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Ask a Musician

Creative Careers

Photo of young person singing on stage
13 Dec 2017
5 min read

We hear from a panel of musicians from the worlds of rap, choir, classical, and song writing came together to give an honest and open take on how to succeed in the music industry.

Following a career as a musician can take many paths and can involve different outputs – from heartfelt self-expression to commercial methods of making ends meet. We asked musicians to share their advice from the industry, from their point of view.

Be authentic
Authenticity is integral to success. Your career might take a while to take off but if your heart is not in your project or you are not pursuing a path you feel passionately about, then you are far more likely to give up. This was a point echoed by all the panellists throughout the event.

Eight years ago, cellist Lucy Railton teamed up with a friend and began working on a theatre-dance production called Everything That Rises Must Dance, which was performed at Tate Modern. The beauty of the project was in its authenticity, Lucy explains. ‘It’s not about financial gain or making it really massive very quickly. We wanted to work on something that was more linked to us and our interests. Over the years we’ve stuck at it and it’s come to fruition in a very genuine way and it’s been successful because we let it develop naturally.’

Being genuine creates a magnetism that draws others in, as evidenced by Lucy’s show which attracts 200 volunteer dancers who take part in each performance.

Be true to yourself
Part of being authentic means staying true to yourself and not getting too hung up on what others around you are doing. This is a principle rapper, Fummi Flohio, adopted early on in her career, and it’s helped her go from playing at open mic nights to packed venues like the Brixton Academy.

She said, ‘I just did my track. I didn’t think about where the track was going to end up. I felt like, ‘I’m just creating music and from that, whatever happens, happens’. People try to tell you what sounds are going on right now but I’m genre-free. I like to think of myself as a genre-free artist. If the music moves my body then that’s what’s going to be on the track.’

Despite being a musician, Fummi avoids listening to mainstream music. She explained: ‘If I listen to the top five or top ten, they’re good catchy songs and subconsciously, they’ll get stuck in my head and I don’t want to create a rhythm that sounds like that. I try not to listen to too much music and listen to my own stuff instead – old school stuff that no one really cares about.’

Choose your allies well
Songwriter Tom Rosenthal, who has had more than 60 million plays on Spotify, said a key part of his success lies in the people he has chosen to work with. He referenced a music video he made for a light-hearted song called Watermelon, which has had 1.3 million views on YouTube. Despite making the video with a team of five friends, it went on to do incredibly well and in a large part, Tom puts this down to his choice of allies.

He said, ‘Choose your allies very carefully. It’s one thing to make something. I just sang a song about a watermelon, but the people that made this video made it so much better… I work with people who really care and who want to add something to what I’m are doing.’

If you don’t have a community, start one
Four years ago, singer Luisa Gertstein wanted to find people to sing with so she started an all-female choir called Deep Throat. Gathering a few friends, Luisa was keen to create stripped-back arrangements with just vocals and drums.

‘I felt I didn’t really have a community so I got three or four friends together to begin with and said, ‘I’m going to start a choir, what do you think?’ and it just grew really organically grew from that and now there’s 35 of us. It feels really powerful to have an all-female space’.

The community has now become an important part of Luisa’s life and led to exciting new opportunities. ‘We did open mic nights and some support acts and got into recording. We’ve even put an album out – Be Ok, on label Bella Union‘.

Stay true to your roots
Staying close to the communities and collaborators you work with early on in your career can dramatically influence the quality of your music. Lucy has noticed friends of hers who have begun using session musicians rather than the collaborators they worked with originally. ‘I’ve seen people I know become really successful and suddenly, they’ve stopped using their local friends in the community and they’ve started using professional session musicians and the soul gets sucked out of the music. It becomes this clean thing. I think people with integrity keep their performers really close and it always pays off to stick with the people who’ve seen you through’.

Tom echoes this point, adding that working with people you know adds ‘a sense of fun’ to your project. ‘If you have fun and work with someone you like and you’re enjoying it, it comes across in whatever you make. It can still be something professional; it can still be professional and be fun’.

Be patient
Fummi was recently featured in British Vogue and has cultivated a strong fashion sense as well as a unique sound, but she was keen to emphasize that even though her milestones may seem like they’re happening overnight, they were in fact a product of hard work and dedication. She estimates that she has performed at around 300 open mic nights growing up in south London, often jumping ticket barriers just to be able to get in.

Tom presses the importance of developing your sound and continually putting work out there. He released his first album Keep A Quiet Room Behind The Shop at 24. Despite it being a fairly low budget album with a cover of a man Tom photographed sleeping in the Barbican library (who still doesn’t know he’s on the cover!), Tom said, ‘Putting the album out there showed people, ‘This is guy’s taking things seriously, he’s made this, he’s put it out there; he must care about it’. Tom added, ‘everything good that’s happened musically has come from the commitment of doing that first album’.

Don’t be afraid to be commercial to pay the bills
But how do you make money from making music? Especially when you are just starting out. To be a successful and lucrative, Tom believes that sometimes it helps to explore less glamourous avenues for your music, that don’t involve fun creative activities like touring, making music videos or releasing albums. When Tom’s girlfriend got pregnant and he realised he needed to help support a family, he started working with a publisher and produced music to be used in the background of TV shows, films and adverts.

Although it wasn’t the most fulfilling work, Tom tried to add a personal touch and created music that was more emotive than a lot of the bland stuff around. He said: ‘Because my songs meant something, whereas others just made any odd stuff to fill the gap, my stuff started being used more and more and got lots of interesting film trailers and bits and bobs.’ Tom ended up having his music used in shows such as Skins, which opened doors for other lucrative opportunities. ‘I think it’s okay to think in a clinical fashion sometimes about these things. That doesn’t take away your genius.’

Luisa echoed this point as she has also worked with a publisher. While Lucy, having trained at the Royal Academy of Music as a cellist, sometimes works as a session musician, playing music for projects she has no personal investment in simply to make extra money.

Words by Zoe Efstathiou

This session took place on Wednesday 12 December 2017

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