How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.
We were reminded of that old joke more than a few times while doing the music interviews: Whether we talked to a composer for TV shows, a classical musician, a music engineer or a radio producer and presenter, the same advice kept recurring: practice, practice, practice. And networking doesn’t hurt too, it seems.
The demise of the music industry is a well-documented story, whether it’s shown through the eyes of the unfortunate HMV staff losing their jobs, the rise of illegal downloads, or festivals closing down.
But that’s not looking at the whole picture. As these interviews will show you, there are other ways to make a living from music, whether it’s in radio, playing at weddings, post-producing other artists’ work, playing gigs or even other avenues that you may not have explored yet.
Formal training for music is not essential, but it is advised: It can be studying music for the Leaving Certificate, studying practical music in university, or taking one of the numerous sound-engineering courses in places like Pulse Studios.
Interview 1: The The Radio Producer
Ed Smith is one of the most influential people in Irish indie music. He’s the producer of The Paul McLoone Show on Today FM and also presents his own programme on the same station on Saturday nights – Ed’s Indie Disco. Dubliners might also know him as a DJ in venues like Whelans and The Workman’s Club.
What were your favourite subjects in school?
It would have to be English, biology and history.
What did you study in third level and what do you recommend people study?
I did a BA in Communications in Aungier St DIT, 4 year course which I started in 94 to 98, and then I left college and I was working in a call shop – one of the first international call shops in Dublin. Then I got a part time job in Today FM making market research calls, conducting market research for Today FM 3 nights a week.
Around that time I made a nuisance of myself in here. I’d dress in yellow standing at crossroads handing out merchandise. You just have to say “I’ll do that”, and be enthusiastic and hungry, do it with a smile and an efficient attitude. Any time something comes up, you want to be seen as reliable. I started answering phones for Premiership live, so I was building momentum, and then I got interviewed to be an assistant to the head of music library: That involved looking after scheduling of shows, choosing music and the library, and using the market research to choose the music that gets played. And then I took a year off to travel to Australia. After that I did TEFL and around this time I got called to come in again and work part time on the Pet Sounds with Tom Dunne and then producer Jenna Downey.
She left, so I was then bumped up to take over her role.
What – apart from education – should people do to get into radio production?
I would say offer yourself to local community stations, in and around your area. No matter where you are in the country you’re only a few miles from local radio stations. If you start from the bottom you get a great insight into every department. When you do climb up, you know what you’re asking for, from editing to production. Like a factory if you work on a shop floor and work up to management, you’ll still know what happened on that floor. I would advise young people to listen to radio, as much as possible, English radio is the best in the world. And have a clear idea – radio is different to TV, roles are a lot more fluid in the production end. In radio you can gain experience in different departments. There’s lots of osmosis between different aspects of radio. Go to local and community stations – offer your services. Ask questions, soak it in, work hard, and be reliable. If someone doesn’t turn up for a shift, they’re gone, whether they’re presenters, producers, or engineers.
Interview 2: The Classical Musician
Eoin O’Doherty is a full-time classical musician. He plays a number of instruments including the violin and obo, performs gigs and various functions and gives music lessons. Eoin has also recently branched into film criticism, and regularly reviews movies for Today FM and RTE.
How would you describe yourself? What’s your job title?
I’m a professional musician and, like most musicians who aren’t rock stars, I’m also a music teacher. My work involves performing with a string quartet, choirs, solo, weddings, corporate functions and bigger concerts too. Bookings can be a week before or a couple of weeks before, a wedding could be a year in advance and I sometimes play at funerals, which as you’d expect, are very short notice.
Teaching would be during the week. In terms of gigs, midweek is quieter. Most of them are Friday and Saturday and occasionally Sunday and Thursday. Monday to Wednesday I teach, Thursday is my journalistic side. Fridays and Saturdays are usually weddings or concerts.
What instruments do you play?
Primarily as part of a string quartet I play viola or violin. We have a regular group we use; mainly viola, but we can chop and change. The other I play live is the obo. In terms of teaching I’d do violin, viola, obo and piano. And sometimes I teach singing.
You studied music in school I assume?
Yes I did, and my dad is an excellent musician and always has been. We didn’t know how to do anything else at home. We all picked up instruments from a young age because they were lying about. But then in primary and secondary schools we started taking lessons. I studied music and English Literature in UCD. And then I did a B Mos with music; that’s an additional bachelor’s degree for music, which was also in UCD.
Did you work straight out of college?
The nature of it, if you take it up from a young age, you get used to doing gigs on weekends, even if you’re in a junior orchestra. It’s a natural thing, even from the age of about 12 to play concerts, so your parents can sit in the audience and clap. When you hit 16 you realise that you can make money off of it, whether it’s part of an orchestra or a string quartet or a friend’s wedding. You realise that you can set something up. That was a natural progression that hasn’t really stopped and I’m still playing with the same people that I knew from that age.
Your day to day is unusual, isn’t it?
Day to day would be, with the film end, an average week might be Monday to Wednesday movie press screenings in the morning. As soon as the screening is finished I rush back to the music school and teach from half one or two until nine at night. That accommodates the press screenings. Thursdays I do film reviews on a radio show and travel to Cork [to review] for an RTE show. And on Tuesday, there’s another slot on Today FM too.
So has music supplemented your film critic ambitions?
Pretty much. The music’s been brilliant in terms of finance. Once you’re in there and start getting regular gigs, it’s lucrative. You can’t plan ahead too much with it, but we’re lucky enough to call it regular. You’re able to financially support the film review aspect, because it’s tough to make a living solely from reviewing. Teaching is the most secure and then gigging is less secure but better paid.
Is there anything you don’t like?
Not really. For a long time it was the only thing I knew how to do, but I absolutely love it. Every gig is a story. You get to play with stars sometimes; I’ve travelled around North America and Europe. We used to go away every summer. You get to play amazing music, from classical to popular. You never know who you’ll bump into. Yes, you can get tired after a long day, but that’s true of any job.
It seems to be a long road to it…
It is. As clichéd as it sounds, it’s all about putting in the practice, especially when you’re younger. A lot of people take up piano and guitar because they’re very accessible instruments and whenever people get to 14 or 15 they often decide not to keep it up, and then it can be very hard to return to. Advice, if you are playing an instrument, is to put in the practice – I know it’s been said a million times, but that is the difference. Other advice is to pick an instrument that’s rarer than others, so the market won’t be as flooded. For example I play the obo and viola. If you’re good at what you do with rare instruments your phone is more likely to ring than if you play, say, piano or violin.
Would you say it’s possible to make a living without studying it in 3rd level?
It’s tough. You come across people who’ve studied something else in third level but have decided to keep playing as a hobby. So you do come across a lot of those. The best way to meet people is to do as many gigs as possible. Like any other job, networking is important.
So you’re saying it is possible if you’re a good enough musician to make a living without studying in third level?
It is, especially since Ireland is so small you’re never more than a couple of people away from knowing someone. It you’re good at what you do and you’re reliable then word will travel and you’ll get gigs. But it always comes back to putting in the effort, because word would get around if you’re not good enough.
Are there any books you recommend?
Well you’ll need to be able to read music, but it’s really about practice, and listening. Listen to as many styles of music as possible.
Is it assumed you’d be into classical music to pursue this career?
Yes, but people think you’re snobby or elitist and I’m definitely not. I’ve played with show-bands. Once you do the background of classical training it sets you up to be able to do any type. We’ve worked with pieces by new Irish composers, and the classics. Doing symphony orchestras is one of my favourites. We’ve played with rock bands in Whelans as back up strings, and we’ve done musicals. Understanding classical music is a great tool for breaking down genres. If you’re good, you’ll get booked. People will want to hear you play.
Interview 3: The Score Composer
Hugh Rodgers is a musician and songwriter. He has provided the musical score for RTE TV programmes, documentaries and short films. He is also a member of the acclaimed indie band A Dark Horse.
What did you like most in school?
English and Art.
Did you study music in school?
I didn’t actually. There was an option to do it in first year. I did it briefly, but you had to make a decision whether or not to study music or art. I chose art. At that point I was better at art. I’d only taken up the guitar about a year previously and didn’t see myself going down the classical training route. I could more easily see myself doing art so I did that. I liked history as well. That wore off as I started caring less about school. There’s so much history! As time went on I refined the things I was good at. I was given another option [when] after 4th year we were asked who wants to do music and I was the only person who put up my hand. I didn’t get an option in secondary school, so I stuck with art.
And what about after secondary school?
I didn’t do very well in my Leaving Cert. I was interested in being in a band and being involved in creativity. I didn’t care about going to college. The subjects I did well in were English and art and classics. I did arts in Manooth and dropped out. It felt like a further extension of school to me. I took time out and went back and did a diploma in multimedia and an-add on in digital media…
Where were the diploma and degree?
The diploma was in Colaiste Dulaigh. The degree was in University of Wolverhampton. It was a roundabout way of doing it, and how I got into doing that was because of my interest in art I started doing graphic design. I started doing artwork and stuff for friends’ bands – their posters. When I went to Wolverhampton I focussed more on film and programme making and fine art. It all became a wide array of skills, working on film editing and motion graphics and design.
Did studying film inform your work as a composer?
Yes. Every film that I made in college I would’ve written music for too. It was a natural thing to do – this needs music, I write music. Then I’d write simple little scores. I hadn’t considered that as a career until quite late, after I’d finished my degree I finished and worked in a design studio for a few years, doing graphic and web design and then I grew tired of it. It’s quite corporate unless you’re a big deal and can choose what you do. I found a lot of it quite boring – churning out the same thing every time. I quit and worked for myself and started doing film-related work, such as posters and things for TV programmes. And then it came to me that – having put music in the background for a few years - it’s what I should have been doing. I tried to bring film and music together for me.
Then around 2008 I had to take it further and start looking into courses. Whatever I knew about music had a basis in rock music and writing songs.
And you’re self taught, aren’t you?
Yes I am. So I had no formal training. I’d studied a little jazz guitar and some theory with an old friend. But it was very casual. So I thought there was a missing block of information. If I wanted to take it seriously – write for other instruments, and write different styles, I had to do something formal. I researched some courses and there was a Masters Degree in music and media tech in Trinity from 2009 to 2011.
Was there a pivotal moment, one big break?
It’s a serious of breaks and in between those there are breakdowns! One of the first things was that my sister had made a film. She was working on her own and was nearly completed. She’d been making a film in South East Asia and asked me about working on it and I thought that I didn’t know anything about South East Asian music. I didn’t feel like I was qualified and I stupidly advised her to get somebody else. But I gave her advice about the music too and I ended up writing three or four pieces for the film. That was the first time I had something that was a portfolio piece and that was playing in festivals, on the big screen.
What was that film called?
It’s called Today is Better than Two Tomorrows. And it’s about two boys who become monks and it follows their story. It’s a documentary. The title is a Laos proverb. That was a starting point. Then while I was in college I did music for a documentary programme called Growing up Gay. That was a huge deal. I’d never done anything on that scale. It was 50 minutes of music, quite a big deal. To do it while I was doing an intense masters degree was quite a challenge. I had to tell my lecturers that I was doing something that was a big deal for my career so my assignments might be late. They were extraordinary in their understanding. The woman who ran the course understood how important it was and didn’t create any obstacles. It was tough, but great to do. That helped me get other jobs since.
I got a short film after that, and that short film did lots of festivals and won some awards, and then some time after that was done I got a job in the States doing music for some guys who’d decamped from Pixar to make an interactive iPad app for children. The creative director saw the short film I did the music for, loved it and found me through the magic of internet. Even if you don’t think so, things can lead to other work. You do the work and move on, but somewhere down the line, somebody else might like it.
What’s your day to day like? Is it a mix of pitching for work and doing existing projects?
It depends. Because of my background I don’t just work with music, I also work on mini documentaries and short virals online. I end up doing everything – shooting, editing and composing the music. So it can be quite intense. They often happen in confined periods of time. There can be blocks of a few days where you hardly sleep at all. If I’m writing music for a programme I have an idea that I sit down to work. I don’t really start to write until 12. Anything before that is really bad! So day to day is very different. Then there are periods when I’m creating things from nothing, and then there are times when I’m editing or re-writing things. So it all depends.
What do you like and dislike about what you do?
I like when everything is finished. When the director or whoever [commissioned it] says that they like it. There’s that moment when it goes out – whether it’s an online film or on TV or whatever there’s that moment of reward when it gets shown. It feels like vindication; “I wasn’t doing nothing! It’s a real thing.” That’s what I like the most – at that moment you remember when there was nothing, the stages in between. Often when I write music I do so in frenzy. I often end up not remembering writing any of it. When it’s done I’m not sure how I got there! There’s something thrilling about it being done. I think “that’s come from thin air”!
What I don’t like is that it’s quite unstable, until it isn’t. And even when it isn’t, you always feel like it is. Even when working all the time and getting paid well, you remember when you weren’t, so it always feels unstable. I remember hearing Judi Dench saying even now when she finishes a project she says “oh my god, I don’t have a job! what am I doing next?” It calms me when someone mega-successful is still feeling that way about it.
There’s a part of it that’s great. People who work nine to fives might think you’re a son of a bitch! You choose your hours. The un-glamorous side is the instability, and you do it to a deadline. Sometimes sleep or weekends don’t exist and that is intense. But overall I like it.
Would you recommend any books or courses to someone trying to get into that line of work?
Books-wise… some of them would be technical books. There’s a mini book of orchestration [Essential Dictionary of Orchestration] and one called Essential Book of Music Theory. They’re really handy. They were recommended to me by a lecturer. He’d had these books for years, and then one day saw in a documentary that Phillip Glass had the same book, sitting on top of his piano! The course I did was brilliant – the masters – it’s not a career course. Few are. But it teaches you how to do a lot of things. If you have an idea of what you want to do when you go in, it’s really helpful. For my thesis piece I made a film and wrote a live score and had it performed. It’s harder if you don’t know what you want to do. Some people think a course will guide you and steer you, but I don’t really think that’s what the course is good at. There’s a course that I’d wanted to do in film composition in NFTS in London. And you see graduates from there and they all go on to become a big deal.
To be honest, if you’re leaving school, if you know what you want to do…I wanted to music when I left school and was told it wasn’t realistic. I was told I should do something else as back up. I did all this other stuff, which I still use. I’m in a band and I do put together artwork for them. It’s a handy skill.
So is that your advice for students? To do what they want to do?
That’s the time when you’re not good at something and you can use it to become good enough. If you have a talent you can work through those years and perfect your skills. Trying to convince yourself to do something else when you really know what you want to do? That’s a mistake. There are enough courses that cover those potential avenues that people want to go down. That’s what I’d do if I were doing it again.
Interview 4: The Engineer
Stephen Shannon is a producer and engineer who owns and runs his own Dublin-based studio. He also records and releases his own music under the name Strands.
What would you consider your first break?
I lived abroad for a few years, playing in bands. I lived in Sweden around 1995. When I was there I was involved with a reggae band, touring Europe. I was the only white guy in the 12 piece band. So we decided to set up our own studio. We each threw in a few hundred quid. I was the only one with sound op experience. Lots of local bands recorded there too.
I fell into it in Dublin too. The first band I made a record with here was Estelle, an indie, instrumental band. I ended up recording lots of indie and underground music.
You own the studio now…
It’s a small space, but I felt I needed it. I was hiring a lot of studios, but with limited budgets that bands have and they’d have to hire me and rent studio time. With my own space now the artist is just paying me. Time is all it needs – time to relax and develop the music. I saved my pennies for years for that studio. My best work has happened when I have had the luxury of time.
Where did you study?
I was doing communications in Liberties College, Bull Alley for a few years. Part of that was TV and radio, but at that stage I was on the path to where I am now. I’d already bought a lot of equipment and working in a basement of my flat, sometimes for free. And it wasn’t long until I graduated to larger studios. It was a very natural progression. When I think about it it’s connected to my life as a kid, playing guitar at aged 13 and playing music all the time when I was a teenager.
Would you consider yourself a producer or engineer?
Engineer. It’s a strange role calling your self a producer, and the lines are blurred. You always have creative input. When you have a large input, helping with writing and arrangement, that is a production role, but you’re still an engineer. It’s difficult to say. It’d be presumptuous to say I’m a producer every time.
What do the good acts have in common?
There are two types of acts – the ones who have spent hours and hours and weeks and weeks refining, rehearsing, re-tooling and reworking. Then there are the ones who expect something to be great [only] on the way out. If a piece of music is great coming in [to studio], there’s a good chance it’ll be great coming out. Something has to be special before you press record. I’m literally talking about 1 in 10 people are amazing coming in. I wish people would make an effort before coming in.
What do you like about your job?
I would be doing this as a hobby, if I didn’t have it as a job. Playing instruments and arranging things. It’s really great – sitting down and layering up something. It’s playing! It’s an extension of my childhood. Sometimes the music exceeds expectations and becomes really beautiful. There’s always that possibility. The variety of people and what they bring is exciting. With music – you can never know it all, there’s always something new to learn and something other people are teaching you.
Is there anything you dislike?
I guess I dislike working with someone who expect too much, people being half-prepared. I don’t like when it’s presumed that I’ll make it good. People come in and want to turn something around in 3 days and expect it to be done. But people need about three times that [for a record]. They need a budget, time and patience to make something good.
What’s your day to day?
Once a year I have to sit down for 3 or 4 days and do my taxes! Apart from that I try to avoid admin. I start at 930 until about 7 and rarely take breaks. A lot of people who became engineers when I started have moved on. They go in at 10 and work until 4am. What happens is that they burn out. I have strict working hours. I have kids now, and downtime and I have loads of energy since I’ve been disciplined about the time I spend.
I do a lot of mixing and recording. I work on my own and get a lot of emails and calls. Home recording is getting big now – just setting up your own mikes and instruments to a computer and doing it yourself. Some bands do that and get someone professional to mix it. I get a lot of work when I mix an album and send it to an artist for approval. I’d take about 2 or 3 hours per song. I work alone, which I like. If I my time was half alone and half with acts, that’d be ideal. Being with people for 6 or 7 days can be claustrophobic
Are there any courses or books you’d recommend?
There’s a really good book called Behind the Glass, and it’s interviews with producers and engineers. They ask each of them the same questions, so Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys would be asked the exact same thing that a lesser known engineer is asked. It creates a fascinating through-line. Another is called Mixing with your Mind, which is about taking the long route to absorb a song.
I get lots of emails from people looking for internships. The best course is the City and Guilds course by Pulse Studios. That’s a much respected school and you come out with a qualification. I’d really recommend that.
What were your favourite subjects in school?
History and mechanical drawing. I like facts and symmetrical things!
And any final advice for young musicians or engineers?
What you need to do is go for as much time as possible in a studio, get experience. Some people that have done work experience with me have spent 3 years and college and don’t know basic things, like which ends of cables go where. Learning has to be hands on. The only way to learn is to hound studios to be around them when they work. That’s the only way to learn.
Is it fair to say that your day job supplements your music?
I’m planning another Strands album, with a new one coming out this year. I love that, but it’s my hobby now. My work is my main creative output.