Thursday, July 7, 2011

Failure & Success

It's been about 5 months since I moved to New York City ... I've had some serious failures, but also some cool successes ... if that's not bloody confusing, I don't know what is... Having a series of successes, and then failing at something can be a tremendous confidence-blow ...

The biggest failure has been my inability to financially support myself in a secure way. Every month, I've been barely paying my bills & every month, the margin has gotten smaller and smaller. Some of this could have been solved by more frugality or better planning, but honestly that seems like a short-sighted/growth-deterring solution.

Honestly, the solution is having a higher income. For a long time (despite the advice of a cellist-friend who I have immense respect for), I thought busking could be the solution to that. It seemed like a nice way to balance things - flexible, only required a few hours a day, involved getting to talk to people & get my music "out there" and network/get gig offers ... but there's been less and less of all of that lately, and the money is just not there. Despite my stubbornness and determination, I finally have to accept that this isn't the way I get to write my ticket to a better life. It's not going to get me there. On the other hand, it's immensely improved my playing & performing abilities & helped me develop some of my acoustic repertoire. I even managed to get into MUNY - an accomplishment for sure (I get to book my first performance through them very soon & am definitely looking forward to it!).

So busking has failed in that regard ... I've also failed at generating enough performance gigs to really provide good income. I've had some success doing solo or chamber performances at coffee houses or stuff like that (but I also had one absolutely terrible depressing & hurtful experience too). But I've stalled on where else I can start to play at or how to build up more of those. Also, my following is only so big .. I can only bug people to come see me play so often ... I guess in a way, I'm a little afraid from trying out a place cold, because of my failure at the previously mentioned gig ...

I've barely been able to get into the classical world of gigging at all ... it's sorta been like the really attractive & intelligent and amazing girl/guy that you see everyday from a distance and really wish you could get to know, but have no way of doing so ... the truth is though, I think deep inside, I've never really wanted to be a part of the classical world. I feel part of that is because I never felt invited & often, when around classical people I didn't really feel like I clicked with them ... I felt like they were very uptight or very narrow-minded & I just felt like I wasn't in that box (now to be fair, I've met & even been friends with some really awesome classical people) ... I also felt like I was at the bottom of the totem pole so to speak & I'm sure some of that has to do with my being a lesser cello player than most of the other people doing it professionally & some of it has to do with me going to a less connected, less prestigious school than most of the other people doing it professionally (and there may even be other factors I'm not aware of). For a while I thought going to a prestigious grad school and studying with an amazing cello teacher there would be the solution (and I think in some alternate universe, there must be a Mike who started cello at age 8 or something and became a really amazing cellist & went to a really famous school, etc, etc)... In this universe, I realized that I want to build a career based off of creating and performing my own original music in the rock/heavy metal vein? Can we say cool????!!! Can we also say Crappy Way to Pay the Bills?? Anyway, whatever the reasons, I've generated a small amount of performance work for myself & I'm really grateful for it & for everyone who's worked with me or told me they admired my playing or asked me back or whatever ... but still, it's small ...

I knew it was going to be fucking hard when I made the decision to be a professional musician (and kept re-making that decision) ... hell, hard was mostly what I knew, so it didn't really seem like a big deal ... just more of the same ... I knew that I'd have to build my own career ... I've even read up on how to do this ... but honestly, I've failed so far at it ... I am a good cellist, I am a good teacher, I'm not a good freelancer/business person. I don't have that skill set ... the inroads I've made have been just from general enthusiasm & sharing and persistence ... I feel because I have that, in the long-term I'll be successful, but in the short term it's not working ...

Another area I've failed hardcore in is building up a private student base. I didn't realize when I started teaching that I just really didn't have a good setup to do it. My first teaching experience was through an In-Home Lessons company (that later turned out to be sketchy and got investigated by the FBI) & some students I found through craigslist. In the time since then, I've never had more than 5 or 6 students at a time. I couldn't really teach out of home ... home was just hell in a lot of ways (and I mean that more than emotionally) and it was just a really unsuitable teaching space. I didn't have an internet connection that could handle doing skype lessons & I didn't live in the right area of westchester where driving for lessons made sense. So then I got a job at a music school 10 minutes away from where I lived - exciting, but not many students just yet ... definitely seemed hopeful. Unexpectedly, I had to move from home & even more unexpectedly (after having given up the dream of doing this for the time being), I ended up moving to New York City. All of a sudden this music school was really far away ... I stuck out the year, but decided to quit after that, because the money for the time just didn't make sense. In retrospect, I should have reached out to the local school teachers & tried to recruit students. I gained a lot of confidence as a teacher from the last year of teaching (at that music school and otherwise), which is something I didn't have. But still, I have not developed studio-building skills ...

There''s been a lot of successes over the last 5 months too (and the fact that I've even managed to keep paying my bills doing this is one of them) ... but right now I need to focus on the failures and bringing myself to the next level before things really get out of control. I've come to terms with the fact that right now I can not support myself just on a musical income. What must be balanced with that though is that music is still the most important thing in my life & I need the time to continue to develop my skills & to perform. I need the flexibility to be able to do local gigs, to go away to weekend gigs/events & network & hopefully at some point, tour.

I think temping is going to be the avenue ... temping and some small goal setting so that I keep building the career things that are going on for me, so maybe in another year or two I can actually have an income just based on music ...

I think one thing I have to learn to control is my amount of leisure time ... I've taken some very generous amounts right now (and sometimes I'll use that for networking, etc.) & that's been very important/useful to me in a lot of ways, but I think I have to learn that being an adult means that sometimes I just need to work more & be happy less, so at the end of the day, the ship is still floating.

This is where I am right now ... I know that where I am right now is worlds better than where I was 5 months ago ... I'm a fool, but a brave one ... I've had so many things to knock my confidence down & point me to pick something more sensible to do with my life ... but I love doing music too much ... I love reaching deep into someone's soul/psyche/whatever and causing them to smile or bob their head or move a bit or stare and watch in awe ... I love sharing with them, I love the feeling I get, I love the feedback they give ... I will make this work

But first, I will get some financial security, because this ship can't run on empty...

2 comments:

janiscortese said...

Quick drive-by comment from a total stranger -- if you have trouble with the business end of things, then that's where you need to plug the holes. Seriously. You MUST learn this stuff. Take some self-starter business classes on How To Run Your Own Business.

If this is the problem and you realize it, then you must attend to it. Yes, it's dull and boring and irritating and sucks, but if you don't, you are not solving the problem you need to solve, and it's not going to get any better if you neglect it. Zoe Keating had to learn the ins and outs of iTunes and self-marketing and registering as a single-owner business, or else she'd never have made it. Being a good musician isn't enough, you need to be a good businessperson.

For now, check out something called MuckWork, which is sort of a crowdsourcing service for crap work for musicians, but otherwise, go learn to do this stuff or you'll suffer for it. Business classes and classes on how to secure loans, how to set yourself up, what tax things you need to watch out for, how to keep books, how to market and network ... you know you need to learn it, so learn it.

If you know where the holes are, and you don't plug them, you will have no one but yourself to blame when your boat sinks.

Good luck. :-)

Jenny said...

I know I'm late to the party, and I know that time has passed and you have probably made some changes/had more successes, but I HAD to chime in, here. I would not use the word "failure" to describe a person who moved to NYC so recently and is managing to eek out a living, however meager, only by playing music. You are in the single MOST competitive market for musicians (maybe LA is just as intense, I don't know), and you are working ALL of the time.

And your whole thing about the classical world - you are not wrong, it is a pretty small/closed world. But that is not to say that someone like you may not enter. You need the right connections. And you are making them. You are out there playing, you are improving, you are recording. It takes time. In the classical world it is also all about who your teacher is. People stay with their teachers far into their 20s, even 30s. If you can afford to hook up with one of the big cello players, and if you want classical gigs, then do it. You are certainly not a lesser being.

I agree with the person who suggested that you hone your business skills. This is exactly why I have been able to keep working despite the fact that I didn't even major in music. You are only starting, Mike. You have plenty of time. You are figuring it out, and you will "plug the holes."

:)