Artists, musicians, and freelancers don’t create a career overnight. Unlike a 9-5 job where getting hired rewards you with instant and consistent cash flow along with great benefits, creative professionals must create their entire business from the ground up. Staying committed to a business strategy for years is necessary before you can enjoy the stability and financial rewards the 9-5ers get on day one.
Jazz vocalist and bassist Katie Ernst is a Chicago musician who has created her career in the jazz world as a performer and instructor. In addition to teaching collegiate level courses and masterclasses, Katie is established as a freelance musician and is involved in numerous projects like her jazz trio Twin Talk and her creation of “Little Words”, an original song cycle based on the poetry of Dorothy Parker.
I talked with Katie about how she developed her stellar music career from scratch, her strategies to balance business and creativity, and what she thinks musicians and freelancers need to know when starting and developing a career path.
From College Graduate to Professional Freelance Artist
Although Katie already had extensive experience as a gigging musician while in college, she had to break into the Chicago jazz scene after moving back to her hometown area after graduating in 2011. Katie put in the arduous work of extensive networking by “hearing people play” as much as possible in addition to “starting bands, getting people together to play”, and supporting and creating in the community she wanted to be part of.
As Katie started developing her career, she was already thoughtful of her finances having started a musicians retirement plan in college. To create financial sustainability during the start of her music career, Katie also worked an administrative job (read more about financial sustainability in the eBook – “The Financially Successful Musician”). Although Katie wanted a career where 100% of her work was music related, focusing on financial sustainability early enabled her to create a great foundation to successfully establish her music career.
Before long, Katie developed enough consistent income via freelance gigging and teaching along with other music projects that she could focus all her energy on her music career. She continued to play with as many great musicians as she could, joined house bands, and created music projects of her own like “Little Words” and recordings with her trio Twin Talk.
I asked Katie if there was a point when she felt like she “made it” as a musician. Katie didn’t really speak to when she made it, but more importantly, when she knew that music was going to be her life. While she was in college, she was playing a lot and figuring out how to hustle as a jazz musician. She talked about her time studying jazz in college when she was starting to get more consistent work. Katie described more of an epiphany of “yes, I can do this for a living” moment where she understood what it would take create a professional artist career and really believed she could do it.
Katie emphasized the blended experience of learning and playing at the same time. “As a jazz musician, you keep playing while learning.” Through her first few years after college, Katie kept learning and developing not only as a musician but as the manager of her music career.
As Katie’s career developed, she was able to slightly change her approach to where she derives her income. Initially, she relied more heavily on part-time work and playing any gig as she could get. Having established herself as a professional musician in the jazz and academic world, Katie enjoys the luxury of becoming more selective about opportunities.
Career growth can be marked by growing income, but sometimes it is a higher priority to create a better working environment and reduce your work load. Becoming an in-demand musician in Chicago, Katie was able to start turning down offers that weren’t great gigs for her. “There is a difference between playing the music you love with the people you love and anyone that just calls because they need you” for that night.
This sentiment has been expressed to me over and over by successful freelancers and business owners as the best part of having developed their business – only doing the work you like with the people you like. This is a benefit that doesn’t come until later, but it is also one that the 9-5ers don’t get.
Growth & Income
A recent Americana Financial Planning blog post explored the difference between a “Growth Musician” and an “Income Musician” (like Growth Stocks vs Income Stocks). I thought of this analogy when discussing Katie’s career path and how she balanced generating income and growing her brand.
As is common with undergraduate jazz performance majors, Katie was consistently working as a musician while studying (playing while learning). After college, Katie’s goal of generating all of her income via music was ambitious. During this time, Katie was heavily focused on “Income Musician” goals like generating consistent income from a variety of sources, creating a safety net, and financial sustainability. Eventually, Katie pieced together enough sources of income to leave her administrative job. “It was less money at one point, but it was worth it.”
Continuing to develop her career as an “Income Musician”, Katie was able to set and reach other goals like being more selective about what gigs she takes.
After solidly establishing her freelance musician and educator career, Katie was in a great position to target some “Growth Musician” goals. Her well established music network and reputation allowed her to meet many musicians. Early on, she played with drummer Andrew Green and saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi which all together formed the trio Twin Talk.
Twin Talk is a Chicago Jazz Trio that describes itself as a true democracy. The group started playing together and performing their original content. When developing and promoting their music, Twin Talk took a much more “Growth Musician” approach, including mostly reinvesting revenues into recordings, tours, and merchandise.
Twin Talk has been playing together since 2011 and has made numerous tours throughout the nation. The group has continued to grow its audience and plans to continue touring. The success is great and inspiring, but it’s crucial to note that Katie and other members couldn’t have invested the time and money necessary over the years to get Twin Talk where it is today without first having developed a financially sustainable career individually.
Learn from a Creative Professional
Katie’s musical career path is a great example of using conservative “Income Musician” strategies to establish a career while still allowing for exciting “Growth” opportunities to develop. I asked Katie more about how she made financial decisions during and just after college and what she thought others in the music community should know.
“Understand it’s hard to save money you don’t have” was the first topic Katie brought up when I asked about what she wished for other musicians. She highlighted that musicians need to learn how to save some money even if they aren’t making a lot. Most musicians, artists, and creative entrepreneurs have very limited resources and income when starting to develop their business. Katie can empathize with this situation but believes artists can be more aggressive about savings.
The best way to improve both short and long-term savings is to develop and stick to a budget. Although this is true for most people, it is even more crucial for freelancers and artists who have much higher variances in income and expenses.
Katie also brought up the complications of taxes for a freelance musician. Most traditional jobs manage all their employees tax records, accounting, and withholdings throughout the year, and with only a simple W-2 form, most people can file taxes annually very easily.
Katie lamented the complexity of receiving income from various sources, keeping records of expenses, managing tax forms for musicians she has hired, paying quarterly estimated taxes, and a plethora of additional decision and responsibility forced upon freelance artists. Her advice – “be proactive” and talk to a professional about your tax situation before it get complicated. It’s very common for small businesses to put off developing tax strategies that could save them a lot of trouble and money.
Continuing the theme of “playing while learning”, Katie discussed how she had to keep learning the business side as she developed a music career. You won’t be able to master making financial and business decision after reading a few articles or books, you must always be learning and growing as you manage your career.
How to do it?
Are you looking to make better financial decision about your creative career? Check out this blog post on how to act like a business or another that covers how millennials can be sure they are getting the best financial advice.
If you are looking to discuss specific details about your tax or financial strategies, from student debt to retirement, with an experienced financial professional: contact me here (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a pro-bono consultation exclusive to musician, artists, and creative professionals.