Like many professional musicians, I started my journey in the industry by focusing exclusively on my abilities as a performer and how to monetise these skills. And while performing and recording is a wonderful way to make a living, the reality is that this type of work is irregular and can therefore make it difficult to have a consistent and reliable income. To mitigate this risk, more and more musicians are forging their own version of a ‘portfolio career’ that brings together multiple income streams. These activities may be directly related to their specialism or may see them branching off into unforeseen areas. And because musicians are creative people with a real passion for learning, it is the transferable skills that they acquire (almost under the radar) that can prepare them for opportunities within the industry that they may have never envisaged themselves doing.
The blending of roles will vary for each musician and may actually change across different periods of their careers. An extensive report commissioned by the UK Musicians’ Union entitled The Working Musician (2012, p10) found that the skills musicians need to develop to sustain their portfolio careers are often beyond those associated with being a musician. These include skills in business, marketing, technology, teaching and community engagement. Above all, the ability to be adaptable is crucial to sustained success. With this in mind, let’s have a closer look at few great drummers who have embraced the portfolio career mentality and the different directions they have taken.
The tools and methods for writing, recording and performing music have changed dramatically over the last 25 years. Digital audio workstations (DAWs) are often part of the process for all of them, and musicians have had to learn quickly to keep up with the speed of innovation. Andy Gangadeen (The Bays, Spice Girls) is well-known for his creative use of technology and has the following advice: “Regarding the question of skills other than drumming, I would say the more you have in your armoury the better your chances of employment. Definitely be fluent with either Ableton, Logic or ProTools. Understanding programming for either composition or playback purposes will open up so many more opportunities. Have a good understanding of recording / production and/or front-of-house engineering - don’t be afraid to ‘geek’ out on this stuff! There are endless possibilities in being creative other than holding a pair of sticks.”
Richard Brook (ABC, Take That) is another advocate for learning about recording and has even set up his own studio: “I’ve got a young family, so I don’t really like be away for extended periods anymore. This of course means I have had to find other ways to pay the bills. I got myself a studio space that I fitted out myself and started doing remote sessions. I had absolutely no idea about how to record drums, but I knew I wanted/had to do it. I learned recording techniques through watching YouTube tutorials, asking all of my colleagues and engineer friends for tips and techniques - a steep learning curve. I’ve now got regular clients from music library companies, producers, TV writers and songwriters.”
The role of the musical director requires a broad skill set and is also one that many drummers have a natural affinity with. Just like every band needs a solid drummer, the success of any performing act relies heavily on the MD. In addition to drumming for many top artists, Brook has been inexorably drawn to being an MD: “I found myself over the last 10 years becoming, quite by accident, a musical director putting together bands and overseeing many different artists’ sets and shows. Suddenly I was sitting in front of spreadsheets doing budgets, liaising with artists, speaking to agents, managers, assigning parts to players, running production meetings and talking to promoters. The drum parts are always the last thing I sort out before rehearsals! I never set out to learn all of this, I just wanted to be a drummer. These days I need to know how to engineer, record, organise projects properly, be a film editor, manage people, budget, network, teach, manage social media and most importantly - try to be creative. Oh, and try to practice the drums more!”
Videography and more
The importance of video as part of a professional musician’s self-promotion and income streams cannot be overstated. Skunk Anansie’s powerhouse drummer Mark Richardson is someone who recognised this truth at an early stage and has since gone on to form his own video production company. His skills in this area not only facilitate the needs of the band but also provide him with other employment. “I consider myself very fortunate to still be playing for Skunk Anansie and earning the bulk of my income that way”, says Mark. “Touch wood the band will be around for a long time, but I also work really hard alongside the band to build up other incomes just in case. Regarding music videos, we rarely make a profit but corporate contracts with universities and businesses can be lucrative.”
In addition to the band and his videography, Mark has branched out into a number of different areas including events management, personal coaching, session work, teaching and masterclasses. With regards to how all of this has evolved, he says: “I think it’s important to state that before the democratisation of the music industry, I never once thought about working in any other area but video; I always wanted to direct and be creative with film. However, the advent of streaming and those in control of it are making it really tough for most musicians to earn a living.”
As many musicians are discovering, there are a multitude of music-related options that you can potentially consider as ‘side hustles’ to your core skills. This could include being a teacher, composer, journalist, booking agent, sound engineer, tour manager, concert promoter or artist manager to name just a few. If you’re willing to learn and are open to the opportunities that life may bring, it’s quite likely that you will be able to add to your skill set and enjoy the process. As you do so, it may just turn out that you enjoy the variety and feel like your career is richer, both in your personal satisfaction and your bank balance!
Musicans’ Union. (2012). The Working Musician. [online]. DHA Communications. Available from: https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Files/Reports/Industry/The-Working-Musician-report [Accessed 13 January 2020]