Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond Pt 2 – Careers In Music.

May 18th, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians |

So, following on from my first post about careers advice, what are we to do with careers in a music industry that’s entirely in flux? Where no-one can categorically say where the ‘jobs’ will be in a year’s time, let alone 3 or 5 years time.

I think this question needs to be looked at on many levels. The obvious one for me is the thing I say over and over again here – the best you’ll ever be as a musician is when you are pursuing your own vision for what music should be and can be, soundtracking the world as you see it. I feel like a stuck record going on about it, but I read so little about it in other places, that I need to keep throwing the idea into the mix until it sticks (fortunately, things are bubbling under for this to become a much bigger conversation – one I didn’t start but have been invited to be a part of. Watch this space).

But beyond that, from a ‘careers advice’ point of view, there’s a great point that Terence Eden made in Pt 1 of this post about having ‘basic skills’:

What are the basic skills needed to make a living in music?

Well, I often say that being able to touch-type has been the 2nd best skill I ever developed after playing the bass. Communication skills are so important to working in music, it’s amazing that music students aren’t forced into a double-major at university. My work as a journalist has been equally important to my music career as has, for example, the big tours I did opening for Level 42 and 21st Century Schizoid Band. My ability to write – here or in magazines/newspapers has given me the skills to draw people into what I’m doing, who wouldn’t otherwise have listened to a ‘solo bassist’ or to someone ‘looping’ – the mechanics of it weren’t enough, but my story was well told enough to get them to hit play and let the music speak for itself.

Web skills are clearly vital for an modern musician – not least of all because they’ll save you tonnes of time and money by being able to administrate the web-side of what you do yourself. Again, I am where I am as a musician because I was an early adopter as a musician on the web – I had a website in late 97/early 98, and for the longest time was the ONLY bass guitar teacher in Europe with a website! That helped.

An ability to dissect what’s really going on is vital in any vocational area that thrives on myth. Way too many musicians have their careers curtailed by being dragged into the bullshit quagmire of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. Seduced by limos, big gigs, cover features and TV specials, they allow someone else to spend their money for them.

If those musicians were pre-warned about the BS of the industry, and introduced to other models of business, from co-operatives and collectives, to co-working, self-employment and creative entrepreneurship, they may be better equipped to be part of defining the future of the world of music, rather than stumbling punch-drunk into a dying industry only to have their last shards of hope dashed on a 360 deal from a record label making a desperate land-grab for intellectual property.

Those basic skills – on top of the non-basic music-world skills of being brilliant and motivated and tenacious and passionate – are vital to anyone wanting to approach music making as a career with any seriousness at all…

So where does this inspiration and career information come from?

  • From people who are doing it telling their stories.
  • From academics documenting actual career trends, not freakish chance occurrences in a TV talent show were 0.01% of people end up with anything.
  • From colleges and universities allowing music courses to have more loose definitions of what goes into an accredited music business module, so they don’t end up teaching out-dated notions of what ‘the industry’ is, but can modify it and bring in the emerging specialists as the landscape shifts.

How does this fit with Well, it’s a great platform for the story telling part. Here’s a video of Huey Morgan from the Fun Loving Criminals, talking about his start in Music:

If you want to see the full version of the interview, click over to it on – it’s obviously got more of a music industry sheen on it than my story, but he’s talking about his life, his story… imagine if we all did that? Here are a couple more from the site – Vicki Burke, Harpist/teacher , and Clare Finnimore, classical Viola player. I also really like this one from Peter True, guitar builder.

In an industry that thrives on larger than life myths, it’s always tough to get honest information about the realities of a job within it. It’s all the more important when the internet presents such amazing opportunities to musicians to be heard, to build and audience and do it without treading some out-dated crap-strewn path to the doors of the major labels.

If you’re in London, and want to hear my story, I’m speaking at Imperial College tomorrow – click here for more details and to register (it’s free).

So, musicians, tell your story – the good, the bad, the ugly, the funny, the day to day, the life lessons – the comments box is yours:

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  • Terence Eden

    I’d also add – basic understanding of mathematics and money. Obviously, those are important life skills, but if you can’t tell if you’re getting a good deal at 15% agency fees (plus VAT), you’ll find yourself hanging on to the penniless artiste lifestyle longer than you may want.

    If you’re a small business (which is what an individual musician must be) can you tell if a £200 fee for a gig is worth it once you factor in travel, tax, equipment, insurance, etc?

    It’s the boring, non-creative* side of any endeavour which often underpins success.

    *Unless you employ Bialystok and Bloom!

  • Steve Uccello

    As usual, right on it, my brother! Nice post- Being a full time musician (it’s been my only career) since about twenty years of age has definitely been different than the image I held in my mind as a teenager. In our modern pop culture there’s this ‘all or nothing’ mentality that caused so many of my talented young friends to drop from the music path so quickly. We think we’re gonna ‘make it to the top’ in one fell swoop and that’s that. Yet the reality is, even the most amazing musicians still need a tremendous amount of luck (right place right time) to get anywhere. I believe, like you, that one must follow their bliss to be successful. Yet everyone must compromise to survive. Though I’ve always written my own music and played in bands where I believed in the musical vision, I’ve always had to do gigs that could be considered ‘paying dues’ type of engagements. After going through a period in my mid twenties, where I was somewhat disappointed by the reality of how difficult it was to really be a full time musician (cheesy lounge gigs, surgery kids stage musicals, ect) I am still lucky enough to find that I have a true passion for writing my own music and accompanying others, as well. Flexibility is the most valuable asset to anyone trying to survive as a musician. But, as you say, you MUST find the nitch you actually enjoy, that’s the only hope of really coming through it ‘non-jaded’ and if you can’t get the gigs you desire, practice more until you are able to handle the type of situations you aspire to play in.

  • thatch

    Following on from @Terence Eden’s thoughts, after a quick course in accounts.

    Where do you go to figure out the trickier aspects of taking the $200 gig.

    You may not make any money from it but does the exposure you get have a value? And if it does how do you calculate it?

    It’s one of those questions that most people get confronted with probably weekly and I for one couldn’t articulate an answer if my life depended on it.

  • Jim

    Completely agree that the way forward is to do what you need to do to establish yourself. I have been learning that time management does needto be stressed. In the new “diy” verything philosophy, there comes a crux where it is more economical to pay for help. It allows musicians to continue to write better and better music, it allows someone with a web background to make a professional website, etc. Web skills are deffffffintely necessary, buy me for instance it would take me forever to design my company’s website and others can do it better faster, and I can focus more on my artists. It varies situation to situation. What is nice is that I am seeing the trend lean towards a more even playing field. Instead of 5 musicians being filthy rich and the rest starving, now we have most people having the ability to make at least 50 to 100% of their income on a creative field they enjoy. Not many rich people, bit I much prefer spreading the wealth. Very excited for the next year or two!