I stumbled into being a ‘full time musician’ after screwing up my A- levels but getting into music college on audition.
I studied in Perth in Scotland – I did two years there, and I think the qualification was a HNC, but I’ve no idea if I actually passed or not, thanks to my certificate being ruined at a party before I had the chance to read it!
From there, I was asked to go on tour with a Canadian Gospel singer, which involved me moving from Scotland to Lincoln, and also got me working with some other artists in the town. With those artists I toured all over Europe for a couple of years – I made almost no money, but gained an awful lot of valuable experience, both about what I wanted to do and what I DIDN’T want to do!
I left Lincoln and moved to London in 1996, and transitioned from playing with the same two or three artists to being largely a session musician – I was teaching as well, and soon started writing for Bassist magazine. It became apparent very quickly that to try and just play music full time was both very difficult and almost invariably involved playing music you didn’t like most of the time. As someone who really enjoyed both writing and teaching, the portfolio career of session musician, journalist and teacher made life a lot more interesting, and made my business a whole lot more resilient to changes in circumstance in any one of those areas.
In 1999, I started playing solo. As a bass player, it was a pretty unusual thing to do – more so then than now – and I managed to leverage the standing I had as both a teacher and a journalist on the then-fledgling internet to gain a fair amount of interest in what I was doing. I steered clear of the mainstream industry from the start, preferring the creative control of doing it myself, as well as the direct interaction with the people who were buying my music. I became a performer, composer, concert booker, tour manager, publisher and publicist.
If I’d known I was going to have to do that much, I’d have checked out those things more carefully when I was in full time education. As it was, I learned as I went along; from other musicians, from books and from the web. Much of what I did was guessed and approached from a ‘worst case scenario’ perspective – test it out, knowing that the worst that can happen is that I find out what not to try next time! I wish I’d been more aware of the work of the Musician’s Union back then, as they do offer various levels of career support for their members.
However, I kept my spending to an absolute minimum, did everything myself, from record engineering to artwork and managed to break even on every album I released before they were even available, thanks to advance orders!
Despite the feeling that I was flailing in the dark, the experience of seeing my music through from conception to release, putting on gigs that people wanted to come to, and selling CDs to an appreciative audience that I could meet and hang out with was – and still is – amazing. The satisfaction was worth all the insecurity of trying to manage such things on your own. Various friends of mine in larger bands had loads of money spent on them, but when it wasn’t recouped they were dropped, still in debt, and their bands broke up under the strain. There is another way, and I wish more musicians were aware of it.
Despite those occasional weak moments when I wonder what it would be like to do the whole “in a band touring the world” thing (I did it as a side-man, but never with my own band), I still wouldn’t swap being completely independent for anything. The range of skills I’ve learnt and the way its forced me to be creatively enterprising in every area of my work has been of great benefit to me, and I’ve avoided all the narcissistic myth-driven nonsense of being in a band that’s completely cut off from the often-fascinating and wonderful people who buy the music. I wouldn’t change a thing!
Steve Lawson is – against all odds – still a musician, teacher and writer. When not travelling around with a bass on his back, he now spends part of his time helping other people to understand how talking directly to your audience makes being a pro-musician a lot more viable and a whole lot more enjoyable.
You can hear the music and read his blog.