Sound profession: Lawrence’s career musicians rank high in challenging field

Music Row in Nashville, at the intersection at Music Square East and North.

Chuck Mead

Thom Alexander

Annie Gnojek

Matt Pryor

US Census report

Top metropolitan areas ranked by percentage of musicians in the labor force

1. Nashville, TN 0.65

2. Lawrence, KS 0.31

3. Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA 0.29

4. Bloomington, IN 0.29

5. New York, NY 0.27

6. Sarasota-Bradenton, FL 0.27

7. Hattiesburg, MS 0.26

8. Myrtle Beach, SC 0.25

9. Trenton, NJ 0.24

10. Punta Gorda, FL 0.24

The National Endowment of the Arts has released a statistical report involving those in the arts and entertainment fields. Among the findings is a section culled from the most recent U.S. Census that lists the “top metropolitan areas ranked by percentage of musicians in the labor force.”

Nashville took the No. 1 slot.

Lawrence ranked No. 2.

Of the 88,000 or so folks who call Lawrence home, the report states that 0.31 percent of them list their career as musician. That amounts to about 273 citizens whose primary source of income stems from music.

“(I’m) not too surprised by these results,” says Chuck Mead.

Best known as the frontman for country throwback act BR549, Mead has split the last few decades living in Nashville and Lawrence. Mead says it’s been 16 years since he “had a real job.”

“I’ve always said that there are more talented people (in Lawrence) than is generally realized,” he says. “It has something to do with being a college town, but there are tons of other college towns that aren’t even in the top five — Austin, for instance. I think Lawrence has an atmosphere where the arts in general are more respected and nurtured than most cities the same size or stature.”

For Annie Gnojek, the census info was more of a revelation. Gnojek has made a career as a full-time flutist in Lawrence for nine years.

“I am a bit surprised that we are ranked so high, and I must admit I’m quite proud of our little city,” she says. “However, I do know a lot of very talented individuals living right here in Kansas who gig regularly in larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The cost of living is so much lower here, I think there are a lot of musicians who live in smaller cities and travel to the larger ones to play. It makes it much easier to survive on a musician’s salary.”

Like most musicians, her paycheck is culled from a multitude of musical endeavors. She teaches private lessons to 40 students weekly in addition to instructing at Ottawa University. She is also a member of the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra and founder of the flute/oboe/piano trio Allegresse.

Gnojek says there are numerous qualities that are essential for a person to sustain a steady career in music.

“One biggie is probably also the cheesiest — passion,” she explains. “You have to really, really love it and want it more than anything. It is hard, and it isn’t going to make you millions. If you can think of anything else you could do with your life besides make music, you should probably do that. It has to be all or nothing.”

Chasing success

Lawrence musicians aren’t short of advice when it comes to analyzing success within their profession.

“There is a certain hustle aspect to being a musician,” Mead says. “Keep your eyes open for a gig or create a gig where there wasn’t one. Hell, even Charlie Parker played weddings and bar mitzvahs.”

Thom Alexander, executive director of Lawrence’s Americana Music Academy, encourages fellow players to develop a wide taste in music.

“Don’t be afraid to play in a lounge act or teach your instrument,” he says. “Also, it doesn’t hurt to know more than one instrument. The more you play, the more you’ll be in demand. Guitarists, learn to play the bass — the world needs more bass players.”

Alexander says he survived solely on music from age 16 to 26 (“but I starved a lot,” he admits) before succumbing to a nonmusical day job. However, the veteran guitarist has spent the last 15 years back in the industry.

Also entering the field at a young age was Matt Pryor, Get Up Kids founder and current member of Lawrence indie act New Amsterdams.

He says the formula for a musical livelihood is “90 percent luck and 10 percent persistence and talent.”

“That’s what it takes to make a career in a rock band, anyway,” he says.

Although he’s gone since 1998 without necessitating a day job, Pryor admits he was surprised that Lawrence sat atop Los Angeles and New York in the top-five census category.

“Not as surprised as Bloomington, though,” he adds, citing the fourth ranked “metropolis.”

Rigors of the profession

The city of Lawrence and the state of Kansas didn’t place in any of the other music categories found on the census report. Nor did it rank on any lists pertaining to artists, actors, filmmakers or writers. However, a new census will be conducted in 2010 that could potentially shuffle the rankings.

If Lawrence were to drop off the list, it would be indicative of how thorny a feat it is to maintain a full-time career in music — especially in Kansas.

Still, several hundred locals have found a way, despite the obstacles. Alexander says that of all the factors working against him, age is the hardest to deal with these days.

“The fingers just don’t do what they did even 10 years ago. I really have to put in a lot more practice time just to stay at balance point with my dexterity. Also, at least in my case, the loss of hearing. I’ve lost a lot of high-end frequencies in the last decade — oh, the days of loud amps — and that cannot be replaced without hearing aids … which I’m now looking into,” he says.

Flutist Gnojek mentions the most challenging part is knowing when the workday is over.

“You can always practice more, take one more student, book one more gig,” she says. “It is hard to say no when you aren’t sure when the next opportunity is coming. You never know which gig is going to get you noticed or who you might meet. … When something is so much a part of who you are, it is hard to let it go and be done for the day.”

Mead concurs.

“You never know when a paying gig will come up that you have to take while you can,” he says. “So that little trip you promised your wife you’d take or the projects around the house have to be postponed — again. Uncertainty plays into it, but when you’re out there in the edge, who can imagine living the straight life? I don’t know what people who play in symphonies are like, but I’m pretty sure they’re cut from the same jib as us hacks … only in a tux.”