Were you around when we had that big recession in 2008?
I was. My husband and I were primarily performers at that time – with a few adjunct positions and a small one-woman reed business. We had a new condo that we’d bought right at the top of the bubble, because we’re smart like that, and I had recently won my job with the South Bend Symphony.
When things first started to go downhill in the markets, it didn’t seem especially relevant to us. We didn’t have big money in stocks. Our expensive condo was worth less, sure, but the mortgage was the same, and day to day nothing seemed to change.
But in the next year or two, that’s when things started going sour. We didn’t have real money in the markets, but the DONORS TO THE ORCHESTRAS DID. Symphony orchestra endowments went down, the donations they had been running on went down, and suddenly their budgets were not balancing and concerts started getting cut. Some events were just canceled. Lots of orchestras rethought their programming, and hired smaller groups which meant less employment for freelancers. And during this slow recovery, collective bargaining agreements came up for negotiations, and we saw cuts in guaranteed services, pay freezes, and other frantic money-saving measures from the organizations that had been steadily employing us.
The recession wasn’t terrifying and shocking like the onset of the COVID pandemic. There was no single afternoon of emails that portended the loss of our entire spring schedule.
When things crashed – the housing market, the stock market – nothing bad happened to us performers immediately, but over the next two or three years our performing income was noticeable, tangibly lower than before. We went from working every week to working every other week. Little gigs, like church jobs, evaporated. Everyone was holding tight to their money, and you had better believe that that trickled down to the arts, which are basically optional to the rich. It was slow, but it was ROUGH.
What cushioned us? My reed business. Maybe people weren’t donating to the symphony, but they were keeping their kids in music lessons. Maybe the arts are optional for CONSUMERS, but the people who play the oboe wanted to keep playing the oboe. Not everyone can make their own reeds, I could make them, and this kept us afloat and functioning and putting food on the table even when the work was slim.
This is why I’m such an advocate for a portfolio career for musicians and creatives. When you have an alternate income stream, you can lean into it when you need it. You can have a small business that just kind of lives on a back burner, you can have a small studio of private students – and when you NEED a cash influx or a career pivot you have your foundations already in place. It’s relatively easy to turn up the heat on something you are already doing, and relatively tricky to start something from scratch from a place of scarcity and panic.
What could you create that would insulate you from the market crashes, the recessions, the pandemics that inevitably disrupt regular life?