This is the story of how I came to make my living out of music. If I had said at school I wanted to be a musician, I am sure my careers teacher would have turned a funny colour. The creative industries were once considered unrealistic and the realm of people who didn’t mind living a Bohemian lifestyle, eating only baked beans and eking out an existence from occasionally selling their art to well meaning patrons. The reality is far from that, although being a bit of a dreamer certainly won’t hurt. Afterall, you can only achieve what you believe you can achieve.
My career path started out to be completely unrelated to music. I studied English at Bachelor’s and Master’s level at our favourite local Russell Group University (Queen’s University of Belfast), was unemployed for an entire year afterwards and ended up working in Campaigns and Policy in a major UK charity. For the next decade I worked in disability, in project management, research and public policy. Music and the arts did play a role in that I worked with clients with acquired brain injuries and organised drum circles and concerts for them and their carers. I could clearly see the therapeutic benefits of the arts, but I was a sensible professional enjoying an actual salary, not living day to day as I imagined musicians did.
I was not unhappy in that role, but I missed music. I think deep down I always had a need to be a musician, if not professionally then just because it was part of who I was. I was suffering from a serious illness (see here) and finding it harder and harder to do my job. Depression had set in when a family friend said that if I started singing again, I would feel a lot better. I wanted to be a singer but I didn’t want to do cheesy covers or run into copyright issues, so I decided to try my hand at writing my own songs. I had sung on filmscore in the past and been asked to improvise, so I reckoned that writing whole songs was the logical next step. I would say with hind sight my first collection of songs was pretty terrible, because there were a few things I should have done that I didn’t. For a start, just because you have written a tune that people can hum along to does not mean you have written a hit. It’s vital to get professional feedback before going into the studio and spending a lot of money on a demo. By professional feedback, I mean ask the honest opinion of a producer, music teacher, published songwriter or professional musician. The next thing I didn’t do was take feedback well… because my songs were getting airplay locally I thought they should be signable and I feel pretty embarrassed about that now! The standard of demo I receive from my work in A&R (Artists and Repertoire, i.e. the people who offer contracts) is consistently very high. At that point in my life I didn’t go through the catalogues of the companies I was approaching to hear what their artists sounded like.
The most terrible thing I omitted to do was to keep learning and working on craft. And you know when I got my first contract? When I took learning craft seriously. Are you hoping to be a published songwriter or signed artists? Do you work on craft every day? Do you go to workshops, lectures courses etc.? You don’t, you think you know all that stuff? Then enjoy the point that you are at because you won’t go any further. Now, you may be thinking ‘she’s saying that because she teaches songwriting’. Put it this way: I went to the amazing UK Songwriting Festival at Bath Spa University and discovered there that there was a lot about the craft of songwriting that I had never analysed and didn’t put into practice. I had thought I was great until I got there, even though I had a good reaction to the songs I wrote there. I also discovered that having the input of other creatives in your writing and people who know the business to mentor you is pretty much vital to beginning to produce commercially viable work. I walked out of the voluntary sector three years later and applied for the Master of Music in Songwriting programme at Bath Spa University. I sent an entire year learning craft and learning how others approached craft, and learning the important art of taking criticism but also dispensing with some criticism because you need to be both humble and teachable enough to take on board what others are saying whilst having the self belief to avoid negative opinions hindering your progress. So, after I did a Master’s in Songwriting did I give up learning craft? If I had done that, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
Only if you are continually learning craft by studying song forms, lyrical structures, chord progression associated with different eras etc., then you need to get yourself out there. My first contract came about because I was on the right mailing lists. After moving back to Northern Ireland from Bath I signed up to Generator NI’s mailing list and it so happened they were running an event called Sync or Swim where staff from a music licensing agency came along and explained that area of the business. I went home and applied what they said and ended up with a licensing contract, and later working in A&R for a similar business.
Here are some other mailing lists I highly recommend:
YouBloom (Dublin based festival and industry conference)
Sphere Music (great music blog)
PRS for Music (royalty collection body)
Creative Voices NI (online arts magazine)
The other thing I did was to have a website up and running along with Facebook and Twitter accounts (all regularly updated) and very importantly a soundcloud account. Soundcloud enables you to email links rather than mp3s (much more polite as it doesn’t overload people’s inboxes) and to interact with the musical community. I have co-written with people I met on soundcloud. When I am listening to a song that someone sends me as an A&R consultant, if I can see a lot of plays and comments it makes them look like a more sure bet. YouTube also allows for this, but you have to make a decent video to go with your songs! Fan footage on a phone won’t cut it.
There is a great debate in music at the moment about where money in music comes from… and companies are only going to want to invest in an artist if they think they will see a return on their investment, so you need to be financially viable by yourself before a record label invests. With that in mind, you should only sign a contract if they can do more for you than you can realistically achieve yourself. Boiled down, the answer to ‘where does money come from?’ is that money comes from people and people can stream music for free on YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud etc. so why should they pay you for your art, which took blood and sweat and plenty of cold hard cash to produce? This is where live performance comes in. When you perform in a pub, you are creating the atmosphere in that pub at that time. If people enjoy that atmosphere, they will buy CDs. If they kind of like your song on YouTube and you have linked to your iTunes or CDBaby, they are less likely to spend the money because they know they can just come back and stream it again. Live performance has to be part of your strategy: it’s a bit of a myth that people can simply record an album, put it on the Internet and retire to the Bahamas. Millions of people are currently trying to do that.
Another reason I ended up working in music is that I targeted the right market for my sound. The first radio station that played my songs was Celtic Radio in Boston, USA then Celtic Music Radio in Glasgow. I lived in Northern Ireland but I considered it better to target stations that enjoyed my sound than local stations purely because they were local, although I have been played and performed live on U105, BBC Radio Ulster and UTV Life. Basically, music marketing comes down to this: who likes my kind of music? Where do they hang out? Some artists are more locally focussed and that’s not a bad thing, especially if you are able to play live quite a lot and sell CDs/download cards at gigs. Given the limited number of venues in Northern Ireland, though, and the even more limited number of venues that pay for original music, thinking outside the Black Box may be useful. I really recommend joining the Nashville Songwriters Association International. It’s not only for country writers! You get professional feedback on your songs and where they fit in an international market.
Just to add a little note: you’ll notice that I make my living from performance, publishing, A&R and teaching. Most working musicians do this. Your income is divided into strands and sometimes one strand does better than the others and between them all your bills can be paid. This may sound a precarious way to live, but it’s actually quite exciting if you genuinely enjoy all these areas of work.
So these are my thoughts and my story…. Let me know how yours is going by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or use the form below to sign up to my email list. You can also book singing and songwriting lessons in person or via Skype here.
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