The economic reality for musicians has not changed much since traveling minstrels wandered from town to town. From buskers in the subway to super star performers like Evgeny Kissen or Yo Yo Ma, musicians are paid to play. There is no job guarantee or financial stability. Many musicians have to have back up plans like teaching or administrative work to support themselves between concerts and gigs. Injuries can be career-ending. Being self-employed often means problems getting health care or unemployment benefits. There are no pensions or safety nets unless you are a unionized member of a large richly endowed orchestra. A brief look at the past to see how resilient and innovative musicians have always been long before technology provided mass audiences through radio, television and recordings.
Since March 21 was Bach's birthday, we will start with him.
Although J.S. Bach is considered one of the most influential composers ever, during his lifetime he was not as famous for his music as he was for his organ playing. In fact, much of his music was forgotten after he died until re-discovered by Felix Mendelssohn 100 later. Bach's primary occupation was that of church music director. He wrote the chorales (hymns) and cantatas to be performed by the church choir. His fame as an organist was such that he was frequently asked to inaugurate organs in the large Baroque churches throughout Europe. He was also a teacher. The secular instrumental music he wrote was often for specific people or occasions, much like commissioned music is done today. He produced music in every way possible at the time.
During the 1700's and early 1800's the patronage system was refined and developed. Wealthy nobility hired composer/musicians to provide music for all of their events: church, state, and social. Although these positions were highly prized by musicians, there were some drawbacks. They were restricted in what they were to compose since the music was required for specific events, and, although they had a steady income, they had no social standing and were really servants of the nobility.
Joseph Haydn could be considered to be the poster boy for the patronage system. He was employed by the Esterhazy dynasty, an enormously wealthy music-loving family. He had a full orchestra at his disposal, an opera company and whatever performers he required for his music. Because the Esterhazy's were so social, inviting hundreds of guests to their numerous parties and events, Haydn became famous throughout Europe. The Esterhazy's even allowed Haydn to occasionally go "on tour" outside the palace. Haydn stayed with them for decades. This sort of position is comparable to a university tenure of today. He had total financial security and the freedom to compose what he wanted.
Not many musicians were as lucky as Haydn. Despite his international fame as a prodigy and performer, Mozart was unable to obtain a much desired patronage position. It seems that as a gig musician he was always alternating between feast and famine. He composed music in virtually every classical genre and toured extensively as a performer. As prolific a composer as he was, he was always in the position of trying to sell his compositions to a music publisher for a one time price. When he died at a very young age, he was apparently at a down turn in his finances. Although famous, he was buried in a paupers' cemetery.
However, his music lives on and has never lost its appeal to audiences. His life story has created even more music, with movies and musicals about his life, like "Amadeus".
Then, along came Beethoven: the game-changer. Beethoven's business sense was as acute as his musical sense. He was the first composer to demand and receive royalties from his publishers for his works. At the height of his fame, he even convinced the city of Vienna to pay him an annual stipend in order for him to remain living there. Beethoven suffered greatly from his hearing loss and even more so because he could never overcome the class distinctions of the day, he made sure he was paid for everything, and paid very well.
As time went on, gifted performers became super stars in the music world. Beginning with performer/composers like Paganini and Liszt, eventually emerged the artist whose musicality was determined by their performance ability and audience appeal. They played not to promote their own compositions, but the compositions of others. To achieve this level of fame and fortune not only requires skill and dedication, but most importantly luck and timing.
For every superstar, there are thousands of musicians in orchestras, chamber groups, choirs, music studios etc. who are being paid to play. Today's dilemma is that there is no opportunity for live audiences for the undetermined future. Since the beginning of music itself, musicians and their art have survived plagues, influenza pandemics, regional wars, World Wars, total disruption of society. Music and musicians will survive. They are resilient and resourceful. Support musicians as you can, mostly by just listening. Many are producing youtube videos from their homes while in isolation. Some are singing from their balconies. Take this time of social distancing to listen. Music can bring us together even while as individuals we are alone. That's what music does.