A portfolio music career in action

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Jazz violinist Benito Cortez combines electrical engineering, gigging, and music retail/repair to square his four-pointed portfolio music career

a portfolio music career in action
Benito Cortez is a San Francisco Bay Area jazz violinist who exemplifies the portfolio music career that Angela Myles Beeching laid out in an earlier post, “Why a portfolio music career is right for you.” He has created what he dubs a “mosaic of musical income” from a range of music-related work. His first love has always been music, ever since he started on the violin as a young boy, but his parents’ concern that he earn a good – and more predictable – living led him to study electrical engineering in college. Of course, he never stopped playing his violin.

“When I told my parents I wanted to major in music, I remember my mom started to cry. I also recall one of my teachers in youth orchestra telling me that I could still be a musician on weekends, after I completed my 9-5 job.

So when I got my college degree, my first job was working as an engineer for a company called Magnetic Reference Laboratory (MRL), which makes precision electronic testing gear and calibration devices used by recording studios. I took the job in part to be in service to music and music production, so I enjoyed it a lot. After a while, my engineering and music backgrounds started to mix more in my work life.”

Through his work for MRL, and later at the Music Annex Recording Studios, Benito developed a network of musicians, engineers, and sound recording professionals that he maintains as his career evolves.

Today, Benito maintains a four-pointed portfolio music career. All relate to and help fuel his ongoing passion for music. His first call is as the violinist and mandolin player for Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, an internationally acclaimed acoustic ensemble led by Hicks, one of the deans of acoustic jazz and swing music. “While the work I do with Dan is the biggest part of my income, it actually amounts to a really good part-time job in terms of my overall earnings.”

Benito also works two days a week at a violin shop, helping man the front counter, doing simple repairs, restringing instruments, assisting with rentals, and doing all aspects of customer support. “I enjoy it and I have the flexibility of getting a sub if I have to go on tour, which is a big plus.”

The third area is what Benito describes as “event work.” “Basically, it’s gigs for corporations, weddings, casuals, and even some string quartet gigs.” A quick look at Benito’s website shows five groups that he regularly plays with in addition to Dan Hicks. “I often get the call if there is a request for gypsy jazz violin, as there aren’t too many people in the area that really play that style at a professional level.” He even finds time to give a private lesson every now and then.

The fourth income generator is engineering, design and repairs, using the technical training he acquired while in college. “I’m an ‘on call’ engineer for Magnetic Reference Lab, my first employer. They’ll occasionally hire me to do a modification or fix a circuit in a device when they need help.”

“I started out working on multi-track tape machine calibration at MRL and moved on to Music Annex working alongside colleagues who were themselves musicians, engineering sessions. Now I’m primarily working as a performing musician myself. It’s helped that I know my way around sound people and can use the right lingo to ask for something. Having done their job, I know not to get in their way. I just focus on creating a pure source sound for them to work with, whether it’s in the recording studio or on stage.”

What’s next? “I’m working to design a top-quality preamp for the violin – something that is reliable, lightweight, good-sounding, road-worthy, and looks classy for violinists who amplify with clip-on microphones. It’s coming along slowly; I’m working to fund it and someday bring it to market.”

Looking back over his career, Benito muses, “You meet people who sometimes say, ‘I don’t want to just be a working musician; I want to be a star,’ and I would always think that for me, my goal was just to be in music. And now I’m doing it.”

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

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