I wish the ladder was as straight as that...
Whilst These Trees Are Made of Blood was playing at the Arcola Theatre I was asked by a few different young composers about my journey from a full-time admin job to my current situation as a composer & lyricist who earns the large majority of his living from songwriting for the theatre.
I started writing to them, trying to give them as robust an answer as I could. It turns out however, that the answer was not a simple beast. It was taking me pages and pages to explain the strange, wonderful, brutal journey my career has taken and as I wrote to them, I thought it would be best to combine my answers into a post which might be of interest to other young composers just starting out. I'll try to be as succinct as possible. I will fail at this. But everyone please note the effort.
Unlike other career paths, songwriting doesn't have a step by step promotional ladder to climb... it's really screwed up... or at least it was for me... check it out.
My Dad learnt the guitar in order to play songs to me and my brother as we grew up. We had two tapes that played on repeat in the car, 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat' and 'Les Miserables'. My brother performed in musicals at school including 'West Side Story', 'My Fair Lady' and 'The King and I'. I was constantly envious. I bought my first and only album, Paul Simon's 'Anthology'. I bought Paul Simon's 'Graceland'. It remains my favourite album of all time. I began to play the guitar. I gave up several times. I taught myself to read music from a book. I eventually stuck with the guitar. I started listening to and playing Classical and Flamenco music. I plateaued at a decent level and never got any better. I played Nicely Nicely Johnson in 'Guys and Dolls' after begging both the director and musical director to let me do it. I wrote my first piece of music when I was about sixteen, for the guitar. I thought it was really good. I became obsessed with Metallica and learnt a number of their songs. I went to university to try and study music. I was admitted to the composition department based on a couple of my recordings. After three weeks I was failing and falling behind badly. I didn't understand any of the terminology and I didn't realise that there were other clefs of music. My theory was dead in the water and I couldn't catch up. So I dropped out and began studying Classical Studies. I started teaching myself piano. I wrote my first couple of songs. Then I quit and went to another university to study Archaeology. Then I quit and started studying classics again. Whilst studying I joined Dunedin Operatic Society, an amateur musical theatre society and ended up performing in a lot of shows and meeting lots of friends. That's when I started writing funny little songs about ridiculous university events. I studied opera. I wanted to be a singer. Then I didn't.
A YOUNG SONGWRITER
But it wasn't until after I left NZ (in order to pursue a wonderful NZ girl who I had met in a show) when I was about 25 that I started to pursue songwriting seriously and then it was as a singer-songwriter on the folk circuit in London. I wrote ALOT of songs, I did ALOT of gigs. I would say I performed upwards of 200 gigs across three years and I wrote about 100 songs. I performed them alone or with my band Columbus Giant. We got some radio play, we even got a regular gig playing in the foyer of the Royal National Theatre, we did some festivals but I ultimately I found it very dispiriting. Alot of the time you were playing in pubs where no one was listening and you weren't getting paid and I spent alot of the time just wondering what the point of it all was. I also discovered that other people were better at performing my songs than I was. All this time I was working full time as the International & Awards Officer at the Royal College of Music. At some point along this run my girlfriend joined an amateur theatre group. They were putting on a Christmas play and they wanted some music. My girlfriend suggested that I could write it and I thought why not. There was no money involved, it was just a couple of rehearsals and it was a chance to combine my love of theatre with my love of music.
THEATRE & MUSIC
It was a revelation. People sat in the theatre and actually listened to the songs, they were engaged with the story. It turned out that people enjoyed it and I was invited back along with the writer to do a christmas show of our own the next year. Again for no money, but what an experience. That one went well too, then I got involved with a group that was trying to make it's first professional piece for children. A friend of mine, recommended me to them. We all got on famously and we wrote a piece called Nightlight. You couldn't call it successful I suppose but people we didn't know came to see it and paid money to see it. It was full of invention and mistakes and we rehearsed nights while we all held down other jobs, it ran for three performances and none of us made any money but it was a step. Some press came to see it. They said it was a bit of a mess, but very inventive and we would be ones to watch in the future (we are now Paper Balloon Theatre and have made three professional shows).
Then another Christmas show with the amateur theatre was offered and we decided to go for an all out musical. We wrote the thing from scratch in three months and all of the grey hairs I now have arose from that period of stress, excitement, joy and terror. I had to score out the music. I had never written music out before. It took me forever, lunch breaks etc... but I got there in the end and it left me with some wicked Sibelius skills.
I had saved up some money from my job and didn't have anything to spend it on. I wondered if I could do this for a living, so whilst sat on my bicycle at a red light in Kensington I decided I would quit my job the next day. I did and I left three months later.
PLEASE NOTE: I would NOT recommend this cold turkey option.
1st PROFESSIONAL JOB
Someone offered me my first professional composing job just before I left. The job came from someone who had seen Nightlight and enjoyed my music. I was being offered £1000 to write some music for a show for young people. Thought all my bloody christmases had come at once didn't I? It was my first taste of being paid for something I love.
That was almost my only professional job that year... I haemhoraged cash, I made bad budgeting decisions, I ended up sleeping on couches of generous friends for months. I toured as a performer for a while and I applied for composing jobs in Artsjobs. I didn't get many, in fact I only got one. (Fortunately that one has led to steady professional work for the last four years and has led to some amazing industry contacts and a regular royalty income). In the meantime, other friends from my singer/songwriter days introduced me to their friends in the theatre, directors and writers all just starting out and looking for musical collaborators. I started working with them and they started getting professional gigs and then they would hire me to work on them (one of them was Amy Draper director of These Trees Are Made of Blood who saw me and my band perform at The National Theatre during my songwriting days and was a friend of one of my best mates).
After a couple of years of working and living in this way I was gradually building up connections and a portfolio. Then I started feeling like a massive fraud (Please note: I still feel like one). I had no qualifications, I had no training. I didn't know what I was doing and it was starting to worry me. I wanted to get better at what I was doing but I didn't know how. I couldn't afford to become a full-time student again and I really didn't fancy the idea of writing essays about music and theatre. I wanted to be learning it and doing it at the same time and I wanted to be able to make a living at it whilst I did that. So I started searching.
I looked for musical theatre writing competitions and training courses. I wanted to show the industry I could do this job, but I had no idea how to get the industry to hear my work... when I googled this, an organisation appeared in the browser. It's name (and you should write this down) was Mercury Musical Developments or MMD for short.
This, in it's distilled and essential form is an organisation that helps musical theatre writers. It offered competitions, advice, events and a community of people trying to do what I was doing and all at different levels and stages of the game. There was one particular competition that was taking applications: The Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award. I really had no idea what it was about but it seemed like it was worth a shot. Back then, it was not a requirement that your song be from a musical that you were writing. I wrote a song and submitted it to the competition. It was called 'The Only Prince Around' and took as its inspiration that all of the 'prince charming's from fairy tales were really just one prince charming constantly riding out and saving maidens. It was directly inspired by the Michael Bruce (check him out) song 'Portrait of a Princess' which a friend had sent me by email and that I loved!
I submitted the song and then forgot about the whole thing. In the meantime, I continued to google and I discovered the second organisation that I consider to be essential to my career progression thus far. Book, Music and Lyrics or BML for short. BML was different from MMD in that it was specifcally a training course specialising in musical theatre writing. I applied immediately and was very happy to be accepted to the course. It was extremely reasonably priced, centrally located and only two hours a week. I saw it as a chance to meet some other songwriters as well as to improve my craft. As well as adding structure to my otherwise rather unstructured life.
Just prior to the BML course beginning I found out that my song 'The Only Prince Around' had made it through to the final of the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award. I didn't really know how big a deal this was until I arrived at the sold out award ceremony in London's West End and heard my very own song being sung by the incomparable Turlough Convery (now starring in Poldark who went on to win the performance competition). My song didn't win but it was enough to hear the applause afterwards to know that this was what I really wanted to do. It turns out that one of my tutors in BML (Tim Sutton) that year was the winner of the songwriting competition, so I couldn't feel too bad about it. (Since that time I have been fortunate enough to have been a finalist three times, winning runner up one year and also winning the MTI Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award for The Wicker Husband last year, all of which have been valuable experiences getting my work performed to a wider audience).
When I arrived at BML for the first session I had no idea what to expect. I would say there were roughly 16 of us. All nervous, most of whom did not know each other, but a couple who did. We had been set a task of writing a lyric to an existing tune and as each one went round the group I had a horrible sinking sensation. Everyone had stuck exactly to the notes as they were written and consequently the course leader (the incomparable Mark Warman) was able to play and sight sing everyone's work back to them. I however, had completely bastardised the tune, adding in extra notes where it suited me and thus it was completely impossible to sing for anyone but me. Sheepishly I did just that. Everyone laughed at the implied innuendo in my dirty little lyric, including Mark, who after laughing promptly added afterwards that my lyric was of course a 'complete abomination.' But he said it with such warmth and good humour an d in a way that would become a hallmark of my experience at BML.
I have been a part of BML for over three years now. I am still friends with many of the people I met in my first year, all of whom are talented songwriters, supportive classmates and have grown along with me in terms of craft and knowledge of the industry. And the great thing about BML is you never have to leave. Once you complete the second year you are invited to be part of the Advanced Composer/Lyricist Group, and you can remain a part of it forever. The BML community grows larger and stronger every year. In addition the MMD community and the BML community overlap in every increasing ways. Over the last few years I know of several members including myself who are getting their shows put on West End, Off West End and Off Broadway as well as national UK tours and regional runs and international productions.
Now, those early directors and companies who I hooked up with have gradually built their professional reputations leading to my songwriting work on several national tours. Several shows continue to tour over the years, leading to royalties and regular fees. A couple of great things that came out of my less than happy experience of being fired from Fantastic Mr Fox was that I got an agent who now deals with all my financials and I met some wonderful writers who are now my friends. Producers and Venues continue to see my work regularly on tour and as a result I have received more offers of work.
The result of all of this is that I now earn about 85% of my living purely from songwriting (not musical directing or teaching or workshop leading all of which are wonderful but too exhausting and divert my musical attention from the thing I really love). The other 15% comes from a fairly stress free administration job which offers regular and flexible work.
When I say my 'living' I am a 36 year old man without any children, a girlfriend who doesn't mind living like a bit of a pauper and approximately £2,000 of savings and a yearly income of approximately £20,000 per year. It's not much obviously but it's enough. My main expense is eating which I love to do and I live from hand to mouth. I worry about how I'm going to eat fairly regularly but I consider this a small price to pay and strangely enough the jobs always seem to come along...
I guess to conclude, this is what I would take away from it:
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS?
1. Early on in your career, maybe say yes to pretty much anything, you never know where it's going to lead or who you're going to meet.
2. Get in on the ground floor with talented folks. GO see lots of theatre. Talk about what you do. That's how people will find out about you.
3. Join a community (BML or MMD). This is really important. These people will pick you up when you are down, they will train you and love you.
4. No one will hire you right off the bat if you haven't done anything before. Make your own work and get people to come and see it.
5. Build a website, it's free and you never know who might see it.
6. Don't feel bad that you don't have a music degree. Use it to your advantage. Be different and bold.
7. When you get fired, just keep going.
8. Get a part-time job with flexibility if you possibly can, use your current connections to do it.
9. Enter competitions, but try not to be disappointed when you don't win, they'll lead to other things.
10. Learn your craft in amateur societies. You'll learn about all aspects of theatre-making, not just your own.
In writing this I realise I have left out huge portions of very important events including important people and important shows, but hopefully this will give you a little idea of the strange, twisted and bizarre path that a career as a Composer & Lyricist can take you on.
A ladder to the moon? More like a weird labyrinthine staircase to the moon... I can almost smell the cheese...