Your Income and Your Art

When we are young, we have all these dreams and aspirations of what we want to do. I have been playing the piano since I was five, and cannot imagine a life or career without music in it. When I was much younger I wanted to be a concert pianist and travel the world, playing at different venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York City, or the Sydney Opera House, or to play with the London Symphony Orchestra. As I grew up, these ideas changed, and I found another passion – photography and travel. I’ve always wanted to experiment with travel photography and work for National Geographic or become a music photographer and work with bands, artists, and singers etc.  I came to SAE specifically with the idea of understanding more about the industry, developing my photography and editing skills further and go into film. I still play the piano, and am currently doing my diploma courses through Trinity College in London, so music will always be a large part of my life. The film and music industry is very competitive and finding a job as a new graduate can be challenging, especially for someone just starting out.

There are advantages too – the film industry is a growing market, and in Dubai it is a burgeoning, relatively new industry, so opportunities are more available for the new graduate looking to venture into the film industry.  Gaining experience as a new graduate is challenging, but in Dubai where this industry is relatively new there is a better chance for working on quite big projects early on in ones career. This in turn could open doors to you in other parts of the world where this type of work experience is not as easy to obtain so early on in your career.

I think the key, especially when you’re just starting out, is to not limit yourself to only one direction. You need to get stuck in and be willing to do anything and everything relating to your industry to gain experience and make contacts.  One needs to be flexible and open to as many different possibilities and directions as possible till you have built a name for yourself, and even then flexibility is the key to survival and earning an income.  A diverse skill set in this industry is vital.

IMG_0387.jpg by Siobhon van der Merwe on

The chances of finding employment in a production house, studio or agency may not be immediately available to you, so it is important to build a network within the industry while you are still studying, which will give you opportunities for freelance work.  This may prove challenging in the beginning because as a freelancer you will not be earning a fixed salary so you will need to be creative as to how you supplement your income. Once you have built a name for yourself as a freelancer, you can either stay doing that or move into working in a production house to gain more experience and build up your contacts.

Much of the work is project based, and if you’re trying to make a living where climates are more extreme like in the UAE, it will probably be seasonal too, so one needs to have something to fall back on in the quieter months in order to sustain yourself long term.   The key is to diversify your skill set as well as learning additional skills, which may or may not have anything to do with your chosen area.  I for example earn extra money teaching the piano.  My music skills and understanding and knowledge of music and tempo are excellent for the editing process when having to edit a film clip to music. Teaching is also a skill that can bring in additional income in leaner months when there just isn’t that much work available.  The way I see it, it remains under the same umbrella as I could also compose music to be used on films, corporate videos etc, or work that I edit, or even my own work.  Combining my photography, music and editing skills will certainly make me more marketable in the industry.  At some stage, I could even further increase my skill set by going into audio production.  Another source of income could be in education where I create tutorials for various editing Photoshop techniques etc and post this to YouTube and build up a very specific viewer base. Doing free online tutorials is a good way of advertising, building up a viewer base, and then start charging for more complex online tutorials for very specific areas of learning.   This in turn could lead towards other freelance work and opportunities. This is something that will not bring in immediate results, but could work if nurtured properly over the long term.

Pricing is always challenging and I think if you have a lot of different things on the go as a freelancer you may well employ different pricing strategies for the different services you offer your clients or viewers.  I think it is also important as someone new to the industry to price yourself according to the market.  You haven’t yet built up a name, so you need to be marketable.  Once you have made a name for yourself as a professional who delivers good work on time then you can look at altering your fee structure.  You need to set your charges according to where you work.  For example, I teach the piano to students, and prices for hourly music lessons in Ras Al Khaimah are considerably lower than in Dubai.  I cannot charge Dubai prices in RAK as I would have no students. This will relate to all areas of work.  You need to know and understand your market.

We cannot say now what exactly we will do when we have graduated.  Consulting, freelancing, opening a studio with fellow students, moonlighting and doing editing work on a freelance basis while teaching music during the day… it is important to look at all opportunities available to you.  Some will be suitable, and some not as a source of funding.  This may take on the form of sponsorships, commissions, residencies, or advertising (this we see a lot on blogs and YouTube), as well as licensing and royalties.  At some stage you may end up using only some of these options as an income source, but they are some of the options available to you as a new graduate starting out in the industry.

The opportunities are numerous and it is ultimately up to me to go out there and grasp them.  Performing on stage, and by that I mean playing the piano at music concerts and dabbling in YouTube videos have given me much needed confidence for coping with presentations and public speaking.  This is an essential skill when having to market yourself, delivering pitches or having to communicate in a group environment.  Being able to communicate and get on with many people over a broad multicultural base is a vital part in being successful in this industry.  Whether I am part of a group hired on a contract basis, or part of a team as a permanent employee, it is vital to be able to get along with different members of a group in order to maintain a cohesive functioning team.

In any industry your reputation will more often than not precede you.  If you are difficult to work with (especially if you are still making a name for yourself) people will be less likely to hire you or offer you contract work.  If you are known in the industry to be professional, punctual, deliver work of a consistently high standard, as well as being easy to work with, you will slowly build a reputation for yourself, and you will find companies will be more willing to offer you work on projects where your skill set is required.

Very rarely are creative jobs advertised via the traditional channels (job sites, newspapers, employment agencies etc).  Much of it is through word of mouth.  Who you know in the industry, and whether you deliver good work on time is ultimately what will allow you to earn a living.  Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and WordPress blogs also play an enormous role in keeping you “noticed”, and your profile out there.  It is important to keep all these things current and up to date with work you have done and what you are busy with.  You need to sell yourself in this industry and networking through social media as well as through work, colleagues and other connections will contribute to you earning a living and being successful in this industry.

The question is how to earn money and still remain true to my passions and interests. I recently watched a documentary called No Cameras Allowed by Marcus Haney who was a film student at University of Southern California who snuck into music concerts such as Bonnaroo and Coachella.  He would just take photos of the musicians performing and then document it online.  In the end, he toured with a band called Mumford & Sons. That has inspired me to focus on my dreams, combining music, travel and music photography where I can photograph, film and edit my journey. Although I am classically trained, the basics of music are the same, and this gives me insight into band and musician’s performances. I have already made a start by photographing and reporting on well-known bands (and not so well known) and singers both here in the UAE, and in the USA. (Highlighted links included). Together with the current path I am following at SAE, I’m hoping that this will develop into a career for me. I have already made a start, but realise that flexibility, experience, and networking is going to be key. And of course, this may all change with time, and that will be ok too. Wherever this takes me; my piano, and my camera will always be by my side.

Massive Crowd by Siobhon van der Merwe on


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