Should you take the gig?

I recently got the chance to talk to Swiss saxophone and electronics legend Bruno Spoerri after a friend of mine was so kind to bring us in contact. Bruno Spoerri, now 81 years old, is one of the leading figures in jazz and electronic music in Switzerland. He does everything from acoustic jazz to electronic avantgarde, he does film scoring, and ran a very successful studio in Zurich. On top of that he in 2015 successfully sued Jay-Z and Timbaland (yes you read that right) because of copyright infringement — the superstar rappers had used a sample of a track Spoerri had recorded in the 70s without permission.

Being the accomplished artist he is I just had to ask the “what advice would you give me for my career” question. His answer was simple: Never turn down a project because you think it is not big enough. In fact most people who keep waiting for the big project and reject everything else never succeed in the end.

So, does that mean you should accept all projects you get asked for?

I totally agree with Spoerri: even if there isn’t a lot of money involved in a project and they only have three performances scheduled so far, DO IT. About every project you do will put you a step further in your career. It will help you broaden your network or teach you new skills. Some projects are not going to lead anywhere, but trust me, most of them will open a door for you later. If you are just waiting for the big money or the big theaters, those doors are probably going to stay closed.
You never know if that low budget project might become a great success with a lot of well paid performances later. And if you did a good job on the last one, guess who they are going to ask to work with the next time (yep, you!).

What to do if there is very little budget

Even if there is very little money, there are ways to compensate for this. For example, tell them what you would normally charge and that you are fine to do it for less money now because you value their project. But ask them to recommend you to some of their contacts instead, if they think you did a good job on their project. And if they agree, follow up and remind them if they forget. Don’t sit on your ass and wait.
Another possibility if there is very little budget is to reduce the amount of work you put into it. Again, tell them what you would normally charge and what you could do for the money they offer. As a composer you could for example decide to just edit existing tracks you already have instead of composing an entirely new score.

What to do if there is no money

I know many people are going to disagree with me, but in my opinion even working for no money at all is totally ok when you are just starting out in your carreer, or even later if you are trying to break into a different line of work. Why do I think so? A great advantage of being young is that you have lots of time and low financial needs. Unfortunately you also have a very limited professional network and only a few pieces in your portfolio. So why not invest something you have plenty of (=time) to get something you really, really need if you want to break into the business. The two things you need the most if you are starting out is a broad network (if no one knows you exist, how should they hire you) and a great portfolio (no one is going to hire you for something you don’t have in your portfolio).

Here are a few things you should think about if you get asked for a project.

  1. Does it help me with my network? Most projects help broaden your network. Think not only in terms of the other people on the team, but also venues, programmers, the general exposure to an audience and other professionals from the scene (of course, that scene needs to be of value to you, and not just some shady club where someone is asking you to do a “gig for exposure” because they don’t want to pay you). About every project I did created a series of follow ups. Even if you don’t earn a lot now, you will benefit from it later.
  2. Is there an opportunity to learn something new? That could be a new technique you have to acquire, or you have to learn how another artistic discipline works. Theater, film, fine art installations, they all have very specific procedures. If you don’t know how to do something, don’t worry, you are going to figure that out as you go. The project deadline will help you progress very quickly on something that would otherwise take a way longer time to learn.
  3. Who is asking me to join the project? Am I really exited about the project? Does it resonate with me? Is it a promising but (yet) unknown artist? Finally, if a friend asks you to help out on a project, always say yes if you can.
  4. Is the project well paid?
  5. Do I want it as a portfolio piece? You need to build a portfolio so you can prove to others the value of your work. If you are just starting out, building a portfolio is essential and you even might be fine with just doing the job so you can add another item to your list of works.

Obviously, don’t do it if there are none of the above benefits, or the people in charge are unreliable and unprofessional. Those projects usually are just a pain in the ass to do and a waste of time and energy.

Always make sure someone is not just taking advantage of you and don’t work without being compensated for your work. Realize that “compensation” doesn’t have to be money. Find an agreement that makes you happy and look forward to the project. Make it win / win for both sides.


Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, comments, or just want to say hi, please leave a comment or get in touch with me at info@christophscherbaum.com