The Difference Between Being a [Musician] and Being a Professional [Musician]

Paul talks Hunter Hancock and Roger talks Bach.


Paul:  Well the short answer would be one gets paid but that’s not the whole story, I have known many fine musicians who were not professionals. I myself did my first paying gig when I was 18 years old at the Whisky a Go-Go, with an artist who, after the two-night stint, decided to leave Los Angeles, so just like that I was out of a gig. I then had to work as a bus boy and waiter for 4 years until I joined Little Feat, so in fact, I was both a pro and again, not a pro. During that time I was in a garage band in Laurel Canyon, and we would practice from noon to five, 5 days a week, rain or shine, trying to break into the business. It was fun but we never broke through, had a few opportunities but didn’t take advantage of them. Then I got asked to join Little Feat, and in reality I made more money as a waiter than I did in those first couple of years with a professional band.

I have sat in living rooms jamming with folks who were not professional musicians, who could play rings around many folks that I played with who were professionals. The joy of music is that you are playing music, PLAYING for the love of the music and the art, and to turn that into a career is a whole other enchilada.

As I think back to my youth I think of the organist who played at the Hollywood First Methodist Church, they have quite a grand pipe organ, and he was fantastic - I wish I could remember his name. He would play the old hymns and then a piece by Bach, and he did that because he loved playing. And then there was the choir director, Hunter Hancock, generally recognized as the first West Coast disc jockey to play Rhythm and Blues on the radio, as well as one of the first to spin Rock and Roll.  Hunter Hancock was an early white hipster whose affinity for the music and impish sense of humor, captured Los Angeles area listeners from 1947 until 1966. So was he a professional musician, well no not really, but he loved music, and gospel music was a passion, hence he led the choir.

Being a professional musician has been a blessing to me. It has given me a comfortable life and stability to raise a family, enjoy a few rare moments traveling the world, filled with memories of gigs, from playing for 5 paying customers to 80,000 folks in Atlanta for the Olympics, riding around in vans and cars, to luxury busses, and private planes. Playing for American soldiers on USO tours, opening for some of the biggest names in the business, to headlining arenas, and the lesson I have learned from that is, that’s what you get paid for, the traveling, hotel living, being away from your family for weeks on end, the music we do for free. The joy is in the doing, a wise man once told me.


Roger:  The main difference between the two really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with music.  You can’t say that a professional musician is better than a person who just plays music because that’s all opinion based anyways.  It doesn’t really matter who knows what on chops – if you play music, you are a musician in all senses of the word.  It seems that the main difference is you spend a lot more time as a professional musician having to fight for more time to play music because you’re always having to deal with the business side of things – the licensing, the paperwork, the contracts, and who does what, where’s it getting released, how to promote it – all that chaos really doesn’t have anything to do with being a musician, that’s business.  People will walk up to you after a show, or during a record session, and be like “Yeah, you know it’s really cool, I play guitar (or drums or whatever), but I’m not a musician, I just do it for fun”.  Well, that is a musician.  Doing it as a professional musician means that you spend a lot more time getting a certain sound to try to brand, or making sure things have a certain thread.  Frankly, some of the best in the world are in their basement or living room just playing music – you’re not going to hear them, or see them in a magazine, but they are, in all senses of the word, a musician.    One of the best examples to me is Bach.  Obviously he’s known as a phenomenal musician, but he never actually made a living doing it, he always had a job while doing music.

So that’s really the major difference between the two.  It’s not music – it’s one person has to deal with a lot more details that at times, makes it harder to enjoy playing music.  You’re always so involved in the business side of things, whereas the other person gets to truly enjoy music, which is what it was for.  I think it’s a misconception that people have – that a professional musician is a better player that a person that just plays music – there’s nothing true about that, it’s completely based on opinion.  You might have the biggest artist in the world and not like his stuff vs. a friend down the street that just plays a few chords and you love it, so you see, there’s no correlation between the two.   

It’s kind of a funny thing, it’s one of those things I’ve always found humorous when people try to make a distinction between the two.  I guess a professional musician would obviously spend more hours paying attention to arrangements and how well the performances are put together because it’s going to be recorded and put out and be there forever, whereas a person that plays for fun, they might shag a few notes here and there but it really doesn’t matter because they are doing it with a smile and they’ll do it again the next day.