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How to Prioritise Your Freelance Work

For freelance musicians, being provisionally booked for new work means being kept on hold and can be a frustrating process. Here’s how to deal with it.

Last updated: 08 October 2021

Pencil bookings or pencil ‘holds’ are for many freelance musicians one of the more annoying aspects of their working lives. The idea is that a contractor or fixer calls and asks whether you are available to work on such and such a date/s. You say yes and they ‘pencil’ you in. Of course, this is only a provisional booking, it doesn’t mean that the work is confirmed. Most session musicians have lost count of the times they have been pencilled in only for the work to slip from their grasp.

It’s a situation freelancers face with varying degrees of good humour. “It’s happened to me so many times,” says Billy Fuller, session bassist and one third of the experimental Bristol-based band Beak. “It’s happened where there was work lined up for me and then I got a call the weekend before saying ‘don’t come to London’. We’re just going with the basslines that are on the demos’. What can you say to that? I understand that they have possibly done that because the budget has run out, but if you demand recompense, it’s not like you’re going to get a good name for yourself. I see it as an opportunity to catch up on some DIY.”

Things get trickier when a new work opportunity comes through while you’re still on hold. Do you take the new job? What if by taking the work you end up annoying the original fixer?

Maintaining your working relationships

Rick Finlay is a drummer who has had to make that decision on a number of occasions. “Part of the reality of being a freelancer is that you sometimes might lose out. How do you make that decision? I think it’s a very complex thing to do with the relationship you have with the person who’s booking you. Musicians are very often booked by other musicians and I value those working relationships. I put a value on keeping that relationship harmonious because these are people I want to work with.”

“There’s always that sinking feeling that you might be cutting off a relationship. My view is that you have to be thick skinned about that and say ‘//c’est la vie//’. For me it’s more important that people know that I’m honest and reliable, so if I say that I’m going to do something they know that I will honour that.”

How session musicians can make the right call  

The world of session musicians is rife with tales of players who made the wrong call. One woodwind player who wishes to remain anonymous tells of when he lost nearly two weeks’ work. “I had two weeks from 10 to 5 on hold. I thought I’d take a gamble on a week’s work. I got moved but I ended up with no work in the first week and very little in the second because I was no longer available. I have some friends who have a rule that they will only do what’s in the book. They will never jump. Another colleague was quite open that he would never accept a hold. But he was a very high profile player – a soloist – and he got less work because of it.

Our friend tells some eye-popping stories of pencilling gone crazy – the fixer who covered themselves by putting three tuba players on hold for the same job and another time when the fixer forgot to unconfirm the musician.

Such yarns have meant the practice has often been raised on MU committees. “The practice of pencilling dates can be a grey area and therefore open to abuse,” says Naomi Pohl, MU Deputy General Secretary. “It’s one thing being pencilled by a fixer who books you regularly and who you trust. However you might think twice about turning down other work in favour of dates pencilled by a fixer you haven’t been booked by before or who’s less established. The practice of pencilling several players for the same chair is problematic and causes problems when pencilled dates are cancelled last minute. Any bad practice should be reported to the MU.”

Protecting freelance orchestral players

However, there are some sectors of the industry where the holding system seems to cause less stress. Alex Gascoine is a violinist in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO). “With the SSO we say to people ‘if somebody goes sick will you be on standby?’. In other words we’ll pencil you for, say, a week tour of Japan, China or wherever. We get their visa and travel arrangements done and say to them ‘if you get work in before we’ve confirmed, get in touch and we’ll say whether you’re definitely needed or not’. In other words, the freelance player won’t be stuffed.”

Gascoine claims the system largely works because of the orchestra’s location. “There is a smaller pool of freelance players in Glasgow so we have to treat them with a great deal of respect. Plus we pay full expenses; a lot of London orchestras don’t. We need to look after our freelancers because if we book players outside Glasgow we end up paying a small fortune in expenses.”

Gascoine doubts whether such a system could work in London. Indeed nearly all of the people the MU spoke to doubt whether the industry will ever agree upon best practice for booking work. Rick Finlay: “It’s reasonable for someone to ask if you’re available.”

Making sure you don’t miss out on work

Finlay suggests that simply being polite and doing your job well is the best way to ensure you don’t lose out. “Trust your talent and expertise. Always be professional and honourable in your working commitments and then stuff will come back, like karma.”

“Try and be transparent,” says Alex Gascoine. “My advice for orchestral musicians is say ‘that’s fine. I’ll pencil it in on the understanding that if I get some other work I’ll phone you and you tell me whether you’ll release me’.”

“As with anything in the freelance world it’s not a good idea to upset the people who give you work. Sometimes you just need to nod and smile.”