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How to get experience when you have no experience

So you’ve finished music college, you’ve got your music degree and you’ve decided to grab life by the balls and go for it – you’re going to be a session musician! Good for you. I remember the day I left my job as a teacher with this dream, and how cunning I felt when I opened my laptop, went to askjeeves.com and typed in “Jeeves, how do I find a job now I’m a musician” (because back in the day of Ask Jeeves you would always phrase what you were searching for as an actual question) – “a sure fire way to get all the gigs” is what I thought to myself (if Jeeves doesn’t have gigs then who does, right!?).

My cunning efforts led me to a casting site called starnow.com. I would spend hours a day, trawling through pages and pages of job adverts for bass players – most of them were nothing to get too excited about – local bands, tribute acts, recording sessions for “up and coming artists”…advertised by themselves of course – it was slim pickings for someone looking to get on the next big pop gig 2k12. But every now and then I would find an advert for something that looked promising, however, without fail, they would always be looking for a musician with experience. Which leads me to my point, the biggest catch 22 in the music industry –

how do you get experience when all the gigs that would give you experience require you to already have it?

Recently someone asked me how they pad out their CV so it looks like they have more experience…but without lying! So this post is my attempt to answer the question of how to pimp your CV and get experience when you don’t have any.

Make your CV and photos look good

You will get asked for your CV and photos a lot! Sometimes I get asked for my picture without ever being asked to demonstrate my playing (always found that amusing…and slightly tragic). But just because you don’t have pages and pages of awesome playing credits, doesn’t mean you can’t hand over a good looking CV.

People will make a judgement about you based on the presentation of what you send to them, so if your head shots are just a couple of low-light bathroom selfies and your CV is just an almost blank document written in Times New Roman then you’re already on the back foot and you’re not helping yourself make a lasting impression.

When I was doing my teaching qualifications I had to submit a video recording of myself teaching a one-on-one lesson, a group lesson and a performance on bass. I didn’t just film it, I filmed the crap out of it! We’re talking multiple angles, HD resolution (this was back in like 2007 btw), a custom DVD menu, a DVD cover and printed DVDs with my logo on it…and also several sleepless nights – I mean, I really went to town on it. As a result, I was the first person in the history of the course to be awarded distinction. You see, the quality of the content wasn’t any different from anyone else on the course, but the presentation was miles better – and that speaks much louder than the content.

So my point is this – invest in good head shots, design a great looking CV, get yourself a decent website* (which is pretty much an online CV), make yourself an email signature and you’ll probably find that not having loads of experience isn’t such a massive issue. I’m not one for clichés, but, first bite really is with the eye.

Ask for work experience

Shortly after realising that Jeeves did not hold the key to all the gigs, I decided to turn to contacts I already had in my phone book/email contacts/facebook friends. Bear in mind, I had just left full time work – I didn’t really have many contacts, but, I decided to send an email out to the handful that I did have asking for work experience.

I was trying to dig out the original email just now but I can’t find it – shame, always like to demonstrate how clueless I was back then! Anyway, the general idea was to offer my services as a musician for free to gain work experience. A quick note on this – it’s really important not to come across like you are trying to undercut people who are already working – don’t be that guy, think about how you word these emails and make it clear that the reason behind it is that you want work experience.

Off the back of these emails that I sent out, I picked up a week stint on a cruise ship (which led on to a further 4 week stint), a dep job for a panto in Oxford (about 15 shows) and a couple of function gigs, plus, even though I offered to work for free, I was paid for it all – I think, generally speaking, if you show willingness to work for experience, most people will want to pay you at least something. Funnily enough, for my cruise ship job I ended up being cheeky and negotiating a higher wage…probably shouldn’t have been that ballsy in hindsight, but it worked out and I ended up being the highest paid musician on the ship (aside from the MD).

Combine this technique with doing a great job, being likeable and working hard, and you’ll probably find that your working life as a musician gets off to a pretty good start.

Get your socials in order

Putting forward a professional front is really key to making yourself hireable – especially if you don’t have much experience to put on the old CV. Expect people to have a nosey through your socials to get an idea of what you’re like before deciding if they want to hire you or not – therefore, make your socials look professional. Don’t put up videos of you riding the conveyor belt at an airport with the lads (I did this, and was pretty sternly told to take it down by the MD I was working for…I was kind of annoyed at the time, but looking back on the situation, he was just helping me be more hireable).

Also, make sure the media you post is a good quality – there’s no point in putting up some crumby video where you can hear the washing machine in the background, or some blurry pictures of you playing with a weird bass face.

Honestly, the way you present yourself is so key to getting work and it’s really something to be mindful about when you post online – think about the impression it gives to someone who might want to work with you or hire you.

Pick up some dep work

When I first started out, I thought to myself, “I won’t bother getting to know bass players because they will be going for the same jobs as me” – such an idiot Skirrow!

First of all, I really don’t see other musicians as competition any more – we’re all in the same boat, we all have times when we’re struggling, and we all have times when we’re doing well – I’ve found it far better to celebrate the success of my mates rather than resent it.

Tangent aside, it’s also a really stupid thought since bass players will pass on the work they can’t do to other bass players, also known as dep work…and there is plenty of it too! It might not be the most glamorous, the odd function gig or theatre gig here and there – but, it all counts as experience and it will introduce you to other musicians who will get to hang out with you and hear you play – which will lead to more work.

Consider doing a contract

When I used to spend my days looking up and down the listings on starnow.com (or any other job listing site), I saw countless contracts on cruise ships, ski resorts, hotels and holiday resorts. I have done a short stint on a cruise ship and also a short stint on a ski resort (which was dead good for learning how to snowboard!). This work is not really my cup of tea personally, however, it is a great way to earn money playing music, use your spare time to practice and to beef up your CV a little bit. The downside for me is this; contracts tend to be quite long (generally 3 months minimum) and that is 3 months where you may be out of the country, but definitely will be out of the loop – it’s like being in a bit of a bubble and the danger is that you could end up only getting called for these gigs.

There is nothing wrong with contract gigs, for me it’s a preference and it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, so there had to be a point where I turned down contract work and stop answering those calls so I could focus on building a career in pop – it’s a tough decision because it’s saying no to a good bulk of secure work, but for me it was worth turning down (although I’m still thankful I was given the opportunity).

So that’s my thoughts on the matter, the more I write these blogs the more I realise I’m pretty much saying the same thing in different ways – be professional, be friendly and work hard. Make it so when people meet you, regardless of what gigs you have done, they feel like they have to have you on their team!

Leave your comments below and subscribe on the right to get an email when I publish new posts. If you’re feeling really generous, give us a share on the old book-face.

P.S. picture is a throwback to when I was a drummer – not sure it’s fully relevant, but it’s cool right!! I haven’t put this skill on my cv – but I might!

 

*Shameless plug – my wife is a great web designer who runs a company called Skizzar – a website builder specifically for musicians and creatives. It’s a subscription service but you can choose how much you want to pay per month for it (mental right!) – if you get in touch and mention you saw this blog post then she’ll be happy to build the site for free and then you can sign up and pay what you want each month. Worth taking a look if you’re looking to get yourself a kick ass website – her email is emma@skizzar.com or you can get in touch through the website.

So you’ve finished music college, you’ve got your music degree and you’ve decided to grab life by the balls and go for it – you’re going to be a session musician! Good for you. I remember the day I left my job as a teacher with this dream, and how cunning […]

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About jam nights and why every session musician should go to them

I’ve been talking a lot recently about my experience of how I got into working as a session musician – I think it’s something that should be talked about more openly and hopefully there is some useful advice in there for people who are considering leaving their well paid jobs to live the dream.

This might be my last advicey blog for a while as I want to steer things a little more towards nerdy bass gear talk (at least for the next few posts). But before taking it there, I thought I would talk about a topic I’m sure every working musician has an opinion on – Jam nights!!

Some of the most common advice I was given as a young buck wanting to head out into the glamour of session musician-ing was, “go to Jam nights”. Probably the most vague bit of advice going, so here are my reasons on why I think every musician should go to Jam nights and what you can expect.

  1. Make some mates and play with new musicians
    I briefly mentioned this point in my last blog post about how to promote yourself as a session musician and get gigs. Having friends in this industry is one of the most valuable assets (that is, friends, not just contacts), not only do mates want to work with mates – but actually the importance of having someone to depend on for advice and encouragement has been crucial for me to keep believing in myself and being persistent.I can’t stress this point enough here – don’t go to jam nights thinking that Gary Barlow is going to see you, be totally blown away by your playing and flock to you with his phone number begging you to play for him. When you say it like that it sounds stupid (Ok, I exhaggertaed little), but this was my mentality at first, and I’m sure it’s the mentality of a lot of other people that have been given the advice, “go to jam nights” when asking, “how do I get a gig”. Infact, I would say the opposite, don’t go to jam nights expecting a gig at all – you will be seriously dissapointed. Instead, go to be socialable and enjoy playing with other great musicians. Once you’ve had a play, chat with the people you played with, get numbers, go for some food after (there is a great little Italian takeaway place opposite Ronnies), nerd out over gear – basically, be normal! Your goal isn’t to use people to get gigs, it’s to get to know other, like-minded musicians.
  2. Build your confidence
    I remember the first jam night I went to – it was at the Troy bar and the level of musicianship was so incredible (pretty sure it was Rick Leon James on bass…if you know, you know!) that I decided I never wanted to play bass again! Twenty minutes later, I decided that was a stupid thought and that I had just wasted a great oppurtunity to better myself by being too scared to play.I started going down to jam nights a couple of times a week and, in a similar way in which I imagine Bear Grylls forces down a goats testicle, I would force myself, against every part of me that wanted to just go home and have a qiuet night, to get up and play. Actually, non-surprisingly, there’s not really anything too it – it’s always that first step that takes the most confidence. I used to think of it as “faking confidence”. I think it’s a key skill to have though as a musician, it translates to more than just getting up on a jam night to play to having the confidence to walk into a last minute gig, or having the confidence to sugest an arrangment in rehearsals, or having the confidence to audition under pressure – think of it as a training ground to build up your confidence in your own ability.
  3. Grow your repertoire
    Having a good repertoire is a big weapon to have in your arsenal. It means not only can you jump on any song at a jam night, but you can also hop on function gigs easily with very little preparation, or join in when the whole band decide to soundcheck by playing superstition (*cringe*).Seriously though, repertoire is a big advantage for jam nights and for your musical career in general, so to help out I’ve made a Spotify playlist of songs that quite often pop up at jam nights – but also that I think are just good to know!Disclaimer – I’m sure everyone and their dog will have songs to add to this list – it’s not a definitive list. Feel free to leave comments about what songs you think are good function/jam night standards though.

    https://open.spotify.com/user/skirrow/playlist/5XbQJybmLGJeaQ8ZA42XT1

  4. Show your face
    Again, this was a point I made in a previous post, but showing your face regularly is a great way to stay on people’s mind, and a great way to build relationships with people. The more you go to jam nights, the more you will be recognised and eventually you’ll be asked to come up on stage to play rather than having to ask. So be a regular, on jam night will not land you all the gigs…which leads me on to my final point of why you should go to jam nights.
  5. Get all the gigs
    OK, this is not actually the point at all, infact, I think it’s fair to say that in about 7 years of going to jam nights, i’ve never been given a gig…perhaps that says more about me now I think about it!But here is the thing that has definetly been true for me; good relationships, self confidence, a large repertoire (and a good ear) and regular catch ups with other musicians will eventually lead to getting you gigs – and these are all skills that you can learn and develop whilst at jam nights.

Where are the jam nights?

There are so many jam nights that happen in London, some better than others and sometimes the good ones will have a hen night going on in the same room and end up with a bunch of drunken middle aged women who don’t play instruments getting up and giving it a good go anyway…true story. But here are some that I’ve definetly frequented in the past:

Ronnie Scotts

  • Ruby Sings – every Tuesday, £8 on the door (or email rubysings@ronniescotts.co.uk to get on the guest list for £6 – limited places available)
  • W3 Jam Sessions – this is a great jam night by the way and will be packed out! Every Thursday, £6 – £8 (depending on what time you arrive).

Troy Bar

The Troy bar actually do music most nights, but I think the best ones are:

  • Spirit & Soul – every Tuesday – this is more of an open mic night, so good for vocalists
  • Fusion Jazz Jam – this is my FAVE. If you want to see amazing musicianship, and get up to play and really push yourself, this is the one. Every Friday night

Marmelade Jam

Disclaimer – i’ve never actually been to this one (yet) but my friend Chelsea who is well cool runs it so it must be good!! Plus, it has it’s own website – http://www.musicmarmalade.co.uk/. Every Wednesday night…Chelsea, I’m coming down I swear 😉

Ciros – Music Box Live Jam

My experience of Ciros has been limited but great – the first time I may have had a bit too much to drink, stormed up on stage like a bull in a china shop and i’m pretty sure I played awesome…but that last bit might be open to interpretation (the picture for this post is from that night…photo cred to my mate Loucas Hajiantoni…superb keys player, and not so great photographer). The second time I burst through the door and knocked the bouncer over who then kicked me out…so that night wasn’t great. It’s brilliant musicians though and a great intimate vibe. Every other Monday (I think) – it’s a bit vague, but it’s called the music box jam, so if you search that you will find a post on facebook from someone, somewhere about it!!

For most Jam nights, I would aim to get there for about 11pm…any earlier and you’ll be that nerdy guy who get’s everywhere too early. Just kidding, punctuality is well cool. But they run late, so get yourself a nap in the evening and expect a long (and thoroughly enjoyable) night.

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, my hope with this post is to make jam nights seem less pressured and daunting to people who have been told they should go, but don’t really know why!

I’ve been talking a lot recently about my experience of how I got into working as a session musician – I think it’s something that should be talked about more openly and hopefully there is some useful advice in there for people who are considering leaving their well paid jobs […]

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How to promote yourself and get gigs when you’re a session musician

Following such a positive response to last week’s post – Can be be a UK session musician and not live in London, I thought I would talk about that thing that comes before getting work, something that I feel doesn’t really get taught enough in music colleges or spoken about in general…self promotion!

I should probably mention before we start, this is my limited experience from the last 6 years or so, and in particular I’m talking about promoting yourself for pop gigs.

Definitely the most common question I get asked about my job is “how do you get gigs”. If I’m honest, I don’t really know the answer – there really isn’t any formula for getting gigs, but I know that I didn’t just wake one day and have them. So the question really is, how do you get noticed?

Well, here are a few things a friend of mine called Spam Spirrow found out didn’t work:

  1. Posting a phone with your phone number on it and a post-it note saying “Call Me” to the head of a major label company…nope, doesn’t work.
  2. Stalking up and coming artists in their home town to just so happen to  bump into them and mention you’re a bassist and you’d love to work with them…nope, that’s both creepy and unproductive.
  3. Emailing an MD everyday for 30 days straight for a gig…yeah, also doesn’t work

Plot twist, Spam Spirrow is actually me, Sam Skirrow. Yeah, pretty embarrassing right – I mean, most of these things were nearly 10 years ago now, but I wish I had a blog about promoting yourself to read before I went ahead and did them!

So I think it’s fair to assume most people reading this will have a much more rational head on them and NOT do anything stupid like the above, so if you’re wondering what has actually helped me pick up gigs (and now you know i’ve tried more or less everything!!) then here’s my advice.

  1. Be excellent, all the time
    To be honest, I could stop writing this post now! As this really is what it all hangs on, whatever size gig or crowd, or whoever is in the band, always bring your A-game. Practice for those function gigs just as you would for those arena gigs, and respect the gig while you are on them. Why, because you never know who is watching and you never know who will call you.

    I remember being in a rehearsal for a gig a few years back that was paying very little (it was a agreed fee for 5 weeks of work – and it probably worked out at about £30 a day). But I played for my life during those rehearsals, in the middle of it, a guy came in from the studio next door, stopping our rehearsal and asked to get my number. From then on he started calling me for work which I’m still doing to this day!

    Don’t play to the size of the gig, play to the size of your potential <- sick quote I just made up!

  2. Use social media…but don’t spam people
    I probably don’t need to mention how good social media is for promoting yourself, put up videos of you playing, do the whole Facebook live thing and Instagram about what you are doing – it’s a great way to show people who you are and what you can do. I think there is a bit of an unspoken etiquette (at least, I think there is) when it comes to how you present yourself on your socials.

    Here’s what I think the unspoken rules are:
    – Don’t tag the whole world and their dogs in your videos!! Ok, every now and then it’s cool to tag people in your super sick drum video – but don’t do it ALL the time because people will get sick of you. Plus, let’s be honest, there are only so many drum fills or bass chops we can all take right?! Sometimes it’s nice just to have a bit of 2 and 4!
    – Don’t pretend to be on gigs you’re not, or endorsed by people you’re not…no one does that right 😉
    – Don’t troll on other musicians – these are your potential colleagues, if you’re going to gossip or hate on people you are burning bridges….basically don’t hype!

    Put out good quality videos and Instagrams and Facebook live’s and fan art till you’re blue in the face, but do it in moderation – be real and be humble.

  3. Don’t network – make friends
    I’ve always hated the word Network – it feels really cold and non-relational. One thing I’ve learnt in this industry is that you need friends not just a collection of phone numbers. Aside from the fact that people want to work with their mates and so you’re going to get called by people you get on with, it’s far more valuable to have people that you can call up for advise or encouragement when you most need it.So how do you make friends? I started meeting other musicians at jam nights (ahhhhh the dreaded J word!). I want to do another post on jam nights and what to expect at a later date, so for now my advise is this – go to them, lots of them, but don’t go expecting to get gigs. Instead, go to enjoy playing with other great musicians and meet people who are doing, or trying to do what you want to do.

    If you just want to go and show off your latest lick then no-one will care! Talk to people, buy them drinks, enjoy making music with them and keep in touch with them – it’s kind of like dating!

  4. Be friendly
    This point probably doesn’t need to much explanation. But I’ve found that just by being mildly sociable and texting or phoning people regularly you stay in the loop a little better and develop greater friendships.

    I don’t want to be patronising about how to be friendly so I won’t go into any more detail here – treat musicians as friends rather than potential leads to work!

  5. Develop your own musical identity
    This is a point I preach a lot, especially to musicians who are in, or have come up through music college. I feel like the music education system teaches us to try and be good at everything – I think that’s rubbish! I am never going to be really great at playing Latin music because it’s not in my culture or my upbringing, and also I’m just not that into Latin music! So why should I try and get good at it when I have other things that I’m naturally good at and that I enjoy.

    Know your musical identity because that is essentially what you will get hired for. I have always been very focussed on the style of playing I like and practice, even to the extent of turning down some great gigs because it’s not the route I want to go down. I remember a great friend of mine and utterly brilliant bassist called Si Francis passing on this advice to me – he was doing the whole 5-string bass, RnB/soul playing thing but felt like it wasn’t really him, so he sold his bass and embraced what he loved, great bass tone, 4 strings (although I swear I’ve seen him on the occasional 5 😉 ) and incredible skills at making sounds with effects pedals (and also smashing up Ableton and synth sounds too), and that is what got him called for the Ellie Goulding gig. The moral of the story, people will call you for what you bring to a gig – so find your sound and what you enjoy and master it.

Essentially, I’m sad to report, there isn’t a rule for getting work – everyone has a different story behind how they got their first pop gig. But I genuinely believe that hard work and determination don’t go unnoticed. If you work diligently, make friends and keep cool, you will (eventually) get work!

Would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts – how did you get your first gig, or are you feeling like you’ve tried everything and not getting anywhere? Is there anything that has worked well for you or would recommend to other musicians? Leave us a comment below and give us a share on the old book-face.

Lots of love.

Following such a positive response to last week’s post – Can be be a UK session musician and not live in London, I thought I would talk about that thing that comes before getting work, something that I feel doesn’t really get taught enough in music colleges or spoken about in general…self promotion! […]

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