Careers in Music Part One: University
In this 3 part series of blogs, I want to take you through the process of how I got to where I am in the music industry today; from university, to being employed in a world-class recording studio, making the move to freelance and sustaining a career in music. Was university worth it? How do the skills learnt at university translate to working in the ‘real world’? How did I land my first job? What did I learn when starting out? What do I wish I’d tried harder at at uni?! All the way through to maintaining a stable freelance career with regular clients, being able to adapt to freelance life, and the pride swallowing decisions needed to be able to support yourself when work is slow!
Let’s start with University.
I went to Salford university, where I achieved a 2:1 BA (Hons) in “Popular Music and Recording”. Looking back, there wasn’t any great plan when I went to university. I knew I wanted to go, and since some people somewhere must make a career out of music, I knew a music degree was the one for me. I didn’t intend to become a megastar, or even end up living and working in London. It was just to try my best, get a degree, have a lot of fun and then, I guess, I assumed I’d move back home and work for my Dad and figure it out from there!
Truth be told, working in the engineering side of the industry hadn’t crossed my mind and I had no experience in it. What drove me to engineering was getting annoyed with non-committal band members not showing up! In the studio, you could sit and create music all by yourself if you had to! You could shut the door, make as much noise as possible, be creative, learn and develop all on your own terms.
The Popular Music and Recording degree I studied at Salford was a well rounded course, aimed to cover all aspects of music, from playing and theory, to world music studies, music business, sociology and, of course, music technology. Admittedly, at the time, some of this seemed entirely pointless. For example, why would you need to be able to identify, by ear, intervals played on a piano? What use is an hour long lecture a week where all you seemingly do is listen to music through the years? However, I now appreciate the reason why I needed these skills, in fact, I constantly need to refer back this in my day-to-day life as a professional recording and mixing engineer. Being able to identify intervals and other aural skills sure makes life much easier; try working out and tuning vocal harmonies without these skills! Being taught about popular music, how it has developed over the years, the arrangements and sounds synonymous with those styles means when an artist/producer asks you “make it sound like (insert obscure band name here!)” you don’t look like an idiot! It should even help you be more open minded with the music you listen to as well as helping you appreciate the nuances of certain production styles, and when you are working on a song you don’t like, it is these elements you can latch on to, to help you through the day!
It doesn’t just end with the formal education in class, the social skills learnt from moving out of home, being thrown in a house of 11 other people that you have never met can relate to how you manage the social aspects of studio life; how you interact socially with a large number of people, or one on one with the artist, and how you conduct yourself around a high profile artist. It may seem like a small aspect of the job, but you’d be surprised as to how important it can be. I will elaborate on this more in the next update.
My university course also taught me how to work with limitations. There are some courses out there that offer great equipment; the latest Mac’s, Pro Tools and plug-ins, as well as vintage outboard consoles, but this is not always the case. If you are not in that situation, use that to your advantage! Personally, the first DAW I learnt was Sonar, (never seen it since!), they had a Mackie mixing desk, (you won’t see one in a top flight studio), and the live room wasn’t particularly great sounding! You might think if you are on a course that offers similar equipment, you are a step behind the crowd, but that’s not necessarily the case; all DAW’s, at the base level, work in the same way. Signal flow, if you understand it, is the same, and if your live room doesn’t sound great, then learn how to work it – move instruments around, experiment with instrument placement, microphone types and studio baffles. The ability to listen and adapt, which only comes with an understanding of how things work on a base level, is invaluable and you won’t be able to experiment on a paid session, so having that chance can be crucial.
University should give you a great grounding in music and music technology, if you put the work in. No university can make you get the most out of the experience – you can take a horse to water, but can’t make it drink!
A word of warning though, while university will give you a good grounding and may even help to get you a foot in the door of a commercial studio, don’t think you know it all, your learning has just begun!
In the next installment I’ll go in to how I got from university to a job in a commercial studio, what I needed to learn, unlearn and what the job entails.