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 seventh installment, Continuum spoke with violinist Sara Caswell. Recognized as a “Rising Star” in both the 2014 and 2015 Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll, Sara has led a career as impressive as it is diverse. Over the past several years Sara has kept busy performing with her own quartet as well as a group co-led with her sister, vocalist Rachel Caswell. She is also an active performer with The New York Pops Orchestra, Grammy Award Winner Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, and Grammy Nominated vocalist Roseanna Vitro. Sara spoke with Continuum about surrounding oneself with the right people, how to avoid getting overwhelmed by the enormity of life, the importance of being true to yourself, and the magic three factors for taking a gig: the music, the money, and the hang.
(And after you’ve read the interview, make sure and check out Sara’s beautiful music over at her website).
What were you doing before you were a freelance artist?
I began thinking of myself as a freelance musician once I was no longer in school (the last degree I earned was a MM in Jazz Violin in ’06). Prior to that time, I was essentially a full-time student: immersed in a world of learning, reading, studying, & experimenting, no matter the subject or situation. Although the formal setting of an academic institution has now been removed from my daily life, I still consider myself a student due to my continued desire for growth in my artistic pursuits, personal relationships, & knowledge of self.
How long have you had a freelance career?
Although I started performing when I was 15 or so, the number of gigs I could accept was limited by academic obligations as a high school & college student. Maintaining a balance between profession & school became increasingly challenging as the frequency, quality, duration, & distance of these gigs increased.
Describe a typical day.
Coffee, emails, social media updates, physical exercise, more emails, practicing/rehearsing/teaching (varies from day to day), errands, gig, a few final emails, a glass of wine, bed. Add in breakfast, lunch, & dinner, & you have a full day.
Have you ever had a “day job”? If so, was it music related or non-music related?
I’ve never had a day job.
When you were getting started freelancing, did you seek out specific opportunities or did you take whatever came along?
Once I finished my MM in 2006, I placed a lot of energy into meeting people whose music I loved, with whom I hoped to collaborate, whose entrepreneurial skills I admired, & whose passion for the music & respect for fellow musicians were apparent. From these connections grew friendships, new contacts, & opportunities for playing & performing.
What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to take a gig? Has this changed over time? If so, how?
For me to accept a gig, 2 of the following 3 factors must be solid: the music, money, & hang. I’ve taken on countless gigs where the music & musicians are a dream, but I leave the gig with just enough cash to cover a cab ride home. On the flip side, I’ve turned down gigs where the money is good, but the circumstances & personnel don’t gel. In the end, it all balances out. The ideal gig? Making incredible music with dear friends for great money.
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 suppose it depends on how you define a hustler. I’m driven, motivated, & happiest when my schedule has a busy buoyancy filled with projects I love. That said, I’m not great about tooting my own horn, & not the most aggressive person when it comes to getting my foot in a door. But everyone finds his/her way to excel & make inroads that lead to more opportunities.
What are your main sources of work in your freelance career?
As of now, most of my income is from performing & touring as a leader/sideman, teaching, & playing with the New York Pops as a member of the violin section.
What is the opportunity you made for yourself for which you are the most proud?
Making the move to New York City. Although I could’ve stayed in my hometown & made a career for myself, it didn’t feel right. I knew I needed to be in a place where there was more opportunity for growth, exploration, & collaboration. Given NYC’s significance in the jazz world & the number of contacts I had there already, I made that city my destination. Was I scared? Yes. Did I have doubts? Absolutely. Was it the right move for me? Without question.
Do you have any specific methods for managing your time on a daily basis?
Because I often get overwhelmed by the enormity of a task in its entirety, & because a freelance musician must have multiple irons in the fire, I do best dividing large projects into smaller, more manageable goals. This not only allows me to make strides daily on multiple fronts, but also enables me to handle the unexpected with less stress.
How do you balance work time with “play time”? Does this come easily to you?
Because I’m a bit of a workaholic & perfectionist, closing the books & scheduling time to rest & relax away from my craft doesn’t come naturally. But through guidance from friends, family, & experience, I’m learning how to embrace a moment to simply breath & exist.
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?
Work lulls are part of the music business, & though they can be unsettling (depending on how long they last), they can also serve as a time for rest, regrouping, & reinvention ~ some of my friends’ most inspired work has come during these slow stretches. The key is making good use of time, believing in what you do, & having faith the work will pick up again.
How often do you turn down work and why? How do you handle situations where a much better offer comes along?
I’ll turn down work when I sense accepting the gig will result it me spreading myself too thin, such that my overall health or preparedness will be compromised.
Have you ever had a mentor or model who helped you figure out how to make a freelance lifestyle work?
Behind every freelancing musician is a unique & intricate web of circumstances & relationships that constitute a life. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by people who have demonstrated by example how to live a passion-driven life through persistence, problem-solving, experimentation, reinvention, & honesty in spite of obstacles ~ these people are my biggest inspiration.
Were there any books or other resources that were instrumental in how you manage a freelance career?
Honestly, social media has been an invaluable resource. The daily sharing of triumphs, tribulations, opinions, & emotions has created a community from which we all learn.
Is networking something that you actively make time for or something that happens naturally?
Given the social nature of the music I tend to play, networking & socializing are part of the gig ~ lucky me!
Describe how you use the web to help propel your career (example: your website, email list, social media)
I use my website as a go-to for info about me, my background, the artists & groups with whom I perform, recording projects, & upcoming performances. I use Facebook & Twitter for sharing stories & photos about my musical adventures, & although I have a mailing list, I have yet to use it (too lengthy an issue to explain here).
Do you have anyone help you with your finances or taxes?
In addition to being a wiz with numbers, my mother is a fantastic musician with the understanding of how a freelancer’s career can complicate finances, especially when it comes to taxes. Her wisdom & attention to detail have had a huge impact on how I manage money & keep financial records.
Have you put much effort into how you market yourself? Describe how you figured out how to market yourself.
How I market myself depends on the project at hand. But no matter the project, of utmost value to me is the importance of not allowing someone else to speak for you or force you down a path you know to be disingenuous to you or the music.
To what do you attribute the success of your freelance career?
Patience, determination, passion, gratitude, respect, a sense of humor, & an incredibly supportive network of family & friends.
What are the benefits of having a freelance career and what are the pitfalls?
The benefits: there is no such thing as a predictable day.
The pitfalls: there is no such thing as a predictable income.
What advice would you offer to other artists trying to make it as a freelancer?
To be a musician is an incredible gift ~ don’t take it for granted, always strive to do your best, & remember that respect is earned & never owed.
If you had to do it over again, what would you change, if anything?
It’s difficult to say ~ I love where I am in my career, a position made possible by the choices, experiences, successes, & failures I’ve had along the way. Who knows where I’d be were altering any of those circumstances an option.