Case Study: Musician - Sam

What do you do?

I am a folk musician who plays in six different bands. I also teach private pupils and do some freelance work in schools.

The violin's my main instrument, but I also play the bagpipes in one band, drums in another band and I sing a little bit in all of them as well.

The main band I'm in, which takes up most of my time, is Bellowhead - an 11-piece folk band.

Every single part of my career has stemmed from making contacts and networking. Making the right connections has been really important. Music doesn't have a defined path, so you have to find your own way.

What is your background?

I started playing the violin when I was six. I had lessons and did my classical grades until I left school at 18. I also did Music A level.

My family are into folk music and I've been going to festivals since before I can remember. I've always played music in my spare time - it's my passion. I can't remember a time that I haven't wanted to play music for a living. I've never wanted to do anything else.

I've been paid for performing music since I was 12. It all started off when I won a couple of competitions. As a result, the opportunity to do gigs came up. Then I formed my first band - Kerfuffle; we're still together now, eight years on.

I went to university to do a folk and traditional music degree. But I left after five weeks, as it wasn't stretching me musically or intellectually; it just wasn't for me.

I'd met Bellowhead's lead singer when he was a teacher at a music summer school I attended in Durham. After I left university, Bellowhead needed a replacement member, so I was asked to join. That was about 18 months ago.

Since joining Bellowhead, I now play drums in the lead singer's other band; I play fiddle for the lead singer of Bellowhead's partner's band; and I've just started up a duo with a guy who was supporting Bellowhead on our last tour. So you can see how all these contacts have arisen; being a member of this group has brought me all this extra work.

I've been earning a living wage as a musician for a year now.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

Obviously you need to have musical talent. It's important to have done your classical grades, and have the technique that you need to technically go and be a musician.

It's important to be confident enough to go up to people, talk to them, and offer your services. If I hadn't gone and spoken to Jon from Bellowhead, I wouldn't be where I am now. You also need to be someone that's easy to get along with; you're likely to work with people you've never met before.

You need to have a certain amount of determination, because there are times when you wonder how you're going to get your life on track. You can't just sit back and wait for opportunities to come to you, because they don't. You've got to plug away at it.

A lot of musicians are self-employed. It takes a certain amount of willpower, because on days when you don't have work, you've got to get up and find it; you can't just sleep in and laze about. You've got to have 'get up and go'.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

Because I don't have a degree, I couldn't go into a job that requires one. If you're a musician that's done a music degree, then at least you'd have that qualification that employers would recognise.

I could go into things like arts development or management work, because I have relevant experience through being a musician; granted, it's from a different angle, but I do have knowledge of how these things work.

I've got people skills, so there are plenty of jobs where they are useful.

I've got musician friends who also work in broadcasting - presenting shows relevant to their expertise - so that's a potential avenue.

Then there's composing - I've done a small amount of that, and it's something I could do more of if I wasn't performing.

What changes will there be in the future?

A lot of people who have come to see folk gigs and buy CDs are still doing so in the current economic climate, so hopefully that will continue.

The internet is affecting musicians. People my age tend to download music, either legally or illegally; in many cases, musicians aren't getting money for recorded work anymore. Although a lot of people who enjoy folk music tend to be older and are more likely to pay for their music.

In terms of education, there are more degrees, covering all genres of music, than ever before. In a way, it's saturating the market. I'm lucky though, because there aren't that many folk musicians about. If people want a fiddle player, the chances are they might think of me. If someone wants a classical violin player, there are thousands to choose from.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

Performing, the part of the job that I love doing, is actually quite a small period of time. When I go on tour for two weeks, most of the hours in the day are spent travelling. The sound check and the gig are the fun bits, but for the rest of the day you're on a bus or in a hotel somewhere. That can get quite monotonous.

Also, you have to think so far ahead. I've currently got to think 18 months in advance - I've already got gigs booked at the end of next year.

In a month, you can have, say, £200 worth of work booked, and be trying to work out how you're going to get more work to earn more money. You've got to find venues, sort out a fee and get dates sorted, as well as deal with all the promotional stuff. It can be difficult, but it's the only way you survive, really.

Sorting out your finances is complicated. You don't just get paid and that's it; you have all kinds of things to think about. As well as being self-employed, I'm part of a legal partnership (with the other members of Bellowhead), and employed.

I'm employed by Rootbeet records, which is Kerfuffle's - one of my other bands' - record label. But I happen to be that record label, along with the other members of the band and my dad, so I'm sort of employing myself in that instance.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

For me, the opportunities in the folk world are there, because it's a very small scene. As a general rule, if you're good enough and you want to do it, you can do it. But you've got to carve your own path. And you need to take every opportunity you're offered, because you never know where each one might lead.

The route I took, briefly, was: I learned to play the violin, entered some competitions, as a result got some gigs, as a result met some people, as a result formed some bands, and then got more gigs.

As a classical musician, the route is to do all your grades and training, leave school and do a degree, and then go on to be an orchestral player or a teacher or whatever. The route is much more set out.

What do you like about your job?

I love the fact that it's not monotonous or boring; my days are never the same. This year, for example, I was at home for a week in January, then I went on tour for a week in Wales. After a few days' break, I went on another tour for two weeks, and then went on to do some recording, and then some teaching. No week is the same, and I love that because it keeps you on your toes.

Also, I love the fact that people enjoy themselves because of what I do. When Bellowhead tours, we play to 600, 700 people every night for two weeks. It feels brilliant when the audience goes crazy, because what I'm doing is helping them have an amazing time. That's the best feeling and primarily why I do it; performing is such a huge buzz.

I like meeting people. And I love the fact that I work with friends. In Kerfuffle - the band I formed when I was about 12 - we are such good friends, and it's lovely travelling round the country with them.

I'm a terrible flyer, but I like the fact that I get to travel. For music, I've been to Germany, Canada, Sardinia, all over England and Wales; and I'm going to Holland and Denmark next year.

There's a lot of freedom in this career as well. If I had any money, I could take a holiday when I wanted! My busy time is between June and September, when most people are on holiday. But there's no fixed timetable to it at all, and I like that a lot.

What do you dislike about your job?

There's not much I don't like, really.

I don't like the fact that some people aren't willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for music, and don't value what you have.

Driving around the country for days on end is quite boring, as is doing the accounts!

What are your ambitions?

My ambition for my first year of being self-employed was to earn a living from just doing this, and I have done. Apart from the very lucky few, who earn millions, you're never going to earn a lot of money as a musician. But my ongoing ambition is to continue to earn a decent living from this.

I'd also like to reach the top of this field and make a mark on the scene. I'm never going to be world-famous, and no one on the street is going to know who I am - and that's completely fine - but I want to be someone who people in the folk world know.

Also, I want to bring folk music to people who wouldn't usually hear it. It's so important to me; I want it to be important to others too. So, part of my ambition is to take folk music to people and help them realise that they might like it. If you take folk music into primary schools and early secondary schools, they are young enough to enjoy it and want to get involved.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Practise, and get better at what you do. I didn't practise as much as I should have, until I left school; and then I had to.

Play with other musicians and take every opportunity that you can, because you've no idea who you're going to meet, or what work will come out of it. Dive head-first in, and take everything you can from it.

For me, music competitions were an integral part of my development. You get competitions in every genre of music, both regional and national. As a result of competitions, you get to play bigger concerts and you get to meet more people.

You've got to be prepared to sell yourself. If you leave school and just sit there, it's not going to happen. You need to promote yourself and let people know who you are. That's how you get business.

There is a lot of funding out there for musicians. Funding is very important, because most musicians don't usually have any money!

A day in the life

A day on tour with Bellowhead:

Wake up in a hotel, any time between 9.00 am and 12.00. Get breakfast from a service station.

Get on the tour bus, and sit on it for three or four hours. During that time, we'll talk, watch films or sleep; some people take work, eg, catch up with emails or compose on a laptop.

Arrive at the venue at about 4 pm. We unload everything before having some refreshments.

At 5 pm, we set up all the equipment and instruments on the stage, then do a sound check, which takes an hour to an hour and a half. It takes a long time because there are 11 of us.

At about 6.30, we'll go and have a meal. Then head back to the venue at about 8.00 pm, get changed and go on stage at about 8.30.

We perform for 90 minutes, plus encores. Then we're off stage; the audience leaves; we pack up all the stuff, get on the tour bus, and drive to a hotel.

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