January 22, 2017

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 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 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 (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!

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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 [email protected] or you can get in touch through the website.