As I spend more of my time focusing on local activities (playing, teaching, etc.) and less on driving all over the country, I’ve gotten a chance to really take in this remarkable city that I live in. What a fascinating and multifaceted place metro Chicago is! I’m currently sitting on the Midway Pleasance, gazing up at the awe-inspiring neo-gothic architecture of the University of Chicago (though it was constructed around 1900, it looks like someone ripped out a medieval European city and plopped it smack-dab in the middle of Chicago. I love sitting in the sun on a pleasant May afternoon, watching the world go by and doing a little blogging on the grass, surrounded by birds and flowers. And to think, I’d have been in the middle of some grim 100+ mile drive at this time of day a couple of years ago!
I wrote a post in 2007 at the height of my gigging/teaching/school business where I outlined a “day in the life” for me. Though local, it certainly didn’t seem easy! Happily, I’ve got a much better balance now, with more time for relaxation, exercise, and enjoying life–not a bad thing!
A Day in the “New” Life
Prior to this gig today, I played a gig in the West Loop, right next to Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. I parked up by the Fulton Market next to the train tracks, weaseling my way into a coveted free parking spot in the heart of the city, and wheeled my bass past the sausage shops and warehouses that make up this part of Chicago.
I started my day today at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, driving down my leafy street around dawn and heading to Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood , where I grabbed some breakfast at the Bourgeois Pig, one of my all-time favorite coffee shops (there’s even a wrought-iron Eiffel Tower on the roof!), and doing some people-watching as I got my day going.
My typical morning routine at the Pig is as follows (it’s something I look forward to as I go to bed the previous night):
- coffee (lots and lots of coffee)
- checking e-mail
- working on new blog posts
- editing podcast audio
- reading the paper
- watching the world bustle by on Halsted and Fullerton
Local is Good
I’ve never spent much time around the University of Chicago–it’s on the South Side of the city and a pretty traffic-laden commute (though a pittance in terms of mileage compared to what I’m used to), and I just can’t believe that I’ve missed out on one of the world-class walks in this town.
Now that I’m not commuting like a maniac (down to about 10,000 miles this year… compared to 50,000 in 2006!), I’ve found I am significantly happier on a daily basis.
Well, for starters:
- No commuting = found time – All those hours, days, weeks, and months I was spending in the car are now mine. Knowing that time is precious and not something to take for granted, I’ve been making the most of the time I have.
- Time for creativity – Commuting not only sucks away your precious time, but it (for me, at least) sucks away my life force and creative energy, leaving me dull and empty, wanting only to watch TV or do something mindless. Now that I’m doing much less of it, I’m more energetic, more creative, and more full of pep and zeal (yes, that’s right: pep and zeal!)
- Part of a community – OK, I know that Chicago is a big place and that my participation in city life is not the same as if I was in a smaller town. But I love feeling like I live and work in the same area. I’ve realized that I am not a et-set kind of guy, and that I really like feeling like I have a home. The more time I spend in the car, the more I feel like a drifter, bouncing around from place to place with no sense of purpose.
- Time to spend outdoors – Driving through the outdoors is not the same as spending time outdoors! These days, I have the time to go for a run, walk around my neighborhood, spend time on the lakefront, and take the cats for a walk. In Evanston, Courtney and I usually walk to go get dinner or go to a movie, which I love.
- Public transit instead of driving – For I guy who has driven himself into the ground (pun intended!) over the past decade, I’ve come to really detest the car. Actually, I never really liked driving, and doing so much of it didn’t exactly improve my opinion. These days, I’m able to take the train to a lot of my non-bass playing activities. I even venture out from time to time on the train with my bass, though I usually regret doing so!
- Closer gigs = better gigs – There’s a lot of great work around this town, and saying no to long-distance work has enabled me to say yes to more local things. I am in a fortunate position–I’m high on people’s lists, and so I get called for a lot of really good stuff. I don’t have to drive to Timbuktu in order to make some $$$ on the instrument, a fact that I’ve only begun to realize in the last few years. My engagements tend to be higher quality, higher paying, and more interesting–not a bad deal!
- More balance in my professional life – I’m really enjoying the mix of teaching, playing, and blogging/podcasting that I’ve been doing these past couple of years. I feel like I am teaching better and playing better, mainly because I’m less fatigued, and that I’ve got the creative energy to write and podcast, which have opened up a lot of doors for me these past few years.
- More balance in my personal life – You know, it’s nice to be able to eat a meal with my wife, or go to the grocery store sometime besides 11:30 p.m., or to have time to go for a walk every once in a while. Although my wife is doing pre-med coursework right now and is thus spending most of her free time studying, we are still able to spend more time together now than we ever did while I was doing the long-haul freelancing.
My Work Ratio (2000-2006 long-distance mode and 2007-2008 local mode)
Here’s the employment mix I had from around 2000 to around 2006:
- long-distance gigs (150-225 miles round-trip, with monthly commutes to Memphis, TN) nearly every week
- long-distance university teaching (approx. 200 miles round-trip)
- little to no mileage compensation for the above
- a few local students
- a few local gigs
- constant gigging
- constant driving
By quitting my longer commutes and turning down phone calls for non-lucrative long-distance work, I settled into the following mix for 2007 and 2008:
- local gigs
- local students
- less work in general, but considerably fewer expenses
- higher pay for the work I now do
- occasional rather than constant gigging, but higher scale for those gigs
- more consistent local teaching, at higher scale and without long-distance commuting
This realignment has made the nature of my work more scattered and piecemeal, and certainly less secure. There’s a lot more whit in my calendar these days than there used to be, but experience has taught me that this space will usually (but not always!) get filled with more lucrative work than that my more consistent but lower paying long-haul work.
I like schedule consistency, which was one of the reasons why I took so many contracts, no matter the distance. I wanted to look ahead a few months and see black on every week. But keeping a looser schedule has actually worked out better for me.
There’s no guarantee of future work with this method, however, which can be nerve-wracking! Luckily, I’ve realized that there are a lot of other things I do well besides bass playing, and if it all dried up suddenly I’d be OK. Not feeling like I needed the work has actually led to more work for me.
Will this realignment work for every freelancer?
I wish that this ratio would result in better overall professional and personal quality of life for every freelancer, but I fear that this approach is probably not going to work for all freelancers. After all, there are only so many jobs to go around in every local market, and no matter how much pavement pounding you do, there simply may not be enough local opportunities to make a life in music in one particular city for most freelancers.
There aren’t any easy answers to this dilemma (I wish there were!), and the same methods of work management are likely to yield different results for different players. All you can do is keep an open mind, decide what is really important for you in this business, and be flexible.
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