Tips on Being a Freelance Percussionist by Chris Wilson
For more by Chris, visit his Blog

Earlier today I listened to Drumchattr.com’s podcast with Adam Sliwinski of So Percussion. I was very pleased with the interview, and thoroughly enjoyed is input on several topics in both the percussion and professional music world.

I wanted to touch on a subject that they spoke about for a few minutes, which was how to begin a career in free-lance percussion. It was interesting to hear is perspective, because, as he mentioned, he hasn’t had to do much on his own thanks to So Percussion. I thought I could give a little insight to some of the things that have helped me along the way.

For starters, I use every form of internet advertising possible. You’ll never know when someone wants to see your MySpace instead of a website. This could be because they want to just see a short bio about you and immediately listen to audio clips without digging around through your website. They may also be checking on your professionalism. This is why I am very careful about what I do or say on MySpace, and am even more careful with the type of photographs that are on MySpace.

On your website make sure to keep an offerings section that details what you are capable of. This is so very important for us percussionists, because we usually perform in such a wide variety of settings. For example, my website includes detailed descriptions on my assembly program, clinics I can offer, and well as other public performance I give. I have also found that it is best for me to not list my prices online, because you may automatically drive some people away. But, let’s cover a few other things before we talk about fees…

Apart from knowing how to advertise yourself, it is extremely important to know how to find gigs. Oftentimes as a free-lancing musician you need to create your own opportunities. This will include calling, e-mailing, faxing, (etc.) places where you’d like to play. However, there are a lot of gigs that can be found, not created. When living in Boston I found many gigs simply through Craigslist. This is because often a person who needs music (wedding, parties, restaurants) don’t know how to find us musicians, so they post on Craigslist. Some of my highest paying gigs ever have come through Craigslist.

Most of us know that if you want to free-lance as an orchestral playing you need to get in good with all of the local orchestral players. This can be auditioning for sub-lists, attending the concerts and making small talk, etc. It was great to hear the guys on the podcast discuss networking in such a positive manner like this, because it is the best way to work yourself up through the business. To make it in this overcrowded musical world, you need to show other players your face, as well as show them a great and positive attitude.

I am currently on the sub list for Orchestra Iowa, and not because I auditioned. It took three things: taking a gig no one else wanted, networking, and having a great attitude. I found that being a great percussionist in the eyes of a conductor can be as much attitude as talent. In my last few months in Boston I became the go-to percussionist for a few rising conductors simply because I showed up on time and never complained about instrument schlepping.

However, I’m on a tangent; let’s get back to my sub spot. In the spring of 2009 I auditioned for a sub spot with the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band. They had an open bassoon spot, so my wife auditioned and encouraged me to try out for the sub list. Not only did I get on the list, I nabbed to top spot on the list. As it turned out, the principal percussionist and timpanist of the Cedar Rapids Symphony (now Orchestra Iowa) were the principals in the Muni Band as well. All I had to do was take the low paying gig, show up on time and help with all the percussion hauling, and all of a sudden I was liked by these two very important musicians. By then networking with them, I got opportunities with the Symphony.

There are some of my tips and stories about free-lancing. Now, I feel it necessary to talk about money. Money, payment, and fees can be a mine field when starting out as a free-lancing musician. I have two major points of advice.

My first point is take the small gigs, and take the gigs that don’t pay. If you are first starting out, you need the experience more than the money… trust me. In the real world (especially in the non-musical world) college grads are always running into the problem of “great education, but no experience.” It is important that you do these gigs that pay either little to nothing in cash, but try to get as much as you can out of them in non-financial terms. For example, that spot in the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band doesn’t pay a ton of money, but it was a great networking opportunity.

One great example of a non-paying gig that helped me endlessly was my first assembly performance. This performance took place at Boston University High School in the spring of 2008. Although it was a non-paying gig, they allowed me to video tape the performance, as well as take photographs during the performance. This gave me multimedia options for advertising, as well as the experience factor.

It is also important to take those small gigs (up to a certain point). You need to fill up your CV and resume as much as possible. Once you feel that a certain area on your CV is looking pretty good, you can then start taking only the gigs that will pay (or pay well).

My second and final point is to be both reasonable and negotiable with your fees. If you’re reading this blog and taking notes, then you’re probably not a big enough name to have a flat fee.

I have been able to get so many gigs over the past few years because my fees were negotiable. You have to realize that in the current social and economic environment, music is sometimes not a high priority for people. When I am in contact with a school, I know that I’m walking a very tight line because schools all over the country are cutting music programs. If my fee is deemed to high by them, then I don’t get the gig. I’m sure to always tell my potential gigs the following true statement: I would rather get paid a little less to still play music than be sitting at home doing nothing.

And to that end, you need to make sure you have reasonable fees for everyone. If your fees are a little less, then it’s more likely that you’ll be called back for subsequent gigs. I have oftentimes performed a series with an assisted living center, where I come back multiple times.

As my Dad would say, it’s simply mathematics. If my normal fee is $50 for an hour at an assisted living center, but I’m performing for a place 6 times for $35 each performance, I have officially made up the difference. $50 for one performance… or $210 for multiple performances. Which would you rather have?

What tips do you have for freelancers starting out? What are some of your most dependable gigs, and how did you get them? What are some of the most important considerations when managing a freelancing career? Talk about your freelancing ideas and ask the community your questions in the comments.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on September 7, 2010 by Shane Griffin.

Dave Gerhart

Dave Gerhart

Dr. Dave Gerhart, Product Manager, Percussion for Yamaha Corporation of America and Lecturer of Percussion at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU, Long Beach, is a nationally recognized performer, composer, and educator. Dr. Gerhart, originally from Fairfield, California, holds a D.M.A. from the University of Southern California, M.M. in Percussion Performance and Instrumental Conducting and a B.M. in Music Education from California State University, Long Beach.
Dave Gerhart

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