Photo by Danette Davis

Recently I was subjected to one of those “icebreaker” exercises with coworkers at what I call my “day job” (that is, the one that provides most of my income). When asked to share something “interesting” about myself, I mentioned that for decades I’ve had a parallel career as a performing and recording musician. A colleague then spoke up about how nice it is that I have a “hobby.” Having played upward of a thousand concerts and released more than 40 commercially available recordings, my blood pressure rose swiftly, but as on so many similar occasions, I swallowed my irritation and buttoned my lip for the sake of decorum.

Again and again over the years, non-musicians – as well as more than a few full-time commercial musicians – have reflexively relegated me to amateur status because the bulk of my income derives from non-musical endeavors. The assumption clearly is that anyone who holds a normal job can’t possibly be a professional musician (or artist, or writer, etc.). While I patiently endure these mostly unintended slights, they do get me thinking about what exactly it means to be “professional” when it comes to creative, as opposed to mercantile, undertakings.

The most common dictionary definition of professional is typically something along the lines of “following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain” (my emphasis). However, a second definition often follows: “of, relating to, or connected with a profession.” What, then, is a profession? According to most sources, a profession can also be a “vocation,” which can be further defined as a “calling.” Now we’re getting somewhere: My lifelong involvement with music is nothing if not a calling; indeed, it’s what defines who I am.

I reject any definition of professionalism in the fine arts that is predicated merely on the exchange of money. Yes, money does change hands in the majority of my musical, uh, transactions; it’s just that, for a number of very straightforward reasons, the amount of money gained is insufficient to sustain more than a desperate livelihood. In my own case, the main reason is that I’ve devoted myself to working in musical sub-genres (art rock, improvised and experimental music) that appeal only to niche audiences that can only move a fraction of the number of “units” sold by those who work in the realm of explicitly commercial popular music. Is my music somehow less valuable simply because of a lack of robust sales and attendance figures? I suppose you can be the judge of that.

Some will no doubt shrug and claim that the market is the ultimate arbiter of musical worth, that if the music were any good, it would sell more. But most serious musicians will tell you that there’s an inverse relationship between musical excellence and chart success, with Exhibit A being the Grammy awards, with its long tradition of rewarding the least innovative and musically adept performers based almost entirely on how many records they’ve sold to a mostly teenage audience. Yet alas, somehow the public at large continues to accept that yardstick.

By the same token, I also reject the idea that the only “real” musicians are those who earn their livelihood exclusively by playing music, no matter what it takes. Personally, I’d rather dig ditches than embarrass myself playing shallow music I can’t believe in merely to make a buck. I’d much rather work a tolerable (and better-paying) day job than stoop to playing music with which I feel no spiritual connection. And there are dozens more like me in every city, not to mention the legions of well-known jazz musicians who can’t make ends meet without taking teaching positions on the side..

As I often tell people, jobs, relationships, and places of residence come and go, but the one consistent thread of continuity in my life is my serious involvement in presenting original music to the public year in and year out. Therefore I propose a new definition of “professionalism” as applied to creative artists: a continuous, lifelong dedication to building a substantial body of work and presenting it to the public, with results measured by quality rather than monetary value. If that’s not professional enough for some people, well, I encourage them to give it a try themselves.

Dennis Rea is the author of Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China and Taiwan, published by Blue Ear Books.