Turning over a new leaf (or how I really feel about 2018)
I’ve just shared my end-of-year news, which for me is an opportunity to reflect positively on the past year, and to share my plans for 2019. When I’m posting news on social media, I generally try to focus on the things that are going well, rather than dwell on any setbacks. And in many ways I’ve had a good year. It’s been busy and productive. I had a film score included in an exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, I wrote and premiered a substantial new chamber work, I did solo concerts, finished three new albums, and re-released my 2004 album. Income: almost nothing.
Sure, it's always been a challenge for me to earn enough money to support myself through music work, and I've never expected it to be a lucrative career. I chose it knowing it would be hard, and yes, there have been many times over the years when I've asked myself why on earth I’ve kept persevering. I’ve often considered alternative career options. The hours of unpaid work, the unpredictability of freelance work, the uncertainty of funding. Trying to accept the necessity of 'putting yourself out there' while dealing with the difficulty of finding a way to do that so it doesn’t compromise your core values or infringe too much on your privacy. I left music entirely between 2011 and 2014 because I couldn't resolve many of these issues, and because I felt they were adversely affecting my mental health. But I've come back to music work again and again: because I love it, and because it's the most challenging and satisfying work I've ever done.
I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 1997. Back then I was able to make a small living in a small city by doing a variety of freelance work: chamber music and solo performances, casual orchestral work, part-time teaching. A lot of this was possible because I'd grown up in that city and had pretty good professional networks in place by the time I finished studying. I wanted to have time to do my own creative projects, so I chose not to apply for full-time music jobs as a teacher or orchestral musician. I consciously chose the more uncertain life: a constantly shifting hybrid career. The uncertainty of arts funding means that I have almost always funded the original creative side of my practice myself. I’ve supported my composing, songwriting and recording projects through doing many hours of teaching and freelance work. This is a difficult juggle - creating new music requires a big time investment as well as a financial one.
I feel really ashamed sometimes that I'm so keen to perform - and so used to not being paid properly - that I'll still do a gig for next to nothing. I admit this is a situation that's currently amplified because I'm trying to get professionally established in a new country. Two years down the track and I do feel like I’m getting somewhere - slowly. But it means, for example, that I’ve done things like accept a composition commission that involved me spending weeks writing a new work and performing it, for a total fee that didn't even cover one month’s rent. When commissions like this come from arts organisations it’s doubly challenging. I feel strongly that they should be setting a standard: supporting and respecting artists by paying them properly. But I understand that it’s complicated - they also rely on funding, and they’re often working with very limited budgets. So the artists continue to work for virtually nothing in the hope that some ‘exposure’ will lead to more work.
This year I got awarded a grant to write a new piece, with a commission fee of £1000. That probably sounds pretty good, but I worked out I spent around four hours a day for four to five days a week over three months writing the piece. If I’m generous that works out as an hourly rate of around £5. I paid for the printing of the parts, and to advertise the concert. I had a very limited budget to pay the other performers, which I juggled by covering the shortfall myself and forgoing my own performance fee. At the moment I'm still waiting to be paid for a solo concert I did nearly two months ago, and I recently lost more income when a venue cancelled a well-paid concert at three days notice.
I believe that many people do genuinely love and appreciate the arts, but as someone who has worked in the arts for twenty years now it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that no-one seems to be prepared to pay for them. (I’m not going to go into the complexities of arts funding here - that’s material for a whole article on its own.) I understand that for many individuals it is an issue of affordability. I know it can be hard to commit money to an unknown ephemeral experience (like a live concert) unless it's a really well-known artist, or a band that you're already familiar with. Perhaps many of us are also still in the mindset that if we spend money we should have an actual object to show for it.
In some ways it can seem more convenient than ever before to promote yourself as an artist - using your website, social media, and various digital platforms you can put yourself out there without having to give a cut to promoters or agents or record companies. But none of this type of promotion guarantees an income, no matter how proactive you are. It might look from the outside like I'm a successful musician - doing gigs, writing music, recording albums. But even putting aside the fact that I’m currently self-funding many of those activities in the hope that it will lead to more work, the process of keeping all those platforms updated in order to build and maintain the enthusiasm of an audience takes up many hours of unpaid time. And these hours are time taken away from the actual creative part of my practice - writing and playing music. I am my own business, which gives me great freedom in some ways, but it can often feel like a special kind of tyranny. Sometimes I feel busy because I'm generating applications and organising events, but then I have to remind myself that these things are not currently generating any income.
I keep being advised to get my music onto streaming platforms. Don't get me wrong - I think it's really fantastic and convenient to be able to release music online, and I recently put my 2004 album up on Bandcamp. But I simply can't bring myself to join other platforms that aren't paying artists adequately for the content they provide. A quick internet search comes up with this information:
'Spotify pays about $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream to the holder of music rights. And the "holder" can be split among the record label, producers, artists, and songwriters.'
According to a report I read recently, musicians in the US received just 12% of the revenues their music generated in 2017 - ironically quite an improvement from the 7% they received in 2000. On a positive note, the report believes that this situation will change over time in favour of musicians, but as I see it, the problem is that many of us just aren't going to be able to make ends meet while we're waiting for that change to occur.
I know that taking on some teaching and freelance work might help improve my earnings. I'd love to be able to spend the majority of my time composing, but I know that my kind of hybrid career can only work if you're prepared to be flexible and versatile - and make big compromises. But it's not as easy as simply deciding you’re going to do other kinds of work. Location can be an issue. Financial considerations, a partner's job, needing to being close to family - these are factors that have necessitated a change of location, which in turn has affected my employment options.
Moving to a city with a larger population can often offer the hope of more work and a larger audience. I am actually now in a position to move to a city, despite that being more expensive in terms of living costs, and I hope that I’ll be able to access more freelance work. But in my experience the reality of such work is that much of it arises through simply knowing people in your profession. Professional networks and artistic relationships are usually built up over sustained periods of time. Just moving to a place with a bigger population doesn't guarantee work - it can take a long time to get re-established. Even when I moved from one Australian city to another that I'd lived and worked in previously, it took me a year and half before I could get a casual audition with the local orchestra. Permanent orchestral positions come up fairly infrequently and are in high demand - plus many orchestras are also suffering from funding cuts. Teaching can be a pretty solid source of income, but unless you manage to get a job at an educational institution, private teaching requires a suitable space at home - difficult if you're renting a small flat, and don't have the funds to pay for a space outside the home.
I've thought about applying for a music PhD, and investing in three more years of study in the hope that I might then be able to find more stable employment at a university. But how could I, in good conscience, encourage future students to invest in a career that I have so many doubts about? How can I fund three more years of study given the uncertainty of the outcome? I've dedicated nearly eight years to full-time tertiary music study already - and a music education can be expensive. I'm incredibly fortunate: my parents paid for my music lessons through school, made sure I had decent instruments to play, supported me financially through my undergraduate degree, and then understood and fully supported my decision to be a freelance musician, despite the risks and financial instability. I was lucky enough to get scholarships to fund postgraduate study, and I’ve only been able to continue working as a musician because of the repeated generosity of others - friends, family, partners - who have helped to support me through difficult times. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who don’t have access to that kind of support - without it, I simply wouldn’t be the musician I am today.
I'm not even going to try to calculate the unpaid hours of practice and preparation that I've invested over the years of my career. Musicians are similar to athletes in many ways - to be successful we have to start our training young and train consistently for many years, often working through physical injury and other setbacks. Mental health can be an issue - personally I've worked through at least one situation where I was close to a breakdown, as well as a number of depressive episodes. I believe a lot of the mental health issues I’ve struggled with arise fundamentally from questions about self-worth. I've lost count of how many times I've had to negotiate performance fees where it’s either expected that you’ll perform for next to nothing, or people try to haggle you down. And then you can wait for weeks - often months - for people to pay those fees. This makes you feel disrespected and undervalued on a regular basis. Fortunately there are some amazing organisations out there who support musicians' mental health: Help Musicians in the UK does amazing work, and the Australian music industry charity Support Act has recently launched the Wellbeing Helpline for musicians.
But… it's still so easy for me to believe that I've simply wasted the last twenty years. All those thousands of hours of work I’ve put in... What the hell were they for? I guess I’ve kept going because I do still believe in music. I believe in the transformational power of the arts: to help bridge our differences and to illuminate what unites, rather than divides us. I don’t expect any special treatment as an artist. My artform requires an audience, and it's my job to communicate to that audience - I can’t do that successfully unless I continually question the relevance of what I do, accept that things are always changing, and keep up with those changes.
But where do I go from here?
I've decided to take action - to be absolutely realistic about my work options. A music career, right now, for the kind of artist I am, is not sustainable. So I'm giving it a time limit - I’ve decided that it’s possible for me to spend one more year basically self-funding my career, and if there's no noticeable change, it's time for Plan B. I'm still going to work hard to realise my 2019 creative projects, apply for funding and bring out my new albums; but I’ll be simultaneously looking ahead to research alternative ways of making a living. Ideally to find a complimentary job that can give me a bit of financial stability, but that will still allow me the space to be a performer and a composer as well. I don't know if that's possible, but I'm prepared to work really hard to see if I can make it happen.
2019 is going to be an interesting year.