Welcome to the first installment in a new interview series created by Continuum Web Design called Freelancing Artists: How They Make it Work.
How do freelancing artists do it? How do they piece together work to create a sustaining and stable career? Through this interview series, I aim to get to the heart of those questions by talking to various artists about how they make freelancing work for them.
In our first installment, we talk with Canadian-born and NYC-based pianist and vocalist Brenda Earle, a jazz artist who draws inspiration from a myriad of influences, including songwriters Pete Yorn, Neil Finn and Elvis Costello, classical composers like Brahms and Whitacre, rock radio and Brazilian music. As a composer, Brenda has written hundreds of arrangements and compositions for choirs, small and large jazz ensebles, brass quintet, string quartet and orchestra. An emerging artist with a diverse palette of sounds, she is a leading voice in modern jazz (featured photo above by Erika Kapin).
In the interview below, Brenda talks to Continuum Web Design about hustling for gigs, the importance of networking, balancing a jazz career with motherhood, and learning to appreciate the occasional lulls in any freelance career.
When you were getting started freelancing, did you seek out specific opportunities or did you take whatever came along?
I have usually sought out opportunities. I was a ballet pianist for two years immediately following graduating from university. I played for a few different ballet schools and companies in Toronto for about 30 hours/week. It was a great gig for me, as I was a former dancer and I loved being in that environment. After my couple of years in Toronto, I decided I needed to make some better money so I could save up to move to New York City. I got a gig on a cruise ship doing singalong piano bar work, something that I had no experience in! I fought hard to get and keep that gig and managed to move to NYC a couple of years later. My career has changed focus a few times, in an effort to follow my interests, while being able to actually make a decent living.
What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to take a gig? Has this changed over time? If so, how?
I have generally taken every gig that has been offered, unless I know it’s going to be a big drag. As my career has expanded and I have had more opportunities, I base it on a scale of How good the music is/How much it pays/How the people are going to be/Whether it’s a good career move. If it has one great aspect, I would usually take it. Now that I have a son, I am a lot more selective about what things I take on. I now have to factor in child care expenses, etc. and whether it’s worth it to be away from him for an extended period of time. It’s actually been a great opportunity to see what direction I want to go in.
Is the ability to hustle part of one’s personality or is it a skill that can be developed?
I think it can be honed, but I think that drive and desire have to be there. I have generally been a big hustler (however, I have been careful not to be too aggressive about it, as people find it obnoxious!) I have always wanted to make my own living and to live a comfortable life and it takes a lot of work to be able to do that in this industry. I also think some people are hungrier than others for success/recognition/artistic fulfillment than others. And, I thing that hunger can wax and wane over the course of different life events.
What are your main sources of work in your freelance career?
These days, teaching is a big source of income, as well as gigs. As a singer and pianist with an eclectic skill set, I often get called to do gigs that are more specific. I also specialize in working with singers, so I tend to do a lot of that. I have such a diverse background in performing, conducting, teaching, writing curriculae, composing, arrange, etc. that I never know what I might get called to do!
How do you balance work time with “play time”? Does this come easily to you?
I was always really bad with that. For many years, I was working 7 days a week for most of the year! I never took vacations, unless I was visiting family or touring. When I met my husband, that all changed because he lived a much more balanced life than I did. Now that we have a baby, I try to maximize my play and family time and fit work into that. It’s been a big change, but it’s actually work out great. I write out “to do” lists for each day and also have a few middle and long term ones to keep me on track. I try not to let them rule my life, but they keep me from having too many thoughts swirling in my head!
Do you ever encounter “lulls” in the amount of work you receive, and if so how do you cope – both financially and with regard to your level of confidence?
Generally speaking, January and August are the two lull times for me. I had what I call “work amnesia”, thinking (during January and August) that I didn’t have enough work and hustling like made to fill up the space. Then February and September would roll around and I would be way over booked. It took a lot of years for me to settle down and enjoy those lulls, so I could focus on more creative work and just enjoying life.
Is networking something that you actively make time for or something that happens naturally?
Networking is really really important as a musician. I think that if you don’t stay out there and remind people that you exist, then you are going to have trouble. I am lucky that I’ve been around long enough and have a certain skill set, that I still get called for work even though I’ve been out of the scene for a while. However, I am trying to get back out into the jazz/creative music scene and that is going to require that I go out to events, meet new people and reconnect with old friends and colleagues. As a jazz musician, you really have to show your support for your fellows in order to be part of the scene. It also really energizes my own creative work.
Do you have anyone help you with your finances or taxes?
I do all of my financial organizing and accounting books myself on an Excel Spreadsheet. I Xerox and file every check that I get before I deposit it in the bank, so I can keep track of everything I make. When I get paid cash, I keep it in a little tin in my office and use that money to buy groceries or any non-business goods. I try to make my business purchases with my debit or credit card so I can keep track of them for tax purposes more easily. I got tired of saving a million little receipts! I have a great accountant who does my taxes for me each year, which is totally worth the couple of hundred dollars it costs.
Have you put much effort into how you market yourself?
I have been to a few seminars over the years on different aspects of business and marketing. I also ask a lot of questions of my friends and colleagues to see what they have done. There is a lot of information available on the internet about business and marketing, and I have often sought information just by Googling my questions. I also try to keep current with my contemporaries to see what they are up to, to get ideas and resources.
To what do you attribute the success of your freelance career?
Desire. I knew from a young age the kind of lifestyle that I wanted to have and I was willing to work really hard to get it. A 9-5 day job was not really in the cards for me, since I like to have more control of my schedule. I feel strongly that if you want something badly enough, you can make it work. I have been lucky to have the drive to actually make it happen. I have also been consistently willing to learn and grow as an artist and businesswoman.
If you had to do it over again, what would you change, if anything?
I think I would work smarter than I did. I was often so busy and so on the go, that I didn’t have time to enjoy the process more. I also would have become more selective sooner about some of the work I was taking. I think it would have been a real benefit to me to sit down and really decide what direction I wanted to go in. I think I could have scaled back on a lot of stuff to make more space for creative pursuit. But, hindsight is always 20/20. When you’re in it, it’s hard to know where you’re going!