A local artist shares his experiences piecing together a living without a full time job.

Much attention has been paid to the rise of the gig economy, that nebulous world of freelancing, independent contracting and one-off jobs that encompasses everything from creative work to driving for Uber and Lyft to cleaning houses. A recent Gallup report found that 36 percent of U.S. workers are participating in the gig economy. Millions are doing this work, though there's ongoing debate about who these people are. Do most of them have traditional jobs and also hustle on the side? Who makes a living at it?

Bouncing from gig to gig is a rite of passage for musicians, one that sometimes becomes a career. Local musician Chris Shaw began playing drums and violin at age 10 and has made his living as a full-timer for about a dozen years. In addition to live gigs, the 34-year-old also teaches drums, guitar and violin from his home.

Like any good entrepreneur, he diversified his offerings. Shaw now plays in four bands and integrates solo work as well. He plays drums in the Andy Shaw Band, a reggae-rock group that features his brother, Andy, and his dad, Jim. He plays violin with Andy in a folk duo called Shaw Brothers, and the three Shaws also combine their efforts for the Shaw House Band, a cover band that books private events. Then there's Topher James and the Biscuit Brigade, the “retro soul and modern R&B” outfit for which Chris Shaw is the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter. And there are plenty of solo gigs, not to mention the Shaw family's Columbus Songwriting Workshop, which offers paid lessons on the craft and business of music.

Shaw has compartmentalized this multipronged musical venture to find niches for every act, playing a wide variety of bar shows, festivals, weddings, brunches, a church gig every Sunday and corporate shows for the likes of local tween clothing brand Justice. He reserves Monday and Tuesday afternoons for teaching music lessons, which provide steady income, and spends weekend nights playing shows, which are more lucrative per hour. He's hardly the only musician making his livelihood from some combination of local gigs, teaching and touring, and he rattles off several others—jazz players like Alex Schrock and John Phillip Allen, and members of pop rock band Doc Robinson, to name a few.

The music itself is only one sliver of the job. Shaw also serves as his own manager, agent and accountant. “It's hard because you're the only one doing all the work,” he says. He has an IRA and several savings accounts, and his main strategy—which he admits with a laugh—is to hoard away his earnings to convince himself that he's never actually making money. “I'm not very good with finances so it's definitely helpful to do that for me,” he says. “But over the years you get better, I think.”

The money adds up—$40 to $50 an hour for lessons, and he estimates an average of $200 per show, with weddings and corporate gigs generally paying the most. This work, though, is highly variable and seasonal. The winter tends to be slow, and that's when he adds one more gig: driving for Lyft.


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