Jay Stapley

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How do I break into the music business?

Ah, the big questions: gotta love ’em:-)

A student at a Uni where I used to teach messaged me asking for advice on how to get into the music industry. In no particular order and with no guarantees, here is my advice.

You’ve already started! Keep on asking advice from and talking to people who have had practical experience as working musicians. Understand that your education is one thing and your career another. The purpose of Universities is to help you to get an academic qualification, not to give you a recording contract or get you gigs and sessions: that is down to you.

Every time you play or perform, treat it as though it’s the most important gig of your life: it may well be! You never know who is in the audience. When I started taking my 15-year-old daughter out to do open mic nights I kept bumping into other musicians/producers/business people who were also there because their own offspring was also performing that night.

Avoid having to do a day job. When I first moved to London I used to play in the Irish pubs 5 or 6 nights a week. I didn’t particularly like the music but it meant that I had free time all day every day, which meant that I could go and do sessions and/or rehearsals with artists who didn’t always have money. I met lots of musicians that way, and you never know who is in the studio with you: that quiet keyboard player in the corner might be the producer or MD for a successful artist and one day you’ll get a call from them… or the artist you did a free session for gets signed 6 months later calls you back and this time can pay you.

Whether you want to be an artist or musician, be obsessed. Be selfish and obsessed. In any spare time, be selfish and obsessed. Remain selfish and obsessed when you are asleep: it’ll mean you can get started on being selfish and obsessed quicker when you wake up. Why? See next point…

…on the Helsinki Bus Garage theory. This originated in the photography world. It goes like this… Buses leave the Helsinki garage and head out to places all over the country, but they all stop at the same bus stops in the first few stages of the journey. As they get further along the route, they stop at fewer and more unique stops. The secret to success is to stay on the bus. You might decide that what you want to do is black-and-white glamour photography, so you get on that particular bus and at the first stop someone shows you the work of Helmut Newton. “Damn,” you think, “he’s beaten me to it.” So you go back to the bus garage and get on a different bus, say landscape photography, for example. You get on that bus, and at the first stop someone shows you the work of [insert name of famous landscape photographer here.] “Damn,” you think, “she’s beaten me to it…” and go back to the garage and start again. If you had stayed on the bus, you would eventually have found yourself doing black-and-white glamour photography in your own way and in your own field. Stay on the bus!

Believe. If you are a session musician, believe totally in whatever project you’re working on at the time, even if the music is not to your taste. If you’re an artist, believe that you have the right and the talent to do what you do, because if you don’t believe in yourself, how do you expect your audience to believe you? I’m not suggesting that you should not examine and (in the educational jargon) critically evaluate what you do, but while you are doing it, do it whole-heartedly. Believe.

As a session musician, play the song, not your instrument. If you don’t understand what that means, try this technique. When you hear a song that you have been invited to play on, put down your instrument, ask the artist for a lyric sheet (they’ll love you for that!) and listen to the song all the way through while reading the lyrics. Think about it. Does the song require 32nd-note sweep-picking arpeggios, or does it require a couple of well-placed single notes swelled in with a volume pedal? Further advice for session musicians is too long a topic to cover here, so I’ll do it in a separate post, but put simply: “On time, in time, in tune. Don’t play over the vocal and don’t talk over the producer.”

The Hang. The main criteria artists/MDs apply when choosing musicians for a tour or long recording project is “can I spend 3 months on a tour-bus with this person?” It’s taken as a given that you can play, but can you Hang?

Create your own work Part I. If you’re an artist, make your own gigs. Record to whatever standard you can afford, don’t refuse to make a recording until you have the budget to go to Abbey Road. Look at it this way: Imagine that I’m a manager. Two artists come to me. One says “I need help. I need to make a demo; I need some gigs; I need a website and I need to get a band. Please help me.” The other says “I need help. I’ve made a demo, here it is; I do 3 or 4 gigs a week, (here’s my giglist) but I’d like to play in bigger venues now; I’ve made myself a website but need to improve it, and I have a band (here are some publicity shots) but I need my own P.A.” Which one am I going to sign? As an artist, your audience needs to be able to complete this sentence: “Oh yes, He/she’s the one who…” in no more than 10 words. What is it that makes you stand out? There are millions of great singers out there: how come only a handful of them achieve mainstream success?

Create your own work Part II. As a session musician, learn to record and produce to professional standard. You can then do online sessions and offer production services to artists who can’t or don’t want to produce themselves (which is most of them!) If you’re a drummer, get together with 3 or 4 other drummers and get a nice room with some decent mics which you can all use for doing sessions.  If you’re a singer, get a decent mic and mic pre-amp, stay awake during Music Tech classes and learn how to record yourself properly: you could be doing sessions for people al over the world. (I did 4 online sessions last week for $150 per session. Do the sums. Celebrate the falling £…)

Finally, royalty-based income is key to survival in the music business nowadays. Be a writer. Join the PRS, PPL, etc.


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