It’s January. This means that, in the UK at least, it is time to fill out the tax return again. Of course, I could have done it many months ago. Considering that the country was in lockdown and I wasn’t doing much of anything else. Actually, that’s not wholly accurate as I was working pretty hard getting the openArbanProject off the ground, teaching the TCE online, learning to program computers in Python, making websites and building my own desktop environment. Only a couple of those things relates to my music work and, as you can tell, my taxes were not on my radar!
Although going through all of my records, creating spreadsheets and counting milage for a year’s worth of gigs and private lessons can be pretty tedious, it also gives me a chance to reflect on the previous year and check whether any semblance of a career path is being followed.
Looking back at 2019 (and early 2020), I can say without doubt that is was my most varied and successful year as a freelance musician to date. On the classical side of things, I performed the Hummel Trumpet Concerto with an orchestra, played in two Mahler Symphonies, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The year was finished off playing in a ten-piece brass ensemble that accompanied the Brockenhurt Choir with arrangements by a colleague of mine, David Bertie. Just before the nation went into lockdown I played in a week’s run of Samson and Delilah with the Bristol Opera. In times of normality I still get classical gigs every couple of months, but this year had some particularly good moments.
In the more commercial field I had regular gigs with my band Mango Factory, including a couple of festivals. Regular rehearsals through the winter really paid off for us and I’m looking forward to getting back to that after the pandemic. I became a member of The Big R Big Band and we had a bunch of great gigs for swing-dance and vintage/nostalgia clubs. I played a few times with The Bare Souls, and a handful of engagements with Backbeat Soundsystem. I particularly enjoyed working with Backbeat because they have a very mature style and a lot of performing experience. Hopefully in future some previous members of that band will look my way when looking for a horn section! Another band I’m a member of is Fiesta Resistance, an authentic Cuban Salsa band. We had a few more bookings during that year including Cardiff Food Festival and some private engagements.
Other than all these great gigs I was also first refusal for a couple function bands from Bristol. A lot of professional musicians don’t tend to publicise that they do this sort of work but these days it is real bread-and-butter for freelancers. Personally I enjoy providing a service to the public and learning a few special songs for a client can really add to their event. This year the wedding scene was busy to say the least. I was out playing every weekend from April to November with often up to five gigs per week. These gigs were all over the country, literally from the south coast to Dumfries and from Fishguard to somewhere near Norfolk. I certainly got about, and it was fun. Thankfully I get on with the players in these bands or those hours on the road wouldn’t have been so enjoyable!
My teaching also went pretty well, picking up a bunch of new TCE converts all over the globe and selling a lot of eBooks. For those who don’t know, I’ve now split this website and its eBook store into two. The new online store can now be found at NeotericBrass.com.
On top of this I should also mention my TCE-RC trumpet mouthpiece, that I used for nearly all of the gigs listed above, both classical and commercial. There were occasional days when I experiemented with other mouthpieces, or changed to a deeper cup to better match those I was playing with, but I mean once or twice out of a whole year of playing. Invariably I found that because I am so accustomed to the TCE-RC, I wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible after trying something else – a real lesson in consistency was had there.
Looking back at all this whilst doing my accounts and thinking of the experiences, I’m really happy that I’ve been able to build up the friends and contacts over the years to make it possible; but there is also a flip-side to this experience that’s worth taking on board for anyone who is considering becoming a professional musician.
It would barely have been possible for me to work more during this time. Maybe I could have fit a few extra pupils in, or chosen weddings over my more artistic pursuits. But in terms of time and fatigue I was flat out and couldn’t have sustained this pace forever. In September 2020 I began working a day job out of necessity. All of my gigs since March 2020 have been cancelled and there’s not much hope of them coming back this year. I did not have enough teaching to make a living from it so I looked in another direction for earning money. I started a job for minimum wage and I was earning what would have amounted to about £18,500 per year. In my busiest year to date as a professional musician and teacher, who also happens to occupy a niche in that market too, I earned little over £19,000. After expenses, on paper, my profit was about £13,500. That was the most I had earned in fifteen years doing this job. I could never afford to buy a house, or plan for a meaningful future.
I’ve thought about these figures quite a bit since having a day-job and I realise now the true cost of the badge-of-honour known as “being a professional musician”. Obviously I’ve known for a long time that I didn’t earn much money, and just accepted it as a way of life. But comparing my earnings to what is considered by most as barely enough to survive, and realising that I was coming up short by comparison for my whole adult life has given me a slightly different perspective.
It will be interesting to see how the music scene rebuilds after the coronavirus pandemic, and I absolutely intend to be a part of it, but at least for now I think I’ll be keeping my day-job too.