Thursday, October 9, 2008

Freelancing in the “New” Economy (Part 1)

Remember that little catchphrase from the late 90's, when internet stocks were soaring and there was no end to rising profits? I think that today we are in for a new "new economy" that reverses the simplistic overconfidence of the previous era. Let's face it: times are going to be tough for everyone (except, perhaps, for the golden parachute boys of Wall Street).

But I'm really not writing this to pour more grim news down throats or complain vociferously. It's time, I feel, to regroup and retool freelance careers. For musicians who do not have full salaried work, now is the time to plan ahead for a recession and its probable impact on our field. While there is some cheerleading about how great things are in the classical music world, I prefer to take a more cautious approach. I believe that the immediate future will most likely bring a serious dollar-diet to many arts organizations, especially those that are dependent on yearly corporate donations. I don't think the sky is falling, though – crystal balls about finances for the arts have usually been quite wrong on the worst-case scenario coming to fruition.

However, for many of us who have freelance careers a good deal of performance work could dry up. (I include myself even though I hold a few part-time positions that provide steady income.) It is likely that in some places orchestra seasons could shrink, people may need to stay at home more, and the regular side gigs many of us enjoy could simply vanish. What do we do in the meantime, wait out the storm and just hope for the best?

Remember the Pasteur quote, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Here are some of my ideas for securing work and income in the near future, some of which are applicable to all musicians while others are strictly keyboardist-oriented. Good luck out there!

1) Don't be lazy.

Let me start with a brazen (and politically incorrect) statement: far too many musicians are lazy and less productive than they could be. Those of us in the field know this to be true – we've seen it in colleagues and students. None of the plans below are an easy out – they all take some legwork and determination. Let us all be aware of this tendency (I include myself) and combat it by hitting the bricks to make things happen.

2) Teach private students if you do not do so already.

I know that most of us do this no-brainer already, but many musicians do not teach. Some claim to not have the temperament, but that is something a pro-active person can change. Teaching an instrument to young people is one of the most rewarding activities we can do. It is win-win – you get paid for your time, you get to share your expertise, and you are providing all kinds of benefits to the people who will be in charge of things thirty or forty years from now.

There are many ways to get started. If you are uncomfortable due to lack of experience, look into a pedagogy course at your local university or college music department. You can start a studio at local community music schools relatively easy and with very little start-up cost. Most of these places are small businesses themselves and carry a good reputation with the community if they have been around for many years. Go to the established places and inquire about starting a studio. You might only get a student or two at first, but then you can build from there. If you are lucky enough to catch an opening when a teacher moves, you could inherit an entire studio. This is what happened to me when I started teaching in northern Kentucky in 2002. I have had 15-20 students at all times since then. It can be very secure once you get established.

You can also try preparatory departments in your local university (though in many cases these teaching positions are only available to those on the inside: graduate students, alumni, etc.) Another option is to open up a studio in your home or apartment. This option is really attractive since you can advertise in so many inexpensive ways now via the web. Another bonus to teaching home lessons is that YOU keep all the income, rather than paying a portion of your earnings to a community music school. It also reduces travel costs: I don't hit the gas pedal when I go from my desk to the piano in the living room for my in-home lessons.

Finally, you may be skeptical about this when money is tight for families. But parents will still spend money on their children's education and music lessons will always be popular. It's really a recession-proof job!

3) Accompany students at a university music department.

This one is for pianists. Do you happen to know the core repertoire for a given instrument? Did you learn a lot of lieder in your bachelor degree days? Put it to good use by sending out feelers to local teachers. Here's an example: if you know a lot of trumpet repertoire, give the local trumpet professor a call (or send an email) and let her know that you are available for lessons, recitals, juries, etc. In most situations these people will be delighted to know someone they can call. Even if they already have a list, you will get a call when the first-call folks are too busy.

The downside of this is that a lot of students do not have much money. But you can still earn something significant if you can respond to advantageous situations. A few years ago, I made a killing playing TWO pieces for a lot of flutists. I knew about a national competition that was coming up, looked at the repertoire required, and offered my services to record those two pieces with students looking to send in an application. The best part was that I did not need to learn twenty different pieces, but made the kind of money that looked like I should have!

There are MANY situations out there that are advantageous for good collaborators. This one is also very recession-proof: students will still need to graduate, so they will need to do their required recitals, juries, competitions, etc. If you're really good at what you do and you impress the professors, you might also get asked to work with them in the future.

4) Hone a skill set outside of the music field for part-time work.

Since the early summer I have been back working a part-time office job for extra income, balancing spreadsheets and doing other clerical duties. If you know how to do spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel, for example) and are good with numbers you have a potentially valuable skill. It doesn't have to be office work – you could drive a delivery van, become a handyman in your neighborhood, babysit, etc. Part-time work can be scarce, but if you find something decent it can save you from debt when you hit a no-gig dry patch for a couple of months.

I am always amazed at how some musicians often look down on doing work outside of their field for extra income. I can speak from experience: doing some outside work can actually be mentally healthy, and I've always found that it gives me a little more confidence when I know that I can actually produce something other than pretty sounds at the piano. Another benefit is that a lot of part-time work is left at the work site – you don't necessarily have to take it home with you. Music is usually the opposite: we almost always take our work home with us in the form of practicing or other kinds of preparation.

PART TWO will provide more at a later date – please check back for the next installment!



Pam said...

Hey Josh! Thanks for this post. As someone who works full-time as an office coordinator for an environmental non-profit, teaches voice students at the community music center, sings in a professional choir that specializes in new music, sings for a couple of area churches, and hopefully will start doing more solo gigs!!!, I appreciate the subject! The one thing I have to remind myself is that it takes time to build up reasonable musical work -- like since I've only been in San Fran for a little over a year, it will take some time before I'll be able to work a part-time office job instead of full-time one. But also, it's very important to keep your work in several different areas, because student enrollment goes up and down, and the economy has an effect on how many concerts an ensemble is able to do, etc. I've learned the hard way that when things are going well, you need to NOT spend that money. Save it for the slow times. Thanks again for the post. I've linked to it from my blog. :-)

Joshua Nemith said...

Thanks for the link and comment, Pam! It looks like you are doing very well for yourself. Keep up the good work - I think that we will be ok going through this crazy economic thing. Sometimes juggling many pots can be more secure than just one!

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