All musicians don’t have to be performers. Though they may start by singing or playing an instrument, some musicians transition to composing or studying music history or theory. An amateur does this for recreation and fun. A professional may do that too, but the difference is this: professionals are paid for what they do (and that’s important). (When I speak about professional musicians I am not just talking about performers. I include composers, teachers and academics in the mix.)
Anyway—professionals are, in effect, a small business, offering goods and services just as any small business would. Imagine a newly minted clarinetist from a top music school. (We’ll use the clarinet, but the metaphor easily works with other instruments, and for the sake of clarity, we’ll say our clarinetist is a woman.) She may be a fine player, but what does that clarinetist really offer the marketplace? Who will pay for what she can do? Importantly, for the clarinetist, will it provide enough money on which to live?
Our clarinetist’s product is playing music on the clarinet, but what style of music—orchestra, chamber, klezmer, Dixieland, jazz? If the only product she can offer is soprano clarinet (B-flat and A) and she only plays the classical and orchestral repertoire, she better be the best in the world, or at least on the way to becoming the best in the world. This type of musician is equivalent to a boutique store—offering very high quality goods but with limited selections and sharply focused on one thing. Over time, to remain relevant, our clarinetist must expand by continually adding new repertoire—putting more clarinet product on the shelves. This keeps her challenged and familiar with recently composed music. And just as Chevrolet comes out with a new model of the same vehicle each year, our clarinetist needs to keep her core product in top shape and continually improving as she revisits previously performed pieces, making them better and better. If she wants to diversify and offer more products (read: add to her Lego kit), she might add the E-flat clarinet or bass clarinet. This creates more possible income channels for her. But as she adds these product lines the quality must be kept at an undisputable high level. She has to really command these instruments and not just dabble in them.
Let’s say our clarinetist has added these other instruments to her product line and things are going well. She’s getting some work playing chamber music and is getting some calls to sub in the local orchestra. How could she expand her store? That depends on her background and interests. Maybe she plays in a woodwind trio or quintet. If she has a talent and interest in composing and arranging, she could write for her ensemble. If the music is well received there may be a publishing avenue for her to follow. If she is handy and dexterous she may do some minor instrument repair work. But whatever additional products she pursues to make herself more attractive to the buying public, it is crucial for her to maintain the high quality of product that she is becoming known for.
To me, building a career as a professional is like stocking a store with products. None of us wants a dingy, musty store that just sells beer and cigarettes. We want our store to sparkle, to exude quality and to be a place where the customer can get the finest there is. As our clarinetist stocks her store, she begins to establish a reputation. Marketing people say she is creating a brand.