My generation, the millennials (and half a dozen other equally unmemorable labels with vague and contested definitions – no one’s had a really good handle since Generation X), are often accused of an inflated sense of entitlement. Ironic really, since those making the accusation are very often of the generations that either brought us up or, as energetic and culturally hyperactive young adults, shaped the world we received our formational impressions from.
There are certainly a few widespread myths repeatedly sold to us, and which have all too frequently rubbed off on my contemporaries. I’d like to draw attention to three:
- If you want anything enough, you can achieve it. Nothing is impossible.
- Everyone has the inalienable right to be special, in a rather supposedly-objective sense of being better than average (any average – mode, mean, median … ) in some way.
- (kind of deriving from the other two) If you are not lazy or criminal, you can pick something you can enjoy and have the inalienable right to be paid a living wage for doing it.
It doesn’t take much understanding of mathematics to appreciate #2 can’t work. It’s not possible for half of any group to be above the mean or median value of any given measure; and it would require some very odd distributions for an absolute majority to be above the mode value, though it’s perfectly possible.
For number 1, I simply refer you to the teenage son in Little Miss Sunshine. If you haven’t seen it (sorry for plot spoiler if you ever do but it’s a thoroughly weird film anyway), he has his heart set on becoming a jet fighter pilot, has taken some kind of ninja vow of silence until he gets into training and directs all his conscious efforts to that end. Until he finds out he’s colour-blind. You can’t, unsurprisingly, be a US air force pilot without 20/20 vision.
Number 3 sounds ridiculous, but was the premise on which all advice and information about careers at my school and university was given: that you would decide ‘what you wanted to do’, work out what hoops you needed to jump through to get there, and then work through the process. Of course, this was in the fabled innocent days of the early Noughties, before the financial crisis, global recession, austerity, record levels of unwilling part-time working and self-employment, suddenly rising retirement ages … etc. etc. For those possessed of A-levels, let alone degrees, a job seemed basically a viable assumption rather than a goal, it was a question of which not whether. All of which had changed a lot by, say, 2009, when I was 23 and had been out of university two years. I hung on to a job I hated for probably a year longer than I should have because I knew (as someone with an Oxford First!) I was lucky to be in a job at all.
But I have to say that the elements of work entitlement I’ve come across from my own generation are swept away entirely by the attitudes betrayed, usually in fact by people rather older, among professional musicians. Almost the default stance is that because they are professional musicians, they are owed a level of pay for the working schedule to which they are accustomed which will equate to a living wage.
Now I understand that it is painful to find oneself in possession of slipping income amid changing circumstances. But it is also the very frequent, almost common, lot of workers and indeed businessmen and freelancers from the Industrial Revolution onwards. There was a great deal of griping among the frame-weavers when power looms started popping up, doing the work several times quicker in a more controlled factory environment and being operated by unskilled young women who were a lot cheaper to hire than paterfamilias craftsmen. It went as far as medium-scale destruction of the new machinery. But ultimately the only solution was to find alternative employment that would pay well enough within the new system, and those who refused to do so simply starved. I’m not describing that as a positive in any way, just as a realistic historical point of view.
The professional musician seems to me to have a similar large-scale choice. There is a great deal of griping about low (or no) payment, and amateurs, part-timers, starry-eyed newbies etc. who accept those deals and so break the market for the rest of ‘us’. And it is possible to resolve the problem from this end; but only by one of two means:
- An equivalent of minimum wage for freelance ‘by the job’ work which nonetheless requires inherent minimum amounts of hours (and perhaps expenses). Theoretically conceivable, but an immense legal problem to draw up satisfactorily, vastly opposed to the current centre-right consensus of all parties likely to form the backbone of any near-future UK government, and not something I’ve seen anyone even calling for.
- A really strong union, such that minimum pay levels could be set and adhered to and non-members would be effectively frozen out like strike-breakers. It can be done: the US musicians’ unions managed to successfully boycott the recording industry for a few years in the mid-40s (successfully at least in the sense that there really was very little recording done; I can’t be bothered right now to go and research how fully the demands were met). But it requires a more or less closed shop, mass membership of the MU and genuine commitment to the organisation; all of which are currently lacking – and curiously the same demographic of people complaining about money usually cry down the MU, perhaps because they feel (maybe rightly) it only does anything practically for classical musicians and teachers, and so isn’t ‘on their side’.
So if this end isn’t practical, I must be setting the stage for an alternative that is.
Well, yes. And it’s fairly simple really: if you can’t sell what you’ve been doing dear enough, change market. Most of the US big-band musicians of the 30s and 40s went over to running sextets or smaller after the second world war as small jump-jive combos and bebop groups started providing similar levels of excitement with the much reduced overheads of less than half the personnel. There are equivalent options today. Or, if you can’t get the money for what you used to, what else can or could you do that would? Sadly, I don’t think you can claim to be a professional and an artist equally. One has to yield to another. So either take a day job (part time? in publishing perhaps? ;-p) to let you keep playing originals and interesting music and pub / venue gigs – or swallow your pride and play dancefloor-filling covers at wedding receptions. There aren’t enough jobs for violin soloists? Shame, you’d better take up the viola / form a function string quartet (yes, and stomach playing more Beatles and Broadway arrangements than actual string quartets) / learn folk fiddle and join a ceilidh band / teach questionably motivated or talented seven-year-olds with pushy parents. And so on to the end of the chapter
Because in general it’s difficult and uncertain to change the world, and whether or not it happens usually depends on a lot of someone elses. Changing your own strategy may be a lot less pleasant, but it’s more dependable. And by definition of being a professional, you need work to be dependable whether or not it’s pleasant.