[Harp-L] Re: Reality Check

Well since you asked, Larry, here's my personal take on the European reality:

It may be slightly easier to survive as a pro musician in Europe than in GB or the USA, as the clubs generally pay better. Even though times are tough (and when weren't they?), the middle ground here is larger and musicians are more likely to be respected as "artists" than regarded as losers. You don't tend to hear the question "yes, but what do you do for a living?" quite so often here. However, it's a very tough life for a working musician who just lives from gigs and the majority of those who manage this are either poor or work as sidemen with successful touring acts, basically living from one tour to the next and teaching in between. Musicals also offer regular employment with health insurance and the rest, so in a city like Hamburg (my local town) they offer work for a substantial number of musicians. There is a great state institution called the Artists Social Fund, which pays half of your health insurance and pension contributions, so almost all professional musicians have health coverage and can look forward to a meager pension (ooh, the evils of socialism!).

My own story is that I'm entirely self taught and had never really imagined I even could become a musician. After joining a band in London and not earning enough to live off, by chance I came to Germany to tour in 1976 and eventually landed in Hamburg (the town where British beat music really originated). We had a dynamite act which went down well on the local club scene, and were lucky enough to hook up with a booker, so we soon had regular work. It wasn't much money, but a lot more than we got in the UK. This went on til the band broke up 2 years later. For a year or so I scraped a living from small club gigs, then two things happened:

On the live front I was asked to play with a well known German singer who offered me two tours a year for reasonable money as a sideman. At the same time I started playing with rock'n'roll legend Tony Sheridan, who played with the Beatles before they became famous. The second thing is I got offered my first studio jobs. This combination got me through the next few years and I realized a very important thing, which is, you have to diversify. After some years of doing club gigs with my own bands and tours with the better known artists, plus an increasing quantity of studio work, I began working for Hohner in the mid 1980s. I had endorsed their instruments for some years and our association intensified with time. Indirectly this led me to start both writing and teaching, my first book The Harp Handbook came out in 1990 and others followed. Though the sideman work tailed off in the early 1990s, digital technology made it much easier to make records and I began releasing CDs regularly with the acts I performed with. CD sales started to become a significant factor in addition to the other stuff. We're not talking big numbers here, mainly live sales, but with about 100 gigs and workshops a year it all adds up.

What I'm trying to say is that I've been lucky enough to make a career from playing the harmonica by hanging in there and by diversifying into related fields whenever an opportunity presented itself. My involvement with the "music business" as such has always been peripheral, as I've never in 33 years had a major label record deal or appeared with big time acts. I've seen enough from my experience as a studio musician, however, to have very mixed feelings about the industry and am happy to have been able to survive without really being part of it. My reputation, such as it is, has been built up by continual live and studio work over the entire time and of course the books and records have helped, but it doesn't come from a publicity machine, it comes from individual people who often know me personally and who I'm happy to see again as a familiar face at a gig. This fan base is smaller but is more reliable than the fickle media.

Songwriting is important, as others on the list have observed, and the people in the music business who make the most money in the pleasantest possible way are definitely composers. Even on my modest level I receive a small income from performing rights and I know enough people in the business who have become extremely wealthy through this.

The only reason any of this has worked for me is because I'm totally passionate about my music and have always given the absolute best I could in any situation, whether it was recording a cat food jingle or playing the music I love on stage. I've never had to do any gigs I really didn't like, so the tedium of performing stuff you don't enjoy night after night has never been my problem, because there aren't any Top 40 band gigs for harmonica players. You can believe me when I tell you I'm extremely grateful!

At the moment it's too early to say how the collapse of the financial system will impact on my situation, but I've weathered enough crises in the past to be fairly optimistic.

Steve Baker

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