Musical Working Styles and Professional Settings

We need to make a few broad generalizations before we discuss paying jobs in the music business. There are many exceptions to these generalizations, but they’re still basically accurate.

Different musicians have different working styles. And different professional environments call for different skill sets. Most musicians are trained in a particular working style, and most don’t understand other working styles outside of their own.

There is a deep-rooted misunderstanding among professional musicians and teachers about the differences in working methods between what we will call ‘classical,’ ‘studio,’ and ‘computer-based’ musicians. If you’re a songwriter, you can add ‘self-taught’ to that list. Get these different professional types together in a group, and the disconnect between them is apparent right away. They struggle to find common language.

In this series, we’ll look at different work settings in the music business, and what it takes to make it in each setting. We are spelling all of these things out because they are¬† not obvious to many of our students, or to people struggling to get into ‘the biz.’

First, let’s go back to basics. The main activities in any musical setting are playing, reading, writing, and creating based on a knowledge of songs and styles. In the music business, there are natural divisions of labor. It’s possible for one person ‘to do it all,’ but most recorded music is a collaboration by several people.

Here at Percussion Center, we have programs designed to train you to ‘do it all.’ But in today’s world, sometimes ‘doing it all’ means ‘jobbing part of it out.’ For instance, we hire outside musicians to record on our songs, and we get David Williams at Vault Recording to master our finished tracks before they go up on iTunes.

Let’s take the division of labor between writers and musicians. This division goes back to the days before Tin Pan Alley, before Stephen C. Foster. This ‘division’ is not iron-clad. There are plenty of great songwriters who double as outstanding instrumentalists with a thorough understanding of music, like Elton John, Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder on keys, or Richard Thompson, Stephen Stills or John Mayer on guitar. But they are exceptions to the rule. Typical songwriters don’t know how to notate the melodies to their songs, and are not technically advanced on any instrument.

The division of labor between songwriters, instrumentalists and music producers is common¬† because the skill sets for these jobs are completely different. Instrumentalists are not wordsmiths, are not engineers. That’s why, in the music business, these specialties are constantly seeking each other out.

Part of finding your way in ‘the biz’ is deciding which part of the business you want to concentrate on. It’s better to get very good at one thing than to be not very good at many things. We live in a specialized society, and we work in a collaborative field.

The core of your business is music, so it is best to learn as much about music as possible. Knowing musical literature and history means knowing it by ear. Names, dates and places – things described by words have practically nothing to do with understanding music. What you ‘understand’ is what you can reproduce, reverse engineer, and re-state in another creative context.

In other articles, we will break down musical working styles, and working environments, into a few broad categories. We’ll call them ‘classical,’ ‘self-taught,’ ‘studio,’ and ‘computer-based.’ The division between these groups is pronounced, but there is a lot of overlap between them. For instance, everyone is ‘self-taught’ to some extent. I’ll describe what I mean by that term later.

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