Grads of the UK is an Instagram project and series of articles run by graduates, for graduates. We are documenting what being a millennial in 2017 is really like, with honest stories about life after university.
Every week we hand over our Instagram account to a new grad and share their unique story here on GradTouch. This week, Rachel Croft, a University of York graduate now working as a musician and illustrator.
You can read our interview with Rachel below, and see more daily insights into her life since uni by following @gradsoftheuk on Instagram.
Rachel has been singing for years, but she’s not immune to nerves on stage.
“If it’s somewhere new, high pressure, or with a big audience I’m often jittery before. I have to check my guitar is tuned properly six times and I worry a string is going to snap, or that my voice will crack.”
In the moment when she’s singing, though, Rachel is always reminded of exactly why she loves it. “Once I stand up and start to play, it’s weird, all that goes away and I just feel very aware but calm.”
“Busking is my day job now.”
Since graduating from the University of York with a first-class Environmental Geography degree in 2014, Rachel now makes a living as both a musician and commission illustrator.
She explains, “music makes me the majority of the money most of the time, and so I have to play more to tide myself over. I reckon, in time, music will eventually be taken over by the illustrating, but I don’t see why I can’t do both - they fit well together. If it’s sunny, I play. If it rains, I draw.”
In third year, as uni was coming to an end, Rachel began to feel she hadn’t made the most of her time at York.
So, she got into busking and wrote a set of children’s poems that she went on to illustrate. “I convinced myself I’d wasted my spare time at uni so was going to do loads of extras… I started to sing again after taking a break since college age,” she reflects.
Not getting into a musical theatre society in first year put her off pursing a career in music for a time, Rachel says.
“It killed my confidence… I don’t have the thickest skin when it comes to rejection.”
She says she’s really grateful for the support her family have given her: “I started playing guitar (badly) and singing at home – my dad encouraged me to go to open mic nights near home and I got over my fear from there and built up from then.
"I was so, so nervous at the start, it’s hard to recall now… but it really took off from there.”
Now, Rachel is determined to stay in York, though many of her university friends moved on to other cities.
She says the idea of going home wasn’t for her and she didn’t think she’d be able to do what she really wanted there – “the alternative was to risk it and use music to live and work in York.”
It’s going pretty well so far. Having involved herself in York's arts scene in third year, Rachel was able to use her contacts to make a go of it full-time. She says York is “an amazing place to be creative… It’s tourist-y, friendly and full of other creative people hidden away.”
I ask whether she would be looking to move somewhere like London, or a big city in America, to further her music career, but it doesn’t appeal to her. “Unless it became impractical for me to live in a city like York for my work, I wouldn’t move. Rent is cheaper here – and the capital is saturated with people like me. I’m sure I couldn’t busk there, due to the aggressive competitive environment and long commuting hours.
“I think I’d get lost in it all – I think, personally, it’s much better for me to work my way up from the outside until I have a genuine reason to move.”
“You need to have a tough skin, fight and believe in yourself – I’ve spent lots and lots of time working on it.”
From learning how long to busk for, choosing which gig requests to take on, to deciding what to request as payment, Rachel says making it as a full-time musician is a long process of refining her approach.
“You have to learn to hold your ground, stand up for yourself and get the best deal,” she says.
Rachel adds that people often expect creatives, and musicians in particular, to work for free – but, naturally, she can’t always accept those opportunities or she wouldn’t be able to do it for a living.
Being self-employed certainly isn’t easy. She says there’s always difficulty with “managing your own accounts, filing your own tax return.
"I got hit with a four-figure bill from HMRC this January. I had to borrow a grand from my parents to cover it after all my meagre savings were swallowed up because I didn’t plan. That felt like a real failure."
She adds that being her own boss is incredible, but also says: “because what I do is creative, I’m quite emotionally attached to it, and I find it very hard to work if I’m not in the right mind set.
“I can skive when I want, but equally I can't leave my work at the office, I constantly live in guilt that I'm not doing enough.”
Ultimately, Rachel is really glad she found her ‘thing’ at uni – or she may have taken a very different path.
“I may well have ended up doing a Master’s and beyond if I hadn’t found my place by now,” she tells me. “I think a lot of people stay in further education because it’s a good way of delaying deciding what to do with the rest of your life. That’s sort of true for me.”
Going forward, she plans to put together an art portfolio, self-publish her children’s book with illustrations and start work on an album. I ask whether she has a back-up plan, or whether she worries about the insecurity of the work she does. But she says she’s all in.
“I don’t really think about if it doesn’t work out, because you’ve just got to make it work. I can’t see it being a problem any time soon, there are plenty of ways I can grow or adapt what I’m doing.
“I’m looking forward to seeing where it’ll take me.”
Rachel is running the @gradsoftheuk Instagram until Saturday 18th March.