Why Do Musicians Bother Playing Music?
Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
The worst question any musician can ask is, "Why?" As soon as any aspect of playing music transfers from visceral to intellectual, the whole process may seem silly. Having spent most of my adult life performing in bands, I am occasionally asked why I do not play music very often anymore. This made me ask the inverse question: Why does anybody play music? While every musician has different priorities, I propose that there are three main reasons: money, attention and self-expression. Few make music for just one purpose, but most land somewhere in a Venn diagram of the three.
Every person I know who has a career in music does so by focusing less on the attention and self-expression aspects in exchange for money. This can seem evil to my inner punk, but I fully understand and respect gigging musicians. If somebody is going to pay a wedding band $3,000 to make drunk bridesmaids dance, why not get a slice? Every player I know who works in this scene also makes original music and cherishes any outlet that doesn't involve covering "Brown Eyed Girl." Playing functional music is potentially unsatisfying, but it is a job -- certainly one more fulfilling than bagging groceries at Dierbergs.
The other reasons for playing music are less practical and more prevalent. Attention is a human need, and the elevated stages and colored lights of even the dinkiest venue can fulfill this urge. This priority is harder to justify with age; James Toth, alias Wooden Wand, mentioned this very eloquently when he told me, "I realized I was getting older when I just wanted to be rich instead of rich and famous."
Self-expression may be the most valid reason to play music from an artistic standpoint. Yet, what is viewed as such is often just self-indulgence in a mask. Those who lean too far into this priority sometimes develop a false sense of martyrdom, probably because those same musicians are the ones least likely to play to enough people to receive any attention or money.
As far back as the initial article, I knew this would be the topic of my eventual final installment of Better Living Through Music. My personal struggle, the one I have attempted to work out with RFT Music as my therapist, is how to keep music as an integral part of life while being an adult. This was much easier when I was younger, when writing songs and going on tour and spending hours finding out about new music was just what I did. There were no questions because there was no need to question.
These days, I feel like the attention and self-expression bugs are out of my system, and I know I will not make any practical amount of money playing music. But I suspect there is another reason to make music, one that is difficult to quantify. Every note, every song, every album becomes part of the vaguely spiritual ether of music. The satisfaction of contributing to this is immeasurable; however small the impact, every piece of music pushes the art form forward. At this point in my life, I cannot imagine a better reason to spend the time money, and energy to make music.
Thus ends the Better Living Through Music column. It's been real. Thank you for reading.