A gig economy: Explaining the business of freelancing artistry

Like so many others, I practiced my way through two music degrees with the hopes and expectations that if I tried hard enough, I would be rewarded with a job in an orchestra.  Simple, right? By the end of my masters, tired of being in school and unwilling to accumulate any more debt, I suddenly was confronted with the same reality that most music students end up facing. I was out of school, but also didn’t have a job.  The excitement of earning my masters was completely overshadowed by my options of either moving back in with my parents or getting a part-time job completely unrelated to music.  I chose the latter, got a part-time job at a clothing store, and began trying to freelance in my area.

No music class ever taught me how to freelance.

Winning an orchestral job is, usually, based on how well you can play your instrument.  Freelancing is a completely different game.  You can practice all you want, but skill won’t get you anywhere in the freelancing world without networking.

Some people I spoke with encouraged me to get my name out there, get in touch with local schools to pick up students so that I wouldn’t have to work my part-time clothing store job.  So I did my research and compiled a list of all the schools I could find within a reasonable drive of where I lived. I ended up emailing over 100 band and orchestra directors, passing out my resume and letting them know I was available to teach if any of their students were interested in private lessons, group classes, or anything else they might need.

Out of those more than 100 emails, one teacher hired me to teach private lessons.  I gained 2 students.

I know there aren’t as many oboe students out there as some other instruments, but that was still a disappointing and eye-opening experience.  Simply “putting my name out there” was not enough.

I ended up getting lucky.  Only a few months out of school, I began receiving emails asking me to play gigs.  They usually were accompanied by something along the lines of, “so-and-so recommended you and passed along your contact info.”  This so-and-so was always an oboist I had gone to school with, and was a year ahead of me in the freelancing scene.  She knew I stayed in the area as well, and she couldn’t take every gig she was offered, so she would send them on to me, knowing I would take absolutely anything I could get a hold of.  One of the first opportunities I received, and took, was playing principal oboe with a regional orchestra.  After that first time playing with them, they called me back for every single concert the next two years as their acting principal oboist.

Because I was so in need of money starting out, I had to take every gig I possibly could.  Many of them were things I would never agree to at this point in my life.  I played in many high school musicals for $30 a performance and many unpaid rehearsals.  I sat next to kids who only had been playing their instruments for a matter of months.  While this was a good opportunity for them, not being around other serious musicians was detrimental to my professional growth.  But that was just part of getting started.

A flute player from one of the first musicals I played in liked playing with me, so she passed my name on for other higher quality and better paying musicals.  She also connected me with a church, which turned out to be such a great gig that I still travel from Chicago to play with them.

From playing in one regional orchestra, the other oboists got to know me.  I was recommended to play at even more orchestras, churches, and other gigs from these oboists.  What started off as only one or two connections from my school days led to a full schedule of gigs, and I found myself turning some things down.  One Christmas Eve, I was asked to play at four different churches!

The best gigs I ever got were from knowing someone in the group and previously playing for them.  For me, this meant getting lessons with the principal oboist of an orchestra I’d like to sub in.  If that person knows and likes your playing, they will be more likely to think of you next time they are in need of a sub.  A friend of mine once told me freelancing is like planting seeds.  You take lessons and meet people in the orchestras you’d like to sub in.  Those are the seeds you sow, and then you just have to wait.  Maybe check in on the seeds every now and then, but you mostly have to wait, because things aren’t in your control anymore.  Some of the seeds will take root, and you’ll get called to play.  Others won’t, but that’s okay, because that’s just how the gig world works.

By Kristin Perry