There are many paths one can choose to embark on in the music industry, all the way from songwriting to live sound engineering with everything in between including PR, copyright or even being a manager for an artist or a legal representative. Perhaps the holy grail for any aspiring musician would be the dubious yet exciting field of the recording artist. The culmination of many skills and attributes both technical and musical in nature, many see this as the optimal creative goal. The skill range here is perhaps more on a spectrum and one could make do with more of one skill or talent and less of the other if a workaround exists to bridge that gap. When it works, it’s brilliant and it can change lives not only for the artist but also for their family or hometown. The imperative “if” however keeps many at bay, and for good reason – there are many aspects one needs to consider not working in their favor. This will be explored as a counterpart to the argument for this career choice, but ultimately, even the most extreme of downfalls will not prevent the very few courageous (or stubborn) to pursue this dream in hopes of “making it” one day. The extent of one’s success is ultimately self-determined, however it’s a more than common wish for many to simply write songs, make music, be somebody or maybe even change the world.
To set some base requirements, a recording artist has to make a living through recording and sharing (or ‘making’ and sharing) original music (could be synonymized with the title music artist). This can range from simply delivering the vocals on a solo record to designing, producing, mixing, mastering and marketing an entire album series. Depending on the area and depth of involvement in the project the skills necessary to complete those aspects to a good standard will differ.
Although a very varied and mixed genre of occupation my interest is specifically rooted in the type of artist that is well versed in production already, and has some musical knowledge to boot which will aid him (me) in producing and releasing music. I also want to be able to write my own songs.
The aspects I have covered so far already encompass a wide variety of skills, but to be clear I am excluding the marketing side of things – let’s assume that’s being handled by someone else.
A producer is an overseer of the logistics of putting a project together and may have experience in/with songwriting, musical theory, instruments, mixing, mastering and/or more. Music producers have a lot of creative control with whatever project they’re working on in terms of the whole particular quality. It may for example be the decision of the producer to use only analogue effects and instruments and only use the DAW for recording instead of digital ones. They also have the responsibility of bringing the whole project together physically. The producers book the studios, the musicians the instruments sometimes and the rest of the engineering crew. Depending on the skills of the producer them self they can be the every-person or just a ‘director’ of sorts. Sometimes the producer is the mixing engineer or the mastering engineer and so on. It is also the job of the producer to oversee the costs of everything to make sure the budget covers everything. The producer stays with the project from start to finish and looks at everything to make sure it all fits within the musical vision.
The other side of being a producer is the modern sense or probably the more accurately coined ‘computer musician’. The person who sits with the DAW and makes music. This is further split into territories of sound design, songwriting and DAW production skill. A person in this field has to be well versed in a DAW or preferably in multiple DAW’s and their/it’s function to a professional standard. The sound design is also a very important aspect. Sound design is the process of specifying, acquiring, manipulating or generating audio elements and can take years to understand let alone master. Understanding acoustic theory, instruments, synthesis (all the different types too) and multiple effects are paramount to one’s sound design skills. Songwriting is a skill in and of itself and entire Bachelors are dedicated to just that. One’s dexterity and style in a DAW is something that comes with experience, but anyone who wants to call themselves a producer is at least competent in one DAW or understands its function at the very least.
The level of competency I am after as an individual artist also extends to the roles of the recording and mixing engineer (and potentially mastering engineer)
“A recording engineer is a technician who operates the soundboard and other equipment during a recording session, under the supervision of the producer. They also set up studio and recording equipment. An engineer’s main job is to use their technical skills to bring the producer’s and artist’s vision to fruition. She also is often responsible for mixing recorded tracks and making sure the final recording is free of any unwanted sounds or noises.”
“A mixing engineer (or simply mix engineer) is a person responsible for combining (“mixing”) the different sonic elements of a piece of recorded music (vocals, instruments, effects etc.) into a final version of a song (also known as “final mix” or “mixdown”). He or she mixes the elements of a recorded piece together to achieve a good balance of volume, while at the same time deciding other properties such as pan positioning, effects, and so on.
The best mixing professionals typically have many years of experience and training with audio equipment, which has enabled them to master their craft. A mixing engineer occupies a space between artist and scientist, using their skill at assessing the harmonic structure of sound to enable them to fashion highly appealing timbres. Their work is found in all modern music, but many artists now mix and produce their own music with a digital audio workstation and a computer.
A more technical definition: an audio engineer in sound recording, audio editing and sound systems who balances the relative volume and frequency content of a number of sound sources. Typically, these sound sources are the different musical instruments in a band or vocalists, the sections of an orchestra and so on.”
“The mastering engineer is the last in a long chain of professionals who can creatively change and improve the quality of your music. They look at the overall ‘picture’ of the music, and they use lots of different mastering tools to process and fine-tune what they hear to try to improve what they’re listening to.
The sound of the finished product rests solely with them, so they have to be very careful and very accurate with everything they do in the mastering studio – the finished version will be the one going to the manufacturing plant for mass reproduction.
No two pieces of music will ever the be the same, so each mastering project has to be approached on its own merit. Building up the experience it takes to become a mastering engineer can take years – one of the reasons why successful engineers can be so in-demand.”
The excerpts above hint at the knowledge and skills required to be fully competent and more in each field respectively. These aspects are very technologically dependent and are more concerned with working the tools needed to put everything on a computer. But what about actually creating the music?
This goes into the realm of actually learning music to compose and play or sing well. One could decide to become a musician, someone who is able to play one or more instruments and/or who is mucially talented. This would mean learning to play an instrument(s) to a competent or professional level, this also includes the voice as an instrument (good vocalists are sought after). This would mean learning how to play an instrument or sing, which can be done on one’s own methods but is still recommended to take classes or coaching on to learn properly with good technique. A good way to gauge one’s musical ability is to go through the ABRSM music grades. Not only are they credentials and can be put on a CV but are good indicators of where one’s skill level is at musically. If not this then private teaching or coaching can be undertaken and the skill level of the pupil can be more accurately determined by the teacher.
Aside from this, there are many government approved learning courses such as the Music GCSE and A Levels and are taught at select schools globally (there will be other systems offering musical curricula operating under a different title e.g. IB music). Musical education becomes very broad in terms of post secondary or vocational education, and I myself am partaking in a music technology course at my own college. At my college for example, there is a performance cohort that focusses on songwriting, instrument playing and performing. After some googling, I scratched the surface on what the post-secondary education scene has to offer for music lovers: Entire BAs focussed on songwriting, performing, music theory (of which one can specialize even further, music analysis for example), instrument mastery and more.
“A songwriter is an individual who writes the lyrics, melodies and chord progressions for songs, typically for a popular music genre such as rock or country music. A songwriter can also be called a composer, although the latter term tends to be used mainly for individuals from the classical music genre. The pressure from the music industry to produce popular hits means that songwriting is often an activity for which the tasks are distributed between a number of people.For example, a songwriter who excels at writing lyrics might be paired with a songwriter with a gift for creating original melodies. Pop songs may be written by group members from the band or by staff writers – songwriters directly employed by music publishers.Some songwriters serve as their own music publishers, while others have outside publishers”
“A composer (Latin compōnō; literally “one who puts together”) is a person who creates or writes music, which can be vocal music (for a singer or choir), instrumental music (e.g., for solo piano, string quartet, wind quintet or orchestra) or music which combines both instruments and voices (e.g., opera or art song, which is a singer accompanied by a pianist). The core meaning of the term refers to individuals who have contributed to the tradition of Western classical music through creation of works expressed in written musical notation (e.g., sheet music scores).”
As is evident, the amount of skills one could learn as an artist not concerned with the marketing and business side of things are huge enough. Coupled with this an artist reuires the following also:
- A strong sense of self and direction. They have to know what they want and where they want to be going (going in wanting it that is). A strong artist has a strong self of who they are, and this will make them stand out among the crowd and be recognizable. Not to the point of gimmick, but to where anyone could say: “Yes! That is something so-and-so would do!”.
- Style. It’s what makes everyone unique and what distinguishes artists between themselves. If one sounds like the next laymay artist chances are they wont be memorable or successful.
- Discipline and determination. If one is disciplined enough to work for their dream everyday and determined enough to pull it through then the success is just waiting to be grabbed. One has to be determined enough to get back up after setbacks and defeat to keep going. The harder one works, the more experienced one will become.
- Making luck. This one may be tricky to grasp, but it’s just about maximizing chances and not putting all eggs into one basket. If one learns more things one has more skills to rely on that someone may need one day, if one attends more seminars and open mics they have more chances of being spotted by an agency, if one works with more artists they have more potential connections and so on.
- Creativity. May go without saying, but this applies to all aspects of the career. It’s about creative problem-solving as much as it is about music making. Goes hand-in-hand with resourcefulness.
A short excerpt from Wikipedia will round off this information and lead into my next point nicely:
“A music artist is a person who composes, records, and releases music, often through a record label or independently. Working as a music artist requires long training, either in music school or through gaining experience and physical conditioning and practicing to maintain and improve musical skills.
Music artists often face intermittent periods of unemployment, long nights in the studio, and frequent travel to performance venues. They also typically must deal with income uncertainty due to competition for places in bands or performance venues. Though a risky profession, it is one of the most over-saturated occupations. While many musicians are only known within their city or region, some music artists, depending on public reception and appreciation of their work, go on to achieve celebrity status. Music artists sometimes live erratic, nomadic lifestyles.”
As is evident here, it’s clear that this dream comes with a risk. This risk is unemployment and is a big consideration factor in considering this line of work. For some this won’t be a deterrence (perhaps out of ignorance), but it’s a very real outcome for many. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and if it doesn’t it’s good to have a back-up plan to catch you if you fall. This could be a second skill or profession one does either on the side or as their plan A and is a safety net of sorts. I myself am learning music production and mixing and live sound engineering at the moment, so I know I can always get a job off of that if I need to. Another outcome could be that success only comes after a long time, or once and never again, and if that happens it’s imperative the would-be artist knows what they’re doing in the meantime. Sometimes, the artist needs to sacrifice a lot to keep the dream alive. I reminisce on spending my entire winter allowance on a pair of monitor speakers just to realize a month after purchase that my speakers were entry level “desktop monitors”. This shattered my heart momentarily but I simply came to realize that I had a long way to go. Time is perhaps the biggest sacrifice, and the one thing that needs to be sacrificed the most above everything to ascertain any kind of security or success.
A good recording artist always has regard for health and safety in accordance with the Health and Safety Act of 1974. They observe the environment for unsafe situations and aid clients and colleagues in such a way that there is in no way a danger to their health. It is their responsibility to check all the equipment that they use to ascertain that it is functioning properly before use, and to use it in such a way that no problems could arise during operation. An example of using equipment safely and responsibly would be the awareness of leaving liquids away from exposed circuitry so as to not have it malfunction during operation or short-circuit when in use possibly starting a fire which would be a detriment to health and safety.
To round off it can be said that the signed recording artist can be varied and skilled in whatever they choose, but are good enough and unique enough to make them stand out amongst the competition. The recording artist is skilled in a field and may have extensive training in that regard to be competent, but always has experience and enthusiasm to carry them forward. The successful recording artist is determined, disciplined, creative, makes their own luck and is in connection with a good team that can help them on the business side of things.