Dave Johnston: On being a freelance musician

Dave Johnston
Don't Give Up Your Day Job brings you another insight into the creative industries, this week with Dave Johnston, Tui-Award winning drummer and composer.


Dave Johnston is a Tui-Award winning professional drummer and composer who plays and writes for alternative rock bands The Zoup and Villainy. He is also a freelance mixing engineer and during the day works as Industry Liaison for the SAE Institute. We discuss his beginnings in music, the inner workings of Villainy, his experience being produced by Tom Larkin (Shihad) and his role at SAE. Dave is very generous with both his time and opinions and we thoroughly enjoyed talking to him.  

What is the biggest challenge that you see for people seeking a career in the creative sector and how do you navigate that challenge?

To be successful in the creative sector, you have to be driven and able to make opportunities happen for yourself.  That never really lets up, and knowing that can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming at times.

A lot of work in the creative sector is freelance or project work.  In many industries when you get a job, you may be sorted for several years, whereas freelancers jump between jobs constantly, so job security can be an issue.  Developing a strong reputation and building up a professional network will help bring in more work as people learn to trust you and value your skills, but the process of doing that is hard work!

At the end of the day, you need to stack that uphill battle against the prospect of working in a career that you are genuinely passionate about.  If you can figure out how to turn your passion into a successful career, you’re winning at life and people with boring jobs will be jealous. In my experience as a musician, getting ahead can be a real struggle at times, but I know that there have been some killer moments in my career that many people only dream of experiencing, and those bits make it all worthwhile.

What is the core belief that drives what you do?

I’ve always loved the intense emotional response you can have from hearing a piece of music.  Many of the most memorable moments in my life have been attached to music in some way, and the thought that the music I create could end up giving other people similar experiences in their lives is a pretty compelling reason to do it all.

What is your number one tip for surviving and thriving in the creative industries?

Don’t be a dick. Turn up to things on time, be nice to people, be helpful, follow through on your promises. People in the creative sector are often extremely busy and have a very low tolerance for dealing with negativity. People won’t want to work with you again if you’re a dick, and in an industry where your reputation is key to getting work, you can’t afford to burn too many bridges.  On the other hand, if you’re awesome and people love working with you, you’ll be in high demand.


Written by

Don't Give Up Your Day Job

15 Sep 2017

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job is a podcast series developed by Bobby Kennedy and Danny McCrum, providing an insight into the careers of creative professionals.  

Chris Bailey
Danny McCrum shares a heart-to-heart with English drummer Chris Bailey.
Don't Give Up Your Day Job podcast recently caught up with Greg Johnson to record an honest and inspiring conversation about the highs and lows of his life in the business.
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash
In a world of polarising opinions, knee-jerk reactions and many a closed mind, doesn’t it make sense to have more thoughtful, transparent conversations where we truely listen to each other?