Whitworth Alumni Sacrifice to Pursue Passion for Music
By Holly Gregg, '12, CJ Johansen, '11, and Jessica Knuth, '12

Tyson Motsenbocker, '09, leads a double life. When he is not serving coffee at a San Diego Starbucks, he is on the road touring as a musician.

Motsenbocker's top priority is music, but he is unable to fully support himself as an artist. He is among the 43 percent of American musicians who work part-time jobs to make a living, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The music business rarely provides stability for more than three to six months. But Motsenbocker views his current lifestyle as an adventure rather than an impossible mission.

"When I'm on the road, everyday is different. I wake up in different towns and eat road food and play shows," Motsenbocker says. "I love playing live. I love traveling with the close friends and talented musicians I've met."

Motsenbocker was heavily involved in the music scene while attending Whitworth. He played shows with his former band, Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful, and booked other artists as the ASWU activities coordinator. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English,

Motsenbocker and a few fellow alumni moved to San Diego, where he began to pursue a career in music. He released his first solo album, "Until It Lands," in Nov. 2010. A tour of the west coast followed.

Whitworth alumni scattered all over the world are making a living in the music industry despite lacking the stability that a full-time career provides. From producing to recording, Whitworth alumni have found a niche in the world of music.

The music industry is not limited to recording artists. Ben Bonnema, '10, is a graduate student studying musical theatre composition at Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. Each week presents new challenges as Bonnema writes up to three new songs that are then heavily critiqued.

"It's a bit draining," says Bonnema, "but I absolutely love it, and it's exactly what I want to be doing right now." 

Bonnema's school days are packed with assignments and critiques. Each day in class he presents the work he has created with a composer, lyricist and book writer. His work is critiqued by both faculty and peers.

"I'm recording a short, eight-minute musical that I wrote last semester and I'm in the early stages of writing a short puppet musical," Bonnema says. "I'm beginning to find source material for a 10-minute musical that I'll be starting soon. And that's just this week."

While some alumni fine-tune their musical craft in graduate-school programs, others pursue music career right after graduating from Whitworth.

When Jonathan Pasma, '06, graduated from Whitworth with a bachelor's degree in music and chemistry, he was ready to dive into the music industry. Pasma believes Whitworth's music program provided him with an excellent musical foundation. He graduated with a strong understanding of theory, technical skills, and a trained ear.

"I wanted to go to medical school, but I knew I would regret not giving music a full-throttle shot before I began my career," Pasma says.

Pasma and fellow alumnus, Cory Siebe, '06, formed the band Manchester after graduation. The band practiced in a downtown Seattle apartment and has become well known in the Northwest. Manchester played over 50 shows in one year, including a performance for an audience of 5,000 at a festival in Oregon. The band was also featured in several Seattle-based newspapers, including a piece in The Stranger.

Difficulties in the Industry

Finding financial support can make the life of an aspiring musician inconsistent and unpredictable. Whitworth alumni prove that getting a job in the music industry requires perseverance.

"The hardest part, for sure, is trying to get financial backing," Pasma says. "Money is required to record, make videos, pay for website design, and buy equipment and instruments."

Pasma's ultimate goal is to create music that people will continue to enjoy. Pasma is the lead vocalist and keyboard player in his new band, Dance Illuminate. The band is preparing to send music to several record labels. Pasma wants to embrace the music-making process by launching a website, creating music videos, and recording new music.

"I would like to perform throughout the coming years," Pasma says. "Music is a love of mine, and there isn't much that compares with it."

Now that music can be illegally downloaded on the Internet, musicians struggle more than ever to make money doing what they love. Motsenbocker believes the supply and demand of records is dwindling.

"The basic idea of how a person makes money with music was founded on the ideal that music is a containable product," Motsenbocker says. "I think that the hardest part of trying to make a living playing music is that while the industry of music and recording is at an all-time low, music itself is at an all-time high."

Recording artists used to pay producers to record in a studio. But with today's technology, musicians can record an album in the comfort of their own home. Matthew Ebel, '01, a tech-savvy piano rocker, saw the shift of technology in the music industry as an opportunity. Since graduating from Whitworth with a degree in music, Ebel has pursued a full-time career as a recording artist. He broke into the podcasting business just as it was emerging. Ebel's mastery of podcasting and other forms of technology gained him a steady fan base and the ability to make a full-time career of producing music.

"The music industry is going through puberty," Ebel says. "It is having to redefine itself because of technology. I have to rely on the grace of God and the sanity I have left."

While the music industry is going through a reconstruction process, artists continue to record new music and push their way into the industry. But the vast number of new artists will always greatly exceed the number of job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Tons of amazing artists are coming out with amazing material, and it's all getting heard – a preposterous supposition even 10years ago," Motsenbocker says.

What's Next?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an 8 percent increase in job opportunities for musicians and other music-related jobs in the next decade, which is around the average for general job growth. But for self-employed musicians, the prospective job growth is much slower, around a 3 to 6 percent increase.

In an age where music labels are dying, having the tools to self-sustainability is key. Ebel is not signed to a music label and is completely self-employed.

"I am a 100 percent one-man operation," Ebel says. "I have some volunteers who help out from time to time, but I do not have any professional employees or representation."

Ebel's passion for creating music and collaborating with other musicians has led to ambitious goals. Ebel recently finished doing live concert video for the Dresden Dolls, which inspired him to work toward headlining at similar venues.

"I would like to be selling out venues the size of the Bing Crosby Theatre in Spokane," Ebel says. "It's an attainable venue but I'll really have to work."

In the competitive world of music, composers can make anywhere from $10 to $50 an hour. Nationally, there are roughly 14,300 jobs for composers and music directors, making it difficult to find a job.

Bonnema's formal training at Tisch gives him an advantage as a composer. In a class of 22 students, Bonnema receives personal and expert feedback from professors and theatre giants such as Tony award-winning Michael John LaChuisa. After completing graduate school, Bonnema hopes to produce his own musicals.

"In five years, I'd like to still be living in New York and work-shopping a show of mine Off-Broadway, with the strong possibility of it getting a professional production, Bonnema says. "I'd also be happy writing incidental music for straight plays, working on ballets, or music directing."

Motsenbocker believes that to stay relevant, musicians need to evolve with the waves of technology.

"I don't know what the future holds for musicians. My hope is that recordings don't become disposable, like magazine-reading," Motsenbocker says. "I hope there will still be money in recording in 10 years, but I'm not sure."

Despite the uncertainty of a future in music, Motsenbocker is still aiming high. His long-term goals include touring with a full band and creating an independent music label. He would also like to quit his part-time job at Starbucks. But for now, Motsenbocker's lifestyle works for him.

"It's fun to live on the line of possibility and fear that maybe, maybe nothing will ever work out or pay off or gain momentum, or maybe it will," Motsenbocker says.