Einar's blog
27 juni 2020

How to survive as a musician

I used to be a baroque cellist. During my years of music studies, I focused on learning instrumental technique, music theory, performance practice and repertoire. I had absolutely no clue as to how to build a career out of what I knew. For people studying orchestral instruments or organ, the path from studies to work is quite clear. For those of us that studied something else, like early music instruments, saxophones, alto horn, electric guitar, piano, jazz vocals, euphonium etc the path is not clear at all.

The focus of music students and their teachers is on becoming as good as you can be as a performer on your instrument. It is a very natural focus, but one thing I realised after finishing my studies is that it is not always the people that are the best at playing their instrument that get the most gigs. For me, it was very hard to understand how or why some people succeded and others did not. The people that do succeed absolutely deserve it, but for every musician enjoying a successful career, there are a number of others at more or less the same skill level that do not. Some people struggle on for years and then suddenly at some point get more work and enjoy greater success. Others come out of their studies already well placed for continued success, but after a few years of getting a lot of gigs, their careers diminuendo al niente and at some point they disappear from the scene. It might be a conscious choice, but it might also be something that just happens. Others are able to sustain a successful carreer over a longer period of time.

The combination of stabile income and freelance work is a way to survive the ebbs and flows of freelancing and within the early music world in the Nordic countries, there are almost no one that only plays for a living. I think I know two musicians that don't do anything else than play early music. I don't think it is that much different in other genres. Freelance work ebbs and flows and it is good to have something part time in addition to playing to be certain to survive.

Having a secondary income from something related to playing might give you both a name within the field and a staying power people relying just on freelancing do not have. A (part time) job as an instrumental teacher at a music school, even if it is on a closely related instrument to your main baroque/electric/acustic/etc instrument, is a way to earn a steady income, clarify some of your own knowledge to yourself while teaching it and at the same time get a bit of legitimacy as a musician. If you are able to get work as an accompanist at a conservatory, you both get legitimacy and a secondary income stream. The people that get work as teachers of their main instrument at a conservatory get both status and income, even if they are only paid by the hour. (Conservatories often employ teachers on an hourly basis since some years there are no students on say baroque bassoon, while other years there are.) The job that gives you the most legitimacy and at the same time economical security is a regular job at a conservatory teaching your main instrument. Some people also combine a steady job in an orchestra or a military band with freelancing on the side, either within the same or another (sub-)genre. Even work less direcly related to playing, like administrative jobs within cultural institutions might be good as a dependable income stream while freelancing on the side.

Personally, I worked at an elevator company for a few years with customer support, but that was less lucrative economically, was not connected with music and therefore didn't give me the chance to work on my craft or get any added legitimacy and since I worked a lot of nights, it also had a negative influence on my playing during the days. I enjoyed working there and it was a good way to survive, but if I were able to get something a bit more relevant that didn't also make it hard to sleep regularly, that would have been better in hindsight.

I wish we had a course in basic business and marketing during my studies. I started my own personal business while living in Malmö during the last years of my studies in Copenhagen. A few years later, I understood what one of my friends tried to tell me at the time, that by doing so, I lost the security net of the welfare state that the Nordic countries are famous for. There are different categories of businesses and had I instead opted to make a share-holder company, even if I held all the shares and it was unlisted at stock exchanges, I would have not lost the possibility to get unemployment benefits when the gigs dried up. I had worked for years in Denmark in the elevator company and earned the right to unemployment benefits because of it, but since I had a personal business in Sweden at the same time, I lost all of those benefits. It might have been very useful to know this in advance.

Other things I think it might have been useful to know more about is what to do to get more gigs. One thing is knowing people and waiting by the phone for someone to call with a gig, but what if you know that you are the third or fourth person people call if they have gig? What do you do then? Maybe there are some networking or marketing strategies that may be useful in a situation like that? Again, I think a basic course in business and marketing might be useful.

Making your own projects is a route to go, but usually, it seems like it is more natural for people playing certain instruments that usually leads ensembles to make their own projects than it is for people playing tutti or continuo instruments. It is also a lot of work to manage a project in addition to playing in it and the skills needed are not taught at most conservatories. In addition to business and marketing, maybe even project management could be taught to give the people that it doesn't come naturally to a chance to organise their own projects.

One thing is project management. Another is funding. I know a few sources of funding for projects, but there are probably more that I don't know about. Many of the people that get to work quite a lot are people that make their own projects, finds funding for them and get paid both for organising their projects and playing in them. Another question is when does it make sense to outsource the organisational work to professionals and just do the playing and possibly leading the ensemble yourself? And how do you fund that? It is often hard enough to find the money to pay people to play, let alone someone additional to organize things. And leading an ensemble is another skill that, when it is taught, is geared more towards conducting a choir, band or orchestra of amateurs than leading from within an ensemble of (semi-)professionals.

In other types of businesses, it seems usual to make a business plan of some sort. People often define a market that they serve and the services they deliver to that market. For musicians, the market is probably the audience, but sometimes, as a freelancer, it seems like the people that actually decide if you work are the people that organize projects and lead ensembles, and possibly institutions if there are any that might be interested in hiring you or realizing a project you pitch. Maybe they are your actual market for the services you supply more than the audience?

Some musicians are good at pitching their own projects to institutions that have money to spend. Maybe the market for those people are actually the institutions they are pitching their projects to, more than the audience? Knowing who your market is probably changes how you would go about marketing and networking to get more gigs. I don't know which strategy is the most successful for getting the most work, but it might be easier to woo ensemble leaders or institutions than to try to make your own projects, but on the other hand, it might be more lucrative to get gigs through institutions than freelance based ensembles.

I am not certain I would still work as a baroque cellist even if I knew the answers to these questions. The circumstances were what they were and I made the choices I made. (Many of them were not very smart.) I didn't write this post to defer responsibility or blame anyone, but more to ask a question about why business, marketing and project management, at least at a basic level, isn't taught to people that are very likely to have to run their own business if they are going to succeed within their field. As someone told me at a party after a concert once: "the art isn't the art, but surviving off of the art." I think this is very true.

This is not how musicians and artist are trained to think, but maybe it should be? Often money is seen as something dirty that you have to deal with, but would rather not. Maybe there isn't a market for everyone that wants to become a musician or an artist, but maybe there are more possibilities if the creativity used for the art is also applied to business, project management and marketing? Maybe the real question isn't "How can I survive doing what I love?", but rather "What can I do to serve my market better?" Selling out might be the way to succeed and sustain a level of success over time. Maybe, with a bit of understanding of these other skills, selling out doesn't have to mean compromising artistically?

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