The path of a professional musician is all too often met with challenges and setbacks, but there are organisations that are there to help you keep on track, as Toby Deller finds out
Earlier this year, the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund published a survey of its grant recipients (Supporting Emerging Professional Musicians) to find out how the organisation could best support them. Speaking about the survey, awards and partnerships manager Tim Foxon explained: ‘One of the issues that has most interested me in conversations with musicians (and emerging from the research) is the extent to which formal conservatoire training prepares you for the realities and pressures of the profession. It is clear that some colleges are better than others but a general feeling out there is that many musicians are not offered adequate support in the practical skills required to sustain a professional career.’
Leaving college and starting out as a performer in the music profession can be a culture shock. But there are organisations that are able to help. Here we pick out some key issues – by no means the only ones! – facing musicians at the start of their careers.
The Musicians Benevolent Fund (www.helpmusicians.org.uk) is one of the organisations notable for its support of young musicians (its Emerging Excellence Awards were set up in response to its survey). The PRS for Music Foundation is another grant-awarding body (www.prsformusicfoundation.com/Funding), and the BBC runs a fund which aims to support performing arts (www.bbc.co.uk/performingartsfund).
But increasingly, performers are looking to crowdfunding – collecting small donations from many benefactors – as a way of getting work off the ground. Gregory Vincent is founder of Sponsume, a web-based fundraising platform: ‘Users can create a campaign page on Sponsume through which they sell rewards linked to their project (eg tickets to a concert, meet the creative team, DVD of the concert etc). Anyone can submit a campaign by applying online on www.sponsume.com. All you need is a short video pitch, a short description of the project, a funding target and rewards for your sponsors.’
Buying a house or flat
Many people who are starting out will probably have ruled out such a thing as a mortgage for the foreseeable future. But consulting an independent mortgage adviser such as David Carnac (www.davidcarnac.co.uk), himself a trombonist, is a possible first step. ‘The main challenge facing a professional musician when applying for a mortgage is that that many will have a number of sources of income. Most of my clients will typically have a couple of employed teaching posts in addition to their self-employment, which often covers both teaching and performing. Couple this with your average estate agent’s, mortgage broker or bank employee’s understanding of the music business and getting a clear and concise mortgage application, which cross-references well with an applicant’s accounts, payslips and bank statements, is going to be difficult to achieve. That said, I’ve helped a significant number of clients buy property within five years of leaving college so it’s perfectly possible.’
Lack of opportunities
‘There is no “easy” way to make a living as a professional musician,’ says Tom Butcher, membership officer at the Incorporated Society of Musicians (www.ism.org), ‘and staying ahead of the game is essential. Whether you need to know about music education hubs, changes to regulations that will affect your career or opportunities such as the ISM composers competition and New Music 20×12, you need to be engaged with the sector. As the professional body for musicians in the UK, the ISM is best placed to help you do that.’
A piece of positive news is that this year finally sees the removal of an irksome piece of bureaucracy, thanks in no small part to the campaigning of organisations such as the ISM and Musicians’ Union. Butcher explains: ‘The Live Music Act, which came into effect on 1 October, means it is easier to put on events in small venues. This means there will no longer be a need to get an entertainment licence from your local authority for an event with an audience of 200 or fewer people for amplified music, and with an unlimited audience for non-amplified music.’
Actually finding the ideal venue, however, can be more of a headache – a directory of small venues and rehearsal spaces would be a start (anyone interested?). But it may well be a question of developing your negotiating skills and thinking creatively about what you can offer a venue beyond simply performing there.
Rights/royalties and fees
‘There is no substitute for professional support when it comes to rights, royalties and fees. The ISM’s in-house legal team are always busy looking over contracts, recovering members’ unpaid fees and much more,’ says Butcher. MU members also benefit from legal advice and assistance as well as practical resources such as a host of contract templates and agreement documents.
It is not all about money, however. As a newcomer to the professional world, there are all kinds of unspoken rules of behaviour. Rachael Lander is a freelance cellist with musician parents and who performs with the quartet Raven: ‘I think in this business, it is so easy to naively leave college expecting that your talent and practice will be enough. It isn’t. You can unthinkingly step on an etiquette landmine without even knowing it and scupper yourself, I’ve seen it often.’
Some of the points Lander outlines are musical (tuning up accurately, taking care of matters of ensemble matters and so on), others practical (turning pages and marking parts properly). But others are just self-awareness. Number one on her list? ‘Never turn and gawp at someone doing a solo. It puts them off, they hate it.’ And conversely: ‘Do not be the person loudly practising cadenzas in the break. Not cool. I heard someone be shushed recently for doing that by their principal. It got ugly…’