If you’ve wanted to be a professional musical theatre writer for a while then you probably have a picture in your head of what it’s going to be like… This is what my Ego Jasper Mountbatten III (who has remained pretty much unchanged since I was 23) still thinks it should be like:
“Yah, yah. Right. So. Basically it looks like this mate… picture a massive villa yah? Maybe somewhere in Tuscany or the South of France or a seaside villaaaage near Valencia yah? Inside this villa there’s a massive grand piano and a sort of studio yah? And you like, own it outright yah? And basically what you do is just spend all day writing music & lyrics (and it’s really easy and fun) and then as if by blooming magic your bank account just fills and fills with huge wodges of awesome moolah due to how bloody brilliant all your songs are yah? And of course you know you’re married to a beautiful, fun, intelligent woman and have a bunch of kids all running about the place like lunatics and yah, you also have time to be the perfect husband and dad. Because songwriting only takes up like 80% of your time so you still have like totally 60% to spend on being an awesome father and partner. Oh and you totally have shows running on the West End and Broadway and you’re basically the king of everything. That’s what it’s going to be like yah?”
As you may have guessed. Jasper Mountbatten III is not particularly bright and bears a strong resemblance to a character from Made in Chelsea. That’s ok. Jasper’s meant to be a bit of an idiot. He’s my ego after all. But what he describes is about as far from reality as you can possibly get:
True there are people who have achieved this, but they are the 0.001% and a bunch of them have worked their entire lives towards it. For most of us, or certainly me, I’d like to put to bed a particular illusion that some people hold about the reality of the working life of a career composer & lyricist in the theatre here in London…
THE WRITING ILLUSION
When you become a professional musical theatre writer you will spend the majority of your time writing musical theatre.
I have not found this statement to be remotely true.
Here’s the reality of my working life as a writer of new musical theatre… below are the things that I do day-in day-out that are part of my job as a writer as I attempt to build my career in this industry:
Competitions - I spend time entering these, filling out forms for them, emailing the administrators for them, recording demos for them and swearing at the guidelines when I realise I’m not eligible for them because I’m considered too old to be a new writer (most new writing competitions are for the under 30’s and I didn’t start writing musical theatre properly until I was 31). And if you think entering competitions isn’t a worthwhile or even necessary use of your time as a writer, think again. It’s one of the only ways (beyond putting on a show) to gain any industry interest in your work. And believe me, generating industry interest is an absolutely essential part of your job as a writer.
Auditions - When you are just starting out with your shows, you will be undoubtedly be involved in arranging them, finding performers to attend them, hiring pianists to play for them, hiring venues for them to happen in, setting up Spotlight accounts in order to get the best people to them, then dealing with the huge amount of administration that comes with casting as a result of them.
Meetings - I spend a huge amount of time attending them, rescheduling them, planning pitches for them, finding out who I should be having them with and putting them in my diary. And bear in mind that a single meeting will rarely end up in a commission. It is the beginning of the building of a relationship which will grow and develop over months and years that will eventually lead to paid work.
Research - I endlessly trawl the internet doing this. Searching for information and stories, characters, period, situations and watching films and documentaries. I arrange to meet and interview people (cue: arrange venue, recording equipment, diary scheduling etc…).
Recording Demos - I spend a good proportion of the Darren Clark Time Pie Chart arranging the music for these, getting the actors to sing them, finding the funding for them, arranging a venue to record them, borrowing recording equipment for them, arranging for people to film them, arranging for someone to mix and master the audio for them (or in my case spend 10 years learning how to do it yourself).
Pitch Documents - Endlessly writing them, coming up with ideas for them, researching them, finding appropriate images for them, writing copy, putting them together as a snazzy looking PDF that people can’t ignore and figuring out how to do all of these things in the first place.
Invoices - This is a real bugger. I spend a good part of my professional life creating them, chasing them up and asking my agent about them. This is simply a reality of life as a professional. But as a writer you will inevitably also end up having to pay invoices (musicians, singers, arrangers etc.) You will also need to set up a record keeping system for them.
Contracts - Learning to understand these is hugely important and extremely time consuming. But it’s a vital part of being a freelance writer. You can’t just leave things to your agent to sort for you, they’ll never know all of the precise details or questions you have in your head, that’s impossible for them or at the very least takes considerable investment and time in the agent/writer relationship. So at first you’ll need to take some time to learn about them.
Selling music online - Setting up of Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and iTunes accounts together with associated costs. Administration of arranging payment as well as associated advertising time spent on social media.
Profile and brand building - Building and maintaining profiles on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to promote your work. The building of a brand, logo creation (commission of designer to design logo etc.) Replying to enquiries from public regarding your work. The building of a website for your work, administration and payment for website maintenance (or learn how to do it yourself - cue a few months of trial and error). Maintaining an up to date CV, biography, headshot. Spending time actively building your profile in the industry in a manner of your choice. In my case, I blog. My blog takes up about 2-3 hours a month of time.
Supporting fellow writers - This is important to me and it takes an investment of time that is well worth it. Going along to their shows, their showcases, meeting for drinks to help each other out. You will always come away invigorated and it vastly helps you keep focussed on the main reason you have to do all the other stuff above.
CONCLUSION ON THE WRITING ILLUSION
So there you go. That’s what I spend a lot of my time doing out of necessity to build the kind of profile that is necessary to be in line for commissioned musical theatre works in the UK.
Then of course, somewhere amongst all of this I get to have the pure unadulterated joy of actually sitting down and writing music & lyrics for shows.
In order to maintain a living from writing (not teaching and not musically directing) I am currently at work on 15 different shows at different stages of development. For the record, last year I made £21,000 or thereabouts. And about £16K of that was from writing. The rest came from an administration job in higher education that I do roughly four days per month.
This is my reality as a composer & lyricist for the theatre working in London. I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Of course I’d love to spend more time writing but if this is the cost then I don’t mind paying it. I don't mean to disccourage all the budding writers out there, but it's good to be prepared for a slightly different reality than the one that might be inside your head.
It's still a fucking AWESOME way to make a living people.
My experience won’t be the same as anyone else's. But if you are a composer/lyricist sitting somewhere out in the internet, imagining twiddling at the piano in that house in France all day if you could just be a professional writer, be under no illusion, you’re going to be doing a hell of a lot more than writing…
And you better be ready for that.