Why a portfolio music career is right for you

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A portfolio music career can include a combination of jobs and activities, and it can bridge your love for music with a variety of other interests

Whatever the genre or instrument, few musicians make it to the level where they can pursue their music passion 24/7. Even superstars diversify their time, talents, and interests by developing other professional opportunities including teaching, acting, authoring a book, or using their celebrity status to start a clothing line or open a venue or restaurant. Indeed, in nearly every professional industry, portfolio careers are becoming commonplace, and a portfolio music career is a great way to diversify income via music, or to add music to other career exploits.

advice for your portfolio music careerTo learn more about pursuing a portfolio music career, I spoke with Angela Myles Beeching, author of Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music. Angela directs the Center for Music Entrepreneurship at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and she has advised hundreds of successful artists in various stages of their career.

What is a portfolio music career?
Well, I don’t have the Webster’s Dictionary definition, but it’s a variation from a career and income-earning model where you have one job, one boss. Instead, it’s very typical for people in the arts to have a constellation of projects and income avenues – they may be doing freelance part-time work, or they might be self-employed as a musician and have some sort of day job as well.

Why does it make sense to pursue a portfolio career?
Partly, it’s the idea that you are in charge of your career – not assuming you’re going to be working for one employer for a substantial amount of time. Studies show that people change professions six or seven times over their career. So, more and more, people have these interesting patchwork-type of careers. And for musicians and creative people, this has always been true, because they are often multi-talented and have multiple interests, and the fabulous thing is there’s ways they earn a living and make a difference in the community and in the world in multiple capacities.

What are some of the challenges?
Well, one thing is health insurance. The good news is, with Obamacare, there is potential for more stability around that, and hopefully more affordability. But you need to account for what would typically have been a full-time position’s benefits package. You also have to figure out how to save some money for the future, set aside enough money for taxes, and even short-term disability – all that stuff.

What I often see is musicians looking for a part-time job with pro-rated benefits: the employer pays some of the costs, but leaves the employee enough flexibility time-wise to pursue their other projects, entrepreneurial ventures, and sideline work.

It seems that the more skills and aptitude one has, the more potential earning opportunities there would be.
Sure, and I think people often incorrectly feel that they are not really multi-talented: “I only have two things I know how to do, or just one thing I know how to do well.” Usually, I find when meeting with a person, it’s just not true.

When considering a move to a portfolio career:

1) You want to self-assess the skills and experience you’ve got right now.

2) You want to take a broad look at your interest areas, even asking yourself what kind of news items or articles you’re drawn to, what are you curious about, both within music and outside of music? Often, those quirky little things that we’re fascinated by are potential niche areas to explore.

3) What are your potential opportunities? What are the areas of need in your region or your online community. You have to be listening and be attuned to seeing possibilities and identifying opportunities. That will allow you to determine if there is a potential match. Basically, have your antennae attuned to your community.

What are some common elements that successful portfolio career musicians share?
Well, there’s probably more, but the three abilities that stand out for me are:
1) Great interpersonal skills
2) Great organizational skills
3) Great time management skills

This is because you’re juggling, and juggling requires you being clear about your priorities and your values, but also being able to shift priorities so you can get to what’s needed. You can’t do well without being careful about how you connect and communicate with other people, and how you manage time.

Is a portfolio career a placeholder until your ship comes in as a performer, or do many artists maintain their portfolio music career indefinitely?
I really believe the answer is, “Both.” There’s this typical thing people will say when they’re a young musician, “I’m only going to do music, it has to be 100% or nothing. I’m not going to compromise.” But when they have to pay rent and earn money to eat, they’ll start to figure out what they’re actually going to do.

I think you have to be careful of using a portfolio approach as a stopgap, I think that can be a trap. If you think, “I’m only going to do this for now, I’m doing this crappy office or restaurant job until I get discovered,” the mistake could be you’re using up valuable hours and energy doing something you hate. Instead, you might be able to figure out another way to earn money by doing work that actually supports and expands your music career and brings new connections. Perhaps landing a part-time job at an advertising or social media company where you can develop new skills that can benefit the music side of your career.

The other thing I would say is that some people start out with a portfolio career with the hope that they’ll be able to go full-time as a musician. Some people do, and that’s fantastic! Others get started with this portfolio thing and realize they really love the variety that it brings. So even when they are able to choose to go 100% into music, they choose to still have a variety of things going on.

Any other advice for readers considering this path to enhance their ability to support themselves through music? 
I think if you are in a position where you can take on some volunteer projects, or an internship or some job shadowing, that can be great. If someone is further along in their daytime career, I think it can be helpful to have some conversations with musicians who have multi-track careers. Just getting some ideas of how other people are tapping into new ways to make a difference in the world, I think that can help.

I also think that it can be helpful to talk with someone who can be objective, and help you to be objective in assessing your portfolio of skills and experience. For some people they might want to meet with a counselor, or an advisor or mentor to really take a look at where you are at in your life and think about what would add to it.

Lots of free music career tools and advice, as well as a chance to sign up for Angela’s “Monday Bytes,” short tips to helping you refine and enhance your music career

Network of Music Career Development Officers (NETMCDO)
Know someone working at a music school, arts center or institution that fosters the arts? Share this link with them to provide more resources for anyone providing career advising services to musicians and groups.

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