Amateur — professional – artist.… These clichéd identifiers get thrown around so much that they can distort just as easily as they might clarify. But, even though any cliché tends to sleepwalk its way into stereotype, layering the conventional amateur vs. professional opposition across the relatively anomalous positions that might be dubbed “artist” can begin to map just a few of the attitudes inhabited by a range of musical practitioners.
Musical listening, for example, can be understood as amateur. It’s consensual. It’s voluntary. And the word amateur itself means “one who loves.” Love can’t be compelled. And enthusiasm, (which means “having become inhabited by a god”) can’t be bought either. An amateur attitude reaches as far as pleasure can — and then some. People generate musical sound when they feel like it — and they don’t otherwise. Shared enjoyment would best identify the prevailing destination of this mode of relationship. But there are also other relatively unconditional, “gifting” practices of music that reach well beyond these immediate, amateur concerns with a “good time,” such as musics that actualize devotion, solidarity or medicinal intent.
In contrast with the consensual communities that can be developed through amateur activity, professional music participates in market relationships that are bounded by “no pay, no play” interactions. These install a firewall between musical practice and the more unconditional loves that move an amateur; and the insulation introduces a wider range of options stretching all the way out into the mercenary.
A professional filter enables the role of musical fonctionnaire, where sounds are generated on the basis of external demand. To purvey sounds this way isn’t really any less legitimate (or mundane) than any other job; but as a reductionist exercise of professional attitude, it marks where the professional departs most from the motivating concerns of either amateur or artist.
But in general, he impacts of professionalism figure a lot less narrowly and are often much more complicated than this. When music’s actually able to attract resources such as income, a demand (as well as an opportunity) evolves for more labor intensive cultivations of craft and capacity that can enlarge everyone’s conception of what’s possible to achieve musically.
Artists draw on components of both amateur and professional orientations while reaping the contradictions. An artist is a highly intensive amateur who allies the unconditional enthusiasm of the amateur with the discipline and skills applied by professionals (although most of these were probably invented by amateurs and artists in the first place). Amateur and artist may both willingly volunteer their responsibilities toward music; but, while an amateur might regard professional standards of adequacy as an easily disposable option, an artistic disposition aspires instead to invent and contribute well beyond what would ordinarily be standard, passable, adequate or necessary.
Artistic attitude differs most importantly from either professional or amateur in that artists work more for the music than vice versa. And such a potentially exhaustive commitment can wax pretty costly in terms of time, energy and labor. Musicians therefore often turn to the professional sphere not only in order to support themselves (which is a professional value), but to support the music (which poses an artistic one).
But it’s pretty difficult to separate these two in practice. Despite that, the differences between professional and artistic attitude aren’t really trivial. Push come to shove, the strictly professional has finally to prioritize personal gain over the music itself, whereas an artist chooses to act first as a music’s accomplice (with all the problems that might include). And it’s not that individual musicians don’t change hats all the time just to stay in motion either. It’s more a matter of being clear about what’s really important in each instance.
Given that plenty of creatively mediocre work can manage to thrive perfectly well in a professional sense, professional activity by itself isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of any music’s “quality” or “value” (whatever these words might mean). A lot of serious creative work has long persisted and continues to evolve well off the professional grid without at all qualifying for the sort of dilettantism that such a non-market or “amateur” status might imply.
These attitudes describe a repertoire of roles, different constellations of priorities, rather than fixed personal identities. And whatever conflicts arise among these are even more likely to be lived as individual experiences than they are interpersonally. In practice, actual musicians often inhabit various – even contradictory — amalgams of these alternate fields of intention (any of which might shift on a day to day basis).
The components of whatever mix could as easily support each other as conflict. Amateurs who get paid are suddenly functioning professionally (which might not at all affect how they love what they do). Amateurs or professionals may (or may not) play with the degree of care that derives from artistic attention. The boundaries among these three scales of value are porous and pretty apt to fluctuate.
The spectrum that stretches from amateur to artist begins with an amateur’s personal joy in the doing of music (maybe even regardless of how the music sounds). And everyone – absolutely everyone — starts here. The more artistic scale of this spectrum doesn’t at all eliminate these joys, but augments them with a growing dedication to the welfare and life of music’s sound in a way that develops beyond personal indulgence into a reciprocal dialogue and responsibility. Professional activity offers a vehicle capable of either supporting or abusing what’s achieved along this spectrum — as well as delivering varying mixtures of both at the same time.