Controversially, happy Christmas! Yes, Christmas Day is over, but the season continues until (and including) 5 January – and started on 24 December (I’m considering christening 1-26 December ‘Cokemas’, but that’s another story). So enjoy the rest of it.
In any case, this in-between time between Christmas Day and New Year, when some business gets done, some things are tidied up from one year that feels over and some things prepared for the one that is about to start, seems a good time to reflect on the equally confuddling and Janus-faced process of career advice / planning / progression. Besides the fact I’d got up to a careers advice and networking event before Christmas.
On Tuesday 11 December, I went along to an event organised by the Young Classical Artists Trust – choosing to set on one side the facts that my career is only very partially classical, at 32 I’ve superannuated most professional definitions of ‘young’, and I have no real history or aspiration of being a ‘name artist’ or soloist. But I could still do with all the career help I can get.
The organised part of the event constituted a ‘speed dating-style’ session, 3 minutes (literally, by the clock) with a number of advisers on different fields in succession. Of course, there was a limit to what could be achieved in that time; sadly, the timetable-crunching of the organisers and the number of attendees meant we didn’t get a slot with every panellist. I will have to seek advice on good uses of / approaches to social media for freelance musicians who work for fixers or other musicians (what used to be called ‘session musicians’), rather than as artists recording or performing their own music, being named at events and having a distinct audience following, another time or place.
At least one of the five people I did speak to simply had no real overlap with my career. The specialism of artist management was presumably there chiefly to give prospective soloists, conductors etc. insight into what having management is like, the benefits, costs, setup – all highly relevant if you are, again, an aspiring or emerging name artist. Also highly relevant if you are on the point of giving up on a performing career and casting round for alternative arts work options. But little use to me.
For similar reasons, I was only going to be asking the classical record executive about session-type work. His response, in summary, fitted with a lot of my impression of the music business where it becomes significantly profitable: There is work there and it pays; and if you get in you’re usually in for good. But none of the people doing it are giving it up voluntarily, so the only way to get in is to be socially, professionally and literally in the right place at the right time when the supply of people established doing what you do runs short of the demand. So you have to keep doing grim and grotty gigs in hopes of getting lucky. Useful to know, perhaps even an encouragement to keep plugging away at the bottom end of the music career coal face, but perhaps not very actionable.
Both my ‘speed dating’ slot and more informal chat with other attendees concerning fundraising tended to confirm one of my suspicions. Viz., there is performing arts funding out there to be applied for, if not necessarily to be had; but one of the big stumbling-blocks, besides funding organisations always having priorities set down in their charitable objectives which are therefore non-negotiable, is that you have to submit full plans and financials in your application – there are no ‘go and create’ grants, you have to show what money you need, for what, and then account for it afterwards. The off-putting part about this is that you have to basically plan your entire project before submitting the application, let alone finding out whether you are going to have any money for your advance backroom work. Nothing for nothing is, I think, the rule here as in so much else musical.
Two people I spoke to were giving more general career progression advice, within the context of this being a classical-oriented event. The second, I’m afraid, fulfilled one of the stereotypes created by the chip on my shoulder about not having a conservatoire degree. I swear I could see the shutters go down behind her eyes when she had to try and engage with a career path that didn’t start with university-level performance study; she didn’t show any interest in what I might have done (including earning significant amounts of money for over 4 years) since leaving university (in 2007!) and instead pushed for whether I had pro musician contacts from Oxford. For the record, I have some, but I have a lot more, some better placed, and several better disposed towards me, from freelance work since 2014. So I think I won’t actually follow up the advice to make a list of every single person I know in the music industry and email them all, though it’s a good indicator of how aggressively the business expects networking to be carried out. Seemingly (if it’s given as advice) this won’t make me more enemies as an annoying demanding upstart than it will gain me paying clients …
I have left the first session, both the most helpful and in some ways the most frustrating, until last. It also feels like the one in which by far the most information was exchanged in the 3 minutes (maybe being first it was allowed to overrun). The advisor in question was keen to push me to sign up for her on-screen musicians’ agency (whether miming, as extras, recording live etc.) – which is a line of work I’ve done some of commercially, would be perfectly willing to do more, but is once again (particularly with a distinctive appearance) a question of signing up, filling in lots of details (I know how far round my head is in inches now) … and waiting to see if any suitable enquiries come in. Doubtless bearded, optionally bespectacled violinists, violists or mandolinists (?) are wanted from time to time, but they’re probably a niche group.
By some way the most appropriate piece of advice came to me from bothering to think about short-term goals and current situation. Very concretely, therefore, my biggest (though not quickest) take-away from the event: in order to get bookings with freelance pro orchestras (or even as a dep / extra with contract ones), have consultation lessons with said orchestras’ section leaders. Not because I necessarily need to learn lots of technique from them (whether I do or not), but as in effect auditions and interviews – to see whether I can play with them and also more generally work with them, potentially indeed tour with them. Chatting to other attendees confirms this is indeed normal.
So full marks to the adviser there. But even though this is accurate, actionable, appropriate advice, it is also frustrating. Partly because it seems ridiculous that there is an informal but established and sector-wide career progression system that relies on pretending you want a lesson (and pretending you are having a lesson, or putting up with being taught when it’s not really your goal), when really what you want is for someone to get to know you personally a bit and effectively audition you.
Secondly, because this is very much nothing for nothing. As a musician, I still occasionally take jobs down to £50. Generally my classical work will start at more like £70 a time, and I have a fair slew of recent and already booked gigs above £100 through to £150 a night (or indeed £200, but generally only where there are unusually high travel and/or accommodation expenses involved). Pro orchestra principals, especially if they have conservatoire posts, will organise their teaching time in large blocks, and they will charge for the shortest available block (which may well be 2 hours) probably £100 to £150. So even if I forego the desire to have pairs of lesson-auditions to demonstrate I can go away and work on instructions in my own time, the price of being de facto auditioned (with absolutely no guarantee of work arising therefrom) is the gross takings for one of my better gigs. I would only have to see a section leader I hope to sit under about 5 times a month to probably wipe out my entire musical income in the exercise.
But, because musicians are fairly crazy people, I’m going to do it to some extent anyway (not like I’m likely to increase my current tally of 3 gigs booked in January anyway, I might as well try and advance my career while it takes its annual 3 weeks off). And if you’re reading this having googled me after I asked you for a consultation lesson, no of course I’m in it for what I can learn from you as a violist, not the gigs you might be able to help me to …