What being a musician taught me about working for yourself
Musician → Web Designer. These two fields seem worlds apart, but being a musician has been useful in my freelance career.
I started learning how to build websites in 1999. I’ve been designing and building websites ever since. The web was a different place then: barely ten years old but things were moving fast.
I started taking on clients at the end of 2013. Between 2004–2013, my focus was music.
After a short stint with a relatively-successful-yet-unsigned band, I studied Music at the University of York. I then spent a year performing, teaching and recovering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, before earning a place on the Jazz MA programme at the Royal Academy of Music.
In that ten-year period, I played hundreds of gigs on stages large and small.
Now, I’m a full-time freelance web designer. These two fields seem worlds apart, but being a musician has been useful in my freelance career.
There’s a bizarre paradox in the performing arts: everyone enjoys them, but no-one wants to pay for them. When I started freelancing as a web designer, I was struck by the willingness of clients to pay for my services.
It’s well known that musicians aren’t paid well, but it’s staggering how little they’re valued. I would estimate that 50% of the performances I did were unpaid, paid below minimum wage or paid so little that they cost me money.
Most musicians have daytime teaching jobs to pay the bills, then fit in performances around these. If they don’t want to teach, they have to find other work to pay their rent.
I feel incredibly lucky to now be working in an industry where clients expect to pay for the work I do.
It staggers me that as a web designer it’s possible to command day rates that would have been impossible as a musician, despite having no formal qualifications.
On the flip side, it’s been difficult to figure out what I should charge for my freelance services. I realised recently I’d been undercharging for years without being aware of it (no wonder I was so busy).
When you transition from a career where regular paid work is hard to come by, it makes sense that you’d be grateful for the work you get.
Work is plentiful
The musical world is dog-eat-dog. In a bid to be successful, some musicians to trample over their peers, teachers and mentors to reach the next step in their career.
They’ve forgotten that the people they stood on to get to the top are the same people they’ll have to play with when they’re on the way back down.
Every musician ever.
The web industry has plenty of issues. But one of the positives is that there are paid work opportunities at all levels.
Everyone’s an expert
Some years ago, a friend had to miss the final rehearsal for a performance of Britten’s War Requiem. He was playing the tubular bells which feature in the opening section.
As a favour, I agreed to cover his part for the rehearsal. This happens all the time and, as a percussionist, it was no big deal.
The conductor made a comment to me about how he wanted these notes to be played, before remembering that I hadn’t been and wouldn’t be playing this part in the concert.
Then, fifteen minutes before the performance a member of the choir, that is largely made-up of non-professional local singers, approached me:
Singer: Are you playing the tubular bells tonight?
Singer: Good, because the other percussionist is much better.
Unrequested comments like this are not uncommon for musicians. Everyone has an opinion and they want you to know it, however ill-informed it is.
Being exposed to this rude behaviour is good training for working in any creative field. You only have to look at the latest rebrand of any well-known company to see armies of non-designers brandishing their opinions.
It turns out that not knowing the full context in which decisions were made about anything is no barrier to letting everyone know what you think.
Context is not a myth
The art of negotiation
When musicians are booked for performances, the fees are usually calculated on a per-head basis. For example, three musicians at £200 each. There may be travel, accommodation, hire of lighting/PA on top, but the maths is pretty simple.
This has its limits, though. The fee can increase depending on the musician’s experience, the amount of travel required, how long they need to be on-site, the length of the performance and start/finish times.
An established musician gave me a great tip. Instead of telling clients how much it will cost per musician, flip the question on its head: “let me know your budget and I’ll fix the best possible band for that fee.”
The client gets the highest quality music for their budget and the band will be paid fairly: everyone’s a winner.
This doesn’t translate to the web industry, as client’s budgets will occasionally exceed what they need to spend. But it’s a great starting point.
There’s always a bigger fish
On social media, everyone is bombarded with each other’s successes. It’s easy to compare your behind-the-scenes with everybody else’s highlight reel.
Everyone wants to produce the best work they can. But if you’re going to compare your work to anybody else’s you have to consider the context:
- What was the brief?
- What was the timeline?
- Who was working on it (an agency, a team, a single person)?
- How experienced are they?
- What was the budget?
You can’t know the answers to all of these questions, but framing your comparisons in this way helps everything to make more sense.
Musicians are surrounded by constant reminders that there’s always a bigger fish. Take situations where musicians/groups are doing well but aren’t technically advanced, they’re nailing something that sets them apart.
That could be the music they write, their management of the business side of being a musician, how they promote themselves or something else.
Just because someone seems to produce better work doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to offer to clients.
The importance of contracts
The only time I was ever stung by not having a contract was when I organised a tour for a band I ran. I’d arranged a series of gigs across the UK for my octet.
It’s rare for jazz tours in the UK to support themselves on door money alone, especially for a group of that size. One venue had offered us a fee that would support the travel and accommodation for a string of 3–4 dates in Yorkshire.
A month before the tour kicked off, when all of the venue days, travel and accommodation had been booked, the promoter emailed to tell me the venue had been double-booked. Gig cancelled. No cancellation fee.
We had to drop a musician from the tour (who had turned down other work to be available), and the cancellation made the difference between the tour breaking even and costing money.
The moral of this story could be interpreted as don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. But, despite having email agreements, there was little the Musician’s Union could do to help without a contract.
This is why I think it’s crucial that freelancers rely on contracts, rather than a series of emails.
It’s just work
Often, the journey from amateur to professional musician goes something like this:
- Enjoy playing the instrument, so practice it a lot without encouragement
- Become pretty good at it, especially with the help of a good teacher
- Study it at college/sixth form
- Study it a university, music college or both
- Practice, gig, practice some more
- Oh shit, I have rent to pay and I can’t live off £50 gigs
Finding something that’s enjoyable, that you’re good at and that there’s demand for is easy. Finding all three in a sector where you can be paid well is harder.
Moving into the web industry taught me that it’s better to do something you enjoy and can make a living out of, than doing something you love and can’t.
There’s pressure to be passionate about what you do, and it’s great if you are. But it’s possible to find something interesting and enjoy it, without loving it or finding it boring.
That might be considered settling, but I feel incredibly lucky to do something that I enjoy and make a living from it. Some projects are more interesting than others, but that’s ok — on balance I’m much happier now than I ever was as a performer.
Sir Ken Robinson wrote a fantastic book on this topic: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Well worth a read.
Side projects are great, but don’t count on them
A mistake I made in my short musical career was focusing too much on my own projects.
Paid gigs are difficult to find and it’s down to the bandleader (i.e. me) to do all the groundwork. This includes: organising a tour, applying for funding, planning travel, booking accommodation, chasing promoters, arranging rehearsals and endless communication with musicians.
That’s before you get to any of the musical stuff: individual practice, group rehearsals or writing and arranging the music.
I should have focused on gigs that could sustain me first, then run side projects with that had less pressure on them. Something I realised too late.
There’s a lot of talk about side projects for freelancers, too. Everyone has to have one.
Working through the night for three days on a side project is no badge of honour.
All side projects require work. But it’s best to let these grow organically: give your audience the chance to find it and demonstrate the need for it.
If you build it [well and there’s a need for it], they will come.
Some clients are just penny-pinchers
One time, I’d arranged a jazz quartet to play for a wedding reception. We were booked for three hours.
After explaining that we would take a 10/15-minute break for each hour played, as we’re not robots, the client tried to negotiate down the fee because, “you’re only playing for two-and-a-quarter hours.”
Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing is an attitude that extends beyond the music industry. Fortunately, it’s not that common: most clients either get it immediately or understand after an explanation of what’s involved and why you can’t charge by the minute.
Even after setting client expectations, it sometimes won’t be enough. You have to hold firm or move on.
Being a musician taught me other skills: how to work in a team, leadership, organisation, self-discipline and the importance of professionalism. These are invaluable to my freelance career.
The web industry is not without faults (gender equality, diversity to name two), but unlike the music industry, there are more paid work opportunities, whatever level you’re working at.
It is possible to make a living from doing something you like. That is, if you’re realistic and manage your expectations—even if it means accepting that some days might be boring.
We spend half our life at work, spend it wisely.