Written by Jemima Skala - as part of Commission Mission.
If you ask anyone currently working in the music industry, in any of the various professions that it offers, why they work in music, chances are you’ll get the same answer every time: because they love music. It’s a privilege to love what you do and believe in what you’re working for. It’s incredibly rewarding to complete projects that not only give you professional fulfilment, but a great sense of personal pride too. When you work in the music industry, there’s a sense that you’re all striving towards the same thing: the general spread of a richer culture and championing things you believe in.
What they don’t tell you when you start out is that it’s precisely the thing that drove you to this career in the first place, that will make your life unnecessarily difficult down the road. The pure love of the music is what will drive you to work too much, too long and too hard. This blurring of personal and professional boundaries is taken for granted in the industry and has become something of a baseline standard that we expect everyone to adhere to. This industry-wide silent acknowledgement of the facts is particularly troubling, and can push you to work yourself to exhaustion, because if you’re not exhausted, do you love the music enough?
So, here are just a few tips to bear in mind when starting out in the music industry, alongside ways to keep the flame alive if you’re finding it particularly challenging. Remember: just because you love your job, you don’t have to be spending every waking second doing it.
1. Go to gigs with friends outside the industry
Live gigs and club nights are often the very things that lead you to working in the music industry. However, what starts out as a leisure activity and a way to see your favourite acts then turns into a very weird networking exercise. When you start working in music, gigs and festivals become a bizarre hub of everyone you might have ever had a meeting with, which can make it feel like one long day (and night) in the office. It becomes far more uncomfortable when alcohol and other substances become involved.
Outside of this, make sure that you’re going to gigs with friends that don’t work in music. It’ll help to maintain a sense of normalcy that you can then tap into when you’re next asked to just pop along to a gig for work. It’s nice to be reminded of the gleam in people’s eyes when the singer walks out on-stage, rather than the dull glazed-over look of someone who’s listened to the demos a million times.
2. Write about, promote, make, and manage music that you really, genuinely care about
Because we live in a capitalist society, music, along with everything else, has become commodified, we start seeing it as a product rather than a cultural artefact. When this happens, it’s easy to lose sight of the voices and messages that matter in our search for the next big marketable thing. To try and avoid this phenomenon as much as possible (although it’ll inevitably crop up at some point because your artists will need to make money to survive and continue making the music you love), champion the artists that you truly care about and believe in, not just as a PR exercise. When you put genuine love and support behind something, working eight hours a day on it doesn’t feel so bad, and you’ll find the difficult times a lot easier to work through. It might sound like a fairly basic piece of advice, but it’s one that often gets forgotten.
3. Step outside your musical comfort zone
Personal taste is a fact of life: some things you like and other things you just don’t. It’s important to recognise where your taste intersects with your professional judgement and try not to let it get in the way when it matters. This is particularly true in music journalism. Album and live reviews hold more power than we’re aware of, journalists and slating a new act just because their style doesn’t quite fit within your realm of personal tastes could dim a potentially bright future. By listening to a wide range of new music and expanding your horizons, you start to be able to delineate personal judgement from musical merit. It’s important to be able to judge an album or act fairly on their own terms, whether that’s by listening to dance music when you’re more of a pop person, or hip hop when you usually consume heavy metal. Listening to new music outside of your usual beat will also help you to figure out where the industry might be heading in terms of new signings and where to look for more of the same. It’s tempting to stick on that old familiar playlist but try listening to one new album a day on your daily commute or when cooking dinner. The comfort zone is nice, but you never know what you’ll find when you step outside of it.
4. Put your phone away
In the digital age, we’re expected to be on call 24/7. Coupled with that love of music, those in the music industry are expected to be constantly available at the drop of the hat to work hard wherever you might be in the world. Having one small device in your pocket that gives you access to everything all at the touch of a button is incredible, but also means that people expect a lot of you when you’re not always able to give it. It’s been said before by many other articles similar to this, but honestly, just put your phone away and allow yourself to enjoy an evening without the constant feeling of guilt that you’re not doing enough. Exceptions will always have to be made for a crisis, but day-to-day, try to stick to office hours and put on an out of office when you’re not available. It’ll not only make you feel less inadequate, but it’ll also help to manage other people’s expectations of what you’re able and willing to do at any given time. If you’re answering emails right up until bedtime, it sends out a message that you’re willing to prostrate yourself for work at any hour of the day, which will only lead to more being asked of you and you burning out faster. Do yourself a favour and just switch it off.
5. It’s ok to say no
As mentioned throughout this article, it’s an industry-wide norm that you’re expected to extend yourself unnecessarily for the pure and simple love of music. This means working late, taking on more work than you’re able to do well, and, often, working for little or no fee. If you feel that you’re unable to complete work like this, say no. It’s so hard to do when you’re starting out; everyone’s advice is to say yes to every opportunity and make yourself constantly available so that you’ll be thought of the next time around. If you feel like you’re doing this too much, or not being compensated (enough or at all) by a client, say no. The power of ‘no’ is an often underutilised one in this industry. Be clear with yourself about your own boundaries and enforce them when they’re encroached upon.
6. Get comfortable with talking about money
As a freelance journalist, I had to learn this one very early on. Initially I didn’t like talking about money at all and was happy to write for free to get me closer towards that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: exposure. One tip I can offer for anyone unsure about how to bring up remuneration is to talk about it right off the bat. As soon as your pitch is accepted, or when you have that initial meeting with a client about a project, ask: “what’s your budget on this?” It cuts a lot of unnecessary faff and saves you from spending your energy on things that just aren’t ultimately worth it. As a secondary step to this, research the standard industry day rates or commission fees for your chosen niche and apply them. Know how much your time and effort are worth, and don’t be afraid to value yourself highly. If you’re just starting out, it’s worth adjusting this down slightly (but only slightly). In practical terms, you don’t have the breadth of experience of someone who’s been at this for years, and you do need to build up a portfolio and prove yourself before you start charging full industry rates.
7. But also know that compensation comes in different forms
NB: This tip mainly applies to smaller, grassroots projects that you might be asked to be involved in. For larger brands and companies, there is always wiggle room to negotiate a proper fee.
It’s always nice to be paid for your work, but financial compensation is just a small part of what working in music is all about. If you’re asked to be involved in something for a friend, or a grassroots organisation in your local community, consider whether it’s worth asking for a fee if there are other things on offer. Will you be contributing to a healthier, more diverse scene? Will you be drawing wider attention to an important cause or underrepresented group of artists in your local area on a bigger stage? Is it for a charitable cause? As noted before, it’s perfectly ok to draw your boundaries if you feel that you can’t take on any more work at the moment, but do consider whether you’re able to give your time and effort to draw the spotlight to something that might not directly benefit you but those with less privilege or platform than yourself.
8. Pay it forwards!
Mentorship is difficult to find in an industry so built on connections rather than talent or experience. If you’re just breaking into the industry, everything is so new and you’re going to make mistakes. Those of us who have moved past that phase know the excitement to be working your first job in music coupled with that wide-eyed fear at making a wrong step. Whenever a newcomer reaches out to you asking for advice, you should always take the time to share your knowledge and experience with them. Diversity is a problem in the music industry; can you make time to contribute your mentorship to a scheme aimed at increasing opportunities in music for Black and minority ethnic communities? There’s no such thing as individual success – we are the product of everyone that we’ve encountered and everything we’ve learnt along the way. In an industry as brutal and trying as music, carve out some space to help someone struggling to break it.
The point of this piece isn’t to warn you off working in music entirely; it’s to arm you adequately for some of the struggles ahead. The music industry is often glamorised, but it’s work just like anything else, and there are difficult things to take along with the good. Ultimately, working in music has the potential to be incredibly rewarding; as noted earlier, it’s a real privilege to love your job. Drawing the line between business and pleasure, however, is a skill that takes time and practise, so the sooner you’re able to implement even a few of these tips, the sooner you’ll be on your way to achieving a career in music with longevity and happiness.
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.