Sunday, 9 March 2014

on why being a musician is a very difficult job

[being my own only point of reference, the following is relevant to my own experience. obviously the exact circumstances will differ for classical, session and street musicians.]

being a musician generally starts with writing a song.

so how does a song get written? well it goes a little something like this:

you do nothing. you clear your calendar, set aside a few hours alone with nothing to disturb you and you pick up your guitar or sit at the piano and strum or tinkle away to your heart’s content with no exact goal in sight. you’ll play something familiar, perhaps one of your own illustrious compositions, perhaps someone else’s. you like your own stuff, it’s fun to play, so you start there. you play the last track off of biffy’s first album just because you can, and you imagine impressing people at parties with your note perfect rendition as you do so. you play familiar chords, some of your favourites, then begin to ramble elsewhere. you make some awful noises, then some better ones, then some you actually think are okay. you repeat the nice noises, decide they’re not as good as you initially thought, then repeat the whole process. eventually, if you’re lucky, after a few hours, you have something you quite like. you begin to sing over it, making up nonsensical words that nonetheless have a nice rhythm and cadence, and suddenly it clicks.

this is the good bit.

the words flow, you stumble upon a great verse line that has some kind of emotional resonance and lo and behold you have a subject for your masterpiece. the song writes itself [and it always does; yes, songwriting can be done by numbers and churned out, but people who can do that generally write for one direction and westlife and that is a bad, bad thing].

you slave away at nailing a chorus melody that sufficiently reaches for the stars and does justice to the great work you’ve done on the verse [verses are the most fun to write, choruses are generally a bitch]. don’t worry about the middle eight, you’ll do that later, you’re on fire now.

of course, you may need to repeat the above process in its entirety several times on separate days before actually getting a finished song out of it. one in three is a pretty good average to aim for. 

so, you have a song, albeit in a raggedy, entirely-composed in your head state.

time to take it to the band.

you hire a rehearsal room. the drummer turns up late, so that’s a tenner down the drain, but at least the lead guitarist has set up half his pedals. you present your mythical child to the group, explain the arcade fire meets television with a fleetwood mac twist vibe you want to go for and start jamming it out. you tell the lead guitarist to turn down, the bass player to wake up and the drummer to please, please, please refrain from practicing break beats between passes. you go round and round and it sounds awful, then it sounds better, then it sounds pretty good, and before you know it, it sounds pretty fucking awesome.

this is another good bit.

let’s assume you somehow manage to get a middle eight together that isn’t just a louder verse with a guitar solo and open hi-hats.

repeat the above process a minimum of fifteen times per album [you need to have a selection to choose from for the album, plus you’ll need b-sides if you ever get the thing finished].

let’s hit the road.

you need to book a gig. let’s assume you have a manager who can help you with this [if not, then set aside about ten hours for calling and emailing promoters and getting one put together]. 

[as an aside, i shall refrain throughout this blog post from the usual whining about how much all of this costs until later; it is well documented elsewhere on the internet. let us just take it for granted that each stage of this process involves losing a great deal of money.]

you find the money to hire a van, you promote your gig on facebook, twitter, songkick, band camp, reverbnation, soundcloud and anything else that anyone uses, because not to do so constitutes an immense laziness on your part and an inability to recognise the huge marketing value of social media.

[as another aside, at least eighty percent of your time spent ‘being a musician’ will be taken up by maintaining social media and internet platforms. it is a hell of a lot of fun. the days of introverted, reclusive musical geniuses are over, my friend.]

despite leaving in good time, you turn up half an hour late at the venue and are directed to the loading bay [a fire door which opens directly onto the north circular]. you proceed to lug your gear up three flights of stairs to the live room. the sound guy isn’t here yet [make friends with this man, he has a difficult job and being a diva will only result in your finely crafted ditties sounding like processed cheese to anyone who chooses to pay money to come and watch your pop concert]. you set up, line check [not enough time for a sound check, there’s five bands on the bill tonight, and five minutes for change-overs], pack your gear back down again. there is no dressing room and the rider is a red-stripe token, redeemable at the bar. the promoter’s watching the football at another pub, so you’ll have to get that later.

this is the danger zone.

you go to a pub and ‘get some food’. this basically means grabbing a chicken burger from chicken cottage before retiring to a pub and trying to gauge how many beers is ‘too many to play’.

one of the band will get this mathematical equation wrong, though at least it will be a different person every time. it may even be you. variety is the spice of life.

you return to the venue, the night’s running late, your stage time’s been cut, you’ve got to get the gear set up, like, yesterday. somehow you manage it.

then the magic happens. 

we’ll assume you play a great show because we’re being positive here, people. a good show constitutes at least fifty percent of the band enjoying it. you will never achieve the clean sweep.

this really is a good bit. in all honesty, it’s probably the best bit.

you finish, pack up, head home, load the gear in in the early hours of the morning and all pile back to the drummer’s house to do a lot of things you really shouldn’t do before passing out in the lounge/bath/garden.

[i am stereotyping here, my band are actually awesome.]

you maintain this lifestyle whilst managing to magic together the funds to record your album yourself in your friend’s dining room using his macbook pro and a couple of sm58s. 

recording an album is a painstaking, maddening, thrilling and incredibly time consuming experience. there will be many wrong turns, fortuitous mistakes, moments of accidental genius and hours spent tearing your hair out because it doesn’t sound enough like mogwai. you will laugh and you will cry and you will be forced to omit at least one fantastic song that you hold very close to your heart because you just couldn’t get the fucker to sound right. record it with someone you trust with your life, someone who isn’t afraid to call you a dick every now and again, but who is also capable of knowing when you might be about to fall over the edge and just need to take an hour or six off and nip down the pub [you’ll nail that chorus harmony when you get back, you always sing better after a few].

you will listen to each of your songs roughly five hundred times, some many more, as you mix and master them. you will learn how to use photoshop and design your own album cover and liner notes. if you are lucky, you may be able to afford to get some cds or vinyls made up.

another contender for the best bit is the first time you hold that cd in your hand. try as hard as you can to get a physical copy of your album made, it genuinely feels incredible.

the entire time, you tip-tap away at your keyboard, letting all seventy two of your twitter followers know what you’re up to at every stage whilst making sure your gig listings, facebook banners, ticket links and blog posts are up to date and free from mistakes. you get your mate with a dslr to take some photos of you employing some awkward and ill-suited props in a desperate bid to not be reduced to simply standing in front of a wall looking bored and disaffected. at least one of you will brandish a book of poetry or a dan clowes comic to accentuate your alternative credentials. one of you will wear a godspeed t-shirt.

if you manage to find someone to put your album out, then congratulations, you are one of the lucky ones. most of us do it ourselves via band camp or using awal. you may be able to get radio pluggers and press people and booking agents to do you favours and help promote you; treat them well, they’re doing all they can to help out, but at the end of the day you’re not paying them and they’re doing whatever they can to help out based on the simple fact that they think you make good music.

if you’re really, really lucky, some people might actually buy your album.

i’ve barely begun to scratch the surface here, but you will do all of this and more and you will carry on doing it over and over again because it’s what you believe in and it’s all you know and all you’ve ever wanted to do. and it’s not all that bad a life. in fact, it can even be quite fun.

but here’s the clincher.

you will do all of this, whilst also working a full-time job.

you will have to. pretty much every musician i know does this. it is the reality of being a musician today. and you won’t get paid much because you won’t be able to take any kind of job that requires more than a minimum mental effort so as to leave you with enough creative energy to do what you actually want to do with your life. i’m not talking about established musicians who made their money and got successful before the internet came along, i’m talking about new musicians starting out. it is tough. you will work a full-time job then spend every waking hour doing all of this other stuff. you will get no holidays and no time off as your twenty days a year will be used up doing gigs or festivals. intend on having a family or a meaningful long-term relationship? good luck with that. your friends will forget what you look like, you will hardly ever see them. your music will bleed you of money. you will be constantly tired and stressed and desperate and skint.

you’ll probably write some good songs.

so this is the bit where i grumble about money a little bit. 

i don’t want to go over things too much, i’ve spoken here about it before and there’s plenty all over the internet about it. however, the facts are thus:

1- people don’t expect to have to pay for music any more. they are outraged at the thought, despite the incredible amount of money it costs to make it.

2- musicians [and artists in general, writers, painters, film makers all] make money from two places: record sales and publishing. live shows don’t count as you lose money on these until you have achieved enough success from the former two to play larger venues, and even then you will be lucky to break even let alone provide four or five people with enough money to live on. as such, we have seen our revenue cut in half.

i get the whole spotify and streaming argument, i really do. it’s easier now to get your music listened to, more than ever, though this is pretty much cancelled out by the fact that it’s so much harder to stand out in a more saturated and attention-deficient market. but it’s the just the old ‘exposure’ argument repackaged. how many of you would swap a handful of blogs writing about how good you are at your marketing job for a fifty per cent dock in your pay? again, i don’t want to dwell on it too much, this pretty well-known infographic tells you all you need to know about how spotify looks after musicians.

what i find more troubling is people’s attitude to musicians actually wanting to be able to earn a living. trawling through comments sections on forums and on the internet, there seems to be a worrying prevalence of people who are outraged at this concept, going so far as to declare that any musician who does it ‘for the money’ is a sell out. 

[as for anyone who objects to musicians earning money from publishing - our one remaining potential source of income - via adverts or tv shows or games on the grounds of such actions constituting ‘selling out’ or ‘not being punk enough’, i suggest they take a look at this clip. i’d consider henry rollins something of an authority on what may or may not be punk.]

many people feel we should be doing it for the love and that’s it, be happy with that, now hand over your music as it makes me feel happy and sad and joyful but i don’t want to pay for it. it’s not enough that people want us musicians to be depressed, drug-addled wrecks, they want us to be broke too, and anything else constitutes a lack of authenticity.

this kind of hypocrisy is terrifying.

admittedly, not all music fans feel this way. likewise, some music fans will actually buy something after hearing it on spotify or grooveshark  or whatever [a perennial favourite argument on forums ,with a distinct whiff of pork pie about it], though not as many as you think.

look, all we want is to be able to do this thing that brings you joy for a living. we’ve had that taken away from us. we have to re-group, figure out a way to do things differently, like alternative comedy did in the early noughties. okay, we can deal with that, it’ll give us something to rail against, it might even make us write some half-decent songs, struggle has a tendency to do that.

but if the music fans turn on us for wanting to do this, then we really don’t stand a chance. and you guys won’t have anything to listen to.

d rk xx


  1. You speak the truth pal! I know first hand!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. A very insightful blog Dan. Its very hard for new alternative bands to break through days, hence why commercial music is shit at the moment. The charts are full of rehashed songs.

    TV commercials and games is where the platform to get people's attention to the music. Did TCTC do alright out of Promises, Promises being on Fifa 2004?

    1. was a nice little bonus, though got swallowed up by other stuff at the time.

  4. I hope Red Kite get the same break. In the meantime if you ever want to make a few quid from music again, I am sure thousands of old TCTC fans would love to see you and the boys back on stage, playing them great songs again! :)

  5. So true. I can't remember how many times I had listened my band's album just to make sure everything is sounding right. Another thing that I'd add to your list of things is the music fans that are not interested in supporting or even paying attention to local bands. I don't know if that happens for you guys but it's a thing that happens a lot of times where I live. It's a shame though, everyone would benefit if more support was given.

    Anyway, keep on fighting the good fight.

  6. Totally with you. I'm about ten years into the's amazing that the thought of giving up doesn't even cross my mind....most people who struggle so much in their job usually go looking for another job! But this is probably the most amazing job in the world, and as tough as it is, the highs and lows, I'm glad I'm doing it. (But yeah..a bit of appreciation wouldn't go amiss!) All the best :-)

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.