In Conversation: Tracy Friedlander

In Conversation: Tracy Friedlander

Building a successful portfolio career, talking about money and thinking about your audience.

Tracy Friedlander
North Carolina, United States of America

In Conversation: Tracy Friedlander

Building a successful portfolio career, talking about money and thinking about your audience.

Your podcast, Crushing Classical, is all about promoting career options for performers, and helping break down some of the barriers around talking about what classical musicians can be. Can you tell me about how it started, and what sparked its beginning?

Yes! Crushing Classical started out as a Facebook page called Horn Wise. I talked about stories from my career and things like how much debt I had from music school (something I noticed that people mostly didn’t talk about publicly). As I spent more time looking around online I noticed there were many musicians who were doing some cool things outside of a job in an orchestra. That was when I decided to start the podcast, which led to the movement to talk about broadening what is possible for a career as a classical musician. And that’s when I changed the name to Crushing Classical.

What I aim to do is challenge musicians to think outside the problem they think they have, which is that there are limited jobs and too many competitors for those jobs. Musicians can choose to be the creator of their career vs. making a job in an orchestra the definition of their career. There is so much more potential and also so much more freedom. This is what I’ve been seeing in my own career in both myself and the people around me for the last 15 years as a professional freelance horn player.

What sparked the beginning of Crushing Classical was exactly this. I made playing in an orchestra the end-all-be-all of my own career, and thought that my quest for a job of my own would never end until I got one. In 2005 I left the Chicago freelance scene when I was offered a job - I was the runner-up to an audition and they offered me a per-service job with no contract, but it was full-time orchestra work. I was ready to make a consistent income, so I picked up and moved. I ended up meeting my husband, getting married, and having a daughter. That was when my priorities changed; I liked where I lived, and I didn’t want to keep searching and never knowing where I’d go next. I actually wanted to live my life. But after all the excitement of being newly married and becoming a mother, I really still wanted more in my career, but the answer wasn’t to get back on the audition path again. I wanted to contribute to the musician community. I wanted to bring value. I wanted to talk about the things that I’ve been seeing in the orchestra world for so long and that I didn’t know coming out of college. Every day more and more students graduate from music school expecting to enter a job market that doesn’t have enough jobs for everyone. I’ve seen this problem for a long time and noticed that no one is really talking about it. As I went deeper, I saw that it was only part of the problem. I also knew that so many musicians like me working professionally want more for their own careers and a conversation like this could be valuable to them as well.

As well as running CC, you are a classically-trained professional horn player. When in your career did you begin thinking about career options for musicians, and how did your own personal experiences as a practicing musician influence the work you are doing now?

I honestly didn’t start to think much about career options for other musicians until I started Crushing Classical. I recognised for a long time that young musicians are facing an even tougher job market than they did when I was coming out of school. After starting Crushing Classical, I saw that it really goes deeper than not enough jobs. The problem is that most musicians think a job is their only option. I also saw that the classical world is not changing with the times. Musicians in the orchestra world aren’t taking the bull by the horns to make changes and helping classical music thrive. There are a number of musicians creating new ensembles but the majority of the larger orchestras remain operating in the same antiquated way.

My own personal experiences as a musician influence my work greatly. Despite having a pretty good resume of professional experience, I always felt that because I didn’t reach my ultimate goal of a paid orchestra position of my own, I didn’t have a “real” career. As I reflected on it, I saw some important things about how skewed the musician point of view is about the “almighty job”. As a regular player in the same orchestra for nearly 10 seasons, I learned a lot about the inner workings of orchestras and what a job is really like on a day to day basis: things you don’t think about as you fantasise about how amazing it will be to someday get paid to play your instrument for a living. Simply put, the work isn’t sexy. It was very enlightening to see this and has definitely influenced my point of view about the orchestra world.

Can you explain what a portfolio career means, and what it can look like for a classically trained musician?

It’s common for musicians to create freelance careers that include playing a whole bunch of gigs and teaching - whether they have a full-time position in an orchestra or not. In today’s world, you cannot really be a musician on one salary or income stream. It’s necessary to take it a step further and develop skills outside playing and teaching. Classical musicians tend to make what they do their identity, so they think doing something outside of performing makes them less of a musician. The possibilities are endless. And if you’re lucky enough to create an income stream from something you love, you can say no to gigs you don’t want. For example, if you have a thriving recording business, you’ll have the freedom to turn down gigs you don’t actually want. And the truth is that turning down gigs you don’t want makes room for opportunities you DO want.

What are the skills outside of instrument mastery that are really important for young performers to learn while they’re still studying?

I personally wish I would have learned improvising, arranging and composing. I wish there was talk of learning new genres or even working on creating your own hybrid genres - which goes into the arranging and composing thing. Time spent memorising historical dates in school could be better spent learning a skill you can actually use, such as understanding technology like sound recording or video editing. And the number one skill everyone should have is the ability to enrol people in their ideas - which is what selling yourself is. When you can enrol people in what you’re up to, anything is possible. There’s an art to getting people on board with what you want to do. Think of people who created successful music festivals or programs that relied on funding or donations. Each of those people had to be able to talk to people, engage them and enrol them in what they wanted to do. This feeds directly into the importance of audience building. It’s a noisy world. There are way too many entertainment choices. If you have an idea for a great ensemble or something to present, it’s up to you to build your own audience. Classical musicians go through school not thinking about the audience. What a mistake! Gone are the days where you can only perfect your playing and emerge to an awaiting audience. When you’re in school, everything is ready-made for you. It’s a false sense of reality. Students don’t have to create anything. And then when they finally arrive in the real world, it’s a shock. Bottom line is you have to create your reality, and the first time is when you step out of school. Today’s world requires you to start creating well before you exit your degree program.

Talking about finance and money-making can sometimes be a little challenging for musicians because of the dialogue that surrounds arts practice and being a “starving artist”. How do we change that dialogue, and what do you wish all young musicians would understand about making money through their art?

What I’d like musicians to get is that you don’t have to be a starving artist. It’s not a requirement. The mindset around money is so much deeper than how much cash you have in your bank account at the moment. It reflects what you think you’re worth and what you’re willing to do for money. If you believe there’s a money ceiling and you’re only “allowed” to make a certain amount of money, you’ll create that for yourself. I can attest to having a scarcity mentality for a long time. When I auditioned for jobs with small salaries, I was confident and played well at the audition. For jobs that seemed like a crazy awesome amount of money, I sabotaged my playing.

When I first started CC, I didn’t talk about money with my guests. As Crushing Classical evolved, I brought on my contributing partner, Eileen. She’s a former musician who went into the business world. She asked me directly why I didn’t talk about money on the podcast. My only reason was that it felt awkward. After that conversation, I quickly got over it. I realized the awkwardness IS the reason why no one talks about it.

I’ve personally had enough of musicians justifying going into massive amounts of school debt (I did) with no plan of how they’ll pay it back. I know this problem exists in other careers, and it’s a glaring problem for music majors. Most are coming out of a degree program with maybe ONE idea of how they’ll make money - and six figures worth of debt. It’s a real problem. What I wish all young musicians would understand about making money through their art is there is no rule that you have to starve. That’s ridiculous. Many musicians have proven that notion wrong. Starvation is a choice and it begins with your mindset around money.

What are some of the major challenges facing young arts practitioners today, and how can they be proactive about driving their own careers?

I’d say the main challenges for everyone in the arts is how much entertainment there is available today. The internet has created constant and mostly free or cheap entertainment. Audiences are changing and orchestral audiences are dwindling. Giving people what they want would be a good place to start. Looking in other areas of entertainment (other genres of music, other entertainment industries, etc.) for ideas is another place to start. I’m looking forward to seeing what classical musicians create as the future unfolds.

Musicians can be proactive by building their own audience. Document your journey on social media. It’s a great way to build an audience that’s interested in your story. Include the highs and lows, the successes and failures. No one wants to watch a social media account loaded with next concert notifications. People want to be entertained and they love a good story - happy or sad. Keep learning, get skilled, create multiple streams of income. And of course, listen to Crushing Classical podcast on iTunes and join the conversation for even more ideas on how to be proactive about driving your own career.

Tune into Crushing Classical here