Self-manage or bust: Ask the average working musician how they’re doing these days and they’ll likely shrug and tell you, “I’m managing.” In other words, they’re managing to make a career out of all the little things they do to get by: teaching, gigging, recording, songwriting, maybe even composing music as well, for film, television or the concert stage.
In my case, as I type this article at five in the morning, I’m feeling pretty good about the commission I just put to bed yesterday, which I managed to finish far ahead of schedule. This is for the upcoming Songs of Moana concert featuring Te Vaka touring three different orchestras here in New Zealand in July; Dunedin and Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and Orchestra Wellington here in my hometown. Now if I can just keep typing and get to the end of the article I might manage to get this into the issue of NZ Musician that you’re reading today.
I’ve just used the word ‘manage’ repeatedly above – in the sense of ‘being able to get certain things done’. The hard truth of our existence as musicians is that simply getting by means you have to put everything in its place, over and over, in order to survive. It can involve legwork, calling around, confirmations, cancellations, introductions, meetings and even firings – maybe before you even play a single note or teach a single student.
Fortunately, we’re musicians, and we’re good at developing rhythms and going back to the top again and again. Just so long as we don’t end up playing the same old song over and over, and we can add new themes to our careers, changing the tempo when we need to and freshening up the material! After a while, you may start to think of new opportunities in the same way that a music-listener discovers a new band – something to add to the playlist. And perhaps, like an old track that a listener’s heard too many times, you’ll find yourself dropping a certain gig, or a lacklustre student, or a musical relationship that’s going nowhere. Raise your rates when you get to that point, and you might just see those situations take themselves off the playlist, leaving you freer and better-paid at the same time.
Of course, this can involve dialling back as well as dialling forward. I retired from directing the Wellington School of Rock a decade ago, deciding to take a couple years off to raise my newborn son. I didn’t want to miss those years that never come again. Fortunately, the groundwork I’d laid with my other interests in arranging and internet education meant that my career came back even before those two years were finished.
The key point is that I could decide to take a break with confidence, which I might not have in a standard 9-to-5 day job where every missing month keeps you from climbing the ladder.
What gave me that confidence? Things that had built up very slowly over the course of a career. Connections and ongoing relationships with people who need what I can offer, and trust my work. A track record of local and global accomplishments, which is the best calling card a musician can have, better than a degree (but don’t quit school – a degree is really important starting out). A clear plan of activity for the future based on knowledge of what’s needed by potential clients, students and audience members. And of course, constantly working on my art, learning new music, composing and arranging better and better things, and generally growing in what I could do over the course of a week or a month.
All of this started with a guy who had no clue as a young adult how to make a career in music. It started with a nervous piano teacher getting one piano student, making mistakes, learning to talk to students and their parents, and slowly building a practice to a steady income. It started with a keyboardist for an embarrassingly bad teen rock band, who played with better and better musicians, then managed bands and produced recordings. It started with a wet-behind-the-ears composer who connected with one or two concert musicians to record his music, which led to ensembles, which eventually led to work for established recording artists and client orchestras.
Along the way, I had to learn things one step at a time, and repeat those steps over and over again until I had better control over the process, and then could add another opportunity. Or my competence/success with managing a process would actually lead directly to another opportunity. Teaming the Wellington School of Rock up with the Wellington Youth Orchestra led directly to opportunities in composing and arranging education concerts after I retired from the school.
Of course, in some cities like LA or New York, if you tell someone, “I’m managing,” in a conversation, they might ask “Who are you managing?” I’ll come back to this in a future article about managing other bands. For now, though, look at everything you do right now to improve yourself, to connect with clients and fellow musicians, and to get gigs and students.
Make a list of things that you could improve, and think about what works and what doesn’t. A flyer at the music shop advertising as teacher? An advert in NZM, its fortnightly Update newsletter or in a more local circular? Maybe an offer in the neighbourhood school newsletter? Are students’ schedules all over the place? Do you need to add more or trim things down? Then how about gigging? Have you started any social media sites for your band? Added a mailing list to your website? Engaged with your crowd online? Talked to the owner/manager of that club? Learned any new songs, dumped any old ones?
I rarely need to talk about my own career to other people these days, but I’m bringing it into the conversation here because this is how I’ve managed to pay the bills. It was a series of baby steps, learning from my mistakes (and some have been huge), and trying to get better at each new challenge as it came along. There were no lightning strikes or sudden leaps forward for me.
Think about taking some small, careful steps of your own to work out all the bugs in each process that leads to a better outcome. Then you won’t just be barely managing to make it to the next gig, you’ll be actively managing your own progress through this gig we call ‘life’.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky.