Five tips to kickstart your music career if you’ve never been on X Factor and you didn’t go to the BRIT school
Joking aside, it feels harder and harder to carve your own niche in the music industry today without some serious help or training. So what if you’re beyond school age and you don’t want to go down the talent contest route? Do you give up and settle for the day job? Do you try to bury your dreams under a mantra of ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘it’s too late’? Or do you keep going with no guarantee of reward or success?
Well, if you want to make it, but you’re feeling stuck, frustrated, bemused, or even like you’re at square one, read on. This is meant to help.
Tip #1 – Remember who you are
Our culture really likes to put people into boxes, to categorise them – and there seems to be very clear definitions of what ‘success’ and ‘failure’ look like. And in music – whether you’re a singer, a songwriter, a musician, a producer, management, whatever – the difference between what most people think of as success and failure in the music industry is stark.
Success means Adele-style mega-stardom (Adele was responsible for over 10% of UK music exports in 2011 – how’s that for a target to match). Failure means no income, no jobs, no prospects, and no hope. Disturbingly, non-musicians sometimes still equate non-megastar success with a lack of talent. Those within the artistic industries know that talent is an indicator, not a guarantor, of success.
But hold on a minute – how does remembering who you are help this situation?
Well, you know that saying, ‘to thine own self be true’? In my humble opinion, Oscar Wilde said it better. He said ‘you might as well be yourself – everyone else is already taken’. We already have an Adele. We already have a Rihanna. We’ve already had a Nina Simone, a Billie Holliday, a Sarah Vaughn, a Daphne Oram . And we’ve still got a Tori Amos, an Aretha Franklin, a Madonna…the list goes on. If you’re involved in another side of the music industry, substitute these names with your own list of legends.
What we don’t have yet is YOU.
What you can bring to the music industry is unique. Even if you feel you’re still learning your craft, even if you feel that you still need to ‘get better’ at whatever it is you love doing – because there’s always room for improvement, no matter how good one gets. Whatever it is you want to bring, remember that only YOU can bring it. YOU are the only person who can write the songs you write. YOU are the only person who can sing with your voice, or play the flute how you play it, or produce tracks the way you do – or whatever your unique contribution is.
Does that mean that you can stop learning, rest on your laurels, and wait for success to come your way, just because you’ve got unique gifts to give the industry?
In a word, no.
But that’s okay, because the next tip is about finding that success.
Tip #2 Define what success means to you
Remember how we said that most people, usually people outside the music industry, see success in music as mega-stardom and mega-bucks and see failure as not getting anywhere at all – never earning any real money, no hope of things getting better (oh and most people think that this vision of failure is the most likely outcome for an aspiring musician- so no pressure there!).
There is no such thing as blanket ‘success’ or ‘failure’ in music, or in any artistic pursuit (in fact – possibly – in anything. At least after you get past school exams).
Success and failure mean different things to different folk. They are subjective, not objective. So you can choose what success looks like for you, and work towards it accordingly.
For instance – does success mean Adele-style fame and fortune or does it mean setting up your own label and being completely independent like Ani diFranco ? Do you want to have legions of fans or do you want to have a small, devoted circle? Do you want to get masses of radio airplay, or do you want to tour small intimate venues – or both? Do you want the big marketing guns of a major label behind you, or do you want to build your following slowly and steadily? Do you want to make music that fits with the mainstream or do you want to follow a different path?
Do your own answers seem to be a bit off of the mainstream? For example, you might decide ‘I want to be big in Japan for my funky electro-pop and corner the Asian dance market’, or ‘I want to run a home studio business and produce talented up-and-coming MCs’ or ‘I want to be the female Dizzee Rascal/Damon Albarn/Plan B or the male Nicki Minaj/Amy Winehouse/Florence Welch/whoever’ (even though you’re actually being yourself, remember!). These are not the dreams that the X Factor sells. These are the dreams that you, yourself, have. And this is why the music industry needs you, the real, original, authentic you – because only you can make them happen.
What I’m saying is that all these – and many more options – are available to you. You get to decide what success looks like, and once you know what it looks like, you can reaffirm your way to getting there.
But – that’s a lot easier said than done, especially if you’re surrounded by naysayers or people who only see one form of music success. Which is where the next tip comes in…
Tip #3 Surround yourself with people who share your vision
Remember I said that most people have a very stark view of success and failure in the music industry? Well, the key word there is ‘most’. As in, not all. Especially if they are actually working in the music industry.
People who work within the industry know what the outside world doesn’t – that there are many different jobs, many different rungs on the ladder, and many different income levels throughout the sector. They know that people can make a living from music without being household names. They know that it is possible to pursue music and be happy and solvent rather than being miserable and broke.
They also know that many people in the industry don’t do just one thing – many people have portfolio careers which allow them to combine different interests and different income streams. Cathy Dennis, for example, was a singer in the 90s – but did you know she is also a well-established songwriter, with credits including Kylie’s ‘Can’t get you out of my head’?
Queen Latifah has a great saying that I really like: ‘Most people don’t have so much talent they can become a success all on their own.’ She goes onto explain ‘We all need people to help us and lift us up. And other people need our help. When you put that together, you can create something really powerful.’
So you’ve got your definition of success, you know who you are and what you want. But maybe you don’t have access to a recording studio, or you don’t know anyone who plays the cello, or you need an arranger or whatever…this is where and when you need to surround yourself with people who share your vision. Because they will help you, in many different ways, get from where you are now to where you want to be.
Again, it’s easier said than done, because your vision is a product of your own unique self-expression, and if you live in a big city, it can sometimes feel daunting and difficult to meet new people.
But you already have a powerful ally: the Internet.
Check sites like Meetup to see if there are any gatherings that take your fancy – or start one yourself. (Personally, I’m thinking of starting a female singer-songwriters meetup for ladies who are out there gigging in London, whether they’ve just started or are a bit more experienced. If you’re interested, why not ping me an email .
Scroll through the musicians ads on Gumtree – or place one yourself.
Have a look on Horsesmouth or Creative Choices to get some advice.
Sign up for newsletters like Tigersonic’s Smart Women’s Recording Club and download free ebooks.
Join the Musicians’ Union. These are just some of the ways you can find your people.
Brilliantly, once you start widening your circle and meeting people who talk your language, you can start seeing where the gaps are in your own knowledge – and find out how to plug them. It might be that you need a producer or a cellist – and someone in your network knows the perfect person for you. Or it might be that you need to learn a bit more about your craft, and someone can point you in the right direction to hone your skills.
And speaking of honing your skills, that’s tip number 4:
Tip #4 Keep learning
Now, there are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a week – and if you’re starting out or trying to grow your music career you may have the added time constraint of a day job to pay the rent. However, there are loads of different ways to learn and, in London and most major cities, there are usually bitesized or short courses you can take at evenings or weekends. If you’re based in the UK, there’s a wide range of distance learning courses you can do, and of course, the Open University.
Even if you’ve already got a music degree or have a lifetime’s worth of production experience, there’s always something new to learn, because the pace of technology and development is so relentless. And if you’d prefer to focus on the business side of the industry, there are loads of great courses and workshops around. I can only speak for London, but here are a few good resources to get started:
- CIDA – Creative Industries Development Agency – run low cost (free in some cases) training on things like marketing, sponsorship, business planning etc for creative businesses, and have loads of links to professional creatives – for example they’ve had Wretch 32 in as a speaker. www.cida.co.uk
- The Midi Music Company – really low cost courses in the professional skills musicians need to have, whether it’s mic technique to industry standard production packages. They also have a career development programme for individual artists and sometimes offer internships and volunteer placements. www.themidimusiccompany.co.uk
- Goldsmiths College, University of London – offer short courses in music and music technology, and also have classes for different aspects of music making, whether you want to brush up on your theory or try avant-garde composition. Most of their classes for adults are in the evening or on Saturdays, so it’s really easy to fit in. www.gold.ac.uk
- Smart Women’s Recording Club – of course! Make sure you know how to get the best from your engineer when you’re in the studio
- The Musician’s Union www.theMU.org
- The Association for Independent Music (AIM) www.aim.org
The great thing about lifelong learning is it helps clarify what you want and the sort of success you’re focused on. Even if you decide not to use the knowledge you gained, that’s information. For example, you could go to a seminar on music management and decide that you definitely don’t want to be a manager – but you need one. That information could take you to the Music Managers’ Forum, or a new course, or anywhere else, and move your further towards your success.
So, you know who you are, what you want, who your music buddies are, what you need to learn and where you’re going to learn it…do you need anything else?
Tip #5 – Don’t stop believing
In an ideal world, all career paths in the music industry would be accessible, clear and inclusive.
We all know we’re not living in an ideal world.
Belief is what will get you through the tough times. Belief is what will help you get back on your feet when Life decides to knock you over. Belief will keep you going out there, gigging, writing, singing, playing, recording, producing, managing… whatever it is you want to do.
Not only that, belief is the magic ingredient to get all the other tips in this post working together.
Belief is crucial when you are exploring and remembering who you are. Because if you don’t believe in yourself and your vision, then you can’t translate it into reality. And you’ve also got to believe that your own unique contribution is valuable to ensure other people – for example, your colleagues and fans – believe it too. (Your unique contribution, whatever it is, IS valuable by the way. In case you were still wondering).
Belief is especially important when you’ve come up with your own definition of success. Because other people in your life might not equate your vision with ‘success’. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know what you want, and that you believe you can get it. But staying strong in the face of the naysayers – however well meaning they are – requires a good helping of self-belief.
Belief is really significant in building your network and getting other people on board with your projects. It sounds obvious, but if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, then no one else will either. But you don’t have to pretend you know more than you actually do. People will respect you for being honest about your situation and current limitations – and if you’re honest about any limitations you might currently have, then you can find people who will help you transcend them.
And belief is important whenever you’re learning something new. Why? Because it’s hard work. It’s a time commitment when you’re already so busy. And it might feel like there is no instant payoff. But you’ll get your return on investment at some point, whether it’s being able to harness the power of social media, or playing bass to such a high standard that you’re in demand as a session musician. So keep learning. Keep going. Keep believing.
Until you get to where you want to be.
Hazel Jane MacLaurin is a singer-songwriter who describes her sound as dreamy folk pop. She has opened for Fairport Convention and Sloan Wainwright among others. She believes music should mean something, and that music makes the world a better place – whether it is a political protest, a heartfelt lovesong, or just something that sounds good. www.hazeljanemaclaurin.com
He is founder of a kicking band – donkey box
and also runs rockbands in london which is a blog and a networking group- I havent had a chance to check out his meet up group yet but def going to get there in the new year
I loved this blog and asked his permission to repost it here
If there’s one thing musicians complain about most during our meet-ups it is that they are playing to empty rooms! Musicians love attention and being one myself don’t I know that feeling too well However, I have never really found playing to empty venues much of an issue as I really love playing live anyway. So let me tell you a little story about my first gig with my current band and how I turned that gigging experience into something amazing.
The year was 2002, it was my band’s first gig ever and we had scored the BIG one. We were playing Imperial College’s Summer Ball. This is the biggest college event of the year and they had booked some big signed acts (including Cornershop) for the main stage and it’s attendance is around the 2000 students mark. Sure we weren’t going to play in that big stage with Cornershop and Mos Eisley, we were playing on a smaller stage inside a big hall somewhere else during the ball. Whenever we said we are playing the summer ball to friends and musicians, everyone was like “woah, that’s awesome man…I’ll check you out”.
Audience watching a live gig
Value the people who come to your gigs
The reality turned out quite different…the small stage was run by a bunch of cowboys (well, students like us) and it ran horribly, horribly late. We were nervous as hell man, it was our first gig…we had worn some awesome rock ‘n roll clothes and we went out and had a good dinner for some band bonding. We couldn’t really enjoy the summer ball as we were so damn nervous but at least we had free entry to this ball and to calm our nerves we drank and drank some more. The party got louder, students were dancing and it peaked around 1am when a big band got everyone dancing and grooving like there’s no tomorrow. We were excited at the prospect of playing to all these people as last and therefore headline act. By 3am the place was dead though…and then as last band we went on stage. By that time the party was totally dead, most if not all students were going back home and there were at my counting 4 people in the audience left. They were all random drunk peeps and one friend who wanted to drink and party more ha ha!
And it sucked playing to an empty hall after all that big build up, on the plus side the massive amount of drinks and having just 4 peeps in the audience made us less nervous. This was not supposed to happen and our cover of Offpsring’s Self Esteem on the night was actually more about us losing our Self Esteem
So in the next few months my friends asked (you know the ones who always say they will be at a gig but never actually show up but still like to ask for niceness sake “how did the gig go?”). I told them with a smile, “It was great man, we played the summer ball”. That’s all I needed to say….in my mind I just re-constructed the past as a massive success playing to hundreds of people and it was their loss to miss out.
The after effects were the most interesting part though. It was our first gig and I had planned well for it…I had someone film it and also got some photos taken. These were our first photos and video live on stage. I tactically then used the best photos to make a one page band website. It was 2002, long before YouTube so online video was out of the question. Instead I captured audio from the best songs on the night and put them up on our website. Viola! We now had a website with photos, audio and a gig portfolio in 2002. And before the age of social websites this effort was a major advantage and a plus to my PR efforts. As far as college press and students were concerned we were now a band that had played the big Summer Ball and had a sweet website to prove it. We scored gig after gig after that at college and I still clearly remember a hot girl musician type introducing me to a another girl at a party “Atul has a band and they played the Summer Ball” You can imagine the smile I had on my face
I have more stories of how other “empty gigs” led to more opportunies for the band, including one that had two Americans in the audience who suggested we play the SxSW festival, which we almost scored as well.
So here are some tips and lessons I have learnt about playing at empty venues:
What happens after a gig is sometimes more important than what happens at the gig. Think long term.
Respect the two people who are at the gig. No one owes their attention to you.
Give it your best to everyone who’s there, even if it is just the sound guy. Humans like me and you can sense crap vibes and energy. If you aren’t happy to be on stage, your audience knows and that’s not cool.
Being on stage is totally different to being in the practice room, if there is no one in the audience it is still not another rehearsal, it is a performance. Learn a lot by playing on stage, how to move on stage, how to deal with live sound and lots of other stuff.
The less people there are in the audience, the easier it is for them to approach you and vice versa..no shyness right Better to build deeper connection with fewer people than shallower connection with loads. My best moments have been getting drunk with the 2 people after the gig.
Now, go out there play to bucket loads of empty rooms, give it all you got and enjoy every moment of it
We are very pleased to introduce the first article by a guest blogger, the very talented Caro Snatch
Caro is a freelance recording engineer and music producer currently based in Manchester, UK.
(check out her latest album here )
Why are there so few female studio recording engineers?
As a female studio recording engineer and a electronic music maker, I am often asked why there are so few women working in the field of studio engineering. This can be both interesting and tiresome as it is a question that demands to be explored but it is also sometimes a bit too much responsibility to be expected to be able to answer for the gross under representation of my gender behind the glass.
I have looked into this issue for both my own curiosity and also to be better equipped when answering to other enquiring minds. I am somewhat surprised by the statistics. Latest research I have found estimates that women account for only five per cent of studio recording engineers. Why should this be?
I can tell you now it is not rocket science. Sure mastering music requires a very firm grasp of acoustics and frequencies and highly tuned ear. But a regular studio recording engineer? Well, quite frankly I have come across many mediocre professional sound engineers who are male. Most of the job role requires sticking a microphone in front of an instrument or person. Connecting that signal to a recorder, most often a computer. And pressing record. Of course this is crudely put, but as I explained to a BBC radio presenter one day in an interview if you can work a microwave or a mobile phone you can probably get your head round most recording studio equipment and signal chains. If you want to.
And this is the more important aspect of the issue here. Many jobs that demand skill and knowledge are occupied by women. OK, perhaps not technology or science but a recording studio does not have to be such a complicated system to get the hang of. There is a logic involved and a systematic approach that once learned and practiced can be applied with relative ease. And sound engineering is not just a science anyway – it is also an art. And a people skills job. Why, I would go as far to say that given women’s conditioning, we are well equipped to be good listeners, midwives for the artist or client’s wishes and I often find myself acting in a nurturing manner to help clients achieve their best performance (especially vocalists for whom the studio environment is new and perhaps a bit uncomfortable).
In the live sound industry there are more women apparently. And this is a much more physical job with much less social hours including tours that can last for weeks and months at a time. Working in a studio environment, the job can be sedentary and certainly not physically demanding. And as a freelance you can exercise some control over your working hours. So, inconvenient working hours and physical strength is not the issue here. Even access to training is not really necessary – I know of plenty of female music producers and studio engineers who have no qualifications in this field, but have just learned how to do it because they wanted to.
I think the only conclusion I can come to which can begin to explain the lack of women working behind the mixing desk is confidence. It is a question of confidence. You have to believe in yourself, not be intimidated by techy talk as you are starting nor be intimidated by other perhaps more capable male colleagues. Actually I have found that 99 percent of professional male engineers I have worked with have not projected any sexist attitudes, although I did have to battle to earn respect at sound engineering school.
Talking about the problem gets tiresome. Exploring the solutions are much more interesting for me. Initiatives like Womens Audio Mission in the US are Smart Women’s recording Club in London great. And increasing the visibility of female music producers and recording engineers is more productive than highlighting what we are not doing. As one person once so neatly described to me: “Girls don’t think of it as an option”. Well it is, and it is a really fun job where you are paid to learn more about music, especially if you are a largely self-taught creative music and electronic music maker like me.
Caro Churchill is a freelance recording engineer and music producer currently based in Manchester, UK. She is often asked to comment on the statistics of female music producers and engineers including taking part in research and panel discussions. She also produces, performs and releases her own electronic music.
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