Second, we have to move on from our pre-pandemic lives by making art. This, unfortunately, is not as easy as it sounds.

From an artistic standpoint, the time for artists to make more art is now: when the consequences of human consumption are staring us in the face, when mental health issues are on the rise, when inequality and discrimination need their voice, and when there is finally more time to work on original material.

Now is not the time to abandon our craft. Now is the time to make it sing.

But live performers need to be ALIVE to perform. They need to eat. They need to make rent. They need to afford basic utilities.

When you are struggling to survive, you grab the first opportunity to make money just to make ends meet. Upload art on social media? Done. Teach music online? Done. Sell baked goods? Done. Drive? Nope. Too risky — your mission is still to stay COVID-free.

Is there anyone out there who will pay for a live online performance? Yes, but maybe if your talent does not involve, say, a bassoon. I have nothing against the bassoon. In fact, I think it is one of the most exquisite yet underrated wind instruments. But let’s face it — a bassoon is as essential to an orchestra as a bass guitar is integral to a band. But a singer without a bassist can still perform, and a solid string section can yield a standing ovation. Have you ever seen a bassoon solo improvisation on say, a Bruno Mars song? I have only seen a cover of Adele’s Hello. The point is, what passes as talent on Tik Tok does not require the years of practice you invested in to get into Juilliard.

In spite of that, you have to keep making that bassoon soar because in a classical music milieu, you are an essential worker. You have a skill that is hard to master. You are rare. But to do that, you need a side gig that pays using some of the time the quarantine has now abundantly given us. I will get to that later.

Unlike you, I did not go to Juilliard, Berklee, the Paris Conservatory, or any of those acclaimed music schools because I will never qualify. While I sing lead for a Manila-based blues band and play classical piano as a hobby, I do not have the technical prowess of a professional pianist that can perform the Rach 2 flawlessly with a full orchestra, and still maintain a massive repertoire of challenging pieces that have to be learned and memorized quickly. I did start early, but a good head start requires a lifelong commitment of at least 5 hours a day on the piano. I love the instrument, but not that much.

So if something is that difficult to do, as classical musicians know all too well, it should be something worth paying for right?

It is, but because there are too many musicians fighting for crumbs, the so-called myth of the starving artist is not even a myth at all. It is a fact.

This has to change, because seriously, aren’t you sick of being poor? I think we can turn this around in our post-pandemic reality through reinvention.

“Graduates of science and engineering programs understandably chase positions in start-ups or high-salaried finance jobs. Their knowledge of algorithmic development, data analysis or simply structured scientific thinking may net them fantastic jobs at a variety of private-sector employers.

But the problems they engage with, while impacting a large number of citizens, may not improve the lot of those citizens.

…How else do our universities teach empathy, ethics and citizenship than through our arts and humanities fields?” — Prof. Richard Lachman, author of “STEAM not STEM: Why scientists need arts training”

Get with the program

So the third thing I would like to propose is to pivot to a field that is less fragile, such as science and technology, to complement our musical and artistic pursuits.

As Professor Lachman has said, we have computer science graduates whose skillset is in high demand but is bereft of empathy that can be derived from the arts.

If scientists can immerse themselves in the arts, can live performers also dive deep into science?

The answer is YES. Their brain can handle it. Their work-from-home schedule can now accommodate it. And their can-do attitude will be an asset in any organization.

Here’s a prototype of the typical artist before the pandemic:

A musician would hustle and say yes sometimes to overlapping gigs just to make ends meet. A drummer, when not gigging, can organize concerts or work as a freelance sound engineer. When the stage went dark in March 2020, that artist lost all his sources of income in one fell swoop.

Here’s what an artist after the pandemic can look like:

A musician rehearses at least two hours a day using the time he would normally spend on the commute, or shuttling from one gig to another in Manila traffic. He will then upload a video of his performance on social media platforms. During the quarantine, he took free courses on data analysis so he was able to get a junior analyst job from a company that has made remote work a permanent corporate policy. His work can be done virtually so he doesn’t have to report to the office. He only works 5 hours a day from his home in Manila, which is in the same time zone as Singapore where his company’s headquarters is located. He spends the rest of the day working on new songs or playing with his dog.

That hypothetical artist in scenario two is not a pipe dream. A bit of that was me before the pandemic, working remotely for a client based in Malaysia. But this crisis has taught me to push myself even further because there are many global companies now that are hiring for specialized skills. With travel on hold, they don’t have to settle for candidates living within their office’s zip code. They can hire from anywhere, especially if work is asynchronous. In the future of work, where companies have been forced to retrofit their work policies to ensure worker safety, artists with the skills they need might have a fighting chance of getting hired for a high-paying job that will not interfere with their art.

From artist to analyst? Seriously?

This may not work for everyone, but it could still work especially if your ego can handle the prospect of learning new skills and starting from the bottom.

And maybe you hit rock bottom because of COVID-19. While I am sorry that happened to you, maybe it’s time you dust yourself off since there is nowhere else to go anyway but up.

But let’s turbo-charge your ascent.

Full-time artists starve because there are just too many of them around, and some of the really bad ones get the luck of the draw. Surely a typical data analyst cannot do what Neil Peart has done for drums, but there are not enough data analysts in a sea of bad drummers. So even if you are a mediocre analyst, you will likely make more money in your profession than the most sought-after percussionist for a philharmonic.

Law of supply and demand — it is what it is.

So if we can’t beat them, then let’s join them, even if at first, we suck. The point is not to become as perfect as any Chopin prelude. The goal is to get hired for a job in high demand that adequately pays for a life with art.

This would not have been possible without the pandemic. Before it, the better-paying jobs required you to commute, work full-time, and stay in a cubicle for at least eight hours. These wasteful demands are now mere relics from the past.

After all this is over, we can come out of this not just better at math but as a polymath — someone who is adept in many fields. This goes for both the musician who pivoted to the tech world and the software developer who learned to play an instrument. That can’t be bad for any company or any society in the future that could yield a larger commune of non-starving artists.

For better or worse, music needs tech

As musicians, we know all too well the pitfalls of rapid innovation, by the sheer volume alone of records, a-track tapes, Walkmans, and compact discs that it has left in its wake. But we are beneficiaries too. The ability to download torrents of well-known albums broadened our musical tastes. YouTube enabled us to emulate our idols without paying for a class. Those DVDs of concerts I used to buy at HMV in Hong Kong, or Rasputin or Amoeba in the Bay Area? Most of them are now streamed online.

Beyond its imperfections, technology is useful, in music and elsewhere. It buoyed us in this pandemic. Had it not been for e-commerce and digital wallets, people would have been forced to defy lockdown orders, venture outdoors to secure basic necessities, and accelerate the viral spread. We would have been worse off without them.

And as the situation gets even worse before it gets better, this would only increase our dependence on mobile phones and the Internet. The world may be cooling off with its live performers at the moment, but it desperately needs more software engineers, data analysts, and program managers. If companies adopt a more STEAM-focused approach, then we might all benefit not just from having more scientists and analysts to help us cope with post-pandemic realities, but from developing tech people who learn empathy through the arts and artists learning digital skills to complement their craft.

Artists, of all people, have the means to make this happen.

“Music learning supports all learning.” — Kenneth Guilmartin, Co-Founder, Music Together

The musician’s brain

To be clear, the pivot I have in mind does not involve a complete abdication of the music industry and its frailties. What I am proposing is a workaround. First of all, not everyone has the talent, so if you have it, use it. Second, it is impossible to unlearn something you already know. And why would you, after all those years of habitual torture?

What we as musicians must remember is that our skills harnessed through repetition and intentional practice have maximized our brainpower. Everyone has a brain, but not every utility of the brain is used, toned, and stretched as much as the musician’s. This is all the more true if you perform in a band or in an orchestra, where you are forced to learn and sight-read several pieces at a moment’s notice, among other things you must yet accomplish.

This is why taking away music education from children by decreasing the budget for it is not only wrong. It is tragic.

I learned to play the piano when I was 5 and performed consistently until I was 12. I did well in school without having to study too much because I could remember the lessons as they were written on the blackboard. I also found it easy to learn things quickly. I have no means of proving this, but I strongly believe that my early exposure to music was largely responsible for my academic and professional success.

Here’s what happens the moment I strike the first note:

  1. When sight-reading, I read two lines of music, each in a different clef.
  2. I listen for every mistake: unnecessary flats and sharps, missed staccatos, premature release of the pedal, striking a note too forcefully, not hitting when I am supposed to, etc. This requires a sensitive ear which takes hours of listening to repetitive music and many years to develop.
  3. I play using both hands, with each hand playing something independent of each other. I use all of my ten fingers, which is not mandatory for other musical instruments.
  4. I keep time in my head. The metronome is only useful up to a certain extent.
  5. I know where the notes are without looking at the keyboard.
  6. I internalize the mood and tempo of a piece and transmit that emotion through dynamics and rhythm. Pre-work, which includes studying the history of the composer and his work, and listening and watching videos of different versions of the piece, makes this possible.
  7. I use my feet to operate the pedals, particularly the right sustain pedal.
  8. I have to decide quickly whether to add or reduce force when striking a key, depending on the desired interpretation.

If that is not a brain on overdrive, I do not know what is.

The point is, I am my own conductor of multiple moving parts when I play the piano, which has been a source of solace for 34 years now. I am not exaggerating when I say that I am nothing without it. My brain that breathed new life to a Beethoven sonata is the same brain that has written copy, press releases, and presidential speeches for almost 20 years. And it will keep learning new skills because it can.

So if you are a live performer, I have no doubt that you have the same, if not more, carrying capacity for your overused brain. You can quickly adapt and learn the skills required by some of the higher-paying jobs. The good thing about 2021 still being a quarantine year is that you don’t have to hustle and shuttle frantically from one gig to the next. You can work from home. You can work part-time. You can become a junior software engineer or data analyst IF you let your brain do the work.

That’s a big “if” because I know a lot of musicians who seem addicted to the starving artist ethos and will balk at the prospect of writing any code or doing any math. But aren’t desperate measures called for by desperate times? What if you are the breadwinner — how are you caring for those who depend on you? Isn’t a refresher on logarithms worthwhile when it will eventually help your family make rent without having to worry when the next paycheck will come?

We may not always like what the paying jobs will make us do, but if it will enable our art and feed our soul, it is probably worth trying.

Other tools

A quick scan of these free courses from Microsoft gave me the confidence that musicians and live performers have what it takes to venture into digital technologies. Just imagine, after all this is over, we can come out of this not just better at math but as a polymath — someone who is adept in many fields. This goes for both the musician who pivoted to the tech world and the software developer who learned to play an instrument. That can’t be bad for any company or any society in the future that could yield a larger commune of non-starving artists.

Singers should be singing. Musicians should be playing. Live performers keep the world alive, so flexible work that enables art should be a non-negotiable. This vision needs the help of the private sector.

If you are a hiring manager for a company that has permanently adopted flexible work arrangements to meet COVID-19 challenges, you now have access to a larger labor pool that is not only local but international. You can hire affordable talent from other countries in the same time zone. You can look for flexible workers in your own city. When you do, pay close attention to the interests in a job candidate’s CV. If it indicates an artistic inclination, ask questions that attempt to validate his ability to learn quickly and independently. Pose scenarios that challenge “the show must go on” ethos or if applying for a complex job, how those skills were acquired. If you like the answers and decide to take the application to the next level, know that whatever the outcome, you have helped foster art by building an artist’s confidence. If she does get hired, then you helped your company profit from talent refined by self-discipline with an artistic slant and unique perspectives to offer.

If you are an artist, find out how much you need to comfortably sustain your art on a monthly basis then look for companies that hire flexible employees for the work you are most inclined to do. Browse through the job openings and identify the skills needed. Challenge yourself by applying a blue ocean strategy — you are a cellist who has mastered Salesforce. That makes you a top candidate for any industry or company that wants to understand the behaviors of its customers and stakeholders. That means almost all companies. This is work you can do virtually so you can have a job and make art. As I have mentioned, this is the opportunity that arose due to COVID-19, so as artists, we should seize it! Teaching online or selling baked goods can make us some money, but the earnings from that is a pittance compared to what we can make for less time spent caring for our sourdough starter.

The world is changing, and I think live performers can too — from starving and barely surviving, to self-sustaining and thriving, making more art today and in the future.

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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