LOVE WHAT YOU DO AND DO WHAT YOU LOVE!
There are many ways to earn a sustainable living off music, or any other art for that matter. There are also an enormous amount of obstacles, challenges and bumps in the road.
I started playing guitar when I was 12 years old and here I sit 17 years later in a position where music is my full time job. When I first picked up the guitar I had dreams of joining Iron Maiden or maybe even being the next big guitar hero as I closed my eyes, learned back with my first Les Paul and imagined my 12 minute bedroom guitar jam was in front of 80,000 screaming fans as I headlined Download Festival.
Once I opened my eyes again, it was back to reality.
I’ve spent 17 years working hard. I always pride myself on keeping busy and saying yes. Yes to every gig, yes to every lesson, yes to every song writing opportunity, yes to every person that’s asked me to write for their website. When I first started getting serious about music, around age 18, more and more of this work was unpaid. We’ve all heard the term before “It’s good exposure” but what does this mean? So, if I drive from Swansea to Glasgow (That’s about 8 hours in a van in case you’re wondering) on a Tuesday night to play to 4 people and the other bands, then I should be grateful for the exposure it’s brought me. The venue staff get paid, the bar staff get paid, the promoter (more often than not) gets paid, the door staff get paid but the bands get exposure. See a problem here? If you have a touring band, or a local band playing a show, the band in question will be advertising and bringing people to see them. Those people are paying customers for each venue, so why are the band the last to get paid?
In my opinion, it’s because a lot of people don’t value anyone who has the opportunity to do something they enjoy. My scenario above is semi-fictional based on various tour experiences I’ve had but it’s also on the extreme end of the spectrum. It serves to highlight a view that a lot of people share:
“You are doing something you love, therefore it’s not really a job”
This is a big discussion topic for me and many musician friends. Yes, we are fortunate to be in a position where we can pay our bills from music. I for one count my blessings every day that I do this. I run a successful music tuition business where I work with amazing people everyday teaching them guitar. The people I teach inspire me to be better. I also play with a few bands and provide content for various company’s websites. I’ve been fortunate to pick up some great supporters on my journey and I’ve gotten to work with some great people.
Since I started taking music seriously all those years ago I’ve toured the UK many times, shared stages with some huge artists, rubbed shoulders with my heroes and just made some amazing memories to last a lifetime. I’ve also written, produced, mixed and played guitar on songs that have been played on BBC Radio, Nation Radio, Planet Rock Radio and many others nationally and internationally. I’ve written with artists from around the world (Including producing and writing on an EP of EDM Style J-Pop with a US based singer/songwriter). I’ve shot demo videos for some great gear companies. I’ve done a lot of short notice work for bands who need someone to learn a 28 song setlist in 4 days with no rehearsal. I’ve even turned my hand to guitar and backline tech work on numerous occasions.
This list is not to brag, it’s purpose is to highlight the importance of being BUSY. Keep yourself going, keep yourself visible and keep your name fresh in people’s minds. In my job and my career, I want to fulfil as many skill sets as I can but while always delivering a high quality service. My goal as a self-employed musician is to provide prospective clients with an attractive reason to hire me for their job.
Some of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced along the way are other people and their perceptions of what “real work” consists of. I am fortunate that “real work” for me is talking about my passion, the guitar. It doesn’t mean I work any less hard than someone else in another unrelated field. I spend each day looking for new ways to make myself and my products appealing to potential customers and students. You have to always try to stay 3 steps ahead of yourself. If anything, I commit more hours to my craft than the average full time job. I get up everyday at 6:45am, and by 7:30am each day I’m in my studio either playing, practising, learning, writing, creating content or teaching. My average finish time is between 7pm and 9pm mid week and the back end of midnight on a weekend if I am performing with one of my bands. I don’t get any paid days off and I work every single day.
We’ve all seen the meme circulating Facebook that a musician is someone who puts £5000 worth of gear into a £500 car to drive to a gig and get paid £50. There is a lot of truth in this. Musicians go through great lengths and work hard to get paid. There’s a lot more work that goes into the job than the 90 minutes we perform. The gig really starts much earlier than the advertised 9pm start time.
A typical evening for me when I’m gigging with my covers band goes like this. About 7pm I will start loading my gear from my studio into my car and pack my guitars, I’ll set off typically at 7:30pm to arrive for 8pm at said venue. Then it’s time to load in. This next hour is filled with carrying the gear in, setting it all up, setting the PA up and making sure the backline is all switched on, tuning guitars, setting up pedalboards, quick soundcheck then it’s all ready for that 9pm kick off time. 9pm – 11pm is the payload, the gig. We’re in the zone for almost 2 hours playing harder than we’ve played that day to the screaming punters (Well, the 5 guys sitting in the back of the pub enjoying a pint of John Smiths). 11pm comes around and it’s pack up time. The gear all gets packed away, back into the cars and away we go into the night. Once home, the gear then needs to be unloaded from the car and back into the studio. On an average night, I start packing up at 7pm and finish bringing my gear back into the house at about 12:30am. 5 and a half hours work for £50. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint, I love performing and would not change it for the world, but the perception that all we do is show up and play is certainly far from true. Let’s not forget about the hours we spend learning songs and rehearsing them (That’s time we don’t get paid for – we have to fit that into our lives).
I will save some of the amazing stories about being in bands doing my own original material for another blog. There are so many other funny stories, tragic stories, pitfalls and minefields in that aspect of the industry that I think I could write a bestselling trilogy. This will certainly be revisited.
As a teacher, I’ve faced similar obstacles. I am lucky and incredibly grateful that I have a diary full of students who understand that what I do is my job. The money I make teaching and gigging isn’t money that I get to play with, it’s money that I pay my bills with and put food on my table. In the past, I have experienced a lot of issues with students booking lessons and not showing up. I used to take payment in cash at the end of each session, but regular instances of “no shows” meant that I was booking time out of my calendar for a lesson that was never going to happen and with no warning I’m left with an hour that I cannot fill and income that has never shown up. For many years, I was in the cycle that we all get stuck in, juggling a full time job with the hopes of turning my passion into a job. The uncertainty of students showing up and the irregular income due to this was hampering my ability to make the jump. Moving to a pre-payment invoicing system changed my life. It means I can now predict my income before I’ve taught any lessons each week. It means I can have easy to follow accounts and my admin work is minimum.
I also work with some amazing teaching companies (RGT, MGR Music, Veevar Guitar, Rockschool), who are all nothing but supportive. The real catalyst for this blog was infact the BBC. The BBC are hosting a live event in Swansea with some big names performing, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift to name a few. In the week preceeding this event the BBC have booked out the local theatre in Swansea and they are hosting the BBC Academy Roadshow. This is a 4 day workshop with some big names giving talks about various aspects of the industry. The idea is that anyone who is interested in getting into the music business can come along, meet some people, hear some stories and generally get an idea of what their dream job might entail. Sounds great right? I thought so. I thought this sounded amazing.
I was contacted about their desire to have a few local, experienced teachers on hand to show some basic music skills to some of the potential future stars who come along. “Amazing”, I thought. That sounds like something I’d love to do. Imagine being able to be the first spark in the young kid who goes on to become the next Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift. Of course I’m interested…
“Great, we’d love to have you on board, the hours we’re looking at are 10am – 8pm on Monday and Tuesday and 10am – 6pm on the Wednesday and Thursday” was the reply from the BBC.
Well, those are certainly long hours but I’m sure this will be great so why not… I told them I’m ready to get involved but I did have some questions… “What’s the fee for this? Is it a set fee or an hourly fee?”
Oh… I went there… I asked to be compensated for my 36 hours of time over 4 days (Imagine the horror of someone who does this for a living wanting to be paid for their time).
“This position is totally voluntary, but you may be fortunate enough to pick up 1 or 2 new students along the way” was their reply.
Let that sink in… the BBC, want to arrange a roadshow to nurture the next generation of musicians and explain how people can have careers in the business. In doing so, they want other people who work in the field to give up 36 hours of time for FREE. Well, it’s not all bad. They did offer to reimburse the fuel costs for me to drive 3 miles to and from the theatre each day.
I feel very strongly about raising awareness that people who work in creative fields are still working. We do what we love, but we work hard for our bread. Next time you see someone hustling to sell some CD’s of their band, or a teacher who has started up a business page on Facebook, or a young band advertising their first gig… get behind them. Like and share posts on Facebook and support your grassroots businesses and musicians. As a teacher I am nurturing the next generation of guitar heroes, once I release them into the public, its up to everyone else to make sure they get to Wembley!
To all the aspiring artists you need to always work hard, be professional, be punctual and stay humble. Try to avoid doing things for “exposure”. You, your time and your art is worth more than that. It’s not all glitz and glamour. Get used to being told “no” and “you can’t do that”. Use each setback to fuel your fire more. You’ll work a lot of long hours and you’ll pour every single inch of your being and soul into everything you do just to make that £50 from a gig. Enjoy the early mornings and sleepless nights, enjoy the sore fingertips from too much practise, enjoy the headaches from not being able to nail that part and most of all, ENJOY THE RIDE!
Trust me, it’s worth it.
- Cover Photo: Peacemaker, DIE! supporting The Quireboys on an acoustic tour – Photo by Paul Charlton Photography
- Second Photo: New Device headline tour 2011 @ MOHO, Manchester – Photo by Lexi Photography
- Third Photo: Wedding gig in 2017 with Young Americans @ The Vale Resort, Glammorgan