Greetings intrepid readers. You may have noticed (or not, which is more likely) that I haven’t written any articles lately. There are a few reasons for that, and today I’m going to focus on the main reason – lots of gigs and no time to write. I’ve also been sick (see my last post on that), and had lots of company and family obligations, but mainly, I’ve been performing a lot. Below are five things that all gigging musicians (freelancers) need in order to be more organized, better prepared, and of course, make more money.
The Five Things
Freelance musicians, or as I call them, gigging musicians are a bit different than orchestral musicians (those with a regular orchestra gig, like the Atlanta Symphony), and teachers who play gigs. I’ve actually been both in my lifetime and each has its own rewards and pitfalls. Right now, I play gigs for a living and that is partly by choice and by necessity (I’m also a stay-at-home step-dad). Gigging musicians need the correct tools in order to be successful. Read on for my five things every freelancer needs.
An Instrument (Duh)
Well, yeah, a musician needs his or her instrument, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about a gigging instrument. I used to have two violins; one for symphony and chamber music performances (my good violin), and one for gigs, mainly outdoor gigs. This is an excellent idea because weather is the enemy of stringed instruments. Too humid and pegs stick and joints swell. Too dry and pegs slip and joints split. Going back and forth between the two is especially deadly. For this reason, it is always wise to have a spare instrument that you use outside so your best fiddle doesn’t get overexposed to the elements.
Also, it can be handy to have an electric violin or at least one with a good pickup. I play a lot of solo weddings and for the big ones (especially outside), I can’t be heard. Usually the DJ or sound guy can hook me up with a mic, but it would be best to just be able to plug right in and play. Same goes for less formal “concerts” like backing up a band. Standing in front of a stationary mic is not easy for most string players. It would be better to just plug into the sound board and then move wherever you like.
Gigging musicians travel. Therefore, one might say a reliable vehicle would be number one of the five things we need to have. I generally drive anywhere from a few blocks to 50+ miles to a gig. Without a car that runs well (and stops well) and has A/C and heat, I wouldn’t be able to do nearly all of the gigs I get. Being late to a gig is simply unacceptable no matter the excuse. Yes, accidents happen and flat tires are not anyone’s fault, but dead batteries, bad starters, and other mechanical issues can be avoided by owning a newer model car that you regularly take to get maintenance.
I recommend getting the smallest car that will allow you to pack all of your stuff. The reason for this is, parking can be tough so why make it tougher with a Buick land-yacht that can barely fit in your driveway? If you play the harp or string bass, sure you need a larger vehicle, but not us violinists. Plus, the gas mileage is better as the car gets smaller.
In today’s world, pretty much everyone under the age of 70 needs a smartphone. I would argue that every single person on the planet needs a cellular phone at least. Freelance musicians must have a smartphone for a number of reasons. First, you need to be able to respond to emails immediately. I recently got a gig playing for Amy Grant at Christmas here in town. Had I not responded within a half-hour, I probably wouldn’t have been hired (a fact I learned last year BTW).
Like most musicians, I keep my calendar on my phone. You need that at your fingertips so you can easily say yes or no to gig requests on the fly. In addition, it is so much easier to collect phone numbers and email addresses (or Facebook/Twitter IDs) when everyone has their phones handy. Business cards are still necessary, but phones are too.
Finally, we come to the most important reason to have a smartphone – directions. Some venues are hard to get to. If you are in a big city, lots of venues have the same name as well as streets. Here in Atlanta, we have about 70 streets named Peachtree Something. Without GPS navigation, we would be in big trouble. Yes, 20 years ago I got to gigs just fine without GPS, but there was so little room for error back then. Google Maps even gets you around traffic which is essential in big cities like Atlanta, New York, Chicago, et al.
I write a lot of music. I also arrange a lot of music for my string quartet for gigs. Sheet music is expensive, and sometimes brides want what they want so if a song or piece isn’t in print, you need to write it out yourself. My handwriting (music-wise) isn’t very good so I do all my composing on the computer using Sibelius. Of the five things every musician needs, this could be number one.
N.B. – if you are a good arranger/composer, there is money in that. I’ve been doing a lot of arrangements lately (solo, quartet, and orchestral) and I’ve been paid pretty well.
With the advent of IMSLP, any music that is not currently under copyright (that means most music written before 1924-ish) is available online for free. I should say, most music. If you’re looking for Mozart quartets, then you are in great shape. If you are looking for something more obscure, your luck might not be so good. For orchestra gigs, I can almost always get a violin part ahead of time for tough pieces, then show up at rehearsal prepared. This does require a printer so buy a good one. Ink is expensive, but you can use it as a tax deduction come April.
Finally, programs like Microsoft Office (or its free sister OpenOffice) are essential. Excell is necessary for keeping track of income and expenses. Word is essential for writing letters and resumes. I don’t know that I could live in today’s world without my PC (or MAC if you go that way…).
A Good Accountant
No, you don’t need to put the world’s best accountant on retainer, but freelance musicians’ income taxes are pretty complicated. Very few of us get a regular W2 at the beginning of the year. More likely, we get a whole bunch of I9s with some other stuff mixed in. Because of this, our taxes are difficult. We are independent contractors. We are sole proprietors.
Don’t make mistakes when you do your taxes. Do them right by using the correct version of TurboTax online, or better yet, go to HR Block or another reputable accounting firm and get them done correctly. Keep clear and complete records. If you don’t, you will be in trouble come April. If you keep good records (including receipts and check stubs etc.), you might be surprised at how little you will owe.
Above are my most important five things that musicians need for gigging. Obviously things like music, music stands, stand lights, and music clips (a very important item for outdoor playing) are important, but I file them under instrument accessories. If you have any others you think are necessary, feel free to comment below and let me know. Good luck!