I often wondered as I entered the classical music freelance world how one could possibly put together an income in this business. Some politically smart auditions I took my last year of graduate school helped me join the
How can one make it in the freelance business?
In part V of this series, I described the way in which people put together the schedules of various regional orchestras to assemble a career. Although in theory one could assemble three or four part-time orchestra schedules to create a full-time work load (albeit one without the security and benefits of a full-time position), in reality pervasive scheduling conflicts cause one to stretch absence requirements of contract positions and accept part-time work with 8-12 organizations in order to secure a living.
The issue that I will address in this installment is the fundamental lack of job security and the slippery slope toward underemployment that many freelancers find themselves slipping down over the years. This is a problem that manifests itself quite differently in the world of self-employed music making than it does in the world of business.
In many was we musicians operate our own small businesses selling just one product: ourselves. We accept employment opportunities, negotiate rates when possible, and attempt to maximize profitability just like any small business. The big difference between freelance music and supplying paper products (ignoring the artistic differences) is that there is only one of us, and we can only be in one place at one time. Accepting employment with a particular organization for a given length of time also means turning down other concurrent employment offers for that same length of time. We musicians may have some impressive skills, but being in two places at the same time is not one of them.
With rare exceptions, the world of music is full of eager musicians willing to take your place in the gig queue. Say no to a contractor and they will go with the next person in the queue. Say no enough times and you are permanently replaced by that person. Since taking one gig means saying no to another, climbing the gig ladder necessarily means that you will fade from prominence in the eyes of some contractors. Can you re-establish yourself with these former contacts at some future date? Sure. Let’s just hope that the 50 other players in the queue behind you haven’t ingratiated themselves with said contractors.
Another truism about the freelance music business is that the better the work, the less of an obligation the contractor has to you. Better work is almost always less secure work. An example:
You are called to play a month with the Chicago Symphony. This is an offer that few classical freelance musicians in
Backing out of your contracted week of work may or may not be a big deal, depending on the organization. The other non-contracted week of work and the three church gigs pose a dilemma, however. With rare exceptions, backing out of these gigs labels you in the minds of contractors as an unreliable resource. When a contractor is hiring for the next gig, the fact that you backed out at the last minute will usually cloud their opinion of you. Do it again and you’re likely to not only lose your place on the list but wind up on the ‘do not call’ list. The church gigs will simply get another name and keep calling that person for the indefinite future (I know—that’s how I got a lot of my regular non-contracted gigs).
Does that mean that you shouldn’t take the month of Chicago Symphony work? Of course not. You’d be crazy not to. There are ramifications to doing so, however, and they can come back to haunt you.
Let’s say you keep getting offered substitute work with the Chicago Symphony. You keep turning down other gigs, working for the best group in town. Life’s good. The next season comes along, however, and the symphony holds an audition for the spot you’ve been subbing for. All of a sudden you are no longer needed. You look at your calendar and discover that there is nothing but white (days with no gigs) for months to come.
This happens to MANY musicians. The work most classical music freelancers want is the top-tier symphonic work such as the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra. When these calls come in musicians often put enormous pressure on themselves to say yes to these calls. These organizations are under no obligation to call you again, however, and you may find yourself high and dry with to work at all after a long spell of regular playing with one of these organizations.
Here’s the main problem—freelance work is a competitive business, and while much of your success comes from your musical ability, a nearly equal amount comes from how savvy you are at balancing commitments, massaging egos, and even just being in the right place at the right time. No matter how good you are, a political mistake (waiting a day to call a contractor back) or a musical mistake (blotching a major entrance) can have negative repercussions for your career across the board.
People talk. They talk about you when you’re good, and they talk about you when you’re bad. And if they aren’t talking about you at all, well… you may be finding yourself with a withering freelance career.
Not everybody succeeds in freelancing, often through no fault of their own. People become a “hot player” in the eyes of contractors, only to find themselves in the middle of the heap a couple of years later. Why? Maybe a new player moved to town who had subbed with a better orchestra than you had. Maybe the contractor finally starts calling that violinist that started carpooling with him to gigs instead of you. Maybe you started subbing in a major orchestra and the church contractors forget about you. Maybe another player starts subbing in a major orchestra and everyone starts calling them, forgetting about you. Maybe your ambition to take major auditions causes you to turn down one gig too many, knocking you down the list.
To sum up, the best work for a freelancer is usually offered inconsistently. Taking top-tier work gives a musician the most satisfaction and is impossible to resist. The dynamic nature of all freelance work often means that removing oneself from the eyes of any contractor can decrease the chances of being hired by that contractor again. Taking a better gig therefore often means losing a worse gig. If that better (but inconsistently offered) gig dries up, the musician can wind up without any gigs. The best players can usually re-establish those contacts, but the large number of available players makes this challenging.
Finally, many contractors are not interested in who is the best, only in who is available and consistent. Say no too many times and you are labeled unavailable. Sub out too many times and you are labeled inconsistent. It doesn’t matter how good you are—you will remove yourself from many contractor’s lists by moving up the gig chain It is unavoidable, unfortunate, and a real hurdle for those pursuing a career in freelance performing.
Read the complete series:
- Part I – Adjunct University Teaching
- Part II – Realities of Professional Freelancing
- Part III – The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra
- Part IV – Rising Tide, Shrinking Pool
- Part V – Regional Orchestras
- Part VI – The Vicious Cycle
- Part VII – Private Teaching
- Part VIII – Burnout
- Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees
- Part X – Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship)