The first thing that comes to mind, when asked “what even is a performer’s career?” is that it is a self-sustaining, bill paying day-to-day job performing music. But realistically, this isn’t necessarily the case. Researchers and large-scale surveys have said it but all you really have to do is look around you to know that it’s become harder and harder over the last few decades to sustain oneself solely as a performer.
Of course, this is an easy segue to the starving artist/underemployed millennial narrative but it isn’t that simple (I will save that post for another day). But when you’ve dedicated yourself to an idea, of being a musician (or actor, etc) what exactly have you dedicated yourself to? I have mostly always known that I wasn’t ever going to be a full-time performer, so I got a music degree at a university. This allowed me to (and forced me to) take a more broad selection of classes and meet different people.
A few years ago I worked on a project called the New Music Seminar, one of the main tenants of that conference is that you need to define what ‘success’ means. In that context, they used the benchmark of selling tickets – 1,000 in multiple markets will create a sustaining career. But a flautist/violinist/etc can’t really use that measure if you aren’t a soloist, it’s just a different ballgame. You give lessons, play with different orchestras, market your quartet for events, do some gigs as you can.
For me, being constantly engaged in the classical music community has become my measure of success. After my undergraduate degree, I went to work for a music publisher (a hugely meaningful experience but not engaging with my community) and producing concerts and festivals, working in music venues, producing music conferences (massively engaging and equally meaningful, but not my community).
And it has only been quite recently that I have found the road back to where I would like to end up – working with music (and other creative) students and performing on the side. It isn’t the traditional music-school-kid career path, but I’m engaging with my community with meaningful, fulfilling purpose. And that’s just as valuable as a solo career.