First of all, the purpose of this month’s blog is NOT to convince you that you can’t sell out at Wembley. The next Beatles or Billie Eilish could be reading this, in which case I am humbly flattered that you are reading my blog and will be the first in line to cheer you on as you step onto that stage. The only problem with Wembley is that, although you can cram one heck of a lot of people into the audience; in the world of music, that stage is the equivalent of a needle head. The world is brimming with fantastic, original talent and that could very well reside in you. Congratulations on that– I hope you share your beautiful music with the world. Unfortunately, if we gave every person who deserved it two minutes on that stage, the audience would grow old and grey and we would have to include funeral arrangements with the tickets.
In one of my previous blogs, I wrote about ‘creative dreams,’ and the upmost importance of always chasing them until they are achieved. Unfortunately, one of the greatest preventers of reaching your musical goals is the illusion held by many that there are two possible destinations in a musician’s life: Wembley, or the supermarket. It is easy to find yourself stacking shelves (trust me, I’ve been there) with one eye on that barely-moving second hand, and the other on the MTV channel playing in the background. And, as we watch those note-perfect (often autotuned) stars with the flawless skin and miraculous mascara, we convince ourselves that if we’re not doing what they are doing, we are failing. News flash: you are not. There is an entire world of music out there – a lot of people call it the ‘real’ world of music. Many incredibly successful creatives actually steer themselves deliberately away from the pop-star image; reasons include their preference for authenticity, creative control, or the fact that standing in that spotlight in glittery bikinis just isn’t where they want to end up. Wherever your skills lie, it is absolutely possible to make a living in music without every teenager on the planet knowing your name. You just have to know where to look and be prepared to put in a lot of work.
Let’s assume for now that your heart is set on performing. Maybe you’re a singer and put every other karaoke or open mic participant to shame. Perhaps you prefer guitar, saxophone, bass or drums; or, perhaps, like me, you’re most comfortable with a keyboard in front of you and are fed up with always being shoved to the back of the stage. Unfortunately, there are some things in the world that we just can’t change. These currently include wearing face masks in shops; political differences; and the fact that keyboard players will always, always be shoved to the back of the stage.
So you’ve mastered your instrument! Well, go and perform. Scour your local area or, if you’re blessed with access to a van or large boot space, go a little further. London and Brighton have some incredible small venues. One of the best ways to secure yourself some gigs is to put together a band. Remember those cringe-worthy dreams you had in year eight about how you and your friends would blast the worlds next big hit from your parent’s garage? Make your twelve-year-old self proud! It’s probably how ninety-percent of bands start, after all. Make sure you work with people who are as dedicated as you are, and who are willing to put in those extra rehearsals and late night performances. There are small venues in literally every town that will host live music events. More successful bands who have been playing for longer will very often ‘host’ an evening, so if you’re new to the game I would recommend starting as one of the ‘support acts.’ You’re unlikely to get paid for the first few but use the experience. Talk to other musicians; get their contact details and offer to play for them again. Small gigs like this can be a great opportunity to sell your DIY CDs and hand dyed t-shirts with your band logo on it. If you do a good job, other bands and venues will hear about you, and it is highly likely you will be invited to play again – eventually you may headline yourself and be tasked with inviting your own support acts. Many very successful musicians have been able to make a career out of gigging like this in gradually larger venues. It can be a good idea to write your own material for these gigs, but sprinkle in a couple of covers here and there to keep the ‘vibe.’ (Did I really just say ‘vibe’ in a blog?)
Another performance option is to be a part of a ‘function band.’ A function band is used more frequently for events such as parties and weddings. A function band might be better for you if you favour playing covers, particularly well-known covers. If you want to play at events like these, make sure your repertoire is as big as it can possibly be, because you’re going to get requests. The good thing about this route is that it can be a lot more stable with regards to payment; you’ll know the money you’re getting for a gig and, if you’re good, you might secure yourself a second event and a second wad of cash.
By the Way
One of the most valuable lessons you will ever learn in the world of music is how to coil a wire properly. Master the technique of deconstructing your bands’ equipment efficiently and always carry a supply of electrical tape and you double your chances of being invited back! Always offer to help pack up. It’s mind numbingly boring, particularly when all you can think about is that McDonalds on the way home, but it’s worth it.
Personally, spotlights terrify me, particularly since I became a teacher. In front of parents and new potential students, my hands have been known to seize up and refuse to play ‘Jingle Bells’ without messing up the chorus. However, stick me in a studio with an expensive pair of headphones over my ears and I feel much more at home. I’m very much in favour of the shyer musicians – many of them are incredibly talented but wince at the very idea of a cheering crowd, and in the real world, that is totally fine. In fact, it could be better than fine, because the earth needs more great session musicians!
Think back to your favourite solo artist. What was his or her most complex track? Did it have five layers? Ten layers? More? Chances are, this phantom celebrity can’t play guitar, bass, drums, keys, violin, harp and xylophone. So what do they do when they’ve envisioned a killer synth riff but couldn’t name the notes on the studio’s piano? They call in a session musician to do it for them. And, since us keys players are usually at the back anyway, I say make that session musician you. If you’re lucky, you might even get some of the royalties.
Playing as a session musician or vocalist can be a fantastic experience. You get to see the inside of a recording studio with the reassurance that if you screw it up, you can do it again. And, if you need to: again. Plus you get to look pretty cool with those bulky headphones over your skull and wires protruding all over the place like tentacles. Usually, the artist will give you a lead sheet, chord sheet, or notated part and ask you to play your instrument’s layer into their track. If you do it well, you might get some good money from it. If this is where you would like to go, contact every studio you would be prepared to travel to and send them a demo of you playing your instrument, whatever it may be. A good session musician turns up on time, plays their part efficiently in minimal takes, and doesn’t spill coffee on the priceless mixing desk.
What if I Don’t Like Performing?
You are not alone! There are plenty of people out there with extremely successful careers in this industry that rarely even brush an instrument, and certainly not in front of a crowd or wedding reception. If none of the above roles is for you, here are a handful of others it might be worth delving into:
Composing – okay, if you’ve read some of my other blogs then you know I am biased, but composing is an incredibly interesting and potentially rewarding route to take. The good thing about composing for me is that once I’ve finished that last note, it is totally somebody else’s problem, making performances a lot less stressful. The world needs great music, and somebody has got to write it. As discussed in my previous blog, a huge percentage of performers don’t write their own songs. (Have a look at ‘An Introduction to Songwriting’ from last month if you’re interested in that.) If you would like to be a composer, contact record labels, studios and other performers with your work and nag them relentlessly so they don’t forget about you. If songwriting isn’t for you, you might want to consider looking at music for media, theatre or film.
Producing – Production is my personal downfall, and I am the wrong person to indulge you in the details. Music producers are absolutely crucial to the industry and deserve so much more than the polite nod of appreciation they sometimes get at an awards ceremony. Producers make music sound like music. They are the people who take the original composition and performers and shape it into what we hear on the radio. If you’re interested in mixing and mastering music or even – like me – just like fiddling with all those sliders and buttons – have a look at your local college or uni to see if there are any courses on music production. I live with a qualified music producer, and the options once you have those specific skills are endless. If you are serious about this route, familiarise yourself with some DAW software (Digital Audio Workstations.) These are a little bit like professional versions of the app ‘garage band.’ I would personally recommend Logic Pro.
Live Sound – let’s go back quickly to those gigs your band was playing near the beginning of this blog. The music is pounding, the crowd is jumping slightly out of time (always infuriating) …and the sound guy is at the back with his eyes darting between all of the amps and microphones across the stage. Somebody has got to do it. There is a lot of behind-the scenes work going on at gigs; the venue needs somebody to oversee all of the technical logistics behind the performances. If you’ve mastered coiling that wire and want to know more, then this could be for you. You’ll certainly get to see and support a lot of new music.
Teaching – Okay, here I’m definitely biased. But teaching at Vocademy has come to be one of the most positive turning points in my music career. You’d be amazed how much you learn whilst sharing your creativity with others. I would highly recommend passing on your craft; it is incredibly rewarding and seeing students’ progress can really tug at your heart-strings. Music schools, primary schools, colleges and universities…if you think teaching might be for you then go for it! Spread the word of music – even if they don’t sell out at Wembley.
These are just a few examples of routes to take in the world of music. I have recently discovered some of them myself since studying Commercial Music at University. You might find you sway between some of the options, or that your skills lie in more than one category – that is totally fine! I would recommend trying out as many musical options as you can to see where you best fit. Whatever you choose to do, have pride in your craft and always remember: nothing in the definition of music links success to fame. Don’t let your time stacking shelves put you off: you will get to where you want to be, and you might even discover a new destination along the way.
Piano Tutor Tura Paice