Wednesday 12 October 2022

Want to be a successful musician? To quote David Bowie "It ain't easy"

By Roger Tichborne, 

Founder of The Mill Hill Music Complex

London's oldest independent music rehearsal studios 

So you want to be a successful musician? What do you need to do?  Having run a successful music studio for 43 years, I have seen many artists come and go and seen some rise to the highest level of success, perhaps Amy Winehouse being the most notable. What sets those artists apart from the ones which fall by the wayside? The answer is simple and comes in three words "hard work" and "commitment".  I have to confess, when Amy first turned up at reception for a rehearsal, I had no idea that she would be a megastar. Even when I was walking past the studio she was in and heard her amazing voice, I had no idea. I thought she was very, very good, but she simply didn't conform to what I thought the industry sought as a pop star at the time. Be in no doubt though that she had amazing commitment and a huge work ethic. She would rehearse several times a week and had great musicians around her. She took songwriting very seriously and would, on occasion, when she was struggling with a song, come in and play it to us and ask our opinion. We might say "Try dropping the C down to an A minor at the end of the choru". She'd have a play, and often would then adapt the song, as we nodded on approvingly. Often, we'd make such a suggestion and she'd do the change, but in a way we'd not anticipated, making tit sound even better. That was her genius. She was always working to make her songs better. She knew they were her ticket to the top table. She made sure the band sounded right. She had commitment and hard work in bundles. 

Another friend of the studio that shows that work ethic is Lee Thompson out of Madness. I have to state a vested interest here. I love Madness, but what I love and respect most is their amazing commitment and work ethic. When Lee has a tour coming up, you might think after 45 years with the band, he'd just be able to cruise. Not a bit of it. He will book the studio for hours on end and practice on his own relentlessly to the songs, until they are just right. Lee loves music. It you've seen Madness on tour, you will have noticed that they always have amazing support bands. I've seen bands such as The Lightening Seeds and Squeeze with them in recent years. The band totally respect their fan base and do their utmost to ensure that the whole night is proper value for money. This means that concert halls are full and tour promoters know they won't be faced with the nightmare of unsold tickets. When you watch a Madness show, you soon get to realise that they've put an extraordinary amount of work into everything, not just the music. The merchandise is great, the stage looks wonderful and the sound is excellent. 

So what can an aspiring musician learn from this? Well the first thing is that just having a few songs is not enough. If you want to be a superstar, from day one you need to do more than just play your music. When I started my band, back in 1979, the son of Hank Marvin of the Shadows was in the band. He invited us back to his Dad's private studio for a rehearsal, using all of his Dad's priceless equipment. Much as that was great, the best bit was when Hank came down. He gave me the following advice 'Play memorable riffs, always wear good shoes and get your hair cut properly before gigs' . Hank was saying that you need to make the effort, to convince the audience you are something special. If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else. A couple of years later, I worked with Alan Warner, guitarist of The Foundations. Alan produced our early demo's at his studio. I mentioned, rather dismissively (we were a punk band) Hank's comments. Alan replied that Hank was spot on. He said that looking great doesn't mean wearing a suit, but it does mean standing out from the crowd. When you saw The Clash, they always looked great, like a rock and roll band should. Alan also pointed out that many artists start off dressing sharp, working hard and doing things right. When they become successful, they drop their work rate and make less effort and the audience moves on, leaving just the ever dwindling hardcore fan base.

I have seen many vocalists who turn up at the studio, who have potential. Some look great and sound great, but get nowhere. There are a whole range of reasons. One of the saddest is when you hear someone and think they are a great singer, but when you play their demo or new single, it is over produced, auto tuned to death and blander than when you reheat last nights KFC for breakfast. Often such tunes are accompanied by the most ridiculous of videos, where it is almost impossible to connect with the artist. If an artist is talented and has got something to offer, they should have the courage of their convictions and insist that anything they record is music they are happy with. My sister's best friend went out with a guitarist in the 1970's who was in an up and coming band. The producer of their first single, refused to let the band play on the record. He was so fed up he left the band. A couple of years later, he joined Dire Straits, so he clearly was a decent guitarist and having listened to the single, it struck me that he should have stuck to his guns. Most musicians want to be successful, but you also have to have belief in what you do. I'd always advise bands to go with management and labels that are into what they are doing, rather than see the as a vehicle for someone else's songs and ideas.  Of course if that is what you want, fine, but if you've been told your own material has potential, then have faith. 

I saw a young girl at the studios, with her mum yesterday looking to start vocal lessons with Joshua Alamu, our studio's celebrity vocal coach.  Josh works with such amazing artists as Rita Ora, Skin from Skunk Anansie, Little Mix and Fleur East. He's currently working very hard with a new girl band called Flo, who are amazing. The girl and her mum were asking my advice. I asked whether she'd had vocal coaching before and also whether she was in any of the local music groups. To my surprise she said no. The girl spent a lot of time singing at home and she had quite a nice voice. I then asked if she did any vocal exercises etc. Again she said no. I suggested that before she spends a lot of money on a professional vocal coach, she joined something such as the SNTS Theatre school to get some experience of performing and working with other young people. I also suggested looking at some free online resources, such as on youtube, to get into the habit of regularly working. Set aside some time every day. A professional vocal coach is not that cheap and I'd recommend getting the basics together before you start paying a lot for lessons. Singing in a choir is another way to improve. Many of the very best singers in the world started in choirs. You also learn about harmony and melodies.

If you are looking to start a band and are a drummer, bassplayer, guitarist etc, the same rules apply. The better you can play, the better the odds that you will be successful (but they are still very long and it is a hard slog). My advice to any musician is learn the way to play in the genre you want to play. For example, if you want to play Jazz, learn to play Jazz. It is far easier to play music that inspires you. Always listen to other genres for inspiration, but primarily learn how to make the sounds that suit the genre you want to play. Understand the timings, musical structures and patterns of the music. Doing a formal course such as  a RSLAwards Rock School exam is a great way to improve your playing

As for song writers, one of the best things I did was undertake a professional songwriting course back in 1985. Before that I'd put together songs that had great ideas, but were a mish mash of ideas rather than properly structured songs, that had the elements needed to have hits. By the time I'd fully got my head around songwriting, the band had split up. In hindsight, that was a bitter lesson that I wish someone had advised me about earlier. It has worked. In 2010,  I co-wrote a song that was used by the Manchester City website and had over 11 million hits! The key takeaway for me was to make sure that the song structure was functionally correct for its purpose. For such music, dynamic breaks etc work really well.

A key element of getting success in 2022 is linking music with great video clips. For aspiring artists, the most important platform at the moment seems to be TikTok. I would suggest that if you want to be successful, you look at how other artists are using TikTok and being successful. My observation is that you need to need to be continually taking clips, posting them and engaging with your audience. If you can develop a theme with your music that is even better. I'm not a TikTok expert, but it is clear to me that this is the happening social media platform at the moment. 

Another thing to consider is that if you want to be a successful musician in 2022, you need to sort your merchandising out. Make sure you have stuff to sell at gigs and at your online shop.  It will provide a valuable source of income.

I'll finish with a little note to cheer you. I long ago stopped seriously trying to be a professional musician. I still play for the love of it and the band make videos and do gigs. These days we try and just make music we enjoy and videos that our small fanbase enjoy. A couple of weeks ago, we released a new video, which caused a real stir locallly. We've had well over 2,000 views with no effort at all and it's been shared over 50 times on Facebook. The reason? Because people enjoyed watching the content, which was shot around Burnt Oak, down the road from us in Mill Hill and had some old footage and pictures spliced in. It got attention, not because it was by The False Dots, but because it mentioned the words 'Burnt Oak' so locals watched it out of curiosity. My advice is that if you are trying to catch people's attention, the song title and the subject matter of your video may be the thing that does it.  Bear this in mind. But most of all, focus on hard work and commitment. There will be tears and you'll feel like giving up on many occasions. Stick with it. It will be worth it in the end. As David Bowie once said "It ain't easy!"

Rog T with the False Dots in 1979

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