Cage Match: The Hobbyist vs. The Professional

Posted on by Jon Moody

ngbbs510394cc88494I’ve covered a couple of topics already, dealing with the freelancing and business portion of playing out and gigging (feel free to review them here and here). And the comments thus far have been truly awesome and led to some good points on both sides, which is what we’re going to discuss today. In my years playing out, on the road and at home I have run into many musicians that can fall into two groups: the Hobbyist and the Professional. Today, we’re going to talk about the differences – and similarities – between the two.

In order to get this going, we need some definitions. Here they are, courtesy of Google:

The Hobbyist (hob•by•ist)
A person who pursues a particular hobby.

The Professional (pro•fes•sion•al)
(of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime, or hobby.

For the Love of It

We all play music because we love it, and can’t imagine NOT playing; I think we can agree on that, right? The allure of locking in with like-minded musicians, connecting with the audience and being inspired to new heights are some of the many benefits afforded us by music. Even in its simplest forms, music relieves stress, lifts spirits and soothes the savage beast (or in our house, the savage toddlers). The greatest thing about this? ANYONE can play music and derive some form of joy out of it. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to play. In fact, it really doesn’t take that much time at all to learn an instrument and play it in front of people (the latter takes a mixture of ego and guts, but that’s a talk for another day).

So, What’s Different?

If both groups are playing music because they love it, then why are some more determined to get paid for it whereas others are just happy with the act in and of itself? Why can’t we all just be happy playing music, and call it good? It comes down to two very important points that really divide the Hobbyist from the Professional.

1. The Professional has a career in music, and their playing and performing is putting food on the table, paying the rent, etc.. The Hobbyist does not rely on music and are not financially dependent upon playing music.

2. Because of #1, the Professional treats playing and performing much like the Hobbyist treats their job, because when you are a Professional Musician, it IS your job.

Now for a second, just let those two points sink in before you start typing up a response and ask yourself this question; if I had to pay my bills based solely on income I gathered from playing and performing music, would I treat it differently than I do now? Would I conduct myself in a more professional manner, knowing that my livelihood is dependent upon the gigs I’m taking? Puts a different spin on being a musician, doesn’t it?

When It’s Your Job


The mighty Gus G!

When you are a professional, working musician, gigging takes on a very different meaning. While I’m at a point now where grabbing a gig is because I want to, five years ago taking a gig was paying rent. Because of that, I used a pretty specific criteria to determine if the gig was worth my time. It also meant spending some regular time keeping the instruments in tip-top shape; cleaning, polishing, keeping strings in good shape (and switching them when needed). Things that a hobbyist may do, but not have to worry about. Why worry about general maintenance? If you are an auto mechanic, you need to make sure the tools you use to repair cars are in working order, right? Same thing when you’re a professional musician. That amp that “is a bit finicky, so you have to jiggle the power cord just so” isn’t really an endearing quality when you’re at a studio trying to record some tracks on someone else’s dime.

That also means – and I’m sure this is where a lot of people would draw the line – that a Professional, who is living off their playing, will play gigs that may not musically fulfill them or be what they would love to play on a regular basis. Consider the cover/wedding band. Many people would scoff at playing someone else’s music, let alone ones that have been played to death on the radio. However, a good cover band plays out very regularly (sometimes 3-4 times a week or more) and makes decent cash. The wedding band plays out a lot in the summer months, and rakes in the cash.

In Conclusion

When it comes down to it, the Hobbyist and the Professional aren’t really that different. We all play music because we HAVE to, we enjoy it, we couldn’t think of doing anything else. However, when you are depending on the money you make from playing for basic things, like food, clothes, the rent, you will find the differences from the Hobbyist and the Professional become fairly clear.

Written on May 11, 2014, by Jon Moody

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  • Marlon

    I always love the pro/hobbyist dichotomy. I’m play guitar for fun (and I’m bad at it) but the roles are reversed for my career as a commercial photographer (which I feel I’m great at). So as a photographer the minutiae of which 35mm lens does a better job that is lost on 99% of the people looking at my images is a big deal to me. Conversely, a green Big Muff, a silver Big Muff, and an EQD Hoof all sound like [awesome] fuzz to me, because music is just for me in my own basement.

    When people ask me for advice when entering serious photography, I tell them just to get the cheapest SLR they can get to learn on, because the camera won’t take better images until they’re a better photographer. For myself, though, I couldn’t live without my full-frame camera bodies. However, when I play guitar my I know my Epiphone is just as good as any Gibson out there…but maybe if I had that Gibson I’d just sound like all you guys…right???

    Also, whenever my photography news sites tweet about some awesome-new-basically-entry-level-budget gear I get frustrated, “UGH WHAT ABOUT THE COOL TOOLS I NEED AS AN ELITE PRO?” but then on the other hand… “MAKE LESS EXPENSIVE 5 WATT AMPS BECAUSE WHO NEEDS 100 WATTS?”

    So, because I’m constantly on both sides of the coin I understand both sides perfectly. And basically, pros need hobbyists to push the market. Without hobbyists a lot of these companies don’t exist. And, hobbyists need pros to teach, and inspire us, and just be awesome and keep pushing the limits which helps everyone involved.

    • Filibusta Rhymes

      Very well stated, I agree 100%

  • Trebor Tuhalb

    man, if i had to make music to pay the bills, i would still love playing music but i would hate so many of the parts that go along with being a pro. finding gigs, dealing with promoters, venues, sound guys. marketing. all of the “selling” i hate doing that. and it is way too stressful for me. i would still get excited about music but i would fail at it because i would hate the “business” side of it sooo much

  • camatic

    I am dead serious about music but didnt go into it as a profession because I want to always enjoys it. I have a profession= writer/editor. That doesnt take lot of equipment, just skill but I got my education there and devoted everything to it, including delaying my musical education until I got my English degree. I take my playing seriously too and have devoted thousands of hours perfecting my craft. I do not think of it as a hobby- to me, a hobby is model trains.

  • Nick Dylan Adamson

    Nice and clear article, without any added baggage (that I can detect at least).

    I would just like to point out that simply because you are not making money off of music, this does not mean that it is casual to you, or only a hobby. If that were true, then to Karl Marx, socialism and writing were hobbies. He couldn’t rely on them to provide his income.

    I think we all need to remember that music is primarily a form of art, not a product to be bought and sold. I don’t think anyone particularly cares how much money Schubert made from his music. In a capitalist society, everything is for sale, but music and art transcend such a narrow and inhuman way of living. Being a professional musician does not in any way raise your status as an artist, nor does it raise the real value of your art.

    If you ever encounter a professional musician who is arrogant about their music, just remember that Lil Jon makes a lot of money from music, and that Bach was never very popular in his lifetime.

    • Dairenn Lombard

      I don’t know about anyone else, but, I do consider my recorded work to be a product. There is a reason why there is the album credit “producer.” That said, I agree that just because someone chooses to make a living making music as opposed to doing it on the side, doesn’t mean that they should nickel-and dime everyone they meet.

      I’ve done business with my fair share of money hungry hired guns in the industry and about the only thing more soul-crushing than dealing with pay-to-play “promoters” (you know, where you get to do 100% of the promoting and they get 100% of the cash of the first dozen or two in the door), is dealing with a “musician” that will smile in your face, as long as you have their few hundred bucks a gig ready for them before the night of the show. To me, that’s far less honest than the singer-songwriter trying to sell his or her original material because you’re praying on the people struggling to make it in this business.

      As naive as this sounds, you should be able to expect from a fellow musician someone who will help lift you up and if it’s going to be about the money–at least make it a profit sharing venture, every everyone has skin in the game and, therefore, an incentive to help one another be a success. Instead, you got a lotta of “musicians” and even whole bands that couldn’t care less about the people trying to make it with them.

      And while I know it’s popular to hate on the record labels for screwing up the economic viability of the industry, the truth is, a lot of self-serving musicians have also done a lot to hurt this scene like failure to cross promote or gig-share, going along with pay-to-play and, even within bands, failing to pull fair share of the weight to promote and turn out crowds at shows, and paid downloads online.

  • Flutterby

    I’m a professional musician and you haven’t heard of me unless you are in a small circle of other professional musicians in my area. However, I have managed to make a half-way decent living for my whole life. I’ve always loved playing music starting as child and have enjoyed playing a huge variety of types of music. When I am playing music with other people, I feel fantastic and it doesn’t really matter what kind of music it is. This has also been true ever since I was a child. I don’t have a problem being in a cover band at a club or at a wedding. If you look at a lot of top touring bands, you will see people on stage who were not on the original recordings and they are up there playing other people’s part that they learned off of records, tapes, cds, mp3s or at rehearsals.Sometimes I end up playing with people who aren’t the greatest, but it’s only for a day or two here and there. The next gig will be a different kind of music with different people….there is always something a little different even if I’m playing Brown-eyed Girl for the millionth time.

  • CaptSensible

    I kinda don’t care. I love to play and I respect anybody else who loves to play. If someone wants to pay you to do what you love then that’s great, but we’re gonna play anyway.

  • Joseph Robichaud

    I agree with this post to a point. I would love nothing more then to make music my primary job. I am 33 years old and though ive been singing and writing for years, i habe only been playing guitar for 6 months. Its a big thrill and excitement everytime i pick it up and learn new things and create awe to myself with how fast im picking it up…i do realize that my “day job” is still important as i have a family to house and feed…so i will continue to focus on making chips all day but i also bury myself in my music by night and jam with friends once a week to colaborate because i want the night “job” (i consider it even though still unpaid) to be my day job…so you could say im a hobbyist but i want it so bad to be professional.

    • myracraig

      You can always be a part-time pro…make money on the side on weekends playing out.

  • Lovingson kamei

    I could give my full time to playing a guitar and could turn myself to a great musician if only my parents would allow me that.My parents fear that if i take up music as my career i would end up my life being a thug,in a way getting along with spoiled brats and drinkers,weed smokers. I could see through them the fear for my life whenever i play my instruments infront of them.i remember that day i got a tight slap from my dad for telling him that i wanna become a great heavy metal guitarist.ufff!! I cannot imagine even a day without playing my guitar for even 30minutes. Even if i’m allowed to play,i must play gospels only.The moment i start doing some thrash,thats it! Keep the guitar away,its too noisy and earpain.Damn!! If only somebody take me away from home to take up music and they see me in the news that I’m already famous before they realised it..

    • myracraig

      Hang in there hun, until you are an adult…just go along to get along, then when you are an adult, you can play what you want, when you want to!!

  • John

    Yeah… this article forgets about the mindset of a “professional” vs a “hobbyist”. I’ve taken many gigs that I was not compensated for monetarily, but the connections, resume, exposure, experience, traveling, as well as many other things that I gained other than money were actually much more valuable than a paycheck. Some of those gigs were extremely helpful in so many ways other than a paycheck gig. In fact, some of those gigs would’ve have been chosen over a paid gig if there was a choice between the two due to the paid gig not offering more for me. Taking those gigs was a smart business move. The paycheck? Yes, it’s important, but there are other things that far out weigh a paycheck at times. Also, hobbyists don’t strive to be the best they can be at what they do. They are also more content and don’t push to better themselves as a musician. The professional not only does this but is also constantly maintaining and keeping up with current musical trends/ideas/techniques/etc. This article is a little too “horse and buggy” thinking. “Pros are this and hobbyists are this.” Weak points not well made. It’s a good thing the writer isn’t a professional. Oh… wait… he’s getting paid for writing this… that must mean he’s a professional as opposed to all the college graduates out there who simply have’t landed a job that pays or a book deal from a publishing company. They have been writing their whole life and they worked hard to earn a degree and they write all the time to get better at their craft, but I guess they’re hobbyists too until they get a paycheck.

    • Jon Moody

      Thanks for the comments, John.

      I left out the connections, exposure, experience, etc.. out of this one intentionally, as I had already discussed that in a previous article, entitled “When to Say No.” I referenced it above, but you can find the link here:

      Another thing I intentionally left out here (due to being covered previously) is the actual costs of a gigging professional. Again, it was referenced above but here’s the link:

      Both of those are reasons why I took a more black and white approach, breaking it down into simple terms, because as stated, in my years gigging (in the studio, on the road, on the bandstand) it really all comes down to your mindset. I’ve watched extremely talented musicians/bands that have a lot of potential treat the whole process like a hobby and then get upset when they never make it out of the local bar scene. Conversely, I’ve watched musicians that I initially wrote off put as much effort and thought into their craft as well as the business aspect, quickly become “the” first call person on their instrument. It’s how you treat your music, and what you want to do with it.

      And no, based on my above criteria I am definitely not a professional writer, as I don’t rely upon any compensation to pay the mortgage, feed the family, etc.. However, based on my article “When to Say No,” I took this initial gig based on the exposure and experience.

  • Terry Fournier

    Playing in a band and being serious about is far from being a hobby, even if it’s not your day job! To me, a real professional musician is the guy that plays other people’s tunes for marriages and shit and that I would never do! I’d rather keep my day job and play what I want!