Orchestral freelancing comes with its own set of math.
You’ve just opened your email and there’s an offer in it! WHAT do you think about before you respond with a joyful YES?
Of course, WHEN is it? You can’t say anything without knowing the dates and times and whether you are free.
WHERE is it? The relevance here is directly financial! Before you get excited about the money they are offering you, spend a few minutes thinking about how much money this job will cost. You should math it out and know roughly how many hours you’ll spend in the car and how many dollars that will translate to in fuel, tolls, parking, meals or fast food, and maybe even canceled students.
As a person with a reed business, this opportunity cost is important – I know how much I can make in an hour sitting at my desk, and it’s rare that a gig will replace that amount for me, especially if there is a large amount of uncompensated travel. That said, of course a performing gig is more engaging and exciting than scraping oboe reeds, so that satisfaction and emotional energy are worth something as well!
HOW MUCH does it pay? Once you math out the expenses associated with it, are you still enthusiastic? The gig might offer mileage, cartage, per diem – do those actually compensate for your time and energy?
Will taxes be taken out? If not, you will need to pull some of that check aside to cover your tax burden for the year. In my business, my practice based on years of iterating and the advice of my CPA is to hold 15% aside from EVERY BIT of non-W2 income that shows up. If I DON’T need that money to pay my tax bill, I can scrape it into my own account in April as a “refund” but in the short term, I have to understand that I can’t have all of the money that this gig is seeming to promise.
If the money isn’t sufficient, is there room to negotiate? A church gig or collaboration offer or independent contractor might be able to offer more if you ask, and if your ask is based on clear reasoning. An orchestra’s per service rate is contractually set, so there’s not much wiggle room there, but it might be worth asking about their mileage compensation or any accommodation they can make for a hotel stay or host family. Not every group can do this, but some can.
But of course – it’s not only about the money, right?
Questions about WHAT is the repertoire, or the offer, and WHO is asking are relevant to us as artists, for sure, but I think the more crucial question, the one that illuminates both of those, is our final W word –
WHY might you want to take this job? Why are you freelancing at all?
This really depends on where you are in your career. You might be trying to boost your music career and quit your day job, in which case ANYTHING is a step up. You might be trying to get your foot in the door in a new city or a new freelance scene. You might be trying to gain experience so you feel more equipped to take auditions and win a more permanent position.
It might be worth taking a lower-paying gig if it gets you in with a circle of musicians you haven’t played with before. It might be worth it if you get to play repertoire you are dying to play, or play a role you haven’t otherwise gotten to try.
OR you might be more where I am, looking to spend more time with your family and building your business, but still attracted to the artistry and the camaraderie of applied music-making.
It might be worth turning down something that pays a perfectly sufficient wage if you aren’t interested in the rep, if you know the people and dislike them, if you can think of better and possibly more lucrative ways to spend your weekend.
I LOVE the oboe! I’m having a blast playing great music with great musicians! But I’ve started leaning away from some of the freelance work I used to do.
I used to strive to fill every weekend with orchestral or chamber work. Now I pride myself on keeping one to two weekends open every month. I started small – I vowed that I would never again drive out of town for a holiday pops concert. That felt so good that I expanded it to ANY pops concert. I don’t drive to play pops gigs – unless I choose to. Rules are great but my rules are for me, and I am free to make different choices in the moment.
No matter where you are in your career, every YES has a no in it. There’s an opportunity cost to every job. The time you are spending could be used in a multitude of alternate ways. Working on your business in a way that will boost a different income stream. Being available for a last-minute, higher-paying job. Resting and catching up on laundry and meal prep in a way that helps you to care for your physical self.
The balance of what you need may change from week to week, and YOU get to choose.