Reimagining Career Clarity in Music Professions, Defining Success in Boundaryless Music Performance Careers
Published online: 20 September 2018
Conceptualizations of both career and success are socially constructed and involve people’s subjective interpretations of success based on their lived experiences and the experiences of those around them. Over recent decades, traditional definitions of the word career have grown to include a person's work experiences over time and across multiple jobs, organizations, and occupations instead of simply describing a single job within a particular professional field.
Why is the discussion of career success often dismissed from being a component of curricular conversations around preparation? The rift between traditional career paths and boundaryless careers is only getting larger. Career paths, especially paths in the arts, are often not bounded within specific organizations but grow through project-based competency development across different organizations or venues, commonly referred to as portfolio careers. This shift puts more emphasis on subjective measures of success that typically include types of satisfaction, and makes employees more concerned with the self-actualization of their own needs rather than organizational goals or predetermined objectives.
As a field seeking to best prepare our workforce, our next steps of identifying and sharing applicable objective and subjective qualifiers needs to be done with the understanding of stigmatization that often arises during conversations about success and/or monetary compensation. Additionally, we need to consider that the power to decide the significance of any particular metric for one’s own success is a power best left in the hands of each and every person.
Thinking back to my time in business school, I remember many conversations with my peers about their professional aspirations, where they’d like to end up geographically, and what kind of income they could expect from certain employment opportunities. As graduate students it seemed that the world was full of possibilities and opportunities. Securing employment in a lucrative career almost seemed assured. Whether it was a position managing a bank, leading a film production team, or strategically planning entrepreneurial ventures, I had a pretty clear idea of where my peers were headed and how they would know if they were doing well. After 6 years of education in preparation for the music industry, how is it that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do?” I wondered how I was going to accomplish my next steps and how I would know if I was successful or if I was going to be successful in the future. The very idea of defining success for myself seemed amorphous.
I believe there are many hurdles when trying to define success in the field of music performance. An example of a hurdle comes in the vast differentiation of the roles of music performers, even within one area of practice. For example, the life of a singer–songwriter is nothing like that of a Broadway singer and actor, which is still a very far cry from the life of a wedding band singer. Nevertheless, practitioners from these three professions can still identify as singers, falling under the same umbrella. Though there are some commonalities between these professions, there are arguably many differences in the key skills needed to be gainfully employed in each subfield.
Another example of a hurdle is multidimensionality. Multidimensionality (the tendency of those professions to include many aspects and professional responsibilities) is apparent in most musical professional fields. This is due to the increasing lack of boundaries between career paths. Pinheiro & Dowd (2009) referred to this concept as “generalism” in the professional world of music and described it as the ability to be conversant in a number of genres and/or the ability to be able to play multiple instruments well. The term further describes artists that do a number of things well in order to survive. Contemporary careers are becoming more and more generalist due to this lack of boundaries, almost boundaryless (Arthur, 1994). According to Arthur (1994), boundaryless means that career paths are less likely to be bound to specific organizations or even subcategories in the same fields. Instead, career paths are more likely to be developed between different organizations and fields, through project-based competency development and transitional positioning (Zhou, Sun, Guan, Li, & Pan, 2012).
Cross-employability contributes to the lessening of boundaries and is much more prevalent with musicians than it is in other more structured fields. Throsby & Zednik (2010) showed that those employed in the music industries are often also employed in other sectors (Hughes, Keith, Morrow, Evans, & Crowdy, 2013). This may be due, in part, to the increasingly competitive nature of fields related to professional music performance. The professional performance sector, and the recording and performance opportunities that it affords the field, have shrunk over time.
Conventionally, “career” has often been defined as “a succession of related jobs arranged in a hierarchy of prestige, through which people move in ordered sequence” (Wilensky, 1961; Zhou et al., 2012). However, over the past few decades that definition has given way to include a person's work experiences over time and across multiple jobs, organizations, and occupations (Arthur, Hall, & Lawrence, 1989; Feldman, 1989). Further, Super’s (1980) concept of the “life-career rainbow” illustrates the intertwining of an individual’s occupational, professional, and organizational experiences with other strands of their life (Collin & Young, 2000). Additionally, organizational flattening, or the decrease of hierarchical ladders in organizational structures has caused workers to re-conceptualize what a career means to them, and redefine success by their own terms (Gunz & Heslin, 2005).
Consistent with Judge, Cable, Boudreau, & Bretz (1995) career success can be defined as “the positive psychological or work-related outcomes or achievements one has accumulated as a result of one's work experiences” (p. 486). Jaskolka, Beyer, and Trice (1985) brought out the subjective nature of career success as an evaluative concept, meaning that judgments of career success depend on who does the judging. Career success as judged by others can only be determined on the basis of relatively objective and visible criteria, while one’s career success that is judged by one’s self is determined on the basis of subjective criteria (Judge et al., 1995). One way to define career success is reflected by observable objective success criteria, such as managerial level, ascendency, salary, and salary progression. On the other hand, career success could also be defined as subjective success, which reflects one’s own evaluations on the various aspects of his/her career, including job satisfaction, career satisfaction, intrinsic fulfillment and work/personal life balance (Judge et al., 1995; Zhou et al., 2012). The purpose of this paper is to state a case for the conceptualization and analysis of musical career success using existing models of success from other fields. Past research has found a positive relationship between objective and subjective career success, which is why both should be discussed together, or at the very least with an understanding of the implications that one can bear on the other (Bray & Howard, 1980; Judge et al., 1995). This paper will explore what career success may mean in the arts, both to institutions of higher learning and their graduates. I will also briefly make the case that the pursuit of an understanding of outcomes that are perceived as successful is worthwhile.
The work of Super (1980), specifically his career-life rainbow concept, is a strong shift in the literature that had come before it, most prominently from the notions of Wilensky (1961) who referred to “career as a succession of related jobs, arranged in a hierarchy of prestige, through which persons move in an ordered (more-or-less predictable) sequence” (Wilensky, 1961, p. 523). Building on Super’s work, Arthur (1994) wrote of the concept of boundaryless careers, those in which the careers of the workers spans employers and often industries.
In exploring a growth in flexibility as to what career has meant over the later portion of the twentieth-century in Western societies, Colin and Young (2000) posit that the term career is often used as a short-hand term to mean “work histories and patterns.” Further, these researchers approach career in the abstract, saying that it can refer to an individual’s movement through time, space, and social and professional structures and cultures. This understanding of the term career, as more than just a series of related jobs, is important to understanding how other shifts in career conceptualization can and have affected arts-related fields.
In their study published in 2008, Dries, Pepermans, & Kerpel examined how four different generations (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y) conceptualize career type, career success evaluation, and other career-related constructs through a vignette task that asked 750 participants to rate the career success of 32 fictitious people. Specifically, these researchers found and affirmed that peoples’ beliefs about career and career success reflect the social context in which they have developed them. The factors of these social contexts can include social, political, cultural and economic happenings.
Gunz & Heslin (2005) wrote on the reconceptualization of career success in the modern world, discussing the earliest conceptualizations of career and success, isolating the components of objective success and subjective success, and also discussing the relationship between these two constructs. Gunz & Heslin go on to examine boundaryless careers, a concept put forth by Arthur (1994) a decade earlier, and their relationships with subjective success, mentioning that not only are companies taking far flatter shapes than they’ve taken in the past, but also stating that careers are taking different shapes than they have in the past. In this case, shape refers how hierarchical a company’s internal structure is and how many layers of management a company has. Before the proliferation of boundaryless careers, almost all careers and companies were based on hierarchies, and many still are. With this in mind, they further the argument that a deep and personal exploration of subjective success should be the focus of modern employees, workers, and companies.
In a seminal 1995 study examining the relationship between objective and subjective career success and other outside factors in corporate executives, Judge, et al. defined career success as positive psychological or work-related outcomes or achievements. They also established a conceptual framework for how the two sub-constructs are related as they pertain to the prediction of one’s overall success. Before them however, Jaskolka, Beyer, & Trice (1985) noted the subjectivity inherent in career success, pinning it down as an evaluative concept, meaning that judgments of and about career success depend heavily on who is making the judgement. Judge et al. found and affirmed that objective career success as judged by others is determined on the basis of relatively objective and visible criteria such as salary and number of promotions. They also found subjective career success to be made of two main components: job satisfaction and career satisfaction. Job satisfaction is defined by Locke as "a pleasurable or positive emotional state resulting from an appraisal of one's job or job experiences” (1976, p. 1300). Career satisfaction is a bit broader as it pertains to one’s perception of their career as it presently stands. Judge et al. defined it as the satisfaction individuals derive from intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of their career. These aspects can include pay, advancement, relationships, impact, and developmental opportunities (Judge et al., 1995, p. 4).
Career Success in Music
Relating literature on career to the field of music performance, Zwaan, Bogt, & Raaijmakers (2009, 2010) discuss the prevalence of boundaryless careers as well as portfolio careers in the arts-related fields and different conceptualizations of success, positing that boundaryless careers, are becoming more prevalent and this new popularity has brought with it altered definitions and conceptualizations of career success. The 2010 work of Zwaan et al. explores the development of Dutch pop musicians using a longitudinally-based methodology. Results from their work showed that successful pop musicians experience more social support, have a stronger professional attitude and a more extensive professional network than unsuccessful ones. Along the way to their findings, the researchers deduced that career accomplishments of artists can be objectively observed through means like media exposure and sales of recordings and frequency or magnitude of live performances. This research opens the door for the use of objective measures across artistic fields for career comparison.
Hughes et al. (2013) continue the work of advancing measurable objective qualifiers as well as subjective qualifiers for success in musicians by examining what constitutes success in Australian music industries. They also discuss struggles associated with the shrinking relevance of certain qualifiers. For instance, “the advent of the Internet and digital music has been linked to a fall in record sales,” (Hughes et al., 2013 p. 67), a metric that has been a widespread indicator of success in the past. They also found that subjective success, one’s success as determined by oneself, is a very important facet of career success for contemporary artists.
Lastly, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) is an important body of work that is reported on annually. The SNAAP survey is a comprehensive online survey sent to the arts alumni of participating institutions. Data from SNAAP also affirm that careers in the arts are more boundaryless than ever before as arts graduates need to employ their talents in different outlets to make a living while continuing to make art. This is where the concepts of portfolio careers and boundaryless careers overlap. While the term boundaryless career refers to the tendency for one’s work experiences to be formed across companies, industries, and fields over time, the term portfolio career refers to the assortment of different tasks and jobs that workers in particular fields need to be engaging with in order to make a living.
Why The Search for Clarity?
Why can’t other notions of career success be applicable to the arts? Why is the discussion of career success often dismissed from being a component of curricular conversations around preparation? The rift between traditional career paths and boundaryless careers is only getting larger. Career paths, especially paths in the arts, are often not bounded within specific organizations, but instead develop across different organizations, groups, venues, ensembles, and cohorts (Zhou, Sun, Guan, Li, & Pan, 2012). This shift in turn puts more emphasis on subjective measures of success, and makes employees “more concerned with the fulfillment of their own needs rather than organizational goals” (Zhou, Sun, Guan, Li, & Pan, 2012, p. 267; Eby, Butts, & Lockwood, 2003).
The importance of isolating objective measures of success still remains, as the full array of available outcomes should be given to those setting out for careers in the arts at the beginning of their journey; that is, during their study as undergraduates and in some cases, graduate students. From there, individuals will be able to decide for themselves what they value the most, and where they would like to direct their efforts.
Using the Judge et al. (1995) framework as a guide, one would argue that more work needs to be done on both sides of the objective versus subjective career success field to unearth measures that can work for the different sub-careers in the arts. When these measures are identified, they will very likely also vary by location. For example, New York City and the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland vary in cost of living along with other socioeconomic norms. The fees paid for performance as well as the prevalence of performance opportunities also vary by location. Furthermore, though local reputation through informal and formal connections is an important facet of one’s career in the arts, it doesn’t always translate into critical success at the national level (Pinheiro, & Dowd, 2009). This raises the question: is national or international acclaim something that every artist is striving for? If we are to subjectively value what an observer feels is important for themselves to achieve, we must understand that differing levels of importance will be attributed to different career components based on the observer’s conceptualization of their career and career success as a construct.
In summary, we need to consider that the power to decide the significance of any particular metric for one’s own success is a power best left in the hands of each and every person. Conceptualizations of both career and success are socially constructed and involve people’s subjective interpretations of success based on their lived experiences and the experiences of those around them (Gunz & Heslin, 2005). So as a field seeking to best prepare our workforce, our next steps of identifying applicable objective qualifiers needs to be done with the understanding of stigmatization that often arises during conversations about success and/or monetary compensation. In free market capitalism, we need practitioners at every tier of the socioeconomic spectrum within our field, and to adequately support this, we need to analyze musical career success. Other fields may have more to offer in music’s conceptualizations about career success, its factors, and its outcomes, than we may have previously thought.
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Last modified on Thursday, 02/04/2020
Drew X Coles
Drew X Coles (EdD, Columbia University) is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, producer, serial entrepreneur, and educator. He is a member of the faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University where he directs a hybrid graduate degree program in Music and Music Education and teaches courses in pedagogy, entrepreneurship, and production. He is a co-founder of Pro Arts Management and Consulting and serves as the Musical Director of the Metropolitan Players.