Take an interest in other humans - Musician Kari Paavola

Kari Paavola Freelance Podcast.png

He started out where many musicians did in his day; responding to magazine adverts for unpaid work as a drummer.

Over the years, Kari’s built a successful career for himself as a freelance musician, finding plenty of ways to diversify his income. He’s learnt so much that he now teaches others how to turn their passion into a profession.

So how did he get there, in an industry where it’s notoriously difficult to make a living?

Interestingly, by using a lot of the same skills and approaches that freelancers in other industries learn to apply.

Kari’s service might seem wildly different to yours, but you’ll be surprised by how much you can learn from his story of being freelance.


Steve Folland: How about we get it started here and how you got started being freelance.

Kari Paavola: Well I think in the art based world whether you do music or stage or acting or painting or whatever we are all forced to be freelance 'cause there is no other way really. All our jobs are short term from one day to whatever. Maybe if you go into the West End Theater world as a musician or a singer or dancer, you might have a longer stretch of work, but I think everyone in the arts industries will be freelance by default. So there's no choice.

Steve Folland: So how does it differ for you, like for example do you get to set your rates in your work?

Kari Paavola: Of course, you can set your rates whatever you want, but when you're starting out, if you set them high, no one will ever take a chance on you. I think in music, and I don't know about acting, but I would think in other sort of artistic under worse that you would do and want to make money from. I think you need to start purely from the passion and worry about the rates and the finances as you sort of gradually go on the ladder to better jobs and stuff. But I think if I meet a 19, 20 year old musician and the first thing they ask, "Well what does it pay?" I will be a little bit wary of that person. But if I meet someone who's 30 or 40 and has lots of years in the industry and they ask, "Hey, what does it pay?" Then that's okay.

Steve Folland: How did you get started?

Kari Paavola: From a musical family. I'm a fourth generation musician, so that kind of came through just living in an artistic environment, I guess musical environment growing up and the choice of instruments. The drums was always, that was always the number one thing. I was three years old when I said I'll be a drummer. I started just through the normal way that everyone starts with music. You build your bands when you're young and get really into it. And I started lessons very early on and I was happy to have very good teachers early on. And then there's a high school in my hometown, Helsinki that's kinda music high school, kind of like mini version of, of the one in New York, whatever it's called, where everyone goes to.

Kari Paavola: So an artistic high school. So I went there, got more serious, played lots of bands, started to do gigs, started to make a little bit of money around 17, 18 years old through drumming. And then it sort of went from there really.

Steve Folland: And what does it look like for you? Is it a life on the road?

Kari Paavola: It can be anything. It all depends on kind of which way you as a musician, which way you want to, what do you want to focus on? I say this, I do this seminar in European music colleges called, how to make your passion into a profession. And we kind of talk about the other subject matters and other skill sets apart from your playing or your art, what you need to develop and think of when you go into this career. And I think you have to sort of think about your personality and your artistic personality and kind of like, this sounds a bit corny, but you need to know your brand and then you start navigating the music industry or the music world. Kind of trying to be true to what you want to do.

Kari Paavola: You don't have to be on the road, you can do other things. You can do education, you can be in the theatre world, especially if you live in London. I have lots of friends who almost exclusively they're just in the West End, so they're never on the road. Also, if you live in a big city, New York, London, Paris, LA, you probably have enough work, if you're good at what you do, you have enough work in town so you don't need to tour. For me it's been changing depending ... I've lived in many countries and currently my main base is in Helsinki, even though I go to London a lot, but my main base is in Helsinki and here my musical life and my freelancer life is completely different to what it used to be in London because of the industry here is different.

Steve Folland: When you were starting out, how do you go about getting those first, well actually the whole gigs seems like the most appropriate word all of a sudden.

Kari Paavola: Yeah and that's what we are.

Steve Folland: But normally I ... Yeah. Normally I would say that. How'd you find your first freelance clients and how does it work for someone like yourself?

Kari Paavola: Well if we'd jump, 'cause this might be the most useful to your listener. If we'd jump to when I was 21 I first, when I was 19 I moved to LA to study music and drumming for couple of years and then I moved to London when I was 21 years old. Those experiences there might be the most helpful for your listener I think versus the stuff that I did in Finland when I was 18 or 19 'cause I think all of us, if there are people who listen to this and who are sort of in the creative industries, most people in the creative industries they do want or think or at least dream of moving to a big city to do their work, whether it's acting or photography or drumming or whatever it is. I think that might be the most helpful experience to share.

Steve Folland: Okay. So how did you go about finding work?

Kari Paavola: And so what I did in London is three months before this was pre-internet in 1998 three months before moving, I would buy all the sort of industry magazines that would have all kinds of adverts and I would call countless of adverts and say I'm coming to town. If you're looking for a drummer, as your advert says, let's meet up, let me audition for you and all this. And all these jobs I have to stress they're all unpaid. 'Cause no paid work in Music industry or in Arts Industries is advertised on the internet or magazines that comes to another kind of way. But anyway, so I did all of that and lined up myself with some auditions and most of them were really bad amateur bands, but one of them was very good young artists who was developed by Giles Martin who's Sir George Martin's son.

Kari Paavola: He took a liking of this lady and she already sent me for her band and I got in and we started making music together for free. But that was my first connection to the sort of, band scene of London. And I did that for a while. And then on the other side of the coin, I would go out every single night in London. I would go to every jam session, every gig, every bar where musicians would be or perform or hang. And I would clearly just to talk to people and be curious of the fellow musicians that lived in London and had been there longer than me. And I tried to, what we call sit in. I would go to certain type of gigs that went, super serious.

Kari Paavola: They were more like bar gigs that Soho would have back in those days or Camden. And I would say, "Hey man, can I sit in, can I play your tune?" And most people, especially in London are really open to that. And they're like, "Yeah, sure. Sit in, play your tune." And then I would play a song and hopefully people would like what I did. And then the conversation would start from there. And then slowly through that I would get my first quote unquote clients. So some would call me and ask me to play somewhere.

Steve Folland: Wow. It's still really about making those connections, about pushing yourself forward.

Kari Paavola: I think it's everything about personal connection. You need to connect on a personal level with whoever, your future clients if we use this word again, and I say this in my seminar that I do around Europe, I say this to these young music and art hopefuls I say like, "You need to get in there, you need to get into the game, physically speaking, you need to go and meet people, shake hands, and honestly take an interest in other humans and what kind of art they are doing." If you're just online or somewhere. It's never personally enough. I think that's the key to get yourself into more opportunity as a freelance person, especially in the art based freelance world, is that you just, you really gotta be a people person and be happy to go out and meet people.

Steve Folland: Yeah. And so actually it's less like you're selling, in quotation marks, yourself. You're just getting to know people and they're helping you out by recommending you.

Kari Paavola: Yeah. If they like your content, which is in my case, it's the music. Someone else's case it might be photography or whatever people do with ... Of course they have to like your content, but then when we are in arts, what's good art versus bad art? It's very much a matter of opinion. Of course in music you need to know certain skill sets that you need to deliver for your clients so that you're doing a good job. But then if you have two professional musicians playing the same instrument, which one is the better one? Neither. Right? It's just a matter of opinion. What the client or the artist or whoever you're working for, whatever they hear in their head.

Steve Folland: And I guess also though like being professional, turning up on time and doing their thing.

Kari Paavola: It is so important. That's another thing I always speak in my seminar that I do, I talk about these things constantly. How to communicate, how to network, how to handle yourself. You have to be super organized and on time and straight to the point and not let people wait for you or whatever because there's always someone else who will have this skill set together and have the content together as well. If you have the content together and you're flaky, someone else who has the content together, even not as well as you but it's not flaky, he will get or she will get the job.

Steve Folland: Yeah. That reminds me of what Paul Jarvis said on here a few weeks back with that, "I may not be the best designer but I can control very nice and I do the work when I say a will for the amount I'm going to do it for." And so on.

Kari Paavola: Exactly. It's so important. And also you have to be also appreciative because there are so many people out there and anyone can call anyone. If someone's calling me to do something or inquiring about something, I need to respect that person and answer to their questions quickly and also be thankful for the call. Even if I'm not interested, even if maybe the job is wrong for me or the money's not right, but be gracious. That goes a long way I think.

Steve Folland: You talked about turning a passion into a profession. What else is it that makes that your business?

Kari Paavola: What I've found out, I've done this for over 20 years, so I've seen lots of people, different times. What I've found out that, these are no exact numbers but that's sort of prodigal level of musician who's just beyond anyone else. They are very rare. Lets say might be like 1% or 2% and those people will be drawn into the career almost accidentally because they are so good. But then the rest of us, the sort of normal skill set people. I think the ones who will make it into profession are the ones who will develop the other skills than your instrumental playing or your art. Who will develop the other skills and understand that getting these other skills together to the same high level as your content or your playing or whatever it is. If you get the other skills together, then you have a very good chance of making your passion into profession.

Kari Paavola: And I've sort of, I've narrowed it into seven things that I teach in my seminars. There are seven things that one needs to consider and four of them are skill sets and three of them are more like, well what you call soft things like mindset kind of things. And if those seven things are together with your music, then you have a good chance. I think.

Steve Folland: The seven things, skill set, what were they?

Kari Paavola: I would say that there are four things that you have to be good at. You need to be good at communication and networking. And you need to be good at knowing who you are. So you need to develop your brand in a way that it's as strong as possible and also as original as possible. And then you need to be really good with money. That's what I always say to everyone. You will probably as an artist work in a low income environment. You need to be expert in money so that you make your money last basically.

Kari Paavola: And then the fourth thing that you need to think of is how can you develop passive income, intellectual property that might create money for you or royalties or have some kind of ownership. And those four things will really help you to monetise your art. And then the soft things, what I always talk about, that you need to set goals and you need to dream huge and big and be willing to take calculated risks that would then support that dream. Then maybe the last thing would be that you need to be very good at planning, and the problem is that all of these things are not really in the artistic mind. The artistic mind doesn't really support these skills. And that's where we kind of a clash as an artist or a musician or actor or whatever.

Steve Folland: No, I like that. When you say to develop a brand, how does that look like for you?

Kari Paavola: Well, for me, again, there's been many stages in my career. Like in London, I was, what I call now old school. But I was very much a freelance drummer. I would play the drums and people would call me to play the drums and that was it. And then slowly at the last years of London life I got into musical directing little bit. I would put bands together for a couple of artists and then that would involve more than just the drumming. But 90% of the time I just drummed. I tried to drum well and get called. And of course I got to be known in certain styles more than other styles.

Kari Paavola: But in Finland my brand has changed complete. Now I bring UK talent to tour with me or organise their tours and bands within Finland, Scandinavia, Baltics. And also now in the spring I'm taking an American soul blues artists around Europe where I'm doing the same thing. I'm putting a band together for her. She's flying here from LA and I will have a band for her ready to go. Hopefully the type of band that she will appreciate. We've had a conversation, so I've picked musicians who I think will be good for her and then she has agents selling her tour in Europe.

Kari Paavola: But then I've also taken part of that responsibility in Finland, I've sold a few gigs for her as well. Here it's a whole different thing than it used to be in London.

Steve Folland: And you mentioned goals as well, so you're quite a goal orientated person.

Kari Paavola: Well, I'm trying to be now, let's say the past five, 10 years I've tried to develop these kind of skills. I do have long term goals in terms of what I want to achieve in my musical life and my professional life and I am working towards them. I'm trying not to just randomly go through my days and pick work whenever it comes. I try to have more of a plan and currently or the past few years, the plan has been to divert myself from drumming to also musical directing and also being able to help an artist to navigate their career in more European wide way. 'Cause what I've noticed that America or England or Britain, there's lots of artists who have interest in Europe but they're not big enough and they're not commanding high enough fees to do full scale tours with their local bands.

Kari Paavola: Like for example, an artist from LA, if they fly in with their whole band, they're already looking at a cost of five, six, seven thousand. But what about, if they're flying alone? They're looking at a cost of a thousand and then they will have a band here and they can do concerts in Europe. Basically these artists that I'm targeting and working for are sort of a small to middle range, club size artists. But I think that's the place where I can offer value to them and offer help.

Steve Folland: Interesting. Are you reaching out to them online?

Kari Paavola: Again, I don't really believe in the online thing, at least not yet 'cause-

Steve Folland: You're not jetting out to LA to schmooze aye?

Kari Paavola: Unfortunately no, I haven't been there since 2004. I used to be in a group called the wedding present in England and they were like an Indie rock group and we toured a lot in America, loads. But we haven't, I haven't been there since 2004 so no I'm not going there as of yet, but basically just, I'm focusing mainly on the UK artists who basically are my old friends from the UK scene and I've been bringing them over and trying to help them out in the Nordics. There's a group called the Field for Six on Acid jazz records and we are just doing a tour of Finland starting in two weeks, which will bring the core group, the composer and the leader. Will bring the core group from the UK and then I have three Finnish guys waiting here or me plus two and then we'll do some concerts in Finland.

Kari Paavola: And there's other UK artists like that I've been working with in that capacity and now I'm doing this thing with this American lady and hopefully, it really is a recommendations game. So you just need to somehow find the first opportunity and do it really well, and hope that, that will lead to the next one.

Steve Folland: You mentioned passive income as well, like creating things which will keep bringing you revenue. Have you done that yourself?

Kari Paavola: Not really, I should because I don't write so I don't have streams of passive income. I guess the only thing is that we never let go from our London flats. At least we have that they're generating hopefully something, but currently it's just there and it's chipping away the mortgage. But at least we took this risk that we bought a small place and kept that and did some sacrifices to have it because we bought it on the height of the market that will ever. But maybe there's a tiniest little pension put away waiting for us one day. But as a creative person, you should think of these things, whether it is being able to buy a home or whether it is to create products that will create passive income or whether it's to writing music for somewhere or anything like this. But that will be quite important I think for anyone working in the low, 'cause good music and arts for the most part is a low paying job.

Steve Folland: You've obviously got into teaching, as in not teaching somebody how to play the drums but a more high level thing. 'Cause you've mentioned your seminar.

Kari Paavola: Yeah that happened again, a lot of things happen accidentally first and then you do something and you get good feedback and then you start developing that like, "Oh actually this is an important thing and actually I'm pretty good at explaining it and so forth." Basically we relocated to Finland with my family five years ago and the local music university here asked me to just come and talk, just completely casually, come and talk to our students how it is to make an international career. And maybe maintain it because I was still somehow have fairly international life in music.

Kari Paavola: And so I went to do with this talk with them and it was very well received and I realised that this is something that lots of music schools unfortunately still don't do enough. They teach people to play the piano or play the guitar or do composition or whatever, but then they don't teach ... How can you, when you graduate from this institute, how do you support yourself? How do you pay your bills from your art? I developed this program, that in mind and I've now gone to 15 or 20 schools so far and people being very happy with the way I explained these things and how I go about teaching about it.

Steve Folland: It's nice. Does that also help your business or is it purely because you're a decent guy helping others out?

Kari Paavola: It's both. I've seen so many music careers fail, not because of the ability of that person, but because the ability, the other soft skills aren't, is not there. And it's really sad when you know that someone is exceptional, exceptional player or artist or whatever they are and they are just going nowhere and they can barely make ends meet. I thought it's best for me if I can bring this other kind of thinking to someone's head and hopefully help them. And in terms of my business, of course there's a fee that I ask when I go and teach somewhere, obviously I will also make money so it has become an extra stream of income. And also when you tour in Europe, you can do this. I've done many of these seminars around my gig schedule.

Kari Paavola: I will be playing somewhere and then in the morning I would go to music school and speak. So all of a sudden my daily rate doubles because I make the money playing in the night and then I spent a couple hours in the school teaching.

Steve Folland: I guess also you're putting yourself in front of the next generation of musicians and building those connections.

Kari Paavola: Possibly. I think you really, again, you need to build the connections within the cities that you live in or work in the most. I'm mainly in Helsinki and then I'm in London a lot and a little bit Stockholm, you can't really expect to just go somewhere, anywhere in Europe, Amsterdam and then randomly make a connection. It's possible of course, but I do think it takes longer and it takes more than just a random meeting, but it's possible, I guess but haven't thought about it this way. Maybe I should.

Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Kari Paavola: I guess I'm telling my younger self, as in the students, I'm telling these things all the time, so I guess I would tell, I would ask myself to be more plan oriented, be more organised and have clear goals in mind. Maybe every six months or 12 month goals that I would then track on whether I'm getting closer or achieving those goals. Because I do think that even though I was very hungry in London and I did a lot of things and luckily made a living out of drumming, but the first few years were very random. I was hanging out, I was doing this, I didn't have a real plan and I think I would have benefited immensely for being a bit more plan oriented.

Kari Paavola: I've started to be more plan oriented. I'm 42 years old now, so maybe the past five to 10 years I've thought this way.

Steve Folland: Yeah. And maybe some of that has to do with having a family. You mentioned family. How's your work life balance?

Kari Paavola: Work life balance is really good actually. That's why we moved to Finland because it's a great place to raise great kids. It's very good. I'm either available to my daughters a lot or not at all. There is no real middle ground 'cause often when I'm working I am away. Most of my work is out of Helsinki. But yeah, work life balance is very good. I really, yeah, it's good in a small European city to raise a family. I'm sure many people who've done that would agree with me.

Steve Folland: Kari thank you so much. It's been really nice to chat to you. You can find out what Kari's up to beingfreelance.com as ever has links through to all of our guests. You can go and see more of their work or connect with them and reach out to them. Also while you're there, check out the other episodes, the articles, the vlogs, the other videos and be part of the community as well. Come find us online, follow the link through from beingfreelance.com. I will see you in the group. That would be nice to see you there. And of course, if you can, share this with somebody else, tell them about the Being Freelance podcast and what we're doing and help them being better freelance as well. But for now, Kari, thank you so much. Lovely to talk to you and all the best being freelance.

Kari Paavola: Thanks so much, Steve. All the best.