Get into live music – or not . . . – Emma Webster

Get into live music – or not . . .

Since I was little, I always wanted to be a live sound engineer and even now I can quite happily spend an evening watching the mixing desk rather than watching the band on stage.  I went to a gig last week and did exactly that, and it got me wondering: if I was 16 again, would I have taken my dream more seriously if there were more courses on sound engineering available or more information in my school careers office about careers in the live music sector in general?

Just as academia has only recently started to take live music seriously as a topic worthy of in-depth study, so too various government bodies now appear to be taking live music seriously as something to teach and train people in, investing in physical infrastructure – the new £13 million Backstage Training Centre in Thurrock – analysing the skills needs of the sector in the Music Blueprint; and establishing formalised networks between industry, education, and the government, such as Creative & Cultural Skills.

The National Skills Academy for Creative and Cultural, as another example, is a membership network of employees and further education institutions, set up in 2009 after successfully acquiring funding from the Growth and Innovation Fund, a partnership between the Skills Funding Agency, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.  The NSACC is aimed specifically at helping people ‘getting into and getting on in technical theatre and live music’ by recognising, developing and improving skills and opportunities for those entering the creative and cultural sector and those already employed within it.

However, while NSACC’s main online resource, the spinoff website – Get Into Live Music – offers some genuinely useful advice such as the ‘your questions answered’ section, I was somewhat surprised to find that the main portal for advice on training and skills in the live music sector is somewhat lacking. (I have, however, recommended a few other sites that may be of interest to those trying to get into the live music sector at the end of this blog).

For example, the section on ‘careers in live music – management’ seems to contain jobs more usually associated with the recording and publishing branches of the music industries, including ‘licensing and royalty collection’, ‘record label manager’, and ‘sales staff (music distribution and retail)’.  I eventually found promoter and agent in the ‘other’ section (i.e. not ‘creative’, ‘management’, or ‘technical’).  When I was at university in Sheffield, the careers service could only list three jobs that I could do with a degree in Music: musician, music teacher, and arts administrator.  While the NSACC careers service is slightly more up-to-date than the University of Sheffield’s of a dozen years ago, it is still fairly shocking that a website dedicated to giving the best careers advice to those wanting to get into live music appears to have been cribbed from a careers guide to the music industries that focused on recording and publishing rather than live music.  (See below for suggestions as to live-music-centric careers that could be included).

I was also rather surprised to see that the ‘music speak glossary’ appeared to be a carbon copy of the ‘theatre speak glossary’ on the sister site, getintotheatre.org, and so included terms like ‘millinery’ and ‘[director’s] notes’ whereas a glossary for the live music industry including words like ‘net figures’ and ‘gross figures’ may be of more use . . .

My final criticism of the getintolivemusic.org website is the job opportunities section on the home page of the website – when I checked yesterday, all the jobs appear to have expired in September 2011, and so a more up-to-date service would also be useful.  One of the reasons, perhaps, that it is hard for people to break into the live music sector is that jobs in the live music sector are really rather hard to find.  Not in the sense that they don’t exist, but those that do exist are either poorly advertised, or are passed via word-of-mouth or offered to pre-existing contacts – the old adage of ‘it ain’t what you know, it’s who’ still ringing true in this sector.  This is somewhere again, perhaps, that the getintolivemusic.org site could be of assistance, by providing a more comprehensive listings service for jobs offered (Music Week, CMU, The Stage, etc. etc. rather than only Stage Jobs Pro and the Academy Music Group), as well as keeping the job opportunities section up-to-date.

Overall, the getintolivemusic.org website appears on the whole to be a somewhat ugly duckling, which, to mix metaphors, is somewhat undercooked.  My critique of the website is not just to have a dig, however, but rather because it suggests two broader points.  Firstly, that the live music industries have only recently begun the process of formalisation and therefore there is not yet a tried-and-tested right or wrong way of doing things.  But secondly, the half-baked nature of the website suggests, perhaps, that there is no real appetite within either government or industry to actively train the next generation of live music personnel – if there was, surely the website would be a bit better?  Maybe this indicates that, subconsciously, the old way of ‘leaning against a door until it falls over’ is how people will continue to get in to the live music sector (for now, at least).  As one (anonymised) ex-venue manager said:-

This thing about training is really interesting, because it’s so misplaced; it’s so misplaced.  Because one of the points about the music industry is that: if you want to be a promoter, find a band and put them on.  If you want to be a technician, go and stand outside a venue and crew for them, you know what I mean?

Certainly, in over one hundred interviews with live music personnel carried out by my project team over three years, only one interviewee (a sound engineer) appeared to have done any direct formal training.  Indeed, my research into career pathways within the live music sector (with a focus on promoters) showed that the ways in are many, varied, non-linear, and often unique, and very rarely formalised via educational institutions and qualifications.  Another addition to the getintolivemusic.org website would perhaps be a higher degree of honesty, then, particularly in the Qualifications section, to point out that often people must start at the bottom, work their way up, and learn on the job – bar work, flyering, lugging monitors around – at least in the near future.

(The third reason for a half-baked website, of course, is that funding for the website was just one of many casualties of the coalition government.  Let’s just hope that the other aspects of the NSACC’s action plan [Offstage Choices, production days, the Apprenticeship Training Service, etc.] and Creative and Cultural Skills [Qualifications and National Occupational Standards, Internship Guidelines, etc.] are performing better…).


External resources for live music sector for those looking to move into the live music sector

Andy Reynolds’ website and book (‘The Tour Book: How to Get Your Music on the Road’, Artistpro, 2007).  Reynolds has decades of experience as a tour manager and his book and website both offer a great introduction to the various roles involved in the live music industries, and how the whole thing fits together.  He also provides free example contracts for artists and crew.

Generator – while originally based in the North East, the website still offers a wealth of good advice for musicians, promoters, etc., and an excellent and up-to-date directory of useful businesses across the UK.

BBC Introducing – Guide to Playing Live –  a video-based resource that draws on interviews with promoters and artists on topics such as ‘how to get out-of-town gigs’ and ‘tips when signing contracts’


Careers in live music

Bartender / bar manager

Box office worker

Choreographer

Event manager

Festival facilities manager

Festival steward

Front of house staff / customer relations

Instrument technician (e.g. guitar tech)

Lighting designer

Live sound engineer

PR / promotion

Production assistant

Production manager

Promoter’s rep

Sales and marketing (live music)

Secondary ticketing agent

Security

Set designer

Sponsorship co-ordinator

Stage crew (aka roadies/humpers)

Stage manager

Tour catering

Tour manager

Video operators

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