I just got off the phone with an old friend of mine who lives in LA. He’s been a freelancer for a very long time, composing for film and television, working in film as a music supervisor, playing keyboards for some pretty well known people, and more recently, producing indie records and playing shows and recording with two of his own bands. We were talking about the huge changes the music business has undergone in the last decade, and how much harder it is to scrape together a decent living as a freelancer.
The typical fee or rate that a musician, audio engineer, or recording studio could expect to charge for a typical recording or live gig has DROPPED significantly since I came onto the scene in the early 80s. There are lots of reasons for this, and you can spend a week or two Googling them if you want the details. The main thing is that there are two ways to look at this difficult reality: glass half empty or glass half full.
In my opinion, far too many of the kids I talk to have reacted to this new reality by lowering the bar and scaling down their dreams. They react to how tough things are by giving up before they even get started. Is the music industry more difficult and competitive than it used to be? No doubt. Confronted with cold hard reality, it’s understandable why so many people have downsized their career aspirations. Understandable, yes. But I feel like it’s also a BIG mistake.
I’ve always felt that it’s important to have a “balanced portfolio” as a freelancer. Some work, you do simply because it helps to pay the bills. There is nothing special about it, and it’s not likely to end up on your resume’, credit list, or demo reel, but as a professional, you need to make money by working. Maybe another gig doesn’t pay all that much, but is higher in profile or is for a potentially lucrative client. But there should always be something you’re working on that has a high risk/high reward factor. The Impossible Dream. After all, regardless of the (insert whining voice here) crappy state of the music industry, people still win Grammys, Oscars, and Emmys. People still have hit records. People still have successful recording studios that serve niche markets. People still get signed to big record labels and have a cuts on a major hit movie soundtracks. Why not you? Why not put in a certain amount of time working toward BIG goals and dreams that have a chance at paying off BIG, either in money or in personal satisfaction? What do you have to lose by trying?
Having those big dreams keeps you mindful of the competition and pushes you to hone your skills. Sure, it’s hard out there. But when I was trying to get a record deal in the 1980s, there were about 15 major labels and NO indie labels of any consequence at all. So it was about as competitive as you could imagine. And in the process of trying to make stuff that was good enough to pass muster at the majors, I worked and worked and got better and got to the point where my stuff was just plain good, and that got me all kinds of work that had nothing to do with my big dream.
Having the big dream gives you something to hold onto when everything else is bursting into flames. When I was trying to make it, I would cut demo after demo, pitching them to labels, publishers, and whoever else I thought could get me closer to my big dream of getting a major label record deal. Along with these demos, I was doing lots of other work that was much lower on the risk/reward scale. And sometimes even that would fail. But no matter what, I always had my big dream that I was chipping away at, and I knew that one day it would pay off. And one day, it did.
So think about it. What is your big dream? Whatever it is, SOMEBODY is going to get there. It might as well be you.