Lucy Thraves


Who gets to make music?

9:37, 17th December 2018

What enables musicians to turn talent into successful careers? Camilla Seale explores the role of class and the luxury of time

We tend not to think about how musical talent turns into a career, we just enjoy the result. When I started asking London-based musicians about freelancing, I was fascinated that it was interpreted so differently. For some it equalled complete freedom but for others, constant anxiety and insecurity.

As politicians steadily withdraw money from music programmes, and UK conservatoires’ intake of students from low participation neighbourhoods hovers around five per cent, it seems time to return to a very useful word for talking about privilege: class.

‘I don’t know what everyone else thinks but I find it mentally quite tiring’, says cross-genre instrumentalist, Johnny. ‘Find what tiring?’ I ask. ‘Just being a musician. Especially in that kind of game of auditioning, not getting it, auditioning, realizing that everyone’s getting it because they look right or they’re friends with the person booking it’. Like climbing a mountain without the right gear, I think.

‘Does that answer your question?’, he prompts me. Does it? I was talking to top-tier musicians. Why was it such a struggle for some while others could feel things clicking along smoothly like a silent electric car. I dug deeper. The start of the story usually began with some anecdote about an early experience with music – going to a concert, singing in a school choir, the simple enjoyment of sound.

And then later another question would creep into view: was all this time practising a risk or an investment? Would they, at some point, have to pack it in and face that they needed another set of skills to sell to the job market? Listening to jazz pianist Alex’s route, I was struck by his unblinking confidence in his career choice. It couldn’t have been more different to Johnny’s.

Alex’s relationship to music was a story of moving from one step smoothly to the next: the family friend that guided him through the towering figures of jazz; the piano teacher who nudged him towards inspiring teachers at a junior Saturday conservatoire; his mum who managed to get him moved to a school with a great music offering.

Was all this time practising a risk or an investment?

It wasn’t just about his drive, or the hours he spent at home nailing down an Oscar Peterson solo, but about the people around him who could show him new music, new methods; pathways he hadn’t known existed; and who knew how to make his musical potential go as far as possible. ‘You just can’t go wrong surrounded by these amazing people. It really is worth its weight in gold’.

As all the musicians I spoke to pointed out, success in freelancing rests as much on skill as it does on good contacts. One cellist went as far as to say he’d never book someone for a gig he hadn’t seen play before, no matter how good they were. No surprise really – making music is an organic process.

And so from Alex’s inspiring experiences of sharing music, it’s perhaps not surprising that his story after conservatoire continued as the brave kid that buys the touring jazz group a beer when they come to town. Time spent making connections which bridged his move to London, the UK’s cultural capital, brimming with the best of the best.

I thought back to Johnny, whose journey seemed to be anything but a smooth ride. After years of mediocre teaching and bad advice on his musical development, he comes out of a music qualification in London with no real network and no idea how to stay in the city.

Why would you spend money on music lessons when what we do with our Saturday is go see the football? It took his parents a while to give in: ‘I really had to go for it, with the ‘please can I have some drums?’ and I did just destroy everything in the meantime, like bins, and pans; that’s always good you know, just use your mum’s kitchenware, she gets really, very quickly annoyed by that…’.

It wasn’t just about a set of family values that didn’t include hours of music practice. It was that Johnny wasn’t born with the invisible inheritance of parents knowledgeable about creative professions, about music education, inspiring mentors and teachers at the top of their game, not to mention the more obvious benefit of parental cash to fork out for years of music lessons and courses.

Never book a musician you don’t know? Without a trusted network of musician friends in London, Johnny relied on skill to get in the door, subbing in for regular musicians, always balancing which gig to say yes to, to maintain connections, and more than a few times having to choose the regular function gigs which could pay this month’s bills over the musically exciting ones that could take him up the career ladder long-term.

He was playing catch-up for teenage years which hadn’t brought him to the level he needed to succeed: ‘In that sense time is running out – because it might not be much longer that I can pay the rent while still having enough time to practice. How much longer can I… it’s getting more and more expensive to live so…’ he trails off. He was being squeezed tighter and tighter, less able to ride the crest of the wave.

When you encounter a fellow musician at a rehearsal, or playing a concert, you may get some clues about what took them to where they are: their education, their passion, their accent. It wasn’t until I looked more closely into these personal histories that it became clear that a smooth journey relied, above all, on time.

And some were in better positions to harness it than others. Because they knew how, or knew the teachers who knew how, and almost always because they had the money. If a well-functioning freelance career required good stocks of musical ability and social contacts to close the circle, to generate enough money to go around again, time was what decided how efficiently that could happen. No wonder that Johnny and Alex’ teenage careers held such sway over how they spent each passing day.

Next month, Camilla will explore how time enables the development of different resources (social, musical, financial) and will talk about conflicts for the musicians and consequences for music making in the UK.

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