The Real Schaunard? The Realities of a Struggling Artist.
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
In the opening scene of Puccini's La Bohème, Schaunard, a struggling musician, comes home with funds from his latest commission. The group celebrate his good fortune with a plan to start drinking, just as the landlord arrives demanding rent. Their solution to the problem? Get the Landlord drunk!
In reality, I wonder whether Schaunard would have come home, paid the landlord immediately, paid the bills left till the last minute and if miraculously there's anything left over, he might treat his friends to a bottle (or two) of Aldi's finest for less than a fiver - not as much like paint stripper as one might think.
According to Schaunard, he had to play for "three whole days" to earn that silver: although probably an exaggeration of operatic proportions, musicians are no strangers to the realities of the unpredictable income and long working hours heavily associated with a freelance career. But when your reality is sitting in a car park between teaching jobs calling your parent (or patron, as it sometimes feels) asking to use her card for the £3 parking, you don't seem too far removed from those suffering artists in their Parisian apartment.
In truth, I've never been afraid to speak about my personal situation in this blog. In many ways it's not only cathartic but it connects me with those feeling the exact same way. However on this occasion, feelings of failure are swimming around my head, painfully aware that this truth I present about my circumstance is a far cry from my post-graduate dreams. Don't get me wrong, I am okay, but the mind can be a cruel influence with a persuasive tongue.
For context, let's set the scene...
I'm in my second year out of education: the majority of that time has been spent in a lockdown where life as we knew it stopped existing. Everything that is, except for the outgoing bills. In a climate where we've seen incomes stagnate, furlough end and universal credit decrease, we've also been exposed to higher food bills and higher energy bills, accumulating a rise in the annual cost of living per person to approximately £1,443 over the past decade. It's no surprise that recently, priorities have become far more about making money than making music, and it seems I'm not the only one.
In a recent questionnaire of readers and followers alike, it seemed the majority (87%) felt when asked, that they worried more about money than they would like and that paying bills has become the priority. Financially (like 53% of people asked), I rely heavily on my teaching. I work for two music services, one conservatoire and have a handful of private students. It's long hours and long commutes with many of my students the other side of London - this, just to make ends meet. During the pandemic I was, like many of us, on universal credit but as lockdown lifts the pressure to find a "real" job by the job centre bears down like a tonne of bricks and the space to practise to achieve the career you dreamed of gets dismissed like a fairy tale, it can be hard to keep going.
Even the fairy tale itself comes with a Grimm price tag (if you'll pardon the pun!). An audition can set you back anything from a tank of petrol or train ticket right into the hundreds once you've factored in the travel, lessons and accommodation should you need it. If you're looking for a way out, an audition abroad is even more with flights and accommodation for a longer stint. Finding the balance between earning enough to fund your career aspirations and having enough time to put the preparation required feels more illusive than finding a cure for Mimi before we call it curtains.
So whilst my flatmate and I re-enact a budget remake of "Two Broke Girls", I can't help but wonder whether we've all got it wrong. Whether in fact we've been so prepared to sign ourselves up for a life of financial hardship and overworking that we've missed little solutions to make our day to day a little easier without breaking our backs trying to make ends meet. Although I'm certainly not promising a way out of our financial woes, there are small steps we can take to cushion ourselves.
Know your worth
We work in an industry where our rates are largely our own to set but even if they're not, we need to be clued up on how much our bare minimum should be.
The MU* have a brilliant page covering exactly how much you're worth for each activity you do. For example, your hourly rate as an instrumental teacher should be MINIMUM £36.50. Whilst an arranger should charge £57.07 and hour.
It's so easy to let your ego do the talking when it comes to the sums, especially if you're likely to fall on the modest side of the scales you can be all too quick to undercharge. Feelings of not being worth as much, or thinking it's cheeky to ask for X amount can cloud our thinking so work it out. Look at the going rate in your market, work out how much you'll be spending on travel and the rate of inflation (something you'll need to assess annually). Think of yourself as a business because that's exactly what you are. You have costs that need to be paid.
*I'm a member so it's easy for me to access, ISM also have the relevant alternative but I can't recommend enough joining a union to give yourself some extra support.
https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/career-change/pricing-freelancer/ - American but relevant
Are you paying too much for your everyday?
Price check everything! If you cannot think of a logical reason for why your energy is with X or your phone is with Y then you need to get changing it. Price comparison sites can seem like a bit of a headache but when you think of how much money you could be saving, it's a no brainer. I know I pay more than I would like on my car insurance, but that's because I've been screwed over in the past by cheaper cover so I've decided it's worth the extra money to be protected. This means, however, I'm damned if I pay over the odds for anything else. If you're renting, talk to your landlord about switching things up energy or internet bill wise HOWEVER one thing I will add at this very moment in time is that according to Money Box on Radio 4 last Wednesday, if your energy company went under and you've been moved, now is the time to stick with it, just until things all become a little less dire.
Is it time to reach out?
Many of us in the profession have family or friends to help us in a bind but what happens if that's not an option or they can't help you enough? Sometimes it's more than just struggling for money, sometimes there just isn't any. Hard as it can be to overcome the shame, guilt or embarrassment that comes hand in hand with debt, if you reach out there are people to help. From my own personal experience, trying to deal with it on your own is not always possible.
https://musiciansunion.org.uk/career-development/career-guides/financing-and-funding-your-work (members only)
What about that dream?
Whilst we're taking time to really graft our way through postgraduate life, how do we keep our eyes on the prize? For me, this is something I've found really hard, often letting the Kraken rear it's ugly head to tell me I've fail. In the three weeks since term has started, I've taken a week to just get to grips with my new timetable, another week finding windows where practice is absolutely possible and marking them in the diary just as officially as my money jobs so I've deliberately carved that time out for myself. It's the same with the blog, even if, like at this very moment, I'm writing right outside the house of my next pupil.
I've also set myself another promise; performing comes first. I love teaching, my students are great. But for me I need to perform and push myself in my cello playing in order to feel "well-oiled" enough to pass the best advice onto my students. It's something that's really important to me. So, if I'm asked to do a concert and it's a good opportunity that will help me on my way to where I want to be, then I take it. That's my bit of self-care.
This is also where I admit I've had to stop scrolling social media as often. It's not just teenage girls who feel inadequate when seeing glorious lives led through an Instagram filter...
You are your own instrument:
This is a phrase that came wondering over my newsfeed this week and I think it's fabulous! You are your own instrument.
A painful side effect of grafting is the lack of looking after yourself. At the moment, I'm spending most of my day in my car. Now I love my car but it does not love my back. For the first time ever I'm experiencing the worst lower back pain I've ever known and it's even led to missing a day off work and we all know what that means - no work, no pay! It's all very well earning money in order to support the dream but if you can't play due to pain caused by graft then it's all worth zilch! So my challenge this week is to find moments (somewhere!) to roll out the mat and give my back some loving!
But what about your brain? Arguably the most critical cog that keeps the ever stretched musician going. We all have tell tale signs when our brain is about to pack in and it's only recently that I've begun to figure out mine. Some people notice it in how fast they snap, how much they struggle to get words out or find the right one, lack of concentration, the list is endless. One way I'm trying to check in is on my drive home. I turn on Magic FM and I HAVE to sing. If I don't want to sing or find it hard then I know my mental health has dipped so I sing as if I'm bloody Tina Turner. I mean I probably sound like Hyacinth Bucket but I've worked out it's a sign shit's not hit the fan, even if the glass is smashing!
Things Musician's Don't Talk About Podcast
This is in no way an article about the glories of overworking, it's about the realities. Sometimes the only way to get through something is to graft. It's difficult when you're in the middle of it to see the bigger picture. It's unhealthy to graft forever and if done right with a plan, it shouldn't need to but for many of us right now, it's our only way to stay afloat. So every so often, take a break from the social media, from the emails, from the naysayers, from feeling like you're in an Italian tragedy, take a breath and look how far you've come.
You are always where you're supposed to be!