Hard work isn’t always enough...
There comes a point in many action adventure films where one of the main characters finds themselves in a seemingly impossible situation and asks, “What are my chances?” It’s a great question. In some stories that person decides that the odds of their survival are terrible and so they sacrifice themselves to improve the chances of everyone else, while in other tales, they are spurred on, in gung-ho fashion, to carry on with renewed determination.
If you are reading this, you may well be trying to make a living in the music industry at the moment, or thinking about doing so. If you are already working at it you might have a fair idea of what your chances are. However, if you are starting out, you should definitely ask the question.
The first thing to be wary of is people who enthusiastically say you can do it if you really want to. Take, for example, the ex-track athlete Kelly Holmes, who won 800 and 1500 metres Olympic gold medals at the 2004 summer games and is now active as an inspirational speaker.
She was 34 at the games and had overcome many career setbacks to get there. The younger Mozambican athlete Maria Mutola had dominated the 800 metres for years and had, up to that point, seemed unbeatable, while the 1500 metres was contested by a number of tough Russian and Romanian athletes. At this particular Olympics, however, Mutola was not at her best for once and so a slim window of opportunity opened up for Holmes, who was in peak condition and injury free. After snatching the 800 gold, Holmes was confident, relaxed and no longer desperate for that elusive gold during the 1500. Emboldened by her recent victory, she fought off the Eastern European competition and secured another win. After these successes she began saying, at every opportunity, that if you never give up and work hard, you can achieve your goals. It is true. Ed Sheeran will probably tell you exactly the same thing.
However, there are hundreds of equally talented people, who made the same kind of sacrifices and overcame similar setbacks but, for one reason or another, never achieved their goals. Maybe the timing wasn’t quite right for them, or they didn’t have the support and funding that is offered by the likes of, say, the UK National Lottery. What they might say is that you can try all you like, but it might just never happen, and that, for most people, will also be true.
So, what about the music industry? You are going to find it tough. If you want a near-guaranteed career, then become a doctor, teacher or undertaker. This industry is far more uncertain. Maybe you don’t want to be the next Ed Sheeran, and are happy making library music. Well, in 2009 I did an interview with Hugh Padgham, who had begun using his incredibly well-equipped studio to create library music as a way of filling the gap left by dwindling production income. His library productions featured top musicians (Dominic Miller was mentioned), so these are the kind of people and resources you’ll be up against. Certain areas of the industry are like a shrinking African watering hole. You are going to be the gazelle trying to get a drink in amongst the mature wildebeests, elephants and lions.
And if you do want to emulate the Beatles, bear in mind that you are no longer just competing with your contemporaries. As Malcolm McLaren and quite a few others have pointed out in recent years, now that shops stocking the latest releases have vanished, everything that is in existence, from whatever year, is current and indistinguishable online. In effect, you’ll be up against every popular artist there has ever been, including the Beatles themselves. As for labels, they are much more likely to plough their marketing budget into promoting a sure-fire bet like an Elton John release than your untested offering.
So, am I saying give up and start a funeral firm, with a guaranteed stream of customers? No. But you should seriously calculate your chances and then, somehow, work very hard to improve them. Know what you are up against, be canny, determined and take advantage of any fleeting window of opportunity you come across.
Tom Flint splits his time between making music and videos and putting up exhibitions. He calculates his chances regularly, but carries on regardless.