What do we owe musicians?

What if the answer is . . . nothing?

I’m reading Seth Godin’s excellent book What to Do When It’s Your Turn (and It’s Always Your Turn), and I’m struck by this passage on page 99:

[The] feeling of being owed is toxic.

And on page 101:

What do we owe the singer who trained for years to sing us that song? What do we owe the person who spoke up at the meeting with a brand new idea? We have all sorts of moral and cultural obligations, but the artist must act as if:


[The] productive artist refuses to incur an artistic obligation. She acts as though the audience doesn’t owe her anything, and forgiving them in advance gives her the freedom to make the work she needs to make.

If the audience doesn’t respond, the artist ought to make more work anyway. You, the artist, ought to do it again. And again. Not because you’re owed, but because you owe our culture (and yourself) the art.

As a freelance musician, I’ve done hundreds of gigs with every kind of group you can shoehorn a trumpet into. I’ve played for enraptured crowds and bored ones. Bursting dance floors and empty ones. Joyful weddings with hundreds of guests and weeknight casino shows where the band outnumbered the listeners.

I’ll confess that when I’m performing, I’ve often got one eye on the crowd.

“Do they like this?” “Are they into it?” “Aww, I nailed that lick. Did anyone notice? I bet they’re impressed.”

This kind of thinking is a mistake. It’s not what music is about.

Why Make Art?

So, what is music about? Why perform?

  • For the attention? Hopefully not.

  • For the money? The money is important, and musicians absolutely deserve to be paid fairly. But the money is secondary.

We do our best work when we perform to give a gift.

We musicians (and artists, and writers) have the ability to give something truly valuable, a gift most people can’t give, and to give it selflessly.

We can hand our art to our audience with no expectation of praise, applause, or gushing thanks. Without watching closely for the proper reaction, to make sure they’re really grateful.

We can simply say, “Here’s my work. I hope it touches you.”