How do freelancing artists do it? How do they piece together work to create a sustaining and stable career?  Through this interview series, I aim to get to the heart of those questions by talking to various artists about how they make freelancing work for them.

In this ninth installment, Janelle Reichman at Continuum Design & Web spoke with tuba player TubaJoe Exley. An NYC resident for over fifteen years, Joe lived in Louisiana, Colorado, and Chicago before becoming a New Yorker in 2000. Joe has become one of the most in demand tuba players in the New York area due to not only his tremendous creativity but also his versatility among styles of music, as evident in his work with ensembles such as the high energy oom-pah band The Ja Ja Jas, the early hot jazz band The Gotham Easy, and the psycho mambo band Gato Loco. Additionally, Joe has recorded with Dillinger Escape Plan, worked as an arranger and music director for Zola Jesus, and even toured with JS Monk. How’s that for diversity! In this interview, Joe spoke to Continuum about odd jobs, Willie Nelson, the perfect day, and developing a personal brand – among other things.

When did you start playing the tuba? What made you want to play that particular instrument?
I started the tuba sort of late – at the end of 9th grade. I had been a dedicated woodwind player since kindergarten, and before that started on violin at age 2. Once at a marching band competition in 9th grade, I heard the lush low sound that other bands had, but ours did not as we had no tuba players. The next day I took the tuba home.

Did you always want to be a professional musician from a young age or was it a decision that came later on?
Honestly, I don’t know. I always wanted to be a dedicated performing musician, but I also wanted to do many other things (historian, engineer, architect, physicist). Maybe I’ll get to those one day. I started doing gigs (playing baritone sax in a R&B horn section) back in high school. It’s been a gradual evolution ever since.

Have you ever had any non-music related “odd” jobs? If so, what were they?
OMG yes. I worked at Taco Bell, I picked strawberries at a strawberry farm, I worked as an auto mechanic, I worked at a software company, I’ve washed dishes, I’ve delivered pizzas. I officially “quit my day job” at a software company in early 1998. I really liked that job a lot and am still friendly with people who worked there, and I have fond memories of it. I just had to go, as I was feeling like it was “not me” and I had to be true to myself or I’d lose my mind.

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What’s your ideal typical day?
There are ideal home days, ideal performance days, and ideal road days. An ideal home day is wake up early, get my daughter ready for school, go back to bed, get up and go to the gym, practice, watch some TV, cook a big dinner for my family, and maybe write some music. An ideal performance day is similar to my ideal “home day” but I focus the day towards getting ready for the gig. Ideal road day is wake up in some exotic foreign land, eat amazing food, play an exhaustingly long gig for a rowdy crowd, party all night, repeat.

What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to take a gig? Has this changed over time? If so, how?What are your main sources of income these days?
Making noise on the tuba, and some things that revolve around that such as arranging, music directing, and teaching.

What is the opportunity you made for yourself for which you are the most proud?
I’m proud of the fact I can feel at home in many different genres and scenes. I’m not a jack of all trades, but I’d like to think that I’m really good at finding the real and actual *essence* of the music, regardless of the genre. I make it a point of not getting caught up in preconceptions or false traditions. Make the people dance, that’s it. To specifically answer the question, I’m proud of situations where I can structure things around my strengths. It’s those times where I feel like I really can succeed. Specific opportunities I am most proud of are ones where I have the ability to control my environment and infuse my creative vision into the mix versus just play someone else’s music.

How do you balance work time and off time in your daily life?
That’s probably one of the larger hurdles in my life. I go out of my way to make sure I spend time with my family. And now that I have a daughter it’s incredibly important that I do. As a freelancer/musician, there is no real time off. My time off is when I don’t answer emails and make dinner for my family and stay home. I make time to pick my daughter up from school most every day. I purposely don’t do rehearsals or gigs during that time unless absolutely necessary.

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How do you tend to spend your time when you encounter lulls in work?
I don’t get too many lulls, and I enjoy them when I do. Lulls are often a time for mental recharging and brainstorming new projects. I’ve learned to not get anxious when there are lulls and not feel guilty about taking time to recharge.

How often do you turn down work and why? How do you handle situations where a much better offer comes along?
I try not to turn down too much work but sometimes it’s inevitable, especially during key times where everyone wants to do a show at the same time. At those crazy times, I get forced to keep many other tuba players in town employed. I try not to “peace out” of one gig when a better one comes along, but sometimes if it’s a huge discrepancy in money or situation, it’s unavoidable. What I try to do is to be honest with the people running the gigs, and go out of my way to find a great and loyal sub to jump in for me.

Have you ever had a mentor who helped you figure out how to make a freelance lifestyle work?
A little bit. My grad school teacher was a busy freelancer, and he sort of helped get me kickstarted in some ways, mostly by helping me open my mind to not being limited by genre. I later worked as an assistant for a commercial composer/producer in Chicago who showed me some things about how to (and how not to) have a small music business. The bulk of it is through trial and a *lot* of error.

Were there any books or other resources that were instrumental in how you manage a freelance career or running a business?
Not too much, though I have tried. The thing is that the rules CONSTANTLY change and there are very few actual “rules.” It also seems many music business books are written by only semi-successful people. By the time you finish reading a book, the rules have already changed, or you find someone who has rewritten or broken them. Though as of recent, I have had some good advice from accountants. That helps.

What is “networking” to you? Is it something you do?
I suck at it. I’m not a salesman whatsoever. I have a hard time talking to people if I don’t have my horn in my hand.

How do you use the Internet/Social Media for your career?
I use social media a LOT. So much in fact that I’ve been criticized for it by other freelancers. I don’t care though. It’s such a positive tool for communicating with the world and showing your best face. It gives me a place to be less bashful, honestly. I also enjoy taking pictures, and it gives me a place to incorporate that into “my world.”

Describe how you market yourself as an artist. Do you have a personal brand? If so, how did you develop it?
The marketing side is always evolving, but I do try to have a brand. I hopefully portray myself as a unique player not bound by anything whatsoever. I want people to hire me for what I am, versus someone to hold a tuba in a chair in the back of an ensemble. I want to be seen and hired as an entity, not a *jobber*.

Would you say being a freelance musician is easy or difficult? Why?
It’s grueling and it’s anxious, but it matches the constantly changing and surging energy in my head. I need to live in a situation where the scene is constantly changing and evolving.

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To what do you attribute your success?
To being stubborn and being musically open-minded. In school, part of the training in certain styles ALWAYS contained some compulsory bias towards other styles (some of you *know* what I’m talking about!). The moment I dismissed that bias as complete bullshit, the phone started to ring. Not kidding. I also attribute my prolificness (I like to think of it that way, versus “success”) to having the ability to dig in and find the *life* in all music. My job is to bring that into the light.

What are the benefits of having a freelance career and what are the pitfalls?
The benefits for me are not going crazy and being eaten alive by my mental energy, or at least delaying such dementia. Benefits also include being able to sample many, many parts of life that some simply don’t get to. It’s a matter of being on the inside versus being a tourist on the outside, if that makes sense.

The one single pitfall for me is simply giving up. There’s nothing wrong with changing course in your life of course, but too many don’t stay true to who they really are. That’s a big one to me. I like musicians, and people in general who are aspire to be true to who and what they are regardless of what that is. THAT is where the real magic happens!

What advice would you offer to other artists trying to make it as a freelancer?
Go nuts, and go early.

If you had to do it over again, what would you change?
I’d have dived into it all earlier. It took me a while to get going – several different cities and a gradual descent into this life. If I would have done it again, I’d have jumped into the deep end versus wading in from the shallow side. Don’t worry about if your feet touch the bottom.

  1. Hi Joe Terrific interview. More than I ever knew about you. How wonderful. I’ll fwd to a grandson who is a music major at Chico State here in CA. I have a friend who is “step-dad” to Jackie Greene. He says there are many talented musicians out there, and the great success comes something like a lightning strike, at random and without reason. Yours might have been just that lightning strike, or sheer perseverance, which you get from your dad, of course. Best to you, Kathy, and of course, the young radical, Fiona … you go girl !!! Mel

    Mel Chapman
    • Thanks for reading Mel! I’ve sent your message directly to Joe to make sure he sees it 🙂 All my best, Janelle

      Continuum (Author)

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