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Musicians perform either as a solo act or as part of a band or orchestra, either at concerts, events such as weddings and parties, on television, radio and theatre, in a recording studio or supporting the armed forces.
Musicians generally fall into the category of classical, jazz or rock/pop musicians and may either sing or play one or more musical instruments. Very few musicians manage to make their living solely from performing and many need to supplement their income by teaching, which is easier if you are classically trained, although some jazz musicians have pupils too.
The lucky few will be employed on full-time contracts by an orchestra or ensemble and even fewer will make it as recording artists. However, it is fair to say that the majority of musicians are happy doing what they love, even if they are not able to make a full-time living from it.
Musicians rarely go into the job for the financial rewards. Lack of financial stability is part and parcel of the job and it is fortunate therefore that the majority of musicians are in it for the love of what they do rather than making a lot of money. The financial rewards, of course, for the top names can be huge.
- Maintaining your proficiency by practising, either on your own or with others
- Dealing with bookings if you are not employed on a full-time contract
- Choosing your outfits for performances
- Making sure your instruments or other equipment, such as amplifiers, are in tip-top condition
- Attending rehearsals
- Recording, if you are fortunate enough to land a record deal
- For some musicians – composing your own music
Most successful musicians will have attended university, or one of the specialist music colleges or conservatoires, not only to improve their innate abilities but also to learn about composition, music theory, the history of music, different genres of music including non-Western music, and the art of performing.
- Innate musical talent
- Ability to sing or play at least one, but normally more than one, instrument well
- Ability to read music and transcribe
- Proficient understanding of different musical styles
- Willingness to travel to various locations to perform
- Willingness to be away from home and family on tour
- Disciplined approach to practising and learning
- Sociable nature
- Love of performing
- Business sense
- Lack of nerves
- Good stage manner and ability to interact with audience
- Good networking skills
Musicians normally perform in comfortable conditions in concert halls or other venues. They may have to accept, however, that they have to live in parts of the country such as London, where there are the most opportunities for work, and this can often be expensive.
It is difficult for them to have a stable family life and travel away from home is common. The hours are long, taking into account the hours of practice which are necessary, rehearsing with fellow musicians, and performing, which will usually be in the evening. Time then has to be spent on administrative tasks since only the top musicians have managers to take care of the more tedious aspects of their working life.
A major expense for any musician is their instrument, which in some instances, such as a Stradivarius violin, can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Clothes worn for performing will vary from ripped jeans and t-shirts for rock performers to evening dress for classical performers.
By the very nature of a musician’s training, which is very hands-on, anyone seriously considering making a living from their music will have had a lot of experience of performing. This will help when it comes to auditioning for jobs or exploring the possibility of performing at various venues.
- Rock/pop bands
- Jazz ensembles
- Orchestras or smaller groups such as quartets
- Television/stage productions
It is difficult to generalise about career progression for musicians. As their reputation grows they should be able to perform at more high profile venues and get a steadier stream of work, possibly ending up with a full-time contract.
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What’s it really like?
James Horsburgh, aged 20, is the drummer in the rock band, Dogsection, and also plays guitar, bass, piano, and sings. He tells us what it’s really like trying to make it in the music world.
“I’ve always been very keen on music, from the age of 7 when my Mum would play Elvis’ greatest hits in the car, through to this day when I’m performing on stage with Dogsection in London.
I studied at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, which really helped me with my music; I learnt a lot there. I discovered new styles and also new ways of playing music. More than anything, it was a great networking experience; I met many very talented musicians there that I still play with today.
We like to play rock music, but not necessarily stick to one particular sound; for instance we might sound like The Doors in one song and Soundgarden in the next. We write our own music, usually in rehearsals, when either Geoff (our singer) or Alan (our guitarist) will come up with an idea and we will elaborate on that, or sometimes Alan will come up with a riff on the spot and we’ll work on it from there, playing the riff through a few times while Geoff comes up with lyrics.
When we have a complete song, we record it onto Geoff’s laptop in order to remember it for next time. I also write my own music for solo performances.
We have been performing as a band for about two years now, although before gigging we did spend a year in the studio, recording material. I find it really helps when playing live at gigs to have the songs on CD.
I have played with Dogsection in many pubs and clubs around the London and Guildford area. My personal favourite would be the Purple Turtle in the centre of Camden – a very lively music club. Another one would be the Carling Academy in Islington – another great and exciting venue.
We’ve had all sorts of experiences at gigs but one incident which springs to mind is what happened in a pub in Islington. We were headlining and so provided the equipment for all the bands to use. When we had finished our sound check we went for a bite to eat down the road. When we came out Geoff got a phone call saying “someone’s punched a hole in your bass drum”. At this point we rushed back to the venue and saw the damage but no sign of the supporting band. Having found another kit the gig went ahead and the band reappeared, still without any acknowledgment or apology for what they had done. At the start of their set Geoff walked onto the stage calmly, took the microphone off the stand and said “Listen mate, next time you break our kit you come and apologise first instead of making a run for it”. This was significant because it was at this point that Dogsection for me really felt like a band, not just a collection of individual musicians.
We have a myspace site, where many of our songs are uploaded for people to listen to. This has been very useful publicity. We often visit the myspace sites of venues which interest us and then e-mail them saying we would like to play there. They can then listen to our songs and more often than not get a gig for us.
I’d say roughly about 20 to 50 people attend our gigs, although our fan base is constantly growing. As for the money, it varies a lot, from nothing to £50 each per gig. The thing I like best about performing on stage is that it brings out the best in me. I am focused and confident. On stage I can become anyone. It’s really exciting.
One of the downsides of performing is that at some gigs the equipment isn’t up to playing standards. Sometimes you’ll get to a gig and the bass drum will have a massive hole in it, or the snare stand can only go so high up so you’ll be reaching to hit it, which isn’t good. I think that with the drums (or in fact with any other instrument) I want to be completely comfortable to start with because then I can give the best performance possible.
I’d say to anyone who wants to start a band, don’t hold back. If you want to do it, then go for it. Put the ads up in magazines, websites, ask your friends, ask friends of friends, and do what you can to get the right parts together. The whole experience is a unique thrill – one I don’t think you’ll feel from doing anything else. The only other piece of advice I would give is to have one leader in the band. If there’s more than one there’s likely to be disagreement and conflict.
As far as hitting the big time is concerned, I think we have as much of a chance as anyone. We’ve been gigging for about 2 years now and in that time we’ve covered most of the major venues in and around London. We’ve just completed a music video for one of our songs (Generous Confusion) which is being edited at the moment. We’ve got a few possible tours lined up and some festivals that are taking place in the summer. We’re doing our fair share to get out there and publicise ourselves.”