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  • Writer's pictureZach Finkelstein

Year One: Investing in Yourself without Going Broke

Big corporations like Google or Apple, with patient shareholders and deep pockets, can spend years investing in themselves without turning a profit. Amazon, our new shopping overlord, started in 2006 and only in the last few years turned a respectable profit.

Unfortunately, teeny-tiny businesses like musicians don’t have that luxury. We don’t have investors. (Unless you count your parents. Or that creepy patron who keeps trying to take you out to dinner alone after every concert.) When most of us leave school, we are either broke or owe the government with no immediate job prospects. And unlike big businesses, we are personally liable for any debt. We can’t build equity in our company; our only way to grow our business is to spend.

And that’s OK.

It takes time and money to develop and grow a business. In year one, you are not going to produce and sell the next great American novel or set the internet ablaze with your ‘Casta Diva’ performance.

Your priorities, in order, for Year One are as follows:

1) Survival: You need to make enough income to live on and almost none of that will come from performance. You must have a second income and reduce your personal expenses. The less you spend on basic expenses such as rent and transportation, the more you can spend on your business.

2) Growth: Finish Version 1.0 of your product and get it to market. We all know that creative work takes a lifetime to master. You do not have a lifetime, though to build a book of business. You need to get your product to a level where it is viable in a local or regional market now to start generating income and building your network. And to do so, you need to showcase your creative work in a professional way, spending money on high-quality audio and video recordings and a website.


Survive: Build a Second Skillset

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of small businesses fail in the first year and 50% fail by year five. That means, on average, at least half of your class will have left the music business by the time you are 25.

Now, the good news: half of your cohort competition is leaving in five years! Your job right now is to survive those first five years, to win the war of attrition. In that time, you will build your initial contact list, an impressive portfolio of work, and travel the world! (If you don’t go broke.)

As my post ‘Getting to a Living Wage’ outlined, in Year One, it is sheer madness to expect to make a living wage from performing alone. Even before you graduate, you should be looking to build a second skillset through internships, temps and summer jobs. This skillset may or may not relate to music and preferably will give you a W-2 (wages, not freelance) every April.

What are your skillsets outside of singing? What are you interested in outside of music?

Were you good at math in high-school but are a little rusty now? Go take some free online courses at Khan Academy or start a Udacity Nanodegree. You might find something you like. Try out Data Camp or other computer science-focused site. Maybe in a few years you could develop those skills and a Github portfolio competitive enough to become a freelance coder, business analyst or data science intern.

Are you good with your hands? Some singers moonlight as massage therapists on the road and pay their rent helping other artists relax for $40 an hour.

Are you a good listener or good talking to people in person or on the phone? You could freelance as an HR or market research interviewer. I know at least three people who work in this field from the road and sing opera full-time, including a friend of mine who does vetting interviewers for non-profit CEOs. He makes $40/hour, does it 20 hours a week and performs opera as a regional singer.

And of course, there’s always teaching the next generation.

There are so many jobs out there that didn’t even exist 10 years ago and many of those can be done from the road with a cell phone and a laptop.

If you develop these skills now, if you build a career outside of music while you are training, you will be able to outlast the music competition. You will have more options open to you in the future. Not as a fallback plan or a “day job”- a dual career that allows you the freedom to pursue your dreams on your own terms.

And along the way, you will pick up some valuable skills that will help you navigate the business aspect of your music career.


Survive: Personal Expenses

There are entire blogs devoted to reducing your personal expenses (I highly recommend the radical genius, Mr. Money Mustache. Google ‘FIRE+financial’ if you want to go down the rabbit hole.). Future articles will delve into this deeper with wonky spreadsheets, but for now we’ll examine your four largest expenses:

1) Rent- this will be your biggest expense. You will need to find a way to get this as close to zero as possible for as long as possible.

  • Live with your parents if you can and show them the math on how spending that $15,000 a year on growing your business is the smart play.

  • Live Brooklyn…adjacent for a while. You can still get at least some of the amenities of a great neighborhood- a coffee shop to hang your hat, restaurants and bars, a public library, a grocery store, a gym, and a transit option- if you know where to look.

  • For your own quality of life, you will want to reduce your daily commutes to 30 minutes or less (see Mr. Money Mustache’s legendary article, ‘The True Cost of Commuting’.). Your priority will be access to transit and a podcast- or score-study- friendly commute to your major weekly commitments such as your office job, teaching studio, and coaches and teacher- and a very low price.

2) Food- this will likely be your second biggest expense.

  • You must learn how to cook. Eating out regularly is a luxury you cannot afford. If you do have social obligations out, you eat ahead of time and have an appetizer and a water for $10. If you meet your friends for coffee, you order a tea or black coffee, not the $6 cappuccino. Remember, you are in survival mode. All your money is going towards building your business. Everything else is secondary (for now.)

  • There are plenty of great online resources on frugal eating- for inspiration, I highly recommend the reddit forum /eatcheapandhealthy. A good basic strategy is to shop once on Sundays, cook low-cost proteins like beans and chicken in large batches, freeze them, and eat them for lunches and dinner during the week. Invest $20 in a slow cooker or an Instantpot from Goodwill and a cheap nonstick Wok and you can eat healthy for $1/meal, especially if you’re willing to eat vegetarian.

The brilliant tech journalist Kara Swisher recently quipped, “Owning a car will soon be as quaint as owning a horse.” Unless you absolutely need it for work, don’t buy a car. Seriously. It’s a money pit.

  • In most cities in North America, if you plan carefully where you live you can get away with some combination of public transit, walking, biking, and Uber and Zipcar. My wife and I have lived in three major cities together- Montreal, Toronto, and Seattle- and we have never owned a car. For weekend trips, we rent: it’s usually about $100 plus gas. For 5+ mile trips to coachings or rehearsals, I carpool, Uber, or Zipcar. Everywhere else I take the bus or walk (and bring an umbrella.)

  • If you absolutely must buy a car, you should buy used from a certified dealer and keep your car payment as low as possible. A new car depreciates the most in the first year, then, on average, there is a steady drop-off in value and depending on the model, another big dip in value around year five. One effective strategy is to buy a 1-year old used car, after the first big dip, then drive it a few years and sell it before the second big dip around year five. Another strategy is to buy a one-year old car and, with access to a good mechanic, drive it into the ground for 10+ years.

  • If you are cash poor, I would recommend looking for a roughly five-year old economy car (after that 2nd big dip in value) with good mileage that can safely get you from A-Z. There are some excellent cars (Honda Fit, Ford Fusion) in this category for around $10,000. That's still a huge cost,, but considering the average American car costs $36,000, you're still ahead of the game.

4) Health insurance - The U.S. is a brutal, Hobbesian dystopia when it comes to healthcare costs. These fees will be the yoke around your neck for most of your adult life. If you can’t move to Canada or stay on your parents’ plan, there are a handful of not awful options for young freelancers.

  • One is to sign up for a high-deductible, low monthly premium plan that has a Health Savings Account. You can stow away up to $3,500 (as of 2019) into an HSA to use for medical costs. Not only can you claim that money as a deduction on your taxable income, but the money inside your HSA grows tax-deferred and withdrawals from it aren’t taxed either.

  • Another option is to sign up for a plan through the Freelancer’s Union or through a professional union such as AGMA. For example, the Freelancer’s Union has plans tailored to young artists, such as their 'Oscar under 30' that are only somewhat terrible.

  • Depending on how broken your state government is, you may qualify for Medicaid or Obamacare. You will need to do your own research by visiting your state Medicaid website and filling out an application on the state health insurance marketplace. This process is incredibly stressful and time-consuming, but if you get it right in Year One it will save you tens of thousands of dollars that you can apply to growing your business.

  • If you are a healthy millennial you can always try paying the fine and skipping health and dental insurance. You should be very careful with this option. You are rolling the dice. One bad car accident or slip on the ice and you may have to declare bankruptcy and you lose everything. (Remember, as freelancers we are personally liable for all our expenses.)


Grow: Build your product and get to market

In Year One, you need to get your product to a viable level in your local or regional market now to start generating income and leads for new work. In order to do this right, you have to define what you're bringing to the table; produce a high-quality example to pitch, preferably in a video; create an online presence where conductors and artistic administrators can find you; and finally, generate a lead-sheet to track down potential local and regional opportunities.

Define your product

First you need to take an honest assessment of your current abilities and experience and focus on what you can get hired for right now.

What repertoire makes your coaches, teacher, and audience members sit up and take notice? What sets you ahead of your peers? What is your competitive edge now?

It was obvious for me, early on- I'm a light, pretty voice that wiggles. Baroque/Early Music, duh-doy.

I fought against it kicking and screaming. It took a few years banging my head against the wall of YAP-apalooza, starting auditions with heavier arias like Tamino's 'Dies Bildnis' or Nemorino's 'Una Furtiva Lagrima' to realize it. (And thousands upon thousands of dollars and a dozen wasted trips to NYC.) I can sing the hell out of those roles, but nobody cares- at the time, I wasn't competitive with heavier, full lyric voices in the same role, at least for any company that could pay a living wage. And that's OK! Right out of conservatory, I started flourishing in art song and baroque music. That led to an apprenticeship at Tanglewood which led to a major touring opportunity with the Mark Morris Dance Group which led to my debut at Lincoln Center a year out of conservatory and interest from an agent.

Later on, with experience and as my voice filled out in my 30s, my competitive edge changed. Now I get rehired by symphonies because I bring drama and excitement to the translations of composers like Handel and Haydn and sacred music like the St. John and St. Matthew Passion. (And I can wiggle.)

Record, record, record.

Once you've established your competitive edge, then you'll need to research what major works from that period get done the most often in your region and record those works, at a minimum with piano and preferably with a chamber ensemble. For example, a full-voiced young lyric soprano could get hired for a regional Verdi Requiem while she's in her Master's program; but a lighter soprano might want to record 'Pie Jesu' (Faure Requiem) and 'Rejoice' (Messiah) instead. Play to your strengths.

Ask around town where the best place is to professionally record a small ensemble and then hire your friends or an excellent coach. You should be able to record most of the rep you can be hired for right now for under $1,000.

Below is an example of a Bach video I created with the help of a talented local producer (Mark Obenza) and three fabulous local baroque players, Nathan Whittaker, Joshua Romatowski, and Henry Lebedinsky. I picked repertoire that plays to my strengths and that gets performed regularly by period ensembles and symphonies across North America.

Generating new content, while expensive, also gives you a terrific reason to reach out to luke-warm contacts- artistic administrators, old coaches, conductors who you've lost touch with after summer programs or university who could still recommend you or hire you directly for work.

Develop an online presence, preferably a website with excellent video and audio.

When a conductor or presenter searches for you on Google ("Bach tenor dude in Seattle"), they are looking for audio (preferably with video). They need to find you quickly and, if they are in a hurry and hiring from the recording, need enough reassurance that you have what it takes to make them look good. The best way to do that is to build a professional website riddled with high-quality audio/video clips.

Most singers will have a bio up front, sound clips and video clips, and a section for upcoming work. Advanced singers will have a discography and a reviews page with video from productions at A-level opera companies and symphonies.

Here are a few more examples of websites that look terrific, are easy to navigate, and provide plenty of content for conductors to review:

Starting out, all you need is a Bio/CV, a headshot, and some audio (preferably video) clips of the repertoire you are most likely to be hired in right now.

Generate local and regional leads. Tons and tons of leads.

Once you've got your site up and something to pitch to admins, you'll need to figure out a) what organizations in your city and region are performing those works; and b) the contact information of the people in charge.

First, generate a list of key search terms for works you are competitive to perform. For example, graduating from conservatory you might be competitive for local Mozart 'Requiem' and Handel's 'Messiah' and a Haydn 'Creation'.

I would then Google '[MY CITY]+Mozart Requiem' and set the search for the last five years. The first few pages of Google would present me with the names of organizations that have performed that work near me in the last five years. Then I would click on the organizations' websites and track down the contact info for the artistic director. Sometimes you will get an; that's not great, but it's a start.

To start you could build a database with the name of the organization, the name of the person in charge, their email and phone, the city, region, and a few notes (for example, "I sent her an email 4/2018, no response; sent again in August and she responded and met with me for an audition".

In addition to online searches, you'll want to start grilling your coaches and teachers- who do they know that is hiring and can they recommend you for those roles? If you are as competitive as you think you are, and your coaches and teachers have your back, they will be willing to vouch for you. In many cases this will be your first gig outside of school.

If you don't hear back, that's OK. Most will not respond to your first email. That's why you need tons and tons of leads. You also shouldn't be afraid to reach out to them again in a few months (and again, and again, until they are willing to hear you. What's the worst that can happen? They're already not hiring you.)

That being said, know your lane. If you have no experience, the Toronto Symphony is not going to hire you for their next major work. Research the bios of the people involved; if they look like your bio, if they list schools and local gigs and summer programs, you're probably roughly in their league. If the person just lists major conductors and symphonies they've worked with, and how their last album won a Grammy, maybe that organization is out of your league (for now.)

As you become more advanced and start working with larger organizations, more and more potential work will open up. Once you've worked with one major symphony, you can credibly pitch to the hundreds of symphonies, opera houses, chorales, festivals, and presenting organizations in the US alone.

If you follow these steps, if you reduce your expenses particularly for the big four categories, and you apply those savings to growing your business in a smart, focused way that highlights what sets you apart from your peers, you will be well on your way to making a living as a performing artist.

Summary (TL;DR):

  • We have a limited financial toolkit to create a successful creative career. Big businesses can raise money through equity and debt. Unlike big businesses, we are personally liable for debt and cannot negotiate favorable terms. Big business debt can be a healthy way to grow a business; freelancer debt is a surefire way to kill it.

  • Freelancers only have one lever to build our business: spending. And we must spend money to build our business.

  • Because we need to spend money to build our business, but don’t have the broader toolkit available that big businesses and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have, such as funding series and low-interest bank loans, the only effective tool in Year One is to reduce personal spending. Think of business and personal spending as flip sides of the same coin: for every $75 you spend eating out, that’s one less coaching you get on Madame Butterfly.

  • Because spending is our only tool, your focus in Year One will be:

  • Build a second skillset (preferably while you are still in school) that you can monetize as quickly as possible;

  • Reduce personal expenses as much as possible, focused on the Big Four: Rent, Food, Transportation, and Health Insurance;

  • Apply those savings to finishing your product and getting it to market.

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