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 this third installment, Continuum spoke with Zach Brock, violinist and composer. Acclaimed as “…the pre-eminent improvising violinist of his generation” and recognized as a “Rising Star” by Downbeat Magazine, Zach Brock is currently forging a unique musical identity as a violinist “whose every phrase argues for the instrument’s value in 21st century jazz.” In this interview Zach talks to Continuum about the importance of valuing your resources, the “short game” versus the “long game” in the music business, and why who you are is not what you do.
How long have you had a freelance career?
I started when I was in high school playing weddings, parties, local gigs, etc. I’ve had a freelance career for over twenty years now.
Describe a typical day.
That’s almost impossible. That’s also part of what drew me to the life of a freelance artist. I like to improvise. I have little routines that I perform but I rotate them and substitute new routines all the time.
Have you ever had a “day job”? If so, was it music related or non-music related?
Not really. When I was in college I worked at a couple of coffee shops and I delivered sandwiches for about two days. I could never stick with them. Even though I needed the money, I always felt like I was wasting good time and energy … and I wasn’t being paid enough to do so.
What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to take a gig?
I consider three factors: 1) Am I passionate about it and/or does it speak to my musical values? 2) Will it advance my career or goals in music in some way? 3) Is it financially significant? I have to be able to answer “yes” to two out of three of these questions or I don’t take the gig.
Has this changed over time? If so, how?
Yes, I used to take everything indiscriminately. As soon as I understood that I had finite amount of energy to expend every day I started prioritizing the things that I valued.
How much of a hustler are you when it comes to getting gigs? Is the ability to hustle part of one’s personality or is it a skill that can be developed?
I’m a fair-weather hustler. I believe that hustling is a skill that one can acquire but I also believe that some people, either because of their upbringing or personality, can have more developed skills in this area.
What are your main sources of work in your freelance career?
Gigs, recordings, and teaching.
What is the opportunity you made for yourself for which you are the most proud?
I never made any opportunities for myself. Every opportunity came about through the positive energy and good will of another person who decided in that movement, for whatever reason, to help me.
Do you have any specific methods for managing your time on a daily basis?
Yes: do what is important first, “batch” things together that you must do but don’t necessarily want to do, ask for as much help as you can get away with, and try to leave time open for the unplanned and unexpected.
How do you balance work time with “play time”? Does this come easily to you?
No, I pretty much work constantly then fall apart at the end of the day.
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?
Definitely and it’s always hard. I’ve never really been ahead of the ball in that department. Maybe this year? I deal with financial lulls with a huge amount of personal faith and wishful thinking i.e. sticking my head in the ground (not good). However, lulls in work don’t affect my confidence or self-worth because I don’t believe that who I am is a result of what I do. I am who I am. You have to believe in yourself first and go out into the world from that perspective.
How often do you turn down work and why? How do you handle situations where a much better offer comes along?
I’ll never tell. However, if you make a business or personal commitment to someone and you don’t honor it then you are being unethical. Your reputation will be tarnished and you will ultimately lose work. It’s a principle that is harder for young people to grasp because they don’t usually see life’s “long game.” As a freelancer, if you see the potential of a certain commitment as being conditional i.e., I’ll say “yes” to this unless something that pays more comes along, then you need to communicate that up front and let the other party decide whether to use your services or find a more solid commitment from someone else.
Have you ever had a mentor or model who helped you figure out how to make a freelance lifestyle work?
Not directly but I have had some good examples along the way. I know that there are some teachers out there who really take students under their wing and give them a code. It’s hard to know what works for you early in the game. Remember to value your resources because they are finite: time, energy, money, health, inspiration, relationships. A little thought every day about how you are experiencing each of these categories in your life will go a long way.
Were there any books or other resources that were instrumental in how you manage a freelance career?
Is networking something that you actively make time for or something that happens naturally?
No and yes. I’ve never been very good about actively networking probably because I don’t feel like I’m being genuine. People can tell when you are hanging around because you want or expect something in return like dogs can smell fear. Some people genuinely love being involved with lots of other people all the time. I have a close friend who fits this description. He is a much better networker than I am and, consequently, he gets more work. That being said, I do feel like following your genuine interests and applying a little self-discipline in this area will result in a certain amount of networking.
Describe how you use the web to help propel your career (example: your website, email list, social media).
Yeah, all three of those. I’m constantly trying to up my game in all of those areas but they tend to fall off when I have to concentrate on music. One word: video. That’s the future.
Do you have anyone help you with your finances or taxes?
Yes, I have an accountant in Chicago who is great, knows my setup, and is affordable.
Have you put much effort into how you market yourself? Describe how you figured out how to market yourself.
Yes, embarrassingly enough, but I haven’t figured it out yet. When I do though, look out!
To what do you attribute the success of your freelance career?
Lots of luck, being a glutton for punishment, and a certain amount of stubbornness.
What are the benefits of having a freelance career and what are the pitfalls?
The benefit is that you get to dictate the specific details of your work in its entirety; the major pitfall is that you have to dictate the specific details of your work in its entirety. A freelance career is more work-intensive than working for someone else. Not only does it require your time and energy, but it also requires your vision, inspiration, motivation, creativity, and money.
What advice would you offer to other artists trying to make it as a freelancer?
Be good to yourself and to other people.
If you had to do it over again, what would you change, if anything?
Everything, and nothing.