Research Note 014: Amateurs & Professionals

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These days I’ve been telling people about my recent return to playing music seriously. Quite a few people ask whether I was professional or amateur which usually makes me pause to think.
When you’re referred to as an amateur, it’s usually implied that you might be less qualified or even less talented than a professional. It is assumed that an amateur is one who would have liked to be a professional but who was unable to reach that level. But contrary to these negative implications, when you look up the word “amateur” you’ll see that is actually means “lover of” and there are many amateurs in all fields who are working at a very high level.

Consider a hobby other than music, that you do with your free time. Maybe you brew beer, take nature photographs, or fix cars. Whatever it is, have you ever even considered doing it professionally? Probably not. And most likely this isn’t because you’re not good enough (and whether you are or not is probably irrelevant to your decision), but rather because the very fact that it’s a hobby means that it’s something you do that isn’t work. Instead, it’s a chance to spend time on something fun and fulfilling that doesn’t saddle you with any outside pressure to succeed, earn a living, etc.

Musicians, more so than other amateurs, seem to have a more difficult time simply engaging with music as a hobby. Perhaps this is because tools like DAWs are fundamentally designed around a recording and production mentality. Compared to an acoustic guitar player, someone with a laptop can actually produce a polished album of music (remember those?). While the guitar player can just pull out their guitar and playing it for a few minutes while sitting on the couch may be the extent of their musical aspirations. And they don’t see this as failure. They are unlikely lamenting their inability to get gigs or write more music or get record deals. They’re having exactly the relationship with music that they want. In fact, they’re usually not even recording what they play; once it’s in the air, it’s gone.

By definition, being a professional means having to spend at least some amount of time thinking about the marketplace. Is there an audience for the music you’re making? If not, you’re guaranteed to fail. Amateurs, on the other hand, never have to think about this question at all. This frees them to make music entirely for themselves, on their own terms.

An easy way to do this is to put yourself into a musical context in which you actually are an amateur—by experimenting with a genre in which you have no prior experience. Are you a committed hip-hop producer? Try making a jazz track. Your expectations are bound to be lower, simply because you have no prior successes or failures against which to gauge your current work. Even if you hate the results, it’s likely that you’ll learn something from the experience.

Even if you do aspire to make a living out of creating original music, it might be helpful to think like an amateur in order to lower your stress and bring the fun back to your music-making time. Amateurs often have a genuinely more pleasurable experience than professionals working in the same field, and this is almost certainly because they’re free from outside pressure. If you can instill this mindset into your own work, you’ll probably have both better results and a better time.

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