Part-Time Musicians are the Historical Norm

In my previous post I questioned just what we mean by being a “full-time musician” and now turn to what seems to be the historical norm–being a part-time musician.

In John H. Mueller’s “The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste” we get some idea of what  “full-time” employment meant for most musicians in the period before we had full time orchestras in the 50s and 60s.  Many Orchestral musicians weren’t performing much outside of Orchestras:

Many of these musicians, either through incompetence or lack of broader opportunity,plied their music only as a part-time occupation, and simultaneously held cards as cobblers, stove-molders, saloon keepers, and what-have-you. In fact, Alexander Bremer was himself a minor official in the New York city [sic] government and his opponent in the election for the presidency of the M. M. P. U. in 1897 was a boss carpenter and violinist. They were a versatile lot in those unspecialized days, and their varied talents undoubtedly dulled their devotion to a single art and facilitated the spread of the pattern of unionization or the “artist” with the artisan. Nor did those who were fortunate enough to gain their entire livelihood in music always scale the exalted heights of artistry, for there is nothing necessarily elevating or divinely inspiring in fiddling, night after night, in squalid pits of cheap theatres, or in scraping through the popular rounds and dance tunes of the day. Such players quite justifiably felt themselves more akin to the hack worker than to the symphony artist, whose dignity might have inhibited crude protests. (Mueller 1951, pg. 345)

And as you can see from the quote above, the musicians that were full-time musicians were getting their income through several revenue streams. A quote from the Musical Courier in 1896 in the Mueller book by a member of the New York Philharmonic about his own colleagues also gives a similar story:

Nearly all the members of the Philharmonic play at balls and dances during the greater part of the year. They then get together to play a half dozen doubled up programs during the year, rush through old scores during five hour rehearsals preceding a concert and are then expected to play their programs artistically. Take into additional consideration that some of them never play at all except at the few Philharmonic concerts, and the tale of woe and disheartening anguish is soon told…. Many sincere men play incessantly at balls, dances, dinners, and parties for six wees night after night until early morn and then after a Philharmonic concert find themselves denominated in the papers as great artists after scratching through a symphony. (Mueller 1951, pg. 330 quoted from the Musical Courier 1896)

This isn’t a whole lot different than the pre-Sports Broadcasting Act days.  As poster Gail M mentioned, Gale Sayers, The Kansas Comet, in his autobiography, “I Am Third,” talks about how NFL players would take on part-time jobs during the off season.  Sayers himself worked at Sears (if anyone wants to see a real crisis in an industry, just take a look at what’s been happening to Sears the past couple of years) in the summer.  Without the licensing, most Sports would still be in the same position today.

Interestingly, Dance is currently the lowest paid performing arts profession–most dancers still do work part-time jobs to supplement their performance activity, and this hasn’t changed much over time.  Dance has never benefited from the non-performance revenue streams that the Sports Industry, Classical Music Industry, and Pop Music Industry has had the luxury to have since the post WWII economic boom and we may be coming close to an era where none of these industries will continue to benefit from those revenue streams as Music Labels hemorrhage money, Traditional Broadcast Media lose force, and donors and foundations focus their monies on non-performing arts charities.

While the current drop in people claiming full-time musician status is no where near the estimated 70% of musicians reported to be out of work during the Great Depression, it should be understood that the drop isn’t just for Classical Musicians.  In fact, we haven’t seen a 45.3% reduction in SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballet) or University Music Faculty positions (though there has been a push towards hiring adjuncts and paying less) so this would indicate that most of the revenue opportunities lost are for those without full-time or tenured positions.



Kolydas, Tassos (2011) The repertoire of the Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. from a presentation at “Dimitri Mitropoulos: 50 +1 years After” conference in 2011. <<>> <<>>

Mueller, John H. (1951) The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Sayer, Gale (2001) I Am Third. Penguin (Non-Classics)


  1. […] In today’s edition of You’ve Cott Mail, there’s a piece which focuses on artists and their day jobs. The piece discusses the recent Arts Data Profile #3 by the NEA which surveyed 60,000 households to extrapolate an estimate of full time and part-time artists in the US as it relates to a studies about what constitutes being an artist.  This was something I explored in my post about Andrew Watts piece and my follow up to that regarding part-time musicians being the historical norm. […]


  2. […] Many musicians choose to divide their time between art and other employment, for any combination of reasons.  It’s a very personal choice, and a viable option.  In fact, part-time musicians are far from alone.  (The Guardian offers a list of prominent examples, linked below for inspirational purposes.)  And this state of being is not new — in fact, PTers are the historical norm. […]


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