A Young Person’s Guide To Hustling In Music and The Arts
You’ve got to have a line in the ocean to catch a fish
In the early 2000s, when I was supplementing my income with freelance writing, I had a curious conversation with Gene Simmons from KISS. Partway through the interview, meant to be about an upcoming tour, Simmons’ drifted into his real passion – business. He said to me the one rule he lived by was “you’ve got to have a line in the ocean to catch a fish”. This comment stuck with me, as it’s inherently relevant for any hustler. If you’re not visible, how do people know about all the work you’re up to and how it might fit into their needs or projects? Now this doesn’t mean you rattle off your resume every time you meet someone (that’s tedious, truly it is), but it does mean you should be out and about open to projects and ideas.
‘Yes’ is an important word, especially when you are starting out. Even if a project isn’t exactly aligned with what you’re interested in, there are probably lessons and skills to be acquired. So be open and be interested – that’s not to say agree to everything that pops up in front of you, more just think about the scope of what a project might offer in the longer term, rather than the immediate outcomes that will result. Basically, it’s about thinking strategically. I can attest, saying yes to projects like a lecture on location recording has led to commissions from museums and agreeing to produce a show for an artist has led to new commissions for similar projects both for myself and the artist involved. It’s win, win!
Don’t take things for granted
Entitlement is a big no no. We’re blessed to be in a country where there are some good opportunities and a fairly high standard of living. We’re lucky to enjoy some decent access to government and council funding, to work with supportive venues (both public and private) and to have a few patrons of the arts. Of course, to be honest, we could always do with more (and should actively advocate and encourage such growth), but we need to realise that not everyone is in the same boat and we can’t just take these things for granted.
If you’re supported by a patron or awarded a grant, then try to make the most of it. Who knows what tomorrow brings – this is particularly the case for freelancers who exist project to project. After all, policies change, government interests shift, patrons come and go A each opportunity you have is something you should take hold of and remember that it may not always be this way.
On top of that, a personal recommendation – spread your risk. If you happen to operate entirely on government support, a patron or any kind of income from a single source, then keep in mind that income may not always be there. The stability we may have known before is eroding quickly and without remorse. If you’re serious about staying active in the longer term, there’s nothing more important than having back up plans and alternative income streams to see you through the difficult times. This might take the form of part time work, or a nest egg you build for yourself in the better years. It might also be thinking strategically to secure yourself a buffer of activity so you know where your meals are coming from for the next 12 months. Whatever works for you, your projects and your creativity. Just remember, nothing is forever and nor should it be. Change is a beautiful and chaotic thing, wild and exciting, don’t ever settle into freelance stasis unless you want to decay.
I’m not talking physical health here, but spiritual health. Free time swiftly disappears when you’re freelancing – it’s a DIY world and you can bet no matter how hard you beg, the admin fairies won’t do those budgets for you or reply to the mountain of emails. With that said, it can be difficult to commit time to exploring new art, music, installation, writing etc. That’s where trouble can start. There’s nothing more important for the mind than being constantly stimulated and excited by new ideas and new creative pursuits.
I’m not saying go to every opening in town, to the contrary, sometimes interests outside your area of work will be most useful for sparking new ideas and concepts. Don’t forget that there’s a whole world out there for the exploring – a world rich in possible inspirations and curiosity, don’t be afraid to make time and go explore it.
I’ve rarely found that a project presents itself in an entirely complete (and funded) state. This is where the hustle is most pronounced – how to cover shortfalls? How to find the right ideas or partners to support particular aspects of a project? More often than not finding answers to these problems won’t be a singular exercise. It’s going to require strategy and thinking outside the square. To realise a recent project, I’ve had to secure four partners in three states to meet the expectations set by a commissioning partner. While a general lack of support from that commissioning partner is frustrating, it highlighted to me how important this kind of thinking is.
It pays to think about these things ahead of time too. It’s partnerships and working relationships that can really dig you out of difficult holes. Building diverse contacts with a group of people/organisations/patrons/funding sources that can be utilised from time to time is a must for long-term survival and also, in some respects, for the recognition and understanding of the work you are doing. It’s important to recognise the potentials and limitations of these partners and to be respectful of their needs. A force fit isn’t ever the best fit. Equally no one partner should be ‘milked’ – that’s a short-term fix and always ends with someone feeling they’ve been wronged. There’s no need to suck any one partner dry, not if you want to work with them again.
Australia is a joyously small place, and let’s face it, that’s one of the charms. We all generally know each other and people we don’t know are only separated by a few degrees. This is a blessing and a curse. If you need help, it’s never too far away, but if by chance your work/ideas don’t gel with the current state of play here, things can feel constrictive. Don’t fret though, there are always overseas opportunities to be found or grown. It might seem a bit distant, but a little research online, a few emails and who knows what might reach back out of the virtual darkness.
It’s also worth remembering what we do fits into a much wider ecosystem and often we can find ourselves caught up in local politics or issues that may weigh down on us more than they should. It’s important to remember we have brethren across the globe, all fighting the good fight.
Have a companion (or companion animal) and a life
It may seem obvious to say this, but seriously, this is a must. If you’re not in a position to have a close companion, have friends and family to rely on. As important as your work feels (and is), there’s more to life than this. There’s a whole wider world out there and it’s important to remember that, as sometimes you can feel quite crushed and disheartened after a rough year or two.
It’s at those times, a pat on the back from a loved one, the warm glow of a dog or cat on your lap or a nice walk or run in somewhere green can offer you a chance to reflect. Always remember that there’s more to your life than that project that won’t get up or that opportunity that just keeps eluding you.
And finally love what you do …
Art, music, film, theatre, dance, literature and the list goes on – the best work is always driven by passion. It is what carries you through the troughs and allows you to enjoy the peaks.
If you lose that, it’s OK, maybe it’ll come back and maybe it won’t. The thing is be aware of that feeling, and don’t lie to yourself about it, as that only catches up with you down the line. If you do lose your passion for a spell, there’ll no doubt be other options open to you – other ways that you might facilitate or foster great work being produced. Loving what you’re doing and who you are doing it with makes everything that much more worthwhile and satisfying.
As useful and reassuring as money can be, it doesn’t ever satisfy like passion does. As many freelance producers and artists can attest to, often there’s nothing more difficult than having to create and deliver a project that you’re not actually passionate about. If you are passionate about the project and it doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped, ultimately it’s never that much of a problem because you had a great time doing it, working with people you care about and want to see do well. If it does work out then that satisfaction is only amplified. So be true to yourself and create work and opportunities you care about!
About The Author
Lawrence English started his first fanzine when he was 15. He started a label the following year and has since been heavily involved in music, sound and media arts. Over the past 20 years he has tasted the bounty of arts related work, including freelance criticism, artist management, event production, tour managing, label production, exhibition curation, design, creative consultation and more. As an artist he has presented artworks and performances on every continent on the planet (yes, even Antarctica) and continues to produce works that prompt questions of field, perception and memory. He lives in Brisbane with his family of two humans and a schnauzer.