Musicians' guide: How to make it in the music industry

Musicians' guide: How to make it in the music industry

Want to make it in music? Fancy yourself as The Next Big Thing? Claire Sawers and Malcolm Jack track down nine very different people currently working in the industry and quiz them on just what they do and how they do it In addition, for detailed listings of all the info you might need to know, from venues to recording studios.

The Musician

Barry Hyde of The Futureheads

I love being a musician – I haven’t done anything else for about six years, and I still can’t believe I’m able to do it professionally. It’s not about becoming a famous person, or an infamous person, or playing huge shows or being glamorous. To be a musician is to be true to your art and to be humble and passionate about it.

We’ve been up and down like a rollercoaster – the first album did incredibly well, the second album not so well, and the third album kind of saved us in a way. We’re still on the rollercoaster; it never ends. Even The Rolling Stones have gone through 20 years of patchy existence, going on tour just to pay for their 100 kids. They’ve been very successful, but have they made any good music over the last 20 years? I don’t think so.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is that if you don’t enjoy what you do, no one else will enjoy what you do. To be contrived is to fail, in the music business and as an artist. If you’re not feeling it with genuine passion, then you don’t have any right to be in a band. Passion comes before everything: conviction, dedication, these are the things that will pay off in the long run.

With regard to going out there and getting a record deal, I haven’t got a bloody clue, because there are great bands who never get a deal, and terrible bands that do. This seems to be the random factor – the fickle finger of fate, as I like to call it. It’s black magic mate. Enjoy yourself is all I say.

The A&R man and label owner

Imran Ahmed of Abeano Records

Abeano is the imprint that I run in conjunction with XL Recordings. I’d tipped a lot of new bands while working as a journalist for NME that went on to have a lot of success; I was looking at what A&R guys do and thinking: ‘I could probably do that, and probably do it better’.

Vampire Weekend started on the label and moved onto XL and I’ve worked with those guys for about the last 18 months in every element and aspect of the project. I love to work with artists that excite me the same way as they first did, or Damn Shames first did – bands that can’t be imitated, that are like nothing else out there right now. What you look for in this job are those moments when you find someone incredible that just blows people away.

You figure out the pitfalls as you go along. The principal one is you can never be arrogant – you’re only ever a bad signing away from the sack. You’re never too young to start getting involved with new music. There are kids in London who’ve been promoting shows and managing bands since they’re 16. That’s a great route in.

I think if you really want to get signed, there are loads of things you can do yourself to make it happen. When Vampire Weekend were signed, they had nine tracks recorded that went on their debut album, they managed themselves, they were booking their own shows, driving their own van, they sorted out their own website and they did their own press. That’s all crucial for learning how the business works and also making people – including A&Rs – come to you.

The PR

Rob Kerford, Sonic PR

I started off doing a fanzine, playing drums in a local band, and from there I managed a band and was partner in a record label that developed into a regional PR company. That was 14 years ago now. Last year I left and set up by myself.

I answer and send emails, speak on the phone to journalists, make sure a gig or a single or an album is going to feature. I mail out CDs, I send out review tickets, I organise competitions, and I liaise with record companies and band managers and give them updates on how campaigns are going. In the evenings I often go to gigs.

Promoting a band you love is the best thing about the job. I’ve done David Bowie and Kraftwerk and I now do Nick Cave and Depeche Mode. It’s also good to get a baby band and develop them into something everyone knows,

If I was someone who wanted to do this kind of thing, I’d find a local band I really liked and ask them if I could do their press, because I’m sure they’d be happy for someone to help out. It’s not a job for everyone, but just give it a go.

Musicians should make it as easy as possible for the journalist or DJ they’re sending their music to – clearly mark the name of the band on the CD for instance, and the track listing. The press release need only be one page – don’t write a book. Get a hi-res photo done by a mate at university or whatever. Be positive in your approach, but not too cocky or pushy.

The Producer

Tony Doogan has recorded Belle & Sebastian, Mogwai, The Delgados and more

When I was about 13 or 14 there were a few shows on at a local church and I helped the PA guy set up and work. I kind of got hooked in then. After school, I did a college course in sound and music but left early as I was offered a job in a really great studio in Glasgow, which unfortunately has now gone.

It’s tough work – I normally work 12 hours per day, sometimes longer. But I’ve certainly enjoyed myself along the way. Most people are great to work with and they tend to become friends.

It’s a difficult time in the music industry so tread carefully. Buy as much equipment as you can afford and then learn to use it properly. Learn to listen too. Listen to as many types of music as you can, don’t get caught up in any cliques or become a music snob. Make sure you agree on basic things like how much you will be paid and when before you start work on a project. Studios are expensive places so you’d better have good time management. Don’t be a chancer – the music business is full of them.

For musicians, times are hard too but the process is basically the same. Play as many gigs as you can get. Rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. It’s no good your friends and family telling you you’re great; they’ll tell you that anyway. You need to get some real feedback on what you are doing to make it better. Don’t get complacent with your songs – keep working on them until they blow you away. That’s the acid test.

The record store boss

Andrew Tully, manager of Avalanche Records

I’ve been working here 20 years, man and boy. I started part-time, helping run Avalanche’s record label, then went full-time. I see my role as manning the barricades against the rising stench of corporate rock; giving people choice, giving record labels an outlet and generally acting as a hub for people of independent mind.

We stocked the first Belle & Sebastian album on vinyl, three years before they won a Brit. Stuart Murdoch just came in and asked if we’d put it on the shelf. We still sell music from unsigned bands – a CD-R will do, all we ask is that they supply some artwork, with their name clearly on the sleeve, then we take a 20 per cent cut on the sale price. If you’re really serious, we always prefer vinyl copies – it shows real commitment. Call back within three months to check if they’re sold, or they may end up in the basement.

I’d advise young bands to be a bit self-deprecating when starting out; arrogant wee shites get racked at the back. Also, don’t say your music is ‘hard to define’ when we ask you what it is, we just want to know where to stock it so it’s got more chance of selling well.

The trade unionist

Ben Jones, media official from the Musicians’ Union

Members use us as a sort of insurance. We provide advice on all aspects of the music industry – including performance, management, marketing, distribution and publishing. If a musician needs a contract drawn up, say for a new manager or with a label, we can supply templates, and then send the draft away to be vetted by a solicitor. For bands starting out, they might want to sort out who owns the equipment, or what would happen if one person left, so we provide what we call ‘partnership advice’, allowing bands to put these kinds of things in writing. We also provide guidelines on fees, and what to do if you don’t get paid properly.

Because it’s becoming so much easier to record and release your own music, compared to 20 years ago for example, bands and artists are finding themselves getting far more involved in the legalities and the financial side of what they do. We help make musicians aware of their rights, and who to contact if they don’t have the time or the inclination to take care of the paperwork. There’s a huge diversity of people that are members, from session drummers, concert violinists to pop stars, and we try to provide support, so they can keep on being creative whilst also making a living.

The talent booker

Grainne Braithwaite, runs Synergy Concerts

I was supposed to do a course in music marketing, but the music booker at the Liquid Rooms was leaving and they offered me the job. I was flyering at the time, but they knew I was pretty dorky about my music, so they trusted me. I was 18 then, and 11 years later I still can’t believe my luck I’ve ended up booking bands and putting on shows across Scotland.

I never wanted an admin job in music; I wanted to book the bands I wanted to see. Over the years, I’ve got to book bands I’ve wanted to work with all my life, like Sonic Youth, Public Enemy or The Fall, and I still find the constant flow of new music really exciting.

People think jobs in music are all about partying, but you need to be ready for 22-hour days, not eating your dinner until 11pm, and sometimes no sleep for days at a time. You really shouldn’t be drinking when you’re working, you absolutely shouldn’t be taking drugs, and it’s not appropriate to be sitting backstage with the band for three hours either.

Be hard working and easy to work with, and when you’re starting out, do whatever it takes to put yourself out there. Get your foot in the door by flyering, doing box office, whatever. The market in Scotland is so small, so everyone knows each other. Be prepared to earn a pittance for a few years, but it’s so worth it. My job is an absolute blast.

The label manager

Jim Hutchison runs Hum+Haw electronic label

I started out DJing in bars, and got to know folk through that. Then I did work experience at Soma Records. The first year I was on £50 a week, but it got me into the promotional stuff. Like most creative jobs, be prepared to earn next to nothing at first. It’s important to make yourself available, even starting right at the bottom, to show you’re willing. But you shouldn’t seem too pushy either.

Once you’re working for a label, be confident without being cocky. Point out blogs or websites you’ve spotted, or pass on good contacts that might be useful.

For people trying to get on a label, the internet makes it easy – you can send demos via YouSendIt. I get sent lots, and don’t always have time to listen to every one. Emails that spark my attention are ones where they’ve researched what the label actually puts out, and can maybe reference similar artists. Describing your music also helps, so people can make associations. If it’s not for us, I’ll try to suggest a more suitable label.

People should be prepared to not always get feedback. Or if it’s negative, you can’t be too precious about it. Take the criticism on board. Working in music can be difficult, and badly paid. But if it’s your passion, it’s exciting, so you don’t mind as much

The band manager

Sharon Stephen from Hail Eris Management looks after We Were Promised Jetpacks with Jamie Gilmour

We started managing the band because we loved the band and wanted to be involved with their development. Management was not our initial plan – it was only after seeking legal advice it was suggested that we form a management agreement with the band that would enable us to work with them in a variety of areas.

Our job involves a bit of everything. Basically we take care of the band’s welfare to enable them to do what they do best, which is to write and play live. Working for very little or no money is one of the major downsides, however being involved with the band’s development over the past year has definitely been a plus point. Luckily there are two of us to cover all duties, as we both also hold down full-time jobs. Money can be a pitfall for bands starting out; there is little money for bands in the early stages, and the cost of studio and rehearsal space, equipment and even petrol costs all mount up.

Most bands who feel they ‘need’ a manager usually don’t. Work hard and be as self-sufficient as possible. The whole Do It Yourself ethic really comes into play here – that is until it comes to the point where you need to seek help in areas that bands shouldn’t necessarily be bothered with. My advice would be don’t take it too seriously, work with people you genuinely get on with and trust your instincts.

For detailed listings of venues, recording studios, rehearsal rooms, instrument retailers and Scottish record labels see


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