How To

There is No Substitute for Experience

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock


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Tea Maker to Deal Breaker? – There is No Substitute for Experience.

Work Experience

Work experience is the bane of everybody’s GCSE year. You have to figure out what you want to do then hunt down someone to let you sit near them and get in their way for a week. This ticks a box that theoretically helps you further down the line. Even when you are approaching that real-life time of your early/mid-twenties getting experience continues to be important, spawning the enemy of aspiring professionals known only as ‘The Unpaid Internship’ offering you hard graft in whatever profession you choose in return for a deficit of travel money and ‘something that looks good on your CV’.

Now, that is what people in most professions are now experiencing – the music industry is a whole other kettle of fish and, arguably, much worse. In the creative sector there are very few established career paths: rarely can you do a course, get a professional diploma and start a cushty 9-5 job as a professional rock star (more is the pity). You have to find someone or a studio to take you on and hope that they like you; a point at which I should reiterate that irritatingly true mantra of ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’. When I was starting out (I.e. unemployed, living at home and on Job seeker’s allowance) I was lucky enough to have the trio of vices of being incapable of saying no, talking too much and drinking more. So much so that I woke up one day on a mate’s floor with a sharp, greasy chicken bone perilously close to my eye, a hazy and embarrassing memory of making a very unfunny Kermit the Frog joke to Tim Minchin (tough crowd) and suddenly a half hour ballet to orchestrate and get ready for Dockland’s Sinfonia.

Soil yourself and work all hours

This was my first professional job from a professional person for a (semi) professional orchestra. I had been composing since I was 16 (at least, that was when I had my first ensemble piece performed in front of an audience), worked with loads of different amateur bands, had a music degree and a Masters in film and television composition, on top of having composed my own stuff pretty consistently throughout all of that and yet, I was terrified because I wasn’t ready. I had been supervised by some of the best British composers still alive in composition, orchestration and arranging and, according to my degree, was apparently very good at it. However, classroom-based jobs based on theoretical material designed to test you in a very general way will only go so far in preparing you. On top of that, you are unlikely to have the comfortable three weeks to complete the assignment, peers to discuss and/or plagiarise from or time to reflect and check what work you have done. I can confidently say that I learnt more about orchestration and how a score should look from those three 20 hour days than from four years of University training. Don’t get me wrong, despite the learning boon I did cry myself into an exhausted sleep on day two and got screamed at throughout most of the project, to the point at which I wasn’t even invited to the premier. Not a barrel of laughs but extremely worthwhile in what it taught me, not only about the work but also about how to deal with people and how to prioritise.

What our mistakes teach us

Every real creative job or project before and since then has been wildly different for me, even if it does fall under the same umbrella of ‘music stuff’. Consistency is not something that creative types thrive off, meaning I have had jobs such as scoring music for a documentary for the UN, music to accompany a festival film about lesbian dwarf rapists, horn and string arrangements for pop songs, music to accompany porn films and creating soundscapes for space-based computer games. I wouldn’t have it any other way but it is unlikely and, frankly, an insult to those who have been working in the industry for twenty years for someone to leave a one to three year course and expect to be writing for the BBC or mixing for Guns’n’Roses straight off. One of the sound men I work with worked under Phil Spector in his youth when London had one mixing course and hundreds of studios. Now there are hundreds of courses to choose from (all costing a bomb) and drastically fewer studios. You have to accept that you are going to have to take some shit – one of the first things one of my current five direct bosses said to me was that I was going to have to ‘take it to make it’.

Break the Catch 22

The catch 22 of the music industry as a whole of needing jobs to get experience but having to have experience to get the jobs means that you literally have to take anything and everything and work like a dog (thank God dogs are mediocre at best with mixing desks). Even if it is making tea or spit polishing an important person’s shoes then jump on it. There were points when I started when I was doing 80 hour weeks, composing freelance, copying scores for a boss, teaching and then working on a bar at night and in the early hours of the morning. My best friends became red bull and Facebook stalking happy people in relationships… but I think it paid off. And now not only do I have a healthy respect for what excessive caffine consumption can do to a person, but I am also working on some brilliant projects and getting paid enough to almost live off it.

Climb the ladder

The general gist of this somewhat rambling monologue is that however good you are in the classroom, however many grade 8s you have and however many pop tunes you have produced on Garageband in your bedroom you have to start from the bottom of the industry and work your way up. The hard graft never stops, but if music is something you want to do and you think it will fulfil you more than a standard, cushty, well-paid desk job then go for it. The music industry is saturated and incredibly competitive so you need to grab whatever experience you can, be it paid or otherwise, and throw yourself in at the deep end.  Happy Swimming.

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