Music Career

4 lessons for musicians in the new reality

Some restrictions may be lifting as I write, but it’s clear to us all now that a new reality is with us. It came suddenly, uncomfortably, and forced us into situations we hadn’t anticipated and probably didn’t want. And it’s not going away. In the interest of trying to learn for the future, but also really for right now, given that nothing is going to change very soon, I thought I’d try and capture some of the lessons to be learned in particular for musicians who are self-employed (like myself). I wonder if you can add to this list?

1. Having a portfolio career is a game changer for musicians today

In the old world, a portfolio career (meaning a career made up of lots of varying parts; see for example my strap line ‘live music, tuition, recording’) might have come with the danger of spreading one too thin. By being the jack of all trades you might end up master of none and unable to make any real headway in any particular area. I certainly admire and envy those who can make up most of their income from one primary area of work.

But I at least was able to breathe a small sigh of relief when lockdown hit and, though I was suddenly without gigs and teaching work, there were still some projects left available that I could do from home. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m finding that recording and video opportunities are multiplying rapidly. Portfolio careers probably need to stick around for a while. Speaking of working from home . . .

2. Having the tech to work as a musician at home = superpower

Suddenly, those who had spent most of their spare time (and probably more than their spare money) building up a fairly hi-tech work-from-home studio setup were leaps and bounds ahead of those who, perhaps because of a mainly teaching-focussed career, might only have managed lessons over a laptop or iPad with a built-in video camera. Not that it likely describes many musicians, but even the most technophobic luddite has had to get to grips with some tech solutions to their work, and fast. Tech is most obviously here to stay, and staying up-to-date is vital going forward. If the prospect of keeping up seems expensive, precise planning of your exact needs helps, and then your fees need to reflect the expenses you’re likely to have to put down in order to stay current.

3. Negotiating the work-life balance has never been more like walking a tightrope

As for everyone suddenly working from home, any advantage you may have doing your work from home is offset by the disadvantages that might be presented by having the rest of your family at home too. For example, I’m quite self-sufficient in my home setup for online tuition, recording and live streaming, but our work situation meant that Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm I suddenly found myself having to look after kids (and really it’s 7am to 8pm taking in all the getting ready for the day, and clearing up after the madness). Negotiation of diary, communication with spouse/loved ones/housemates, and frank honesty with yourself about what’s realistic suddenly become hugely important. Musicians may be particularly challenged to find practice time if noise is more of an issue with more people around.

4. Sometimes, being self-employed still just sucks

Oh come on. You can tell me self-employment is wonderful, and I agree, otherwise I wouldn’t be working for myself. But don’t say this wasn’t scary for you in some way. Let’s just quote the statistic that 40% of musicians were left behind by the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. I’m one of them. Never mind the difficulty many have found accessing other support funds.

But also, the fact that I was self-employed was partly what determined that my work had to take a back seat for now so my wife could work her 9-5 in the bedroom. Of course I don’t begrudge her that; it was in fact a miracle that she got the job – i.e. a good stable income – literally a couple of weeks before lockdown. It‘s just a real bummer that I can’t do most of the work I want and love to do, right now.

Being self-employed still sucks sometimes – so we need to be great at supporting each other. I enjoy the occasional podcast or blog post here and there to keep me motivated – for example look for Millicent Stephenson’s ‘Success Beyond The Score’ podcast. But far more valuable and helpful is being able to talk to others in the trenches about how it’s going being self-employed, the highs and lows, and to talk about how we can help each other when the need arises.

These are just a few of my thoughts, harsh lessons but hopefully ultimately useful ones to make us stronger going forward. What have you learned?

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