“Can I make a living as a musician? Yes, especially if you think like a music entrepreneur!” (Part 2)

{Please note that this is a continuation of an earlier post on music entrepreneurship.}

In my first post in this series, I noted that some of the best music schools, colleges, and conservatories in the United States are getting serious about training students as musical entrepreneurs. But what is driving all of the entrepreneurship talk (and action) on college and university campuses?

Conversations about music entrepreneurship emerged on campuses before the Great Recession. Nevertheless, the economic anxieties of the past seven years and the broader economic situation of which the Great Recession was one—albeit large—part have helped to intensify the conversations.

Over long stretches of economic history in the West, when businesses grew, they hired workers. The Great Recession, however, was the worst in a recent series of business cycles whose periods of recovery were essentially jobless (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, Race With Machines [2011], p. 3; Cowen, The Great Stagnation [2011], p. 5).

Modern concert life began about 300 years ago.

Economist Taylor Cowen argues that current trends toward declining wages and declining rates of employment are symptomatic of a large-scale, multi-century process that began about 300 years ago.

For much of its history, the United States benefited from and built its social and economic institutions on the expectation of the availability of “low-hanging fruit”: free land, immigrant labor, and powerful new technologies (Cowen, The Great Stagnation, pp. 6-7). But this economic “low-hanging fruit” is disappearing, and we are entering a period Cowen calls the “Great Stagnation.”

He points to the following as evidence of this change:

  • stagnant wages since the 1970s (p. 5);
  • declining high school and college completion rates since the 1960s (pp. 10-11);
  • test scores have not improved even though funding to K-12 schools has increased since the 1970s (pp. 38-39).

Those symptoms of structural problems go back to the 1960s. Indeed, my research on American social and cultural thought in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s for my publications on the history of film and television demonstrates that American social historians and social critics were voicing concerns about the long-term health of the economy in the first half of the twentieth century. They believed economic decline was the likely outcome of the so-called “Closing of the Frontier” and of the increasing importance of machines in the economy and the machine-like organization of workers. (You can read more about this in the first chapter of my book, Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age.) But remember: Cowen says elements of these problems are rooted in economic processes at play for centuries!

Furthermore, since the 1940s and 1950s, we have made only “marginal improvements” to existing technology and social systems. Much of our consumer technology, such as cars, TVs, and refrigerators, was in place by the middle of the last century. For decades, there have been no new developments comparable to the train or automobile that have transformed American social and business life and caused significant, net economic growth and led to sustained job growth. The internet is transforming our social and cultural lives, but it has potentially driven net job loss across the economy as a whole. It remains to be seen if the content available on the internet will stimulate substantial economic growth (Cowen, pp. 9-10).

New technology tends to displace human labor (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, p. 7). The good news is that since the Industrial Revolution, the Western economy has been able to redeploy many of the workers displaced by new technologies (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, p. 51). The acceleration of technological change in the past 40 years, however, is unprecedented; labor redeployment within the economic system is falling behind.

TV, video games, and portable playback systems have created “digital outsiders” less likely to sing (Winstead, pp. 234-235).

Let’s take an example from the world of music. In his book, When Colleges Sang: The Story of Singing in American College Life (2013), J. Lloyd Winstead addresses “the loss of casual singing” on college campuses (p. 211). Campus musical cultures declined with the social transformation following two World Wars, the rise of the automobile, and changes to ritual life (such as the elimination of required chapel attendance). But new recording and playback technologies went further: they turned Americans, including college students, into listeners to (rather than makers of) music.

Here’s the thing: college students and observers of campus life in the 1920s were already identifying the negative toll that recordings, radio, and film were having on singing on campus!

Robert Putnam also argued in Bowling Alone (2000) that TV and cars “hollowed out” direct, personal participation in American civic life.

OK… so you get the point:

Bad Economy = the rise of Entrepreneurial thinking (at least in part).

“But Pelkey, the economic news has improved since 2011, when McAfee, Brynjolfsson, and Cowen wrote their books!”

You are correct on that point, fearless reader!

Reports late last week (November 6, 2015) indicated that the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 5%. Even the broader measure that includes the underemployed and those who have given up searching for work dropped to 9.8%. Growth slowed in the third quarter of 2015 to 1.5%, but the general economic outlook is much improved since 2011, let alone since the height of the Great Recession! And even though the Labor Participation Rate is currently at its lowest since 1978, this decline was anticipated all the way back in 2000—years before President Obama was at the helm or Obamacare became the law. (http://www.factcheck.org/2015/03/declining-labor-participation-rates/)

Does this mean musicians can stop talking about entrepreneurship?


The relatively good economic news during the past twelve months changes nothing regarding the manner in which technology is transforming and will continue to transform the economy and the means by which most Americans access music. Musicians must take those two factors into account when considering the shape of their lives and careers.

More importantly, despite the improved economy, participation in and live exposure to the arts remains woefully low.

The National Endowment for the Art’s report, “How A Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” is sobering! According to that report, only 12.1% of adults (those over 18) plays a musical instrument; only 3.2% sings in a choral groups; only 0.8% participates in musicals. Numbers are only a little better for attendance at live musical performances.

Contrarily, when asked if they had attended a movie at least once in 2012, 59.4% adults answered affirmatively. When asked if they had had some sort of experience with the arts through electronic media, affirmative responses jumped to 71%!

Yet only 8.8% of adults attended a live performance of classical music at least once in 2012! And that was down from 11.6% in 2002. (Jazz fared no better, with only 8.1%.)

Only 2.1% of Americans attended a live opera performance in 2012.

And these are the numbers despite the fact that colleges and universities all over the country—including my beloved Florida State University—offer free concerts and recitals nearly year round!

Those sobering statistics are the reason musicians need to become more entrepreneurial: we must rethink how we engage audiences, share our music through both live and technologically mediated means, and create new kinds of musical experiences that will fit (perhaps unexpectedly) into people’s established patterns of social and cultural life.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share some specific ideas you might consider adopting to become a more entrepreneurial musician.

(Originally posted on November 9, 2015.)