It’s easy to be daunted by the music industry, what with all the talk of “crisis”, “bad sales” and “HMV has closed down hence the end of the world” but there are a whole host of options you might not have considered.
From music PR to live-streaming, music journalism to scouting new bands, any “in” will give you transferable skills you can use to your advantage. We’ve collected tips from a load of experts who’ve already made it in a variety of different music-based ways…
Matt Mason, senior editor of Q magazine, knows his tunes, which is a good job considering he presides over one of the most influential and widely-read music magazines in the UK. But how do you set yourself apart when applying for work experience/a job at somewhere like Q? Read on…
Understand the magazine you’re applying for.
Matt says: “So many budding writers send me generic emails asking for work and attaching a CV and some cuttings. I instantly know that the same email has been sent out unchanged to plenty of commissioning editors at other magazines.” He suggests critiquing the magazine, letting them know what works and what could be improved: “Tell us what’s wrong with it and how you’d improve it. Give us fresh ideas.”
Have fresh ideas
“This doesn’t mean ‘So-and-so’s got an album out next month, I could interview them’, it means identifying trends and phenomena that we might have missed and coming up with original ways of covering them. A recent example of an idea we commissioned is ‘What if they never became famous?’: an illustrated feature imagining the lives of current pop stars in alternative realities were they hadn’t made it as musicians. We know the bands we should be interviewing, we want to hear more of these leftfield ideas.”
Know what’s going on in the industry
“Musicweek is a good starting point. It’s also worth saying that, while there’s a lot of talk about the rise of digital media killing music, the internet does provide brilliant opportunities to help you get your foot in the door. Identify the people doing the jobs you want, and the companies you want to work for, and follow them on Twitter for a daily insight into what they do. An afternoon spent on Google can provide you with a wealth of information about a career and plenty of email addresses and phone numbers of people to hassle for a job or some work experience.”
Start a blog
“A general tip is that it’s important to show commitment to – and passion for – a career. Want to be a promoter? Phone a local venue and volunteer to help out. Interested in marketing? Ask an unsigned band if you can run their social media sites. Want to be a journalist? Start your own blog. As the music magazine market shrinks, there’s less work to go around, and we’ve already got a big team of writers – freelance and on staff – that we know, like and trust. To break into that group, you’ve got to prove your passion.”
Music journalists who want to transfer to other parts of the industry tend to move into PR (probably because of their communication and writing skills, big contacts book and an understanding of the press), A&R (being able to spot a good band that will sell records/gigs) or setting up their own labels (again, spotting a good band before anyone else, contacts book).
Tom Rowland is a scout for XL Recordings, his job being to sign The Next Big Thing.
Be creative about your approach
It’s all about original thinking, says Tom: “I got in touch with about 20 record labels and one got back to me! I worked for free for nine months then I turned up on the doorstep at XL Recordings with a remix I’d made of one of their artists, M.I.A.” XL liked it, and Tom got a day’s work experience there. He went to gigs, saw bands that would work for the label, and would take the CD to the head of A&R. “After a while he recognised that I could tell what worked.”
Build up experience, and start right now
Tom suggests getting into everything from promoting bands to club nights to music management: “It sounds really scary, but it could be your mate’s band and all you need to do is book them gigs!” he suggests. “You could also get into DJing and playing your own music.” It also helps in building up a network of people who may very well end up the source of your first break into the business.
Learn what sells
It’s not just about your music taste, but figuring out what that particular label are looking out for, or what is going to make money: “I studied Economics at Leeds, which taught me to take the emotional aspect out of work and think, “is this going to work or not?”’ Tom explains. “There are plenty of bands whose music I like, but I know it’s not going to sell, so I have to look at it from a business point of view.” Understand the independent and major labels inside out – keep up to date with sites like Noisey, Fact and Digital Spy as well as, of course, seeing as much live music as you can.
Don’t do it for the money
You spend your day living and breathing music, from trade magazines to sites to standing around in the cold at gigs, and not for a great salary. “If you get a big signing, such as Coldplay, it will take you to the top very quickly, in both position and earnings,” says Tom, on working at a major label. “At independents, things are much steadier, and the focus is slightly more on the music than on sales. It is a nice way to work but you don’t get paid as much!” Of course, though, it depends on who you sign and how well you do- so you’re always chasing that elusive genuine next big thing.
Work on your small talk, and your ability to spend time alone
A scout needs to be at ease talking to strangers most nights at gigs, so the job best suits someone who isn’t unfazed by new environments and people. However, passion and commitment is the crucial part, so don’t panic if you’re not a social butterfly – you can work on this: “University helped me 100% in terms of social skills and the ability to develop interests,” says Tom, although he adds that a lot of his time is spent alone, “I go to a lot of gigs on my own and find myself traipsing around Manchester, bored of waiting for a gig to start.”
Maybe consider another option. Sending demos to record labels is no longer the way to go; the probability you’ll get picked up this way is next to zero. Adam Stanely is the UK content manager for the UK department of Muzu.tv, livestreaming popular music and pushing new music forward, circulating it everywhere from 4music, XBox live, Samsung and Sony televisions to The Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail. It’s the new way the industry is making money, so how do you impress Muzu and get your sound broadcast across the world?
The moment you can, hire a PR
“Most of the people we get in touch with are through PRs, although we do get a lot of unsolicited videos sent through. Not as much as record companies, as not as many people know how influential we are. It’s possible to break through without one, if everything else is in place, but getting yourself out there is obviously key, and so if you get a bit of money, it’s good to invest it in someone who can spread the word throughout the industry.”
Know who you are
“There will alwys be comparisons and you’ll always be influenced by people, but a twist on the original is important, if a bit harder. It’s worth it though: we recently streamed Nina Nesbit who turned down record labels earlier on in her career to figure out who she wanted to be, musically. It’s really worth thinking about.”
Make the video good before you send it to us
“Some of the unsolicited stuff we get is really awful. Don’t try and re-create a high budget video you’ve seen, because it just won’t work. Keep the camera still. Upload it at a decent resolution (640 x 360 is muzu’s minimum). You can be creative with a low budget. This lets the talent speak, and you want to focus on the ability as opposed to (often badly done) effects and distractions.”
“It’s not the be-all-and-end-all, but generally it’s the younger [you start] the better, as they have a whole career ahead of them. You can see the potential for decades putting out tracks, which is more appealing.”
Pay attention to social media
“We do often look to see how many followers an artist has on Twitter and Facebook to check they’ve got a solid fanbase already, as that really helps. It means there’s a better chance of them taking off, so it’s important to really try and work on building this base.”
As a PR at Warp Records, Leah Ellis pitches features ideas on all things related to the nationals, as well as knowing the artists (including Mount Kimbie and Aphex Twin) inside out so as to best present them to the general public. This is a job that puts you at the forefront of the industry; dealing with and controlling the press.
Intern to get some experience
Leah emailed a bunch of record labels and secured a place interning at Brille Records followed by Thrill Jockey, Sainted PR, and Toast PR. She also helped out at a plugging company called Peer Group. “I was offered paid work as a press assistant at Sainted PR after being there for 6 months,” she says, “then eventually was promoted to head of PR and, eventually, a director.” The smaller labels have the smaller teams, so you tend to get more hands-on experience, and even get promoted quicker than with the major labels. As with most creative professions, Leah had to work part-time in pubs and telesales to get by, so be prepared to put in a lot of free work if you want results.
Get your face around.
“Ask the people you’re interning for if you can go to their gigs,” suggests Leah. Having the right people see you at the right places may mean that when a vacancy comes up for work, they’ll think if you. “Getting to know the managers, journalists, radio pluggers and other employees really helps,” she says. Independent labels sometimes don’t actually advertise these sorts of jobs, so it’s good to get in their faces a bit.
Don’t just bombard people with press releases
Face-to-face is always better than a generic email: “I like to meet with journalists and producers rather than sending them a deluge of emails,” she says, “I like to be old-fashioned about it.” It’s all about building up positive relationships with the right, influential people.
Think outside the box
If you want your artist in a publication, you need to pitch ideas that are going to stick. “Read magazines,” she says, “It sounds obvious but it’s important to know what you’re talking about.” Also, how are you going to know what sort of features to pitch if you’re not sure what the tone of the magazine is?
Online and digital skills are a necessity
“Since starting in this industry a huge part of my job has moved into online,” says Leah. “Both publications and PRs have had to adapt to dwindling print sales.” Understand SEO, know what social media platforms to target for which artist, pinpoint their audience and find where they are online. Teaching yourself these skills will mean you’re a lot more employable than those who only understand print journalism and how the press office works within it.
This can be a good sideways “in” for music journalism, and A&R is something an independent PR has to do anyway. So you’re half-way there with that, too.
Dickon Stone started Odd Socks Records a year ago with his DJ partner James Creed and has already learned so much. “I definitely wouldn’t claim to be an aficionado,” he stresses, “as we’re new to this too and have so much to get done that we just haven’t gotten round to yet…” But he’s set up a label and it’s doing pretty well, so he’s a good person to ask for advice.
Quality over quantity
“We only had 3 releases last year. That’s super slow. But I’m proud of every single one of them, and I know I’ll still love them in 10 years’ time. I think it pays to not be in a rush. It’s an industry wrapped up in fads and 15 minute heroes, so maybe pacing yourself and making sure that every track is special makes more sense than churning out a digi release every 2 weeks to fit whatever trend happens to be hyped right now… Well, maybe it’s not if integrity doesn’t factor high on your list of priorities.”
Don’t try too hard to have a strict recipe or aesthetic
“Starting out, things are going to change and it’s going to evolve anyway… Setting rules and making design decisions for your yet-to-exist concept label might just end up being really stifling later on. It doesn’t all have to look perfect from day one, because you probably forgot to put the artwork in CMYK anyway and that yellow you loved on the cover is going to come back looking like French mustard… Mistakes add character. And I won’t make that one again!”
Unless your heart is really in it, don’t bother
“It’s not likely to be an earner for quite a while… You should probably be looking at the long game. Since costs can be high – especially if you’re pressing vinyl, and doubly so if you’re paying for PR etc. – with your mastering, artwork, and other bits and pieces, it’s going to be a labour of love for some time before it’s paying for your holidays.”
Get to know your piracy websites
“You’ll need to send DMCA notices later…”
Google “DMCA notice”…
Go and intern somewhere
“Learn some of the pros and cons, some of the risks and mistakes, and some of the big do’s and don’ts in a safe little bubble where someone else is paying for everything – as well as AT LEAST your travel expenses (don’t get exploited). My label partner and I both interned at labels and booking agencies for a couple of years before we started our own thing. We met some really lovely people, networked a hell of a lot, and gained some valuable experience. All these things are paying off today in some way or another.”
Find the right distributor
“It takes some time and research, and probably a lot of unreturned emails… Find out who’s distributing the records of your favourite labels and get in touch. You’ve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Once you’ve got a good deal pinned down, you can be satisfied with the fact that if you supply the tunes, in a couple of weeks they’re going to be available to people all over the world. That’s a really nice feeling. It’s especially important if you want to put out vinyl – a market that’s actually growing again, hooray! – which is kind of a ‘done thing’ now, and I think there’s undue pressure to follow suit – even though it’s a great medium, and I’m a big fan. It can be really pricey, and if the music isn’t individual/good enough, or if the genre just isn’t one that really has a vinyl buying fan demographic, you’re going to be sitting on a crate of unsold records just because you wanted to run with the cool crowd. If it makes sense, do it, but you’ve got to weigh it all up, or you stand to lose.”