A good friend of mine told me as I started my freelance career that musicians can only last ten years as freelancers. After ten years, the majority of people pack it up and look for other means of employment.
“Bah!” I said.
I was a tough cookie, able to put in six, seven, or eight hours in the practice room plus play gigs and do other activities. As long as the freelance doors kept opening, I could keep doing this indefinitely. Surely I’d end up with a job before ten years were up, and if not, I could keep up this lifestyle as long as I wanted to.
But here I find myself, just about ten years after having that conversation with my friend, trying like crazy to get out of this freelancing lifestyle.
What a wuss I am, right?
The frenetic pace of musical life
Competition is increasing.
Things are getting worse, not better.
Diminishing gig circles
In the second part of this series I described the various gig circles that exist within most major metropolitan areas, and many times the gig circle you inhabit determines how long you can keep up the freelance lifestyle. People that regularly substitute in their area full-time orchestra, play touring shows, perform in the top area regional orchestra, and are the top call for the area contractors can very easily have the financial stability and artistic satisfaction of a member of a major full-time orchestra (albeit without the stability or benefits that this sort of position confers). They may teach a few students on the side who pay a premium for the expertise of such a player.
It’s all about the car
This, ultimately, is what destroys freelancers. That damnable time spent in the vehicle, driving home across state lines, with only truck drivers, deer, and inebriated drivers to keep the musician company. More often than not, the time spent in the car exceeds the time spent on stage rehearsing or performing. It’s like an office worker commuting four hours each way to work for 2 ½ hours.
Freelancers pass those driving hours in various ways. Many long-haul musicians are hardcore Audiobooks fans, (I went through a pretty serious Audiobooks phase myself), gobbling up a couple of unabridged novels each week playing gigs. Others talk on the phone to pass the time. I get many calls around midnight (or later) from colleagues on their way home from who knows what far-flung city, looking for a little company to help pass the hours.
Many people call this type of work “driving for dollars,” and that really is that it ends up becoming. I will see the same haggard faces in central Wisconsin as I did the week before in northern Indiana , and I know that I will be seeing the again the following week in central Illinois and two months later in southern Iowa. I will often find myself on gigs 90 miles from my home in
But it’s no joke. These drives are unsustainable over the long haul, and they shorten the career of a freelance musician faster than any other element.
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)