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 eighth installment, Continuum spoke with jazz bassist Steve Whipple. Originally from Tokyo, Steve Whipple’s musical life has taken him to a great many places: The Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where Steve attended high school; Quito, Ecuador where Steve worked as a visiting professor and department chair of the bass program; and New York City, where Steve has lived for the past six years playing with ensembles that run the gamut from “Double Bass Double Voice,” a group comprised of two bass players and two vocalists – to “Xylopholks,” a xylophone-featured ragtime band that performs in animal suits (Steve is the pink gorilla). In this interview, Steve spoke with Continuum about making lists, when it’s ok to bail on a gig, why you shouldn’t network unless you want to, the importance of maintaining your connections, and why musicians need to be both an artist and a craftsman. Enjoy!
What were you doing before you were a freelance artist?
I started freelancing while I was in college, so I was a student before I became a freelance artist.
How long have you had a freelance career?
Describe a typical day.
I wake up, and make coffee and eat breakfast. Then, ideally, I meditate, listen to music, practice, and turn my computer on to check email/do business related things. After that, each day is different- sometimes I have a gig, sometimes I’m rehearsing, sometimes I teach. But I try to have a consistent morning routine to remain productive.
Have you ever had a “day job”? If so, was it music related or non-music related?
Not really, though I did work as a translator and interpreter to supplement my income a little bit.
When you were getting started freelancing, did you seek out specific opportunities or did you take whatever came along?
I did a little bit of both. When I lived in Ohio, I took whatever came along, and that led to some amazing learning opportunities. When I first moved to NYC, I made it a point hang with people I wanted to play with. Sometimes I ended up playing with them, sometimes I didn’t. But once I started to work regularly in the city, I stopped going out as much, and opted to take whatever came along. I think if you have the energy, and know what scene you want to be a part of, there’s tremendous value in making yourself a part of that scene. My interests are too diverse, and I enjoy my sleep too much to make a concerted effort to do that. 🙂 I’m not recommending this to aspiring freelances, but that’s how I am.
What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to take a gig? Has this changed over time? If so, how?
I learned about the rule of 2 out of 3 a while ago, and I feel like I adhere to that rule pretty consistently. The three things are – the quality of the music, the pay, and the hang. If two of those three things are happening, I’ll probably take the gig. But sometimes, if the gig has only one of those three things, but it’s at an extremely high caliber, I might take the gig. Over time, I think my definition of what’s good in these categories has evolved, but I think the factors are still the same.
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 ashamed to say that I don’t hustle at all. I think it’s the introvert in me. And as a bass player, I’m able to get away with that. I have seen people get better at it over the years, so I do believe it is a skill that can be developed.
What are your main sources of work in your freelance career?
My friends! Most of my work is performing/recording music. I have had steady gigs, but all of those eventually come to an end. So it’s important to cultivate relationships with people and to stay on their radar, so that when something else comes up, they think of you.
What is the opportunity you made for yourself for which you are the most proud?
I got a teaching job at a university in Ecuador with just a Bachelor’s Degree, and I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish when I got the job.
When you first moved to NYC did you have a “game plan” for starting to get work as a freelancer?
My plan was to call everyone I knew in town, and to go out as much as possible to see music and get to know people.
Do you have any specific methods for managing your time on a daily basis?
When I’m most productive, I make lists of things I need to get done. I make a schedule for each week with pencil and paper, and try to stick to it.
How do you balance work time with “play time”? Does this come easily to you?
The line between work and play can get blurred easily. Especially when hanging out with friends with whom I also work, sometimes it feels like I’m working when I’m just hanging out with friends. I try to schedule things that have nothing to do with music sometimes, to turn that part of my mind off completely. I think that’s important to stay creative and motivated.
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?
Yes. Financially, one of the best things I’ve done is to develop a habit of not spending too much money, so I’ve been fine even through some “lulls.” As far as confidence goes, it can be difficult. But as the calls come back, so does the confidence. I think it’s a part of the cycle of humility that’s actually healthy for musicians, so I try not to make a big deal out of it, though when you’re in the middle of it, it can be pretty tough.
How often do you turn down work and why? How do you handle situations where a much better offer comes along?
I do turn down work if I have other important personal obligations, or if it goes against the “rule of 2 out of 3” I mentioned earlier. My rule for bailing on gigs is, if the gig pays double or more, or if I think it’ll be a special musical experience that will be important to me as an artist, and the band can function with another bass player, I will talk to the band leader and explain the situation. My experience is that in NYC, people are a lot more understanding in this respect than in other places. I think it might have something to do with the fact that there are so many competent musicians here, so you can pretty easily get a good sub, even last minute.
Have you ever had a mentor or model that helped you figure out how to make a freelance lifestyle work?
I’ve had musical mentors, but no real mentors when it comes to making this lifestyle work. But I think I’ve absorbed bits and pieces from different people I respect in the field with whom I’ve had interactions over the years.
Are there any books or other resources that have been instrumental in how you manage a freelance career?
The only book I read about managing a freelance career was a book by Hal Galper called “The Touring Musician.” Not everything in there applied to me, and some of the information is dated, but there were some useful ways of thinking presented in the book.
Is networking something that you actively make time for or something that happens naturally?
It’s a little bit of both. I feel like playing gigs, going out to hear music, and being in the scene is usually enough to network in the music community. But I think it’s important to remember that you want to put out a positive vibe when you’re doing this, so if you’re not feeling in the mood to go out, don’t do it, because you’ll come across as not wanting to be there, which might actually do more harm than good. Unless, of course, you’re good at faking a good vibe. 🙂
Describe how you use the web to help propel your career (example: your website, email list, social media)
I try to stay on top of social media to let people know where I’m playing. Even if it’s a sideman gig (which most of my work is), I think it’s important to help advertise, even in a small way. In my mind, it’s a part of the gig- after all, if no one came to the gig, it probably won’t last for very long.
Have you put much effort into how you market yourself? Describe how you figured out how to market yourself.
Honestly, I’m still figuring this one out. As a sideman, I have to wear a bunch of different hats, so it’s hard for me to create a specific “brand” to sell. It seems like musicians know what my capabilities are, but it’s tricky to fit that into a package and sell it to someone who doesn’t really understand how music ticks.
To what do you attribute the success of your freelance career?
I’ve been blessed with a great education in music since my childhood. My mother’s family is all musicians, and I had the chance to go to a really good high school and college for music. Probably most importantly, during and right after college, I got to play with a lot of older musicians, and really learned how to function in a band by doing it with people who are way better than me. That gave me the skills needed to deal with just about any kind of musical situation with confidence. I think having a real mentorship shaped who I am today, and I’m grateful for having had that opportunity, which I think is becoming rarer and rarer these days.
What are the benefits of having a freelance career and what are the pitfalls?
The benefits are that you are your own boss, and you have the freedom to use your time however you choose. The pitfalls are that since you don’t have a boss, you have no one keeping you in check, so you have to be constantly be keeping yourself in check, making sure you’re not wasting time. That can be exhausting at times, because you’re almost doing two jobs at once- manager and employee.
What advice would you offer to other artists trying to make it as a freelancer?
As far as getting work, your connections are everything, so make an effort to stay in touch with everyone you know. You never know where the next opportunity will come from, and it may be from somewhere totally unexpected.
As a musician, realize that music is both a craft and an art:
As a craftsman: be impeccable with your work. Make sure you continue to polish the fundamentals of how you express music on your instrument- rhythm, tone, and intonation. Train your ear so you can follow harmonies confidently, and learn music by ear very fast. Be an excellent reader, and know the repertoire of the styles of music you want to play, as well as an understanding of how to generate the feelings those styles are supposed to evoke.
As an artist: never stop being creative. Any time spent being creative is not time wasted. Make something everyday, whether it be a song, a drawing, or lunch, and take joy in it. You don’t have to share it with anyone, but document it if possible- you never know when it’ll come in handy. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s good or bad. Just care about it. Good and bad are artificial concepts in art anyway. Is a sunset good or bad? Neither. And although it can depend on your perspective of it, it’s always pleasant, sometimes spectacular, and sometimes moving.
If you had to do it over again, what would you change, if anything?
If I had to do it over again, I would start taking classical bass lessons at a younger age with an excellent teacher, and would make a better effort about going out and meeting other musicians when I first moved to New York.