One of my colleagues recently won positions in three regional orchestras. This very talented individual began his college career as a biochemistry major, later switching his major to double bass performance. This highly intelligent and talented scientific mind then focused his energies on becoming the best double bass player he could possibly be, practicing long hours, playing for colleagues, and taking every audition available.
After many years of schooling at top music schools and years of focused practice, this individual finally began to land some regional orchestra gigs. He took virtually every audition with a double bass opening, ranging from top-tier professional orchestras to lowly community orchestras, eventually landing three contracts with respectable regional organizations.
Of course, none of these employment opportunities were in the same city. Heck, they weren’t even in the same county or region! His three new positions were in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana–and he lived in Chicago!
As these contracts began to arrive in the mail, my friend began to come to some sudden and unpleasant realizations:
- He now worked in three different states and lived in a fourth one
- Each of these jobs was at least three hours from his Chicago home
- None of these jobs paid even $100 per service
Always a fan of looking at facts and figures in the cold, hard light of day, I find it valuable to break these numbers down and examine them a little more closely, both somewhat underestimating the mileage and overestimating the compensation for the above described work. This individual may have the option of staying in town rather than commuting for several of these gigs, but he then incurs hotel costs, making the numbers somewhat of a wash. For our purposes, we’ll assume that he is making daily commutes:
|Average one-way mileage to gig||200 miles|
|Total daily commute||400 miles|
|Per-trip Mileage Costs – calculated with Federal Mileage Reimbursement Rate||$180 ($.45/mile)|
|Average per-service pay||$100|
|Average total per-service compensation – no mileage compensation||-$80|
|Average total per-service compensation – $.15/mile (a common orchestra rate)||-$40|
|Average total per-service compensation – $.25/mile (a common orchestra rate)||$0|
|Average total per-service compensation – $.35/mile (a much less common orchestra rate)||$40|
These are very instructive figures, and they should give any intrepid freelance musician pause. Take one of these long-distance gigs, and you’d better pay close attention to the mileage compensation. In my experience, regional orchestras rarely pay the current Federal rate of 45 cents per mile, and even cutting ten cents off per mile means that you are working for pennies on the dollar. Take the mileage rate down to 25 cents per mile, and you’re breaking even. Drop it below that (and many orchestras pay well below that rate), and you’re paying for the privilege of playing your instrument.
Even with full Federal mileage compensation, the musician accepting such work is undertaking an extremely arduous journey for very few dollars. Let’s break this down a little more under the assumption that the sample musician is being compensated at the Federal rate (an unlikely proposition in and of itself):
|Average hours spent in car round-trip per service (excluding rush hour back-up, etc.)||6 hours/day|
|Average per-service length||2.5 hours/day|
|Arrival time cushion (varies greatly depending on metropolitan area)||1/2 hour (many musicians leave 1-2 hours’ cushion time or more)|
|Average workday length||9 hours/day|
|Hourly compensation at $100 per-service – full Federal mileage rate||$11.11/hour|
|Hourly compensation at $100 per-service – $.35/mile mileage rate||$4.44/hour|
|Percentage of workday spent in car||66%|
Under optimum conditions, one can expect only around $11 per hour for this kind of work, and one can easily end up working far below minimum wage, for free, or even taking a loss under many circumstances. Not exactly a recipe for long-term financial stability, is it? Yet this is a situation that I witness among a substantial percentage of my colleagues. We love playing music, particularly orchestra music. We seek out employment opportunities wherever they may be, even if getting to these opportunities becomes a bit of an ordeal. We take auditions and feel affirmation from winning positions, even if these positions are only part-time and barely cover the gas and tools necessary for commuting to and from the gig.
I speak from experience, having spent the better part of a decade commuting across the entire country, averaging 50,000 miles per year, going through four cars (one of which was lost in a stunning and dramatic way!) in as many years.
You can read more about these experiences in my series Road Warrior Without an Expense Account, which details many of the pitfalls and difficulties of this kind of lifestyle, including deceptive compensation levels, how gig circles function, statistical reasons as to why there are fewer jobs available each year, and much more.
Ah, those commutes. Those crazy, crazy commutes we classical musicians dupe ourselves into undertaking. It is interesting how an otherwise seemingly rational human being can just up and decide that driving 230 miles round trip for $70 (minus expenses) is a wise idea. Yet we freelancers seem to do this without a second thought.
Driving extremely long distances is only one aspect of the freelancer commuting lifestyle, however–mix in a little bad weather with tight scheduling connections across state lines and you get a heady brew I like to call:
Non-musicians may wonder why commuting is such a sore spot for freelance musicians. After all, most people commute to their jobs–why should it be a bigger deal for musicians? Well, the problem with commuting for freelance musicians is that, like a water balloon of Kool-Aid splattered against a map, we travel all over the place, with no discernable logic or pattern to our travels. One day we go 200 miles east, the next day 30 miles south, the following week 900 miles west across several state lines. Our desire to have ink on the calendar (i.e. gigs) overwhelms our rational nature, causing us to accept work that, when held up under a microscope, makes no sense at all.
My personal favorite kind of commute is the all-night drive. This was actually the subject of my very first “crazy gig story” ever, about a year ago. But more on that in a future installment…first, let me give you a little background on me:
My knees started to tremble as I approached the final months of my masters program at Northwestern University. A long string of unsuccessful professional auditions seemed to point me in a career direction that I was hoping at all costs to avoid, and I feared that, in a short couple of months, I would be branded with the following despicable term:
The very sound of the word conjured images of haggard zombies in shabby suits dragging their sorry audition-defeated selves around the back alleys of cities like rats in an alley.
Of course, a decade of this work snuffed out this mental caricature of freelancers, and made me realize that, if anything, all musicians–whether in major symphony orchestras or buskers performing at my train station–were a little bit like rats scurrying around the alleys of the “real world”. Nevertheless, my imagination began to get the better of me as I approached the inevitable end of my sheltered academic existence, and I started to try to reconcile the image of what I hoped I would become professionally with the image of what signs seemed to point toward me becoming.
How, I often wondered, can a freelance musician possibly make a living? I began to do the math:
|Typical area orchestra gig work week||5 services|
|Typical pay for above gig (dollar figure from year 2000)||$70/service|
Uh oh! Even if I worked 52 weeks a year, I was only likely to gross (yes, that paltry sum is the gross, not the net income for such a scenario!) a little over $18 Gs. With $40,000 in student loans, a car with 180,000 miles on it, rent, bills, food, and the like, that wasn’t exactly going to stretch very far. And that sum assumes that I’d get a gig every week–not bloody likely for a bassist new to the Chicago freelance scene! Come June of 2000, my calendar was a sea of blank white pages and no prospects on the horizon.
I was absolutely petrified at the prospect of having to make a living. My transition from high school to undergraduate and then graduate school had been seamless and without any interruption of a year of or other such business. While I was glad to ave completed my two degrees in as an efficient a time frame as possible, I found myself having trouble sleeping and thinking of my future as a dark cloud on the horizon.
How on Earth would I make it as a musician? Please, God, don’t make me take a job at Starbucks–not after all of this schooling…
Well, a few months before graduating and heading out into the great big scary world, I landed a gig! Well…not a gig gig like I had been hoping for–it was a per-service position in a ballet orchestra, but it was a decently paying ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players Association) orchestra union gig, and I welcomed the work, even if it was just for ten weeks a season.
The only problem–this gig was in Milwaukee, which was a solid 80 miles north of my place in Chicago. This seemed like an almost trivial detail at the time. What’s the big deal about commuting, anyway? Everybody commutes at least a few miles to get to their job. Why should it be any different for me?
This new gig of mine also paid no mileage, but again, a younger and less jaded me didn’t see that as a big deal. I’d still be making money after all, right?
Not long after landing the ballet gig, I also happened to land a very cool gig in a chamber orchestra. The group sounded spectacular (and it was…and still is!), paid great, and covered travel expenses. The only problem was that it was in Memphis, Tennessee! I took the gig without a moment’s hesitation, and, despite the commute, I am really glad that I did.
The problem, however, was that I now held two gigs in two different states–neither of which I actually lived in! And the utterly insane commuting situations that I have put myself in as a result of these and many other far-flung gigs is the subject of the next installment of Basses, Trains, Planes, and Automobiles–All-Night Commutes.
Read the complete series:
- Part 1 – Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind
- Part 2 – Full-Time Loyalty at Part-Time Rates
- Part 3 – Music is Addictive
- Part 4 – Orchestras – A Secret Society of Weirdoes (and I’m one of them!)
- Part 5 – Driving for Dollars – life as a classical music bottom feeder
- Part 6 – Individual Artistic Expression
- Part 7 – The Satisfaction of Section Playing