I was talking to some economist friends about the future of the music business if musicians couldn't earn any money outside of live performances and swag sales, and I proposed that we could use the music industry prior to the widespread introduction of recorded music sales as a potential avenue of exploration.

Are there any good sources on the number of professional musicians in the US and Europe in the 19th century and earlier?

We recognize there are a number of challenges with this potential analysis (substitution between recorded and live music means that musicians today might face lower demand for performances, the concept of a professional musician as we understand it might not have emerged until fairly recently), but we'd love to have an idea about the validity of the no-recorded-music-revenue-means-no-musicians argument that we hear so much.

  • 1
    Most musicians playing did not get anything from Album sales. Most local bands and musicians are playing because they want to rather than for profit. In Rock music only a small percentage of bands would have significant Record sales, and very few would actually make a profit on recordings. The way Music Recording Industry of major labels works often means even Major bands see little of the money from recording.
    – pugsville
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 0:52
  • Considering the fact that the size of potential /reachable audience and their money freely to spend on things beyond food and shelter drastically changed, the historical records may not be a good comparison.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 4:12
  • I think it was the same problem as always. The bard gets drunk, trashes the castle, does something unspeakable to the dragon in the castle moat, cites artistic differences and leaves before they become famous. Or professional. Or something.
    – Marakai
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 22:14
  • Patronage. Bach
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 0:03
  • Music is the second-oldest profession on earth. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:23

3 Answers 3


If we look just at the up-market classical composers we see the following pattern: Up until the end of the 18th century virtually all of them worked either as court musicians in the service of some king or nobleman, or else they were employed by the (Catholic or Protestant) churches. Bach, for example, was a court musician in the first half of his career, and a church musician in the second half. A notable exception was Handel, who set up a profitable opera company in London. After the French revolution, when the number of petty noblemen in Europe decreased, we find composers like Beethoven, who lived from giving public concerts in big cities and by writing “Hausmusik” (music performed by amateurs in their own homes) and selling it to publishers. They also worked as music teachers for rich urban patrons.

Alongside these you also have “folk” musicians traveling from place to place, playing at weddings and village feasts.

  • Handel did a good deal of work for the royal family, too, as well as other patrons.
    – phoog
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 1:42

It is indeed difficult to find the numbers for 19 or early 20s century, and it very much depends on the country. Here are some modern data:


Please notice the RATE of decline!



One of the reasons many of the works of Mozart and Beethoven had their premieres during Lent is that the church musicians weren't playing their usual jobs and became the pick-up orchestra for other concerts. The composer/conductor/soloist would go out and hire a bunch of musicians to play his concert. One of the reasons why the composer would sit at the harpsichord with a figured bass, was to fill in the missing parts he hadn't found players for. Mannheim, Germany, was one of the first cities to have a sitting orchestra.

The young Mendelssohn asked his banker daddy for an orchestra for Christmas and he got it, every Sunday, so he could conduct his compositions and others. He is credited with rediscovering Bach at theses concerts.

  • "to fill in the missing parts he hadn't found players for": this is a dubious assertion; do you have any sources to back it up?
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 13 at 12:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.