The Bonnie Jones Grant

Funding a creative practice in precarious times

Gahlord Dewald :: 2/16/16 :: Burlington, Vermont

A few years ago I attended the New Music Gathering in Baltimore. One of the most powerful discussions for me was moderated by composer Alexandra Gardner. The topic was how one goes about creating work and getting bills paid when outside of an academic or institutional setting.

The panel was excellent because everyone on it was pretty up front and real about what they’re doing and spoke from their personal experience. And within the excellent panelists one of them really stood out and had a meaningful impact on the way I think about things now: Bonnie Jones.

A rainbow.
A rainbow in Mānoa Valley.

Introducing the Bonnie Jones Grant

Jones’ advice to people was to get a useful skill. In her case I got the impression that it was some sort of digital media/programming/web thing. Then use the revenue from that skill to fund artistic creation.

It’s simple really. But she didn’t call it a day job. She called it “the Bonnie Jones Grant.” And though I’m pretty certain she meant it part in jest and also to only refer to her own self-fundedness I’m taking it and running with it. And keeping the name as-is.

A day job is something you hope to give up one day. This makes it difficult to emotionally invest the time to become skilled enough for the job to pay you well. The Bonnie Jones Grant is something you want to do well. You don’t want to give it up because it helps your creative work flourish.

You see, if we call it the Bonnie Jones Grant instead of “my day job” it keeps things in focus: The purpose of the activity is to make more creative work.

We want to maximize the creative work that the Bonnie Jones Grant can fund. If we do it well, time spent doing activities related to our Bonnie Jones Grant are probably not all that different from the non-creative activity we put into grant funded or other “artistically acceptable” fundraising activities.

Purpose of the Bonnie Jones Grant

The point of this is to get resources for your creative work. You’ll get money. And, as Megan Ihnen has pointed out, you’ll meet new people that could become your audience–people who support your work outside your work.

So that’s a twofer: money and audience.

Maximizing your Bonnie Jones Grant

The revenue you generate from your Bonnie Jones Grant activity will, by default, help you establish a budget for your activities. Since finance isn’t always taught or pursued by musicians as rigorously as other disciplines, having an external budget-setting mechanism can help here.

By having a budget limit, you can start to establish how long your grant will last and what you can do to make it last longer. This might not be entirely pleasant, but it gives you some straightforward metrics to work with.

Doing the Bonnie Jones Grant well

If we put the two previous points together we can start to see a strategy emerge from the Bonnie Jones Grant. We want to get the greatest amount of resources (growth) and minimize the overhead (culling) so our Grant lasts longer (increase of creative work).

A few things emerge quickly: most “artistically acceptable” day jobs may be very poor candidates for a Bonnie Jones Grant.

Teaching:If you love teaching don't let this deter you. Just realize that it’s going to require extra vigilance to continue being creative while you do this work. This is an activity that doesn’t pay very well when calculated by real hourly wage (in other words, including all the meetings, paperwork, grades, and non-teaching activities required to teach). The people you work with as a teacher might be potential audience members but it’s likely they are people who would be easier to reach anyway (music dept faculty/students). Not much pay, lots of time commitment, not many “new” people. You might get to use the skills you went into debt to obtain, but you’re unlikely to be paid enough to pay down that debt and support yourself creatively.

Orchestra/Freelancing: For this one, there’s really no need for me to write up all the ways it’s unlikely to be a good fit for a Bonnie Jones Grant. Jason Heath wrote a book about it. I’ve never met anyone who enjoys this lifestyle. My impression of it is that it’s soul-crushing. But I haven’t ever done it so maybe you’re the one that loves this approach. If so, keep in mind the extra effort you will need to make in order to continue your creative activities.

Also, the traditional coffeeshop/kitchen work path for “starving artist” is a poor fit due to low wages. Additionally, the shifts are often concurrent with when you’ll want to do performances.

Good fits for Bonnie Jones Grants are going to (in order):

  1. Allow you to maintain enough physical and emotional reserves to pursue your creative work in the time left to you.
  2. Pay you enough to create your work in addition to meeting your existing financial obligations.
  3. Not conflict with your performance commitments.
  4. Introduce you to people unrelated to the new music or classical music “scene.”

The actual work is going to be different for everyone–different people have different emotional responses to work and different physical capacities. But the basics of this outline will be there. The best thing to do would be to talk with people who are working and making a creative go of things. Probably everyone you know who is doing contemporary music is either actively doing something like this or did in the not-too-distant past. Ask people to share their experiences.

Example, my Bonnie Jones Grant

In my case, I’m a self-employed consultant. Having control of my time is very important to me emotionally (I can do a 9-5, but I really bristle at sitting in a chair all day especially when I complete the work by around noon). It isn’t physically exhausting to do the work I do, though sometimes if I spend all day thinking I do get a little wiped out. It’s in my control, though.

I’m paid well and my income isn’t tied to the number of hours I work. If I do something well in a short amount of time I’m given the same amount of money as if I did something well in a great deal of time. In fact, most of the time people appreciate me being quick. This buys me time to work on my creative stuff.

I am self-employed.One thing I don’t do enough is use my work connections to build my music audience. It’s something I’m working on though. And I’ve been encouraged by the response so far. This requires me to do some more work, perhaps (taxes, business organization, finding customers, etc). But it gives me complete control of my schedule. I can ramp up/down work activities to suit my current creative objectives. It’s how I’ve carved out time to work on this site and other projects as well. So my work time only very very rarely conflicts with my creative goals; if a client has an emergency, for example.

It took me a long time to get where I am with my business. About 12 years. I could have been much smarter about it earlier and gotten here quicker.

I also could have worked less hard and made more music. For most of those 12 years I wasn’t actively working on my musical craft. I was in maintenance mode at best. In hindsight, I could have woven my music into my day more instead of working so hard.

But as of right this moment, my Bonnie Jones Grant is working pretty well for me. I have time, I have physical space (my work studio is also my music studio), and I have financial resources to continue my work.

It isn’t guaranteed, my work could dry up and then I’d have to work harder again. But there isn’t much guaranteed work these days and at least this is a little more in my control.

Thinking of my work as “working on my Bonnie Jones Grant”Since I wrote this initial essay, Bonnie Jones has written about the Bonnie Jones Grant for NewMusicUSA. has focused the way I approach work–working to get things done at a high level and quickly to make room for my more creative efforts–has been profoundly useful to me.

I had many great moments from New Music Gathering but this one was among the biggest highlights. I hope it’s useful for you as well.