The Sad Fate of Professional Musicians in U.S. : Outsourced to London, Part I – The Music Education Connection

image of the Hollywood sign
The Hollywood Sign

I’m currently consulting as a technology expert for an education grant that one city is writing in order to create a model program that will use music to teach math and sciences in their K-12 schools. Of course, the fact that I am also a musician and composer will benefit my participation on this grant. The input I provide and the research I do, as well as the grant’s process, seem like they will be interesting material to include in this blog of mine on sciences and the arts. Usually I am talking about books that deal with these subjects, but I think slices of life around topics are important as well, and perhaps this post will encourage others to write more books on this topic.

In December I attended a conference on “The Future of Entertainment,” hosted by Variety Magazine and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Although most of the conference was dedicated to the future of movies (now that California has passed an incentive bill, AB839,  to help keep film production in the state), there was one panel on the status and future of our music industry.

Coincidentally, at the table where I was seated were a Musician’s Union rep and an executive from the organization that pays out the royalties due to musicians for playing on movie soundtracks, commercials, music recordings, etc. After the music panel, my head was filled with unanswered questions. I turned to the two music professionals reps at my table.

The Royalty Woman shared quite a few insights, but remarked that her comments were “off the record,” so I won’t make note of her name here, and, to tell the truth, I have forgotten the name of her organization anyway. I won’t be naming the Musicians Union rep, either, because she and the union will undoubtedly be embarrassed by the comments I will make about her responses to my questions.

Let’s start with the number one question and concern regarding U.S. musicians in the movie and TV industry expressed by the morning’s panel: Why are so many film and TV producers going to London to record their music soundtracks rather than recording here in the States?

The answers will not surprise our local musicians, but I hope it will wake up anyone else reading this post.

The producers go to London to score their tracks not just because it is less expensive to hire musicians there (I will address this topic in next post) but also because they are finding more qualified musicians in London. According to them, the caliber of musicians in U.S. has been steadily falling over the last decades.

And why is that? Well, that is something I have been writing about in this blog for some time. Our society has removed the Arts (including music, of course) from its schools, and denigrates the Arts as being “frills” rather than necessary elements of education and life. One of many negative results of this, of course, has been a falling number of musicians in our country. Turns out that not only are the numbers of musicians falling, but the caliber of those who do study music has also fallen precipitously. If musicians do not have years of classes/lessons and plenty of time to practice, they will never be great musicians.

For those of you who are not musicians out there, let me add a bit of clarification emphasis to that point.

In the world of music, studio musicians are regarded as the elite musician class. All professions have their elite class, their best and brightest: in the Navy it is the Seals, at Disney it is Disney Imagineering staff, in tech currently it is Google programmers and idea generators. In music, the musicians able to work in studios are not only polished players with a keen understanding of music theory, tempo, ensemble-playing, etc., but they are the ones who can read music. Many musicians who are really really good, never learned to read music notation, but this is a studio requirement. Not only will a composer put a chart in need of reading in front of a studio musician, but that musician must be able to read it, properly and with expression, at a first glance.

No one learns to be a studio musician without years of study and practice. And practice is not something a musician does during the course of study and then stops. Good musicians must practice every day to enhance and maintain their skill.

So what happened in the U.S. when we began to take music out of the schools and denigrate its usefulness, especially as compared to math and science? Well, we stopped developing that pool of studio musician caliber players for one thing. And that is the first reason that our movie and TV producers are now going to London to record their music soundtracks. Europe still values musicians and the education of musicians, so they do have an elite class of studio players available. And because their musicians are getting this work from the U.S. they are making enough money to afford practice time in order to keep up their “chops.”

According to panelist Ricky Minor, Music Director of American Idol: “Arts in schools are gone. There are no public places for musicians to play and master their craft. There are no jobs for musicians. Musicians are now waiters. With all of this, we have witnessed a plummeting of the skill level of musicians in U.S., while European musicians are supported.”

And panelist Paul Broucek, President, Music, Warner Brothers Pictures, agreed: “Yes, what London offers now is a skilled talent pool.”

Musicians in the U.S. not only are lacking in access to music education, but are hard pressed to find the time to keep up what skills they do acquire due to the lack of practice time. They are too busy working other jobs to support themselves . . . (more about this in the next post).


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