Archive for Friday, January 9, 2009

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

January 9, 2009


Chuck Mead

Chuck Mead

Thom Alexander

Thom Alexander

Annie Gnojek

Annie Gnojek

Matt Pryor

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.”


ralphralph 8 years, 7 months ago

What are we doing to give them opportunities to play without traveling?Be nice to lose the day jobs, eh?I mean, some people were put here to count beans, and some to light up our souls. You ought to be able to make a living doing either.

gbaker 8 years, 7 months ago

I find it tough. The late 80's and 90's were a prime time for local working bands and musicians and I could make a very decent living with little travel. These days I've seen nothing but a decline in good work for good players. The days of making a grand a night in Lawrence are long gone.

stuckinthemiddle 8 years, 7 months ago

beyond this 0.31% that claim being a musician as their occupation many of the best musicians in town don't do it for a living...

audvisartist 8 years, 7 months ago

You know what puts a smile on my face? When I go out to my mailbox and find royalty checks from BMI for music of mine that was played on MTV years ago! A few dollars from Australia, a few dollars from Canada, a few dollars from Venezuela of all places. It doesn't add up to much, but it's fun to see who's listening to my tunes. :)

roger_o_thornhill 8 years, 7 months ago

Is there such thing as musician's union anymore?

Bradford Hoopes 8 years, 7 months ago

Happy to be one of the 273, and I count my blessings every day to be able to live in a place that supports it! Thanks, Lawrence.

Brad Maestas 8 years, 7 months ago

Cool piece. Thom's right - the world needs more bass players. I used to count myself among the ranks but even though I live in NYC, my heart's still in Lawrence and I play every time I come back to visit twice a year. Bravo to all the wonderful musicians in Lawrence!

d_prowess 8 years, 7 months ago

This is one of the many reasons I love living in Lawrence. And did anyone notice the percentage of musicians listed in the #1 spot of Nashville? Over double Lawrence and the others! Is that mostly country music country or are they much more diverse musically than that?

Kirk Larson 8 years, 7 months ago

I tried making a living at music from '87 to '92. It was hard! Now I'm "semi-pro". I work my day job and play in a band about once a month, pretty much just for fun since the money doesn't cover the expenses. Still, it's great to see Lawrence at no. 2!I remember when the talk was all about "Lawrence is going to be the next Minneapolis...the next Athens, GA...the next Austin, TX"...and so on. Lawrence just needs to concentrate on being Lawrence and let others emulate us.

eotw33 8 years, 7 months ago

too bad the lazer sold out years ago, that was when music in lawrence started going downhill, they sponsered a lot of concerts and a lot of local music, now all we get is the same 40 songs over and over and over and over again, thanks RAMBO!!!!

Kookamooka 8 years, 7 months ago

There are a lot of people out there who make money as musicians who aren't in "bands". We're talking engineers, music critics, choral singers who travel the country working with different classical groups, solo instrumentalists, teachers. Don't just assume that every musician listed on the roster is a pop musician. Don't you dare!

olmsted78 8 years, 7 months ago

The Lazer?! Good one. Do yourself a favor and simply forget about anything over 91.5 FM on the radio. The record store is where you go to find variety... buddy.

matsofatso 8 years, 7 months ago

Great article.. I've always felt that way about Lawrence.. It has a very high concentration of excellent musicians. Finding musicians to satisfy any dream musical project is actually possible here. (YES cover band anyone?) I got here in '93, kind of at the end of that pretty heavy duty live music cycle.. there were packed shows at several venues any day of the week. It was totally inspiring. Camping mini-festivals were common. It could be argued that things died down, but I just think it's that the Dead stopped touring.. the musical 'party' scene took a devastating hit. But like the wind and the tides all of the real musicians kept playing. The cycles continue to turn.. Hell, Phish is coming back. and here we are blessed with so many wonderful musicians playing their hearts out. I love this town.

Doug Fisher 8 years, 7 months ago

I would have to agree with eotw33's comment about 105.9 The Lazer dealing a blow to Lawrence's alternative music scene when it switched formats in 1999. Does anyone remember all the petition protests and anti-lazer t-shirts that were going around? As someone who lives in another state that comes back to visit Lawrence a few times a year, I notice Hip-Hop and Rap music has become more common around there. Rolling Stone magazine did vote Lawrence as one of the best Alt-Rock music scenes in the country back then. Too bad it's changed.

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