The one, and probably most important, knowledge I will ever pass on to any aspiring young musician is this,
‘you will be scared and cripplingly unstable mentally, emotionally and also financially for your entire career’
That’s a lot to think about but honestly, after having some mornings where all I do is lie down on the floor of my office and stare at the ceiling for 5 minutes, I think it’s important to share to other musicians so that they know that that’s exactly how it feels most of the time.
I’ll start with ‘financially unstable’ as that is the main concern most of the time.
Work Like you don’t need the money
Work like money doesn’t exist and you are a self funded billionaire who got driven here in your private blimp.
As a free-lance musician, most of what you do is, putting it bluntly, ‘being middle class’. You basically come from a land where money doesn’t exist and you don’t have any bills to pay on your magic cloud above the rest of humanity. You make AAAAaaart, Dharling!
That is the standard mindset we put our young students into when they are in college or uni. The idea that you will occasionally sing with a full orchestra and people will come to your recitals of Leider and mélody is utter nonsense half the time! I can’t tell you how much Handel I have memorised that I couldn’t make a penny from! maybe that’s just my failed classical mezzo talking. But in the real world you have to do what is financially viable. So if we are telling our students ‘you will leave here and make art’, they will expect that, when in reality, you leave and have to play Bruno Mars and Coldplay. Or if you’re a harpist, Pachabel bloody Canon in bloody D.
One of the main components of this insecurity comes from the work. or lack of work, or work you have to go find.
I have to tell myself every month ‘the money will come’, because it does. At this point we’re almost 6 years into me finding money from music, so I’m not too worried about it. However, if I was at a large company or just a regular job, I would know where that money comes from.
You work in a shop, you sell things, that money then turns a profit, you get paid for your time out of that money. However, when you are the staff, product and Karen from Finance, there isn’t that nice distinction of ‘oh here is my salary, I worked this X amount and was paid my regular wage for that time’. You don’t get that in life. you get ‘this big company paid me a lot, this person paid me a little’ it’s all just a matter of luck and picking numbers out of a hat. And this is amplified by busking, some days I’ll do great and some weeks I’ll “struggle” through (it’s not a struggle I just will earn less and in my mind, because we’ve been taught to equate wealth to quality, I think I’ve done a bad job, even though most of it is random anyway).
So, every month, week, day, anytime you find yourself sitting on your office floor staring into the ceiling wondering how you’re paying for you life and what kind of a future you’ll have and when that horrible feeling of ‘never knowing when it’s all gunna sort itself out’ comes, just say ‘the money will come, the work will come’. I say this often to myself and it makes me feel better, and I hope it helps you too.
The Second most important thing they don’t tell you as a free-lance musician, is the loneliness and all the countless hours you will spend by yourself in a practice room or studio. This is pretty harp specific, but I think most people can relate unless they are in a band.
I have talked about this before in previous posts but it still stands. I spend a lot of the day by myself, talking to myself.
I get angry and sad whenever I sing songs about having a different kind of life. Like ‘someone else’s story’, when the lyrics say ‘I could be in someone else’s story, in someone else’s life!’, that’s the bit that actually resonates with me. I’m pretty happy being single, it’s not something that bothers me or that I even think about in those terms. I tend to think of it as ‘I am an individual’, and I basically don’t think about it at all! However, I dooccasionally think about how different my life would be had things panned out differently. If I had started Harp younger, If I had gone to a music college for singing, if I had given up on this whole music nonsense and done English lit! If I had gone to a different university, or If I had moved to London after university.
For half, if not all, I can only imagine my life being worse. If I had started harp younger, I would hate the harp, as so many people I’ve met who played the harp at a young age and now can’t play it or don’t play it (it’s definitely a ‘later in life instrument’ for a lot of people). If I had gone to college for singing, I would know an awful lot about singing, but I would never have started busking, I wouldn’t have done any Student union stuff, and I would probably think I was ‘above’ a lot of work… (this is not a reflection on Music College kids, just, I’m kinda ‘above’ a lot of work now, imagine how insufferable I would if I had a Bmus from Royal Northern!). If I didn’t do Music I would have probably still played harp… I don’t think a whole lot would’ve changed there. If I’d have moved to London I would currently be the most exciting person in a recruitment firm, until I faked my own death in order to get away from that life and would probably still end up busking somewhere… honestly, all roads lead to Rome… or Cardiff… ‘The Rome of Wales’, as it’s never called by no one!
This has probably been really depressing to read, here is a cat gif.
That’s exactly how I wrote this.
But if you want to go into the super fun world of free-lance musicians here are some positives.
1. You will always have something fun to talk about… yourself.
My favourite saying is, ‘I always talk about myself because that’s the only subject I know everything about’. If you play a non-typical instrument, in a non-typical genre, then you basically have the floor for at least 5 minutes. You don’t have to answer any questions directly and you basically can’t give any wrong answers. It’s a lot like being a politician.
2. You can yell at people.
This one is fairly harp related, but if I’m taking a 6 foot instrument down the street and you don’t move, I will yell at you to move. What? You couldn’t see me?, yeah sure, course ya couldn’t… Also, if the staff don’t open doors… ok guys, I’m basically a monster and a prima donna and now I have a giant harp to suit my ego, what more do you want me to say?
3. At fancy venues, someone will park your car for free.
The best thing about being a musician is getting all the stuff rich people pay for for free. someone parks you car, someone brings you a drink, someone rubs your feet… I don’t think that man worked there…
4. You get to go to fancy venues and snoop around castles and museums in the dark and after hours.
This is honestly the best, you wanna run round Caerphilly Castle for free? bring a harp, you wanna private viewing of a Manet painting? just get your harp into Cardiff museum after hours. It’s pretty cool getting to go to places you wouldn’t pay to go into, but if it’s a work thing, SURE! (N.B. the Museum is free and everyone should go see it! It’s fantastic)
5. You don’t have to talk to anyone who isn’t paying you.
This is only partially true, I get a lot of random members of the public just coming to have a chat with me while I’m busking, and sometimes its nice… sometimes… other times they just wanted someone to talk at… which, in that case, talk to anyone else… the street is full of people no trying to work. go talk to a charity mugger maybe? But for the most part, I don’t have to deal with middle people, there isn’t a whole office full of people for me to have to chase for different things, it’s just me. doing me. by myself. God, I’m so alone.