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Twelve Survival Tips for Freelance Musicians

Twelve Survival Tips for Freelance Musicians
© Augustinus, La Cité de Dieu
Geschrieben von Jason Heath

Jason Heath’s Double Bass Blog

Over time, professional freelancers develop a set of skills quite peculiar to the profession, alternately taking on the role of long-haul trucker, delivery man, cabbie, and crisis control expert. Though they share the same basic musical skills as their more stably employed colleagues, freelancers are constantly faced with foreign environments and unfamiliar faces, and are required to execute their musical craft amid a dizzying array of unusual and often bizarre circumstances. Freelancers must be highly adaptable, creative problem solvers, and expert networkers, and they must have the ability to deal with dozens of separate information channels and collate them together, minimizing conflicts and allowing enough time to make it from venue to venue. Too little work, and they’ll end up in the poorhouse. Too much work, and they’re headed for the madhouse. It’s a delicate balancing act!

There are a few common-sense strategies that any new freelancer can employ to bolster their chances of succeeding in this exciting but frustrating environment:

1. Don’t be late! – It doesn’t matter how you do it, but never, ever, ever be late if you want to keep working in tis business. Car broke down? Tough. Trains not running on time? Gee, I’m sorry about that. Bad weather? What a pity. Traffic too heavy? You don’t say. It doesn’t matter what excuses you give–late is late, and barring some extremely rare emergency situation (and bad traffic is not an emergency), lateness is unacceptable. This is the #1 way to alienate people in the freelance business. Any shadow of a doubt on whether a musician is going to make it on time is enough to make a contractor call someone else. The stress isn’t worth ti for them, and each late arrival is a nail in your freelance coffin

2. Always double your travel time estimation – Though this tip applies to all freelance musicians, it is doubly important for folks in the early stages of getting established. Musicians in smaller metropolitan areas might not to leave quite as early as their big city brethren, but they should still leave enough time to allow a cushion for unanticipated situations. I can’t tell you ho many times my big cushion of travel time saved my bacon in Chicagoland. Maybe there’s an accident. Maybe it’s sowing. Maybe a butter truck turned over on the expressway, coating the freeway in a slick goo (this actually happened!). You have not control over these external factors, but you do have control over your departure time, so give yourself a safety cushion for all gigs.

3. Load your cell phone up with all imaginable contact numbers – I can’t tell you how many panicky calls I’ve gotten from my freelance colleagues asking if I had so-and-so’s number. Plan ahead! Program into your cell phone the numbers of all contractors, colleagues, carpool buddies, and your own personal list of substitute players. You may even wan to add the box office and/or backstage numbers of the various halls you play in. You may think that this is overkill, but over the years you’ll thank yourself for taking the time. Again, doing this has saved my bacon when I’ve been in a tight spot more times than I care to recall!

4. Keep spare gear in your car – Keep some or all of the following gear in the car. You may never need to draw upon it (though I certainly have!), but you’ll help out colleagues who forgot their tie, dressed in the wrong outfit, etc. They’ll thank you, and you’ll build up some god gig karma in the process.
Keep the following in the car (this is a male-centric list with the clothing items–sorry!):

music stand
music clips (for outdoor gigs)
spare black tie
spare white tie
spare long tie
spare black suit/tux jacket
extra black socks
spare white shirt
spare tux shirt

These spare items can be your old nasties–any musician is sure to have a pile of frighteningly stained and soiled formal wear somewhere in their closet. Load up a small bag with these items and stuff it in your trunk or under your seat. You don’t realize how much of a problem forgetting your black socks is until you actually do it!

5. Get a portable e-mail device and check it constantly – When I started freelancing in the late nineties, I don’t think that I ever got a single gig via e-mail. Now, almost 100% of my gigs come to me this way. If you respond right away (whether your answer is yes or no), you’ll be perceived as “on top of it,” and you’ll probably get more work from that individual as a result–even if you said no! The biggest pain for a contractor is booking musicians, and if they know that you respond within 15 minutes (even if the answer is no) and another musician takes 1- days to respond, guess who they’ll ask the next time they need someone?

6. Build up a recommendation list and keep it handy! – Always have names on hand to pass along to contractors. Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1:
Contractor: Hello. I need a bassist for next Friday and Saturday. Are you available?
Musician: Can’t do it. Sorry.

– click-

Scenario 2:
Contractor: Hello. I need a bassist for next Friday and Saturday. Are you available?
Musician: You know, I’m not free, but have you tried Fred or Jim? I think they might be free. I know that Bill and Jack are playing the same gig I’m playing, so they probably can’t make it but both Fred and Jim mentioned to me that they didn’t have a lot going on this weekend. And if they can’t do it, there are these two new hot shot players that just moved to town. Let me give you their names. I’ve played a gig with the first guy and he sounded great. I haven’t met the second guy, but I’ve heard great things….

Under scenario 1, calling you results in a dead end. Under Scenario 2, calling you leads to a whole bunch of time-saving information. Under this scenario, you become an asset to the contractor, helping him to know what else is going on in town, who might be free, and if there are any new players in the are that might be interested. Keeping on top of the scene and being ready with recommendations is something that comes with experience, but making an effort to be an active and aware member of the freelance community rather than random player #14324 can only benefit you in the long run.

7. Learn when to say yes and when to say no – There are gigs that are worth your time, and there are gigs that aren’t. Learning to draw this distinction comes with time, and the cost/benefit ratio of any gig will be different for each individual musician, so one player’s pile of cow crap may be another person’s meal ticket. Even if you know that the gig you’re being offered is, in you eyes, a pile of cow crap, you may want to refrain from chastising the person for calling you for this gig. Maybe you have a student who’s like the experience. Maybe you know someone who lives right next to the venue, and playing this would make a lot of sense for them logistically. Maybe you know some players new to town who’d love the work. If you do decide to let the contractor know that you think the gig doesn’t pay enough (this is a good thing to do if the contractor is demanding a player of a certain caliber but offering substandard pay), you may want to to it in a polite fashion. Then again, maybe you want to exclaim, “I ain’t workin’ for that!” and slam down the phone. Everyone’s different.

8. if you ever contract (and you will), never make “cattle calls!” – For those unfamiliar with the term a cattle call is when a contractor calls down their list for a certain instrument, and the first person to get back to them gets the gig. While some contractors use this tactic frequently (though no one I work with), it is generally considered bed form, implying that the contractor just needs someone (anyone!) and doesn’t particularly care about you. Gigging thus becomes a race to the phone, and while this may be a commonly accepted method of doling out work in other professions, it is frowned upon in the freelance music scene. Sometimes, however, there really is a tight situation that necessitates a cattle call. Cattle calls may be an undesirable tactic, but they are the most efficient way to find a player. If you really need to use this tactic (generally considered OK if the gig is happening in less than 24 hours), make it clear in the phone/e-mail that it is a “cattle call,” be sure to apologize for using this tactic, and leave your contact info, making clear that this is an unusual circumstance. Some individuals always cattle call, and while I will respond to this tactic from a contractor I do a lot of work for, I almost never return the message if it is an unknown contractor or one notorious for using this tactic. Maybe it’s a point of pride, but I like to think that, even though I am “just a freelancer,” my talents are significant enough to warrant an individual call with a reasonable response time, not a frantic and indiscriminate cattle call. I actually got a teaching cattle call one, which really flabbergasted me. I mean, it’s one thing if you’re calling about a gig, but I’d like to think that selecting a teacher shouldn’t be done with this shotgun tactic. Even worse–the call was to be a bass teacher at a local high school! Not knowing it was a cattle call (otherwise I wouldn’t have called back), I returned the call, only to be told, “Sorry, someone already got back to me. Better luck next time!” Luck? For teaching? Where are your priorities, my man? I’ve certainly got some choice words about that orchestra director after this experience!

9. Don’t answer the phone (but always check your messages) – This may seem contradictory advice to #5 (getting a portable e-mail device), and this approach may not work for everybody, but I personally like to hear all the details of a gig and take an objective look at my schedule before saying yes or no. I’ll return the call right away after hearing the message, but I like to get all the information before making a decision. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, I’ll say yes on the phone when I really should be saying no. Some contractors are quite convincing, and sometimes I’m just a dummy when it comes to the practical value of a gig. Even if I do answer the phone, Ill usually say, “Let me check my book on that and get back to you later today. What were those dates again? How much is it paying? Where’s the location?” Taking a few minutes to get my head around a gig and determine if it will work in my crazy hectic schedule has saved me from some really stupid commutes and time crunches. I’m a “yes man,” and I therefore have to be careful to protect myself from getting into dumb situations.

10. You won’t be able to coordinate closely located gigs if you’re in Alabama one day and in Alaska the next – This is more long-term, philosophical advice, and there may not be a good way to immediately implement it, but it bears thinking about nevertheless. Are you a road warrior? Are you a local guy? Are you on the audition circuit, just filling in the cracks between auditions? Are you a student just looking to bolster your income? Are you a combination of one or more of the preceding roles?
If you’re on the audition circuit, looking to maximize your practice time, maybe spending all your time driving between different states for $75-100 a pop isn’t the best expenditure of your time. If you’re looking for long-term stability as a freelancer, cultivating those local contractor connections is paramount. If you’re looking to play on the side while maintaining another career, maybe you want to choose gigs that are close to home and only fall on the weekends.

11. Be friendly, but don’t let people walk all over you – Like I mentioned earlier, I’m a bit of a “yes man,” and I am liable to assume the best about my colleagues and employers. Though i’ve grown a bit more guarded over the years, I still assume that we’re all in this together and are helping each other through this world. I’ve found this to be the case 99% of the time, and I have had very few conflicts with my colleagues or my employers. Inevitably, everyone in this business has a few personality conflicts with others, and I’ve had some from time to time. Many of them could appear as crazy gig stories sometime in the future, in fact! I tend to try and diffuse any tense situations with a smile and a wink, and this has mostly (though not always) worked for me. I did completely lose it one time back in 2000 with an employer, and though I was more than justified in my reaction (like I said, this will make an excellent crazy gig story), I can’t help but feel a little ashamed at how I reacted.

12. Don’t talk smack unless you really know what you’re talking about (and even then maybe you shouldn’t do it!) – There are a lot of humorous, eccentric, highly strung, and just plain annoying figures in the world of music. Though these kind of people exist in all walks of life, there’s something about the type of personality that is attracted to a life in the performing arts (a topic I discussed in great detail in my 2007 series This Crazy Business) that favors the highly emotional sort. In other words, there’s often a lot of smack-talk potential regarding our colleagues, and it’s very tempting to let loose about so-and-so or such-and-such. I wish I could say that I’m innocent of this, but that is unfortunately not the case. In fact, a significant portion of this blog is dedicated to, if not outright smack-talk, at least a little humorous poking at my colleagues’ expense. That said, I’d think twice before letting loose about a individual. This is a very small world, and it very easy for your words to come back and bite you where the sun don’t shine. This holds true for personnel managers, executive directors, audience members, and, to a lesser extent, conductors (sorry, conductors!).
I mean, c’mon–we’re musicians, and we’ve got to talk smack about somebody, right?

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Jason Heath

A graduate of Northwestern University, Jason Heath is the Director of Orchestras for Vernon Hills High School in suburban Chicago. He has previously taught orchestra at Glenbrook North and South High Schools and Libertyville High School. Jason is President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association and served as ILMEA District 7 Orchestra Division Co-Representative for the past two years.

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists and teaches double bass and music education at DePaul University. He has been a member of the Elgin Symphony since 2000 and has played with the Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County for the past decade. He is a past member of the Milwaukee Ballet and IRIS Orchestra, and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.
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