Opportunities and ‘opportunities’

As a musician, you must consider who you are and what you are. If you are somebody who loves to perform as a hobby and are happy doing this for as long as you wish, then this article probably isn’t for you. Although it may come in handy if you are ever teaching someone who has specific aspirations.

If you are somebody who intends to become a professional concert pianist, an opera singer, a flutist in an orchestra, a film actor, you need to consider the following; that you are a commissioner. You are a business, just like a free-lance lawyer, a dentist who runs his own practice or a graphic designer. You are a business and you are selling your services.

Now don’t get me wrong, your art should never become an exchange. You should never do something for the money – if you want to do something for the money then stop trying to become an artist. The life of most artists are rife with financial problems, even for the best of them.

When you are an artist, however, you also need to be a savvy businessman or businesswoman. Your success and ability to share your work for a living will be affected by the decisions you make. When you see a golden ‘opportunity’, you should always consider the following; What am I getting out of it?

I do not mean this in a selfish way. If I were to give you a gem of advice before reading further, it’s that if your gut tells you to go with it, then go with it. Do not turn down opportunities too hastily. There comes a point in time, however, where if you want a career in the arts, you need to recognize which opportunities will help you progress, and which will not help you or will hold you back.

Depending on your career, you need to weigh up four things.

  1. Time commitment

  2. The experience I get out of it

  3. The contacts and exposure

  4. The money

Here is a way to assess these factors:

  • Time commitment: You always need to consider how much time you will have to put into something. Time commitment includes: relationships that will be affected and other jobs that will be affected. Other jobs could mean a day-job that you have as well as other potential performances that you may have to forgo.

    When relationships are affected, this could be anything from your spouse or your family and friends missing you to your day-job bossing not approving to a full break up from your partner/spouse. In some cases, when you can really recognize the ‘big break’ and you believe your spouse will break up with you as a result, you may want to consider whether they are right for you. On the other hand, if you are threatening your relationships for a bunch of free, time-consuming gigs with small audiences and no pay, then you might want to seriously re-think the opportunities you are accepting.

    As far as time-taken goes, this is directly linked to relationships and other jobs you could be doing. So when it comes to time commitment, you need to balance which relationships and jobs you are sacrificing (if any) in order to take this gig and whether it is proportional with the sacrifice.

    I will say that having known a number of ex-opera singers, they have a number of regrets about not being as involved with their social life and relationships. They have come out the other end of opera and found themselves to be lonely. Their own advice is to think harder about who falls behind when you are pursuing your dreams

  • The experience: Be very careful about companies who want to hire you for ‘experience’. There are many companies who believe they can get away with paying nothing to a performer for the ‘experience’. You need to have your own idea about what ‘experience’ means to you.

    Experience should not mean: More time doing shows, more time on stage, more time with a company. Experience should be specific: An opportunity to learn a specific role that you can put on your repertoire list (companies love hiring people who already know roles), to be able to work on a specific stage because of its size or notoreity, to experience your first few solo roles, shadowing roles or chorus roles, to work under a different conductor who you respect/want to learn from. Experience is tied quite closely with contacts and exposure, except you are thinking more about what you gain as a performer.

    The thing is, all experience is experience, but you need to know when to recognize whether the experience will be worthy in the long-term. If, for instance, you are offerred your first role as first violinist with new music under a very experienced conductor for free, but you are also offerred to be paid some money as a third violinist performing something you know for a small chorale group, you need to consider short-term verses long-term. The latter is something I would strongly suggest for someone who is happy to not have as much career advancement, or who is far less experienced. The former might be costly for you, but you will gain new repertoire, learn under an experienced conductor and you will be able to say that you have performed as a first violinist. As a result you may have ‘bragging rights’ to ask for more money in future gigs.

  • Contacts and exposure: Exposure is something that many companies wave around as a carrot on a stick for upcoming artists. I believe that if you are doing this as a hobby, this is a non-issue. If you are, however, pursuing a serious career, then there is a very simple way of deciding on this step: Look at the names of the people involved (particularly the director, choreographer, conductor and musical director) and read any biographies you can find. Consider how many shows they have done and where they have done them. If you see that the conductor has worked in 5 different countries with renowned repetiteurs, composers, musicians and actors, then consider the fact that having a good rapport with them will give you 2 degrees of separation from some of the biggest names in the industry. If you can, also see if you can find out anything about the other people auditioning for other parts, chorus or other instruments. You will be surprised where some of the biggest names can be hiding. I have landed fantastic gigs just by being friends with the people who prepared coffee in our shows. Sometimes the coffee lady or one of the men helping out with lighting turns out to be a wealthy business owner who will later fund your studies overseas.This is where my future article about networking comes in. I will discuss ways in which you can network and why we can no longer behave arrogantly or rudely as artists.A word of warning: If you lack experience for instance and you have a lot of self-doubt, then you need to be careful. Big names can backfire. If you are still getting over too much self-doubt and you perform poorly with a fantastic contact, then they have the potential not to recommend you to their own contacts. Make sure that you are happy within yourself. Sometimes it’s good to find out what a certain person is like to work with. Some people will take you under their wings as a teacher and will not judge you for needing to gain more skill and confidence.

    Before I bog you down with too much information, the simple message of this step is: Research the people you will be working with. Consider that some contacts are worth giving up things for; i.e. performing for free or at a cheaper cost, being away from work/friends/family and learning a lot about your craft. On the other hand, the more you are sacrificing, the more confident you need to be that you will benefit from this contact. Do not choose to go with a big name at risk of your relationships if you believe that this person would not lift a finger to help you. That is slavery.

  • Money: This is where the ‘big break’ factor comes in. Money can be more simply decided on here:

    – Category 1, for free: Only take these gigs if you are gaining a lot of experience, you will gain many contacts and you will have a lot of exposure. That being said, there is nothing wrong with being a professional and taking a free gig simply because you want to – assuming it does not cost your relationships or other work. Also, people who perform for free are often taught to be humble and to know what it’s like being poor. This is a life-experience that many young performers should have to prepare them for the busy life they want to pursue.

  – Category 2, some cover for expenses but very little profit: Similarly to category 1, only take these gigs if you are gaining a lot of experience. I believe that these are fantastic gigs for learning new roles or pieces because these gigs tend to be more local and don’t always cost so much. If you are repeating a role you already know and not getting much exposure then I would be very careful about accepting this gig.

  – Category 3, the decent wage for a short period: These are solid gigs. This is when you are being paid about equally if not more per week/month than your current day job. This may mean that you could safely leave your day-job, although the gig might only be temporary. If you are repeating a role then this is still an ok gig to take. If, however, you are likely to lose your relationship or gain very little public exposure  and few contacts, then be careful about making this decision. You may wish to seek out another gig that will give you more exposure and contacts since that might take you closer to your big-break.

  – Category 4, the big break: These are gigs that are consistent (i.e. you will be performing them like a full time job), performed in front of a massive audience and paid equal to or better than most full time jobs. This is when you can say that you are doing what you love for a living. In this situation, your exposure will be fantastic, you will be able to afford lessons, coachings and mentoring from big names, you  will   likely be working with top-contacts and you will certainly not need a day job. If your big break is likely to break friendships or relationships, then you might want to consider whether these people have your best interests at heart. None of my family, partner or friends pass judgement upon me or cause strain due to any ‘big break’ gigs. The big break is more common than you think. It does not mean that you  are necessarily the resident bass of the metropolitan opera, it simply means that you have financial security while performing full-time. Any extras are just the icing on the cake.

Chorus work, worth it?

Do not turn down paid opera chorus or choral work unless you have something else on that gives you more exposure. The industry is more saturated than ever and singers need to be creative and smart about money making and combining it with training efforts. Chorus is generally a fairly easy way to get some extra money, contacts, to learn new repertoire and to sing in a less exposed environment.

Remember, if you are a large voice that doesn’t typically ‘fit in’, this is a great opportunity to teach yourself how to sing with ‘less voice’. By less voice, I do not mean ‘off the voice’, but more pianissimo. Consider that even large voices do have to learn to sing quietly. Any spinto tenor who has sung Don Jose should know that the high note near the end of La Fleur is sung quietly. Similarly, most sopranos, light or heavy, are likely to attempt Porgi Amor at some point in their career (or the entire role) and this cannot be sung with enormous volume. Chorus and choral work is a great way to practice this technique while having some money to pay for that next competition!

Bonus step: Can anyone else provide this service?

If you know for sure that you are the only person who can provide this service for the company, then I would always make sure that you ask for payment. This is risky, however, since the world is far more populated and many more people are going for the same spots. This step requires you to do some research.

Learn to say no, politely

As a business, you need to avoid being a slave. Slaves get nothing out of their work except for a sore back. Practise saying no to things that you do not believe you will benefit from. Again, if you want to do something for free or you are just doing something as a hobby, do not fall into this trap. I am specifically targetting people who are seeking to make a full-time living out of performing.

Saying no can be a lot easier than you think. Simply imagine that you are talking to the nicest person you know and you are telling them why you cannot spend time with them that day. You will want to thank them for the opportunity or for approaching you specifically. You will want to say that unfortunately you have a lot on at the moment. If you would still consider the position at a cost, you can put it down to your living situation. You will want them to keep you in the loop and you will want to part on a friendly note. A good example of a refusal email might be:

Dear Jannet

Thank you very much for approaching me to be involved with your orchestra. It was very kind of John to recommend me as well.

My fee is generally $200 per performance and $30 per hour of rehearsal. (Optional depending on convenience) I am happy to perform for you at a reduced rate however. 

Please feel free to contact me further about this as it does sound like it will be a fantastic arrangement. I am free all of tomorrow to take a call (on 123 345 456) or we could arrange to meet over coffee. Otherwise, I would like to be kept on any mailing lists or social media pages so I am up to date.

Best wishes

Seymor

If you are open to a discussion about money, then do not make the mail seem so final. My above example avoids ‘closing the door’ by inviting the correspondance to continue. If, however, you do not want any further discussion, try something like:

“Could you please keep me on your mailing list if you have one? Otherwise do you have a social media page? I would still like to be kept up to date with your latest work and maybe we could work together in the future.”

You are hiding finality in plain sight here. Someone reading this might think “well, they are referring to ‘working together in the future’, so they probably have made up their mind about now.” But they will appreciate that you have offerred a vested interest in their company. This simple step alone will mean that you have a potential contact in the industry. As I have stated above, we are working on a page dedicated to ettiquette and making contacts in the industry, so we hope to work on more examples that you could draw from.

LEARN TO SAY NO:

Yes, I repeated myself. It was completely intentional. There are many artists who know full well that they are getting the short end of a deal, but they are scared that they will ‘ruin things’ by saying no. Again, you need to look at what you are getting out of this. Outside of performing, your talent is a business, not something that deserves to be exploited. Think about all the best artists out there; even the humblest artists are good at saying no. They can put their foot down without being rude and self-entitled. You are not being selfish or rude by saying no, you are just preserving your own talent. The people you want to work with are those who have something wonderful to offer.

I go back some years to when I worked for a company for free (and still would). They are an acting group run by someone who trained under some very big names. The plays they put on are extremely demanding of the actors and the director’s aim is to put on beautiful local work while teaching her performers. The experience that you get out of working with this director is invaluable, and it does not take up so much of your time that you cannot provide for yourself. This is someone who I would only say no to because it’s not geographically suitable (if I’m not living in the same city) or because I am in something else. If you are working for free, this is someone you should be working for. On the other side of the coin, I would never suggest that a new singer should say no to their first or second free gig on the largest local/national stage. The exposure for new-comers is often invaluable.

If, however, you do not believe you benefit in similar ways to what I have mentioned above, you need to consider something; perhaps the company does not have your best interests at heart. I do not mean to say that they are selfish. I mean that they might not know that; 1. you are not doing this as a hobby. 2. That you have been paid for the same kind of work they are asking. 3. That you have a lot of commitments and are only looking for paid work. Some companies just love creating things and use their contacts to find potential performers. They are not bad people, they just do not have your best interests in mind. So always remember that saying no is not selfish or rude at all. The way that you say no does matter however, as eloquence and good diplomacy can often work in your favour for future events.

Summary:

Always remember that when you make the choice to pursue your craft professionally, you are making the decision to become a free-lance business who gets paid in commission. Obviously, you may have to start small and go up from there, but you need to always weigh up every opportunity that comes your way. Some freebys will open the window for so many other prospects, and others will simply waste your time.