Popular Musician

The Job and What's Involved

Popular musicians play in bands, as solo musicians or as session musicians. They might be involved in rock, pop, jazz, country and western, world or easy listening music.

They sing or play one or more musical instruments live on stage or when recording music for CD's or web broadcasts. They may compose their own work, use material written by someone else or perform covers of other musicians' work.

Popular musicians have to work hard at developing their musical skills. They practise for many hours at a time and attend regular rehearsals. They might also include dance and movement as part of their performance.

When performing live, they might play to passers-by in the street or to huge crowds in a stadium - depending on how successful and well-known they become.

It is currently the trend for artists to move away from recording in studios. Many are now recording on home-based equipment, so it can be useful for musicians to have knowledge of computer programs, such as Cubase.

To achieve success in this very demanding business, musicians need a combination of outstanding talent, determination and luck. To start with, many popular musicians combine playing music or singing with other jobs.

Popular musicians work long and irregular hours, including evenings and weekends. Any spare time is often spent learning music, practising or looking for new work. When performing, they might have a rehearsal with other musicians during the afternoon, followed by the performance in the evening. Recording work in a studio often takes many hours and frequently continues late into the night.

Popular musicians can spend a great deal of time travelling in the UK or abroad. They need to have their own transport, and if they are part of a group, they may need a van and possibly a road crew.

Working environments vary greatly, and include arts centres, pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres, hotels and concert halls. Some large concerts and festivals are held outdoors in the summer, in parks, arenas or stately homes. Venues are often noisy.

Rates of pay vary widely, depending on the type of work and the experience of the musician.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Very few people work as full-time popular musicians in the UK; most work on a part-time basis. There is intense competition, and many people never achieve their ambition.

Much of the work is based in London and other major cities. Almost all musicians combine their work as a performer with another job.

Networking sites (such as www.myspace.com) have become important for musicians and bands wanting to gain exposure. Record company staff may look through these sites to find new artists.

Education and Training

It is very difficult to make a first break into the music industry as a performer, and there is no set training for popular musicians.

Individuals and bands can approach record and music publishing companies with a demo CD of their work. There are also talent competitions. Some musicians make their work available via the web to build a fan-base in the hope of being spotted.

There are many courses and qualifications available in popular music, including:

  • GCSE's/S grades and A levels/H grades in music.
  • BTEC qualifications in music, including music, music technology, performing arts (musical) and music practice (performing). Entry to a BTEC National Diploma is with five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent.
  • Scottish National Certificate Courses in Music, which cover most aspects of popular music. Entry requirements can vary from no formal academic qualifications to three S grades (1-3).
  • A degree in popular music - minimum entry requirements are usually five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) and two A levels/three H grades, or the equivalent.
  • HNC/HND courses or Foundation degrees in a wide range of relevant subjects. Entry requirements usually start with one A level/two H grades, or the equivalent.

Entry to many of these courses includes an audition.

There are many other full-time and part-time courses. These include:

  • Private music courses in specialist fee-paying performing arts schools and academies.
  • BTEC awards and certificates in music practice and music technology offered at The BRIT School in Croydon, the only UK state-funded academy for the performing arts for students aged 14 to 19 years.
  • Popular music courses offered by adult education institutes and local community organisations.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

BTEC qualifications in music cover all aspects of the popular music business, including performing.

The content of music degree courses varies widely, and may include performance, composition, the business and management side of the industry, music technology, sound recording and community music. The Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool is the only academic centre in the UK created specifically for the study of popular music at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Popular musicians have to practise regularly to develop their skills and maintain a high level of ability.

Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A popular musician needs to:

  • Have great musical talent and an individual style.
  • Be resourceful, independent and determined.
  • Have a lively personality.
  • Be able to cope with criticism and rejection.
  • Be prepared to work long and irregular hours.
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time practising.
  • Have business, financial or marketing skills.
  • Be able to read music (not usually essential, but useful for those who want to work as session musicians).

Your Long Term Prospects

Prospects depend on a combination of hard work and good luck. There is no set path for success.

A popular musician may move into the business side of the industry, perhaps working as an entertainment manager or agent, or for a record company. There may be opportunities to work abroad, entertaining holidaymakers on cruises and in holiday resorts.

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Get Further Information

Arts Council England,
14 Great Peter Street,
London SW1P 3NQ
Tel: 0845 300 6200
Website: www.artscouncil.org.uk

Arts Council of Northern Ireland,
77 Malone Road, Belfast, BT9 6AQ
Tel: 028 9038 5200
Website: www.artscouncil-ni.org

The BRIT School,
60 The Crescent, Croydon CR0 2HN
Tel: 020 8665 5242
Website: www.brit.croydon.sch.uk

British Phonographic Institute (BPI),
Riverside Building, County Hall,
Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7JA
Tel: 020 7803 1300
Website: www.bpi.co.uk

Creative and Cultural Skills, 4th Floor,
Lafone House, The Leathermarket,
Weston Street, London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
Website: www.ccskills.org.uk

Equity, Guild House,
Upper St Martins Lane, London WC2H 9EG
Tel: 020 7379 6000
Website: www.equity.org.uk

Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM),
10 Stratford Place, London W1C 1AA
Tel: 020 7629 4413
Website: www.ism.org

Institute of Popular Music,
School of Music, University of Liverpool,
Roxby Building, Chatham Street,
Liverpool L69 7ZT
Tel: 0151 794 3101
Website: www.liv.ac.uk/ipm

Musicians Union,
33 Palfrey Place, London SW8 1 PE
Tel: 020 7582 5566
Website: www.musiciansunion.org.uk

Scottish Arts Council,
12 Manor Place, Edinburgh EH3 7DD
Tel: 0131 226 6051
Website: www.scottisharts.org.uk

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