Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

When amateurs turn pro

A discussion on amateurs and professionalism in sport at last week’s Web Summit provided some food for thought for the music sector

Donal Óg Cusack and Patrick Steenberge in conversation with Newstalk's Oisin Langan at last week's Web Summit

Thu, Nov 13, 2014, 09:29


As Donal Óg Cusack and Patrick Steenberge kicked around opinions about the amateur ethos in a professional game at last week’s Web Summit, thoughts turned to applying the same logic to the music business. As music deals with change and upheaval, it often provides other sectors from media to film with directions and ideas. While it’s usually one-way traffic, there’s plenty which music can learn from elsewhere, though the process is rarely embarked upon for some reason.

We know Cusack as the former Cork hurling goalkeeper and GPA chairman (and highly readable Irish Examiner columnist during the fine weather hurling season), while former quarterback Steenberge now runs a company called Global Football which organises and manages American football games worldwide. Cusack had some strong opinions on why he reckons the GAA is not heading down the professional road, while Steenberge is obviously looking at his sport with a slightly different lens given that most of the student athletes he works with want to turn pro eventually.

What was clear, though, is that there are many amateurs putting in a professional’s day and night of work. They may not be reaping the salaries and rewards of their peers in professional, successful team sports, but they’re putting in the same blood, sweat and tears. Same effort, but not the same earnings.

There are some interesting lines to be drawn on this score between sport and music. As we’ve outlined before, the biggest number of bands can be found at entry level. They’re amateurs for the most part, new acts striving to get onto the ladder, trying to work out if this is what they want to do full-time and aiming to go from pay-to-play to being paid to play their 40 minute set.

There’s a huge number of acts who’d give anything to make a living from music, but the realists know that the chances of this happening are slim. Unlike most professional sportsmen, however, professional musicians can have a long career, thanks to changes in how the industry operates and the manner in which heritage acts can now earn revenue many years after their peak.

Like sportsmen, amateur musicians certainly put in the hours of training and the effort which goes with that. Unlike sports, though, they depend a lot on third parties to make them look and sound good and you can be sure that these inputs when it comes to presentation and endeavour are a heck of a lot different for the amateur class than they would be for the pros.

Acts starting out depend on goodwill and chance to get a break, whereas sportsmen are graded and rated every step of the way so they know where they are in the pecking order and they know there’s a finite time for their talents to shine. During Web Summit, David Epstein talked about the 0.5 per cent factor, how the difference between first and everyone else is the difference between superstar class and needing a job during the off-season. Yet an act who might have been passed over by several labels and tastemakers at several early stages of their career may well score a hit some years down the road because they’ve persevered, as we can see with many Irish acts of late.

For acts seeking a break in their efforts to go pro, there are probably way more opportunities to tap and a much longer timeline to explore. It’s a far different set of circumstances for sportspeople who have just that one chance to make the break. The number of sportspeople who come good very late in their career – the thirtysomething football star who suddenly comes to the surface, for example – are very rare. Acts wondering about where their break is going to come from can take some solace from this – it really is all about the long run.