Hard times for studio musicians in LA

August 15, 2007

I went to a party for our good friend Steve, just back from 6 months away, doing special effects for an upcoming movie about John Adams (the president, not the composer). During the party, he kept a looping slide show in the living room of candid snapshots of various places they worked around the world. Beautiful scenery, costumes, buildings surrounded in green screen. A number of the crew was there at the party, so it was a largely a special effects group and other friends of Steve and Manuel. I was introduced to David who is married to a graphic designer, and earns his living writing music for TV. We hit it off and had an interesting chat about the LA scene for musicians.

“There are probably 200 musicians in LA that get all the work in film and television. Everyone else doesn’t work much. I have friends who are leaving LA, even some who are giving up music entirely. I know this violist who is a genius, just a brilliant performer and musician. Now he sells real estate in Oregon and doesn’t play. […] It’s so much cheaper to record outside of LA. That breaks my heart. I like to hire local musicians, but damn it is so expensive. Sometimes I’ll just hire a group of 5 to 7 musicians and record them over and over so it sounds big.”

I’ve heard from a lot of musicians in their 50s and 60s who are tired. Being a musician is a hard job. And you have to keep doing it your whole life. As a freelance musician, you’ve got to keep yourself out there, always getting more work. If you’re lucky, you get a lot of calls just because you are known to be good and dependable. Having a steady job in an orchestra or teaching privately or in a school, offers more security.

For someone who has never taught, and at age 60 decides they want to teach, getting work is tricky because they have no experience teaching. That apparent deficiency can disappear when a school or part of the country values that particular skill. For instance, a flute player who has played on many scoring sessions for films AND is a good teacher, could get a job in in another city over a traditional flutist because of the Hollywood experience. Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University PhDs are a dime a dozen in Boston. That’s why it’s best to get out of town so your degree means something. LA musicians need to consider the same thing.

Big orchestral scores are expensive and somewhat rare in Hollywood these days, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Most of us combine acoustic instruments with electro-acoustic sounds. That means less musicians are needed in this big town. San Francisco has the same glut of too many musicians and not enough work to support them all.

Does this mean schools should cut back on the number of music majors we graduate? And there should be less departments and schools of music? I don’t think so. Nature overproduces itself, we might as well follow suit.

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