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December 8, 2016

Can you be a UK session musician and NOT live in London?

As a non-Londoner, this topic is pretty close to my heart and one that I really wanted to air my thoughts and first hand experience on.

I’m definitely that guy who, if you say to me “you can’t do such and such” I will want to do it more! So when I started out as a session musician 5 years ago, and everyone’s advice was “you need to move to London”, instinctively I felt the need to absolutely not move to London. Not because I don’t like taking advise, but because for me, it never made sense that where I live should affect where I work (within reason, obviously) – afterall, I do have a car…and a sleeping bag!

I should probably say at this point that I don’t have any hate towards London, I actually love it – but I enjoy my space, and the outdoors and London really isn’t where I want to live…I think this could be the same case for a lot of people who have also been told you need to live in London to work as a musician – hense why I want to write this post to share my experience and advise.

Plenty of successful working session musicians live outside of the M25, so it’s definetly possible, but how do you make it work? Here’s a few things that have worked for me (and also not worked for me) in the past.

  1. Have a plan. Be organised, punctual and mobile
    The biggest thing you will need to prove if you are going to commute to London for work is that you are reliable and that your home location doesn’t affect your work. So have a plan – do you drive? If so, how long would it take you to get into central London for 10am…with time to spare…because traffic…and coffee! If you don’t drive, how reliable are the trains and buses around you? What will you do about your gear (I store mine in London and get a cab to drop it off to wherever I’m working). What will you do with your gear after a show if your lockup is closed?

    You really can’t afford to be a liability on a gig when you’re from out of town, so being organised like this will mean that other people don’t have to spend their time worrying about how to get you from A to B, or how to ship your gear about, or even whether you’re going to be able to make it to your gig!

  2. Budget your own travel expenses
    I never expect to be paid my travel expenses. Since it’s my choice to live outside of London, I don’t expect to be put up in a swanky hotel or have my train fares paid. Having said that, thankfully, the people I work with respect that I don’t live locally and are happy, most of the time, to pay my expenses or put me up in a hotel (although, I often miss a couple of petrol receipts or train fares off my invoices). It has to be said though that I have spent many a night in a shared dorm in a five-pound-a-night hostel in London…hugging my bass for dear life! Or top and tailing with other band members, or sitting in a bus stop until the first train back home…I’ve done it all!

    Here’s my top tip though if you’re on a budget and you need a hotel, go on booking.com really really late on the day you want a room – like 10/11pm – I’ve never paid over £30 for a 3* in central London…in this case, lack of organisation actually pays off!

  3. Embrace the fact you live outside of London
    OK, honesty time. When I first started out, I remember thinking it would be a great idea to just pretend to live in London when people asked…at the time I thought I was as cunning as bloody Jonathan Creek, now I look back on that I realise it was a dumb idea which didn’t actually land me any more gigs than when I just said where I lived for reals!I did live in London for a few months (had to try it) and in honesty, I didn’t get more gigs just because I had a London postcode…all that really happened is I spent loads more money!! Ironically, the day after I moved back to the Midlands, I got a call for the biggest pop gig I had done at the time.

    But here’s what I learnt from all that – Not all music work comes from London! Everywhere has local function bands that you could get involved in, or pick up some students who don’t mind keeping a flexible schedule, or find a local studio and start working with a producer, or even work your way into doing remote sessions and sit in your boxers and record (not that I do that)…there is plenty of stuff you can do locally or remotely which still means you are able to earn as a session musician without being in the big smoke. These gigs are a great way of sustaining you whilst you spend your time going to London to meet other musicians, go along to jam nights and expand your network, all things that can help you work towards getting the bigger gigs that work from London.

  4. Don’t be a burden
    This point is kind of similar to my rant about not claiming expenses, but it’s something I think is really key. Remember, you chose to live out of London, so if you have to get up at 4.30am to make the start of your rehearsal, or if you have to drive for 45 minutes to get to a pickup point on the motorway so the tourbus doesn’t have to take a detour – then do it!! Don’t make other people’s lives difficult.
  5. Show your face
    The amount of times I’ve heard people ask me “You came all the way from the Midlands…” as if I live on the moon. Truthfully, it takes little over an hour for me to get to London, so there is no excuse for me not to be there whenever I have free time and show my face. By doing so, you’re letting people know that it’s not actually an issue for you to be available….plus you also get to hang with some really amazing people.

    I used to block book train tickets at the start of each month, in advance, every Wednesday – Friday, and head down to meet people for a coffee and make my way to jam nights to meet other musicians. I’d sleep on couches, hostels and train stations, but it meant that people became familiar with who I was and that I could start making friends with people doing the same thing I wanted to do.

I think in reality, the whole living outside of London thing will always be something that initially makes people who want to hire you wonder if you are going to be reliable – which is fully understandable. If you’re going to do it (and it’s 100% possible), expect it to take that little bit more work and determination and a few more redbull-fueled late night drives than if you did live in London.

Would love to hear people’s thoughts on this, is anyone feeling like they are expected to live in London to work as a musician? Or did anyone make that move already? For me, where I live has always been my first priority and work second, so this is my experience in trying to achieve that balance.