Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond – Real Life Inspirational Careers Advice. (Pt 1)

May 13th, 2009 | No Comments | Categories: Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians |

photo of solo bassist Steve Lawson soundchecking at the Royal Albert Hall, opening for Level 42 in 2002How did what you were advised to do at school connect with what you ended up doing?

I don’t know about you, but our careers advisory service back then was woeful to the point of being hilarious. There was a tick-box questionnaire that then made recommendations for what kind of jobs you should do. If you ticked yes to ‘do you like being outside?’, you invariably had ‘forestry commission’ suggested as a potential job on the dot matrix print-out you received.

As someone who was obsessed with music by the time we got that far, all my answers related to the fact that I wanted to be a musician. I was rapidly failing Biology at A Level, had already dropped Classics by then (did the first year, went into my mock exam slightly drunk thanks to using home-brew beer as a memory aide, failed it and quit) and was doing rather well as AS Level Music (ended up failing, after getting one of the highest marks the school had ever had for composition… failed the history paper for the same reason I failed Classics… not smart).

But there was no advice for musicians, other than ‘our survey says you could be a musician. Maybe join the army, they have musicians’.

It was rubbish – the reliance on wholly inadequate technology was a cop-out, and there was no sense that careers advice was meant to inspire us to do anything GOOD in the world. This was one year post-Thatcher, the yuppie years were on the downward slide, but careers advice was still geared towards getting a job in finance, engineering, industry… Anything outside that was just ‘does not compute’.

So what’s changed? Well for one thing, people can seek their own career’s advice. Back in ‘91, I could’ve gone to the library, but there was very little written about working in the creative sector, and how would I have found it?

Now, young people (or older people looking to change jobs) can get online and find endless resources about what they can do, why they should do it and how they can end up making a living at it.

In short, no-one talked to me at 17 about the difference between a job and a vocation, about the validity of turning passions into careers, about the reality of diversifying, about the REAL relationship between university education and employment.

I’m not sure how much better it is in schools these days, but one website that is telling a whole range of amazing stories is – a collection of video stories will real people in real jobs, many with completely non-standard ways of getting where they got to. Doing it cos they love it.

The UK Government are using iCould to find out what people think about careers advice. This video from Alan Milburn sets the scene:

And over on this page, there’s a chance for people to tell the government what they think of the careers advice they’re getting…

The majority of the most interesting people I know have ‘non-standard’ careers. Most of them are doing what they feel compelled to do, and have somehow turned it into something that’ll pay the bills so they can do more of it. Sites like give voice to those non-standard paths that until now have never appeared in careers advisory presentations and computer print-outs, and yet are ultimately what makes life interesting.

I’m helping out with some social media strategy stuff, getting the word out about it. It’s an exciting initiative, and I wonder how many people my age would be living very different lives if they’d had access to real life inspiring career tales before making their job decisions.

So, two things:

  • Please ask people you know between the ages of 16-25(ish) to go and fill out the questionnaire – the more people do, the more impetus there is for a change.
  • Have a browse around – there are some fab stories in there, especially when you contrast them – these two from photographers were faves of me – this one in fashion, and this one a medical photographer. Two very different approaches to the same career, and neither with a standardised path into it…

In the comments:

  • what were you advised to do at school?
  • Were they right?
  • Did you have any really cool teachers who told you to ignore the print-outs and go with your passions?
  • How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

Feel free to write your own blog post, and link back to here so it appears in the trackbacks… I’ll follow this post up with some thoughts on careers in music and creative sector.

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  • steve

    BTW, the photo at the top is of me sound-checking at the Royal Albert Hall – I’m still, as far as I’m aware, the only solo electric bassist to do a whole set there… Hopefully the relevance to a post about bogus careers advice is clear 😉

  • Benjamin

    Ah, that sounds like the Cascade system. Not exactly early computer AI was it? Apparently @caalie was meant to be a photographer – maybe it was insightfully suggesting that she marry one?

    Anyway… Must head over to and get commenting…

  • James Peterson

    I quite fancied the idea of being a solicitor when I was at school – my best friend’s dad was one and they seemed to be a pretty happy family. Nice house, nice car, best friend had all the toys I wanted. No one at school objected, and my parents weren’t exactly mad keen to suggest that I pursued something like music instead (and who can blame them?). Went to uni, studied Law, got a 2:2 and therefore unable to get a training contract. Decided to be a professional out-of-work musician for a year but ended up getting a job with the Youth section of the Methodist Church. Now I work for a water utility doing resource planning which is far more interesting than it sounds, and I’ve got enough music work to keep me busy and be able to turn some down.

    My point being that sometimes you can’t plan ahead, and even if you do reality doesn’t meet up with expectations. Some really interesting jobs are just out there if you’re willing to take a punt and dive in.

  • steve

    Benjamin – I think it was Cascade, yes! Terrible, terrible bit of software, and an even worse bit of techno-utopian buck-passing: “look, the computer says you should work for the forestry commission. It’s a computer, it knows these things, now stop bugging us with your nonsense about being a musician. You’ll never make it to the Albert Hall” etc.

    James – that’s a great story, exactly the kind of real-world tale of interest, weirdness and serendipity that iCould seems to be working at getting across. Def. worth having a look at some of the vids, the lateral thinking in some people’s career trajectories is outstanding 🙂

  • Documentally

    My printout said Farmer, politician or philosopher.

    Maybe i should have tried to amalgamate ll three because i went into R&D for a laser company and then on to Uni (through the back door) to do theoretical Physics. This put m right off educational establishments and i then went on to itinerantly work the world for nearly ten years.

    I fell into photography by accident and worked for a daily paper for 2 years before they realised on my last day that i had no journalistic or photography qualifications.

    There wasn’t really any job out there i fancied doing, so i invented one.

    I now work as a Social Technologist. I have never been happier. Partly because the journey to this point gave me a unique education, an understanding of people, and all of the really important skills i think we need above and beyond paper qualifications.

  • Terence Eden

    The job I do now literally didn’t exist when I got my careers advice. I was one of the few people with access to a mobile phone – there were no mobile websites.

    Now I spend all day working with the mobile web.

    However, I took a (mostly) traditional route to get here. Usual haul of GCSEs. Took Performing Arts at A-Level to balance out Math, More Maths, Physics. Went to Uni, read computing and took a minor in Chinese. Applied to Grad Schemes. Found myself playing with mobile phones for a living.

    The more I think about it, the best advice I received was “Do what makes you happy – but make sure you’ve got something to fall back on.”

    I’ve got no problem with anyone following a passion for music or accountancy – but everyone should have enough basic skills to get by should circumstances dictate.

  • Lee Pellington

    Mine said undertaker, groundsman and hairdresser (I had dreadlocks at the time:)

    My careers advisor was rubbish, he told me that he lived opposite Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits and had the opportunity of playing in a band with him (the band apparently morphed in to Dire Straits). He chose not to and became a careers teacher instead, nice.

    He also told me you can’t make a living as musician unless you were in a big band like Guns n’ roses.

    I like to think I’m proof he was wronger than a wrong thing.

    Didn’t the first Beatles drummer end up working for the Job centre??

  • steve

    Documentally – thanks, Christian, whenever I think about mad career paths, it’s you that comes to mind 🙂 I hope iCould get round to interviewing you, you’d make for a brilliant vid for their site.

    Terence I think the emphasis on broad skill-bases is a really good one. Learning skills and ideas that are applicable in many situations – the architecture of human interaction, scientific process, literacy and communication skills. But what’s missing in a lot of that is the inspiration to go and try things. The ‘something to fall back on’ becomes a desperate concept: “you’ll be homeless if you don’t have a degree first!!”, and that’s as fallacious as the idea that anyone can be a rock star…

    Which is why I’m excited about the iCould model – real stories of people with career paths that are equal parts funny, scary, inspiring, confusing and an object lesson in trusting serendipity 🙂

    Your point about industries that simply don’t exist is another really good one, given the pace of development, and the time it takes for new concepts to filter into the rigid framework of contemporary academia.. or at least into the accredited documented part of it.

    Lots of food for thought 🙂

  • Kevin

    I wanted to work in a recording studio as a sound engineer. Ended up as an apprentice electrician in a biscuit factory!
    That lasted 3 days and I eventually got a job in a music publishers.
    This was back in the 70’s so things have hopefully changed since then. The careers advisor I saw didn’t realise there was a ‘music industry’.
    Since then I’ve been a lighting designer, photographer, worked in film/video production and now developing Somojo. So I got back to the music industry after an interesting journey.
    I wonder what’s next?

  • Darika

    Very early on I identified that I hated the model of getting up every day and going to the same job every monday – friday for the rest of your life. Until recently, people said that wasn’t an option, but there’s been an entire cultural shift towards work/life balance, flexi-working, remote working, freelance…
    I’ve never been happier and it’s so cool how many people I know living the same lifestyle.
    Oddly I was discouraged from going to university and, if anything, the general advice was what music options were available. Must be different if it’s classical 😉

  • steve


    this quote sums it all up for musicians:

    He also told me you can’t make a living as musician unless you were in a big band like Guns n’ roses.

    I’m writing a whole new post right now about that kind of nonsense. 🙂

  • jonone100

    I had one careers interview at school. It was with a youngish woman – in her 20’s i’d guess. I was in a band at the time so was fairly convinced I was very soon going to be an international rock star. But she insisted on sewing the seed of doubt in my mind and pursued the idea that rock stardom may not happen. I blame her for all my failures ;o)

    She wanted to know what i’d do then. I told her that I knew what I didn’t want to do, but not what I wanted to do. I said I liked the idea of doing ‘projects’ – working on something for a while then moving on to something new. She just thought i was taking the piss (which i wasn’t) and told me i needed to think about things more seriously.

    The best careers advice i got was from my art teacher. He said prior to our O and A level choices – don’t do subjects you don’t like, otherwise you’ll end up doing something you don’t like.

    I’ve done all sorts of things. At the moment, i work as a driver/tm in the music ind. For the most part its a crap job, although i’ve met some amazing people. But, I get more free time than most (which allows me to write about money), and i also don’t have to declare myself a ‘professional’ person. I like the idea behind iCould, but defining yourself as ‘professional person’ has always been a no-no for me. Give me the uncertainty of my life over that, any day.

    Mr Rodgers (my old art teacher) rocks.

  • Lee Pellington

    Just to add to my previous comment, what’s worked out really well for me is the idea of a portfolio career.

    Due to my nature I get board easily, so I struggle to play in just on band, play one kind of music or just sound engineer. This even extends to my teaching.

    I feel very lucky that I caught on to the portfolio career thing early on. Some one once told me “jack of all trades master of none”, which had a very negative effect on me.

    My idea of what a portfolio career is has worked well, I am equally happy playing a traditional covers gig one night, a set with a hardcore band the next, followed by a night with a rockabilly act, then off to play in a ska band. The same with engineering, I can sit behind a DAW or large format desk and still get the same amount of excitement and enjoyment out of it.

    The teaching is the same, my typical day being music business, social media,bass and sound engineering.

    This allows me to pick and choose what work I do based on what will make me happy.

    And that’s the crux of the matter; doing what makes you a happy fulfilled person.

  • william taylor

    i was told “mastic asphalt spreader” or “wig maker”!

    I hove gone no where near either of those things.
    At school i was told be safe and go with something generic and no specific as i had no discernible skills. Gee thanks.

    Anyway, at college doing a business and finance course i had a marketing teacher that took me under her wing and taught me to have confidence in myself and my ability to speak intelligently. I couldn’t write intelligently but i could speak that way. (have since found out i am dyslexic which was never discovered at school and explained a lot). I also had a friend who was a youth worker who recognised that i had a passion for working with young people and he really encouraged that. Now i am a youth and community worker in Essex and love it.
    Not what my teachers said i should be or indeed what my dad wanted me to be but it does seem to fit me well.

  • Darren

    I was advised to work in a bank. Seriously. A bank.

    OK, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Not many people could have predicted that a, then, reasonably safe and respectable job could be relegated to the position of little more than a nonsense customer services/sales role… or world economy destroyer. Depending on your point of view.

    That aside, I was hopeless at maths so a bank, as career choice, should have been right at the bottom of the list, surely? As it happens, I’m rather good at maths… I just wasn’t very good at being taught, in the way the school wanted to teach. Either way, I didn’t particularly shine at it… there were other subjects, like music and art, which were a much better fit. Mr. Careers Advice should have seen that… should have had access to information that would facilitate his advice… or (gasp) talked to me, to find out what I liked and what my aspirations were.

    It wasn’t his fault. He had his remit. And education is just a system… a cog in the vast nation-machine… the kids it chucks out, bearings and oil. Grist for the mill, if you prefer. The problem is the government’s idea of what the nation needs doesn’t always fit with an individual’s desire.

    There are still drives to fill gaps in the careers and workplace markets, of course… a recent TV ad for apprenticeships, fronted by grumpy Sir Alan, springs to mind and, indeed, these are decent enough opportunities for round pegs and respective holes… but I wonder if careers advice (if it even exists in today’s education mash-up) now caters for those of a different shape? I’m assuming it does. How can it not?

    I’ve been fortunate in life. I’ve been able to do the things I enjoy and make them pay… so I can continue to do them. I’ve run my own business for the last 12 years, as a digital creative (3D modelling, illustration, website design) and I divide my ‘hobby’ time between music (was a working musician – bass player/singer – in the late 80s to mid 90s) and writing.

    Back then, I didn’t know this is what I wanted to do/be. It couldn’t have been defined at the time anyway. To be honest, I haven’t made any conscious choices about a career path… I’ve just reached out (some say blindly but I say with enthusiasm!) for those things that interest me the most. And long may it continue…

    One more thing. Way back in 1984, on the day our class had its careers advisor visit, my friend went in before me and came out some 15 mins later shaking his head. His advice: had he ever thought about becoming a careers advisor?

  • Andrew Durkin

    Ugh. The most problematic thing about these “career advisor” tests is that they try to get to you when you are an impressionable youth who is not yet comfortable with independent thought. The assumption is that you have to “get it right the first time,” and that there is no room for trial/error or experimentation when it comes to a career.

    I myself always knew deep down that music was the right choice for me, but for whatever reason I had to fail at a lot of other things before I could commit to that.

  • Jennifer

    I mentioned this post on the “autonomous education uk” list (just because I thought some people there would like it). Got this reply (and permission to repost it):

    “Weird, only today I was talking to someone about a former schoolfriend who told his careers teacher that he wanted to be a racing driver and would not look at the clerical jobs that had been lined up for him. He spent a week in detention for his cheek. A few years later he was making his living driving Formula 3.”

    great story eh!