‘Being a Singer-Songwriter is a different job to how it looks from the outside. Most people only see the peaks of the mountain – live shows, being in magazines and so on. So people make certain assumptions about the job. And the industry definitely tries to build up those misconceptions.’

Job: Musician.
Typical hours worked: Very flexible, depends on tasks. 
Profile: Darren is a white male in his 40s. He’s a self-employed singer-songwriter who lives in Scotland with his wife and their two children.

Career history

I almost fell into being a full-time Musician. I’ve messed about with music since childhood – I hadn’t been writing songs, but I was drawn to music as something that I got a lot out of myself. So, when working other jobs – cleaning, retail, office work –I’d still be involved in music, such as playing in a friend’s band, but I never thought of it as more than a personal challenge. I went to art school, so I always recognised the importance of keeping that creativity alive, but instinctively felt I needed a more traditional job to earn money. 

I began playing shows at night while working in an office. I had a young family at the time and I was, frankly, terrified about being able to survive. I tried to keep the office job going because any income from music was so unpredictable. But eventually things were restructured in the office and I was suddenly a full-time Musician. 

My working day

My job is so varied and can involve anything from performing, practising, and negotiating with agencies and my record label, to arranging live work, such as booking vans, arranging a band for a tour and securing accommodation. Very few of these are constant – they pop up sporadically. But the thread running throughout all of this is creating – working on writing and producing music. Unfortunately, that’s the one that often gets squeezed out by the others vying for attention.

An aspirational day often involves fishing for new ideas for songs and playing around with words and music. I also like to take time for creative reflection and find that walks in nature are especially conducive to this. So, I’ll often bring my phone and record voice notes as I go, or take a sketchbook and draw. Having this space helps me draw out new ideas and also gives me time to relax and focus on my wellbeing.

Work-life balance

A fair chunk of my work is done during what you’d call ‘unsociable hours’, and when I used to tour more frequently, sometimes abroad, I’d be away from my family for a long time. And those working environments – bars and clubs, late at night – aren’t the healthiest. Drinking, drugs and the general mayhem of touring life is definitely culturally normalised, even celebrated, in the music industry. But I do think awareness has shifted in recent years and there is less expectation to stay up all night with promoters when you have to be on the road again early the next morning. This has allowed me to set stronger boundaries – staying sober, going home early. But I recognise now that being away from my family was more damaging than I realised at the time.

With social media blowing up and interacting with fans online becoming much easier, I’ve also recognised that I can’t be constantly connected, more for my mental health than anything. But I do find it easy to get sucked into that.

Job design

The variety my job offers also brings a precarious nature to work. One month may be quiet and then the next there’s suddenly radio, live shows, merchandise to create and sound engineers and promoters to talk to. Things swing quickly and do sometimes feel unmanageable. Fortunately, my wife is particularly supportive and recognises when I’m becoming overworked. 

One thing that’s fascinating to me and has become more apparent with time is how my work brings me into contact with different people and brings value to their lives. I’ve struggled to recognise that, but standing up on stage in front of an audience and seeing what my music brings to them is really enlivening.

Pay and benefits

I suppose I just got used to a life in which I never really knew when the next lot of money would come in. There were more years than not when my kids were growing up when we’d supplement our income with benefits. And I did often question whether this year would be the year when I stop and move into more traditional work. Things feel more secure now, but working in service jobs earlier in my life felt more financially secure than now. I setup a monthly Patreon community over lockdown, which was quite a big deal for me. It not only made me aware that there’s a collective will for me to produce music for my audience. It was also the first time I’d known that money would be coming in regularly. I definitely think the freedom, self-direction and creatively compelling nature of my work has come at the expense of financial security.

Health and wellbeing

I’ve come to realise the potential my work has to impact my physical and mental health in extreme ways, for better and worse. The early years were awful for my mental health. I was drinking, taking drugs and surrounded by mayhem. Combine that with isolation, a lot of unaccountable time and being in spaces which rely heavily on alcohol sales, and it was probably the worst thing I could have chosen to do. And physically, on tour, I was eating badly and sleeping poorly. Performing is also like a drug – you reach a peak experience and then you’re bound to drop off. So, I definitely recognise the destructive nature of my work.

On the flipside, I’ve realised this work can impact my health very positively. I now have flexibility, so I can exercise every morning and I can spend more quality time with my family. But even now, working for myself and having few clear external forces pushing me to work is hard. I understand that what I produce has value to others, but that’s often not tangible – there’s no one saying ‘Where’s Darren? Why’s he not at work today?’ So that can lead to demotivation and isolation. And I understand the privilege of my position – this is a rare opportunity most people don’t get, so it often feels like it’s resting on me and I don’t know what path to follow. Leaning on others, particularly mentors, and asking for their help has been an effective way of dealing with that.

Relationships at work

I spend a lot of my time making music solo, but I do sometimes work with a band, especially when touring. The person closest to a conventional line manager is my record label contact. It really feels like we’re allies: I want to do well with the record I make and he benefits from that, so he’s very supportive of my work. 

This is something I’ve fostered over the years with various creative people in the industry – suppliers, visual artists, screen printing companies and photographers, among others. I’ve been burned a couple of times with promoters, through things like miscommunication, but I just make the decision to avoid working with them again. There’s always potential for that, as a lot of this work relies on goodwill, but I have found building that network very helpful.

Voice and representation

I have a lot of agency and voice in my work. I’m not a member, but there’s a musician’s union that advocates for musicians and some of my bandmates are members. The way I work is small and it’s a close-knit group – I work with people I trust and who I know are open to giving me a level of control and voice to work effectively. I have final say on different aspects of my work, whether that’s the creative process, organising a tour or liaising with the record label. So, if I’m unhappy with any element, I am able to voice that. 

Reflections

It’s a different job to how it looks from the outside. Most people only see the peaks of the mountain – live shows, being in magazines and so on. So people make certain assumptions about the job. And the industry definitely tries to build up those misconceptions. But what people forget is there’s a backstage where many different elements, requiring a wide skillset, are being worked on to ensure everything goes to plan.

You definitely have to have some obsession with music or you wouldn’t do this job – you don’t choose it for the money. It almost goes against the main reason most people work, which is for financial security. I think that obsession has also helped me with discipline – I’ve always struggled with discipline but something in that obsession has helped me focus on acquiring the skills I need to improve and overcome challenges, through small failures along the way.

Thinking points for people managers

  • Job satisfaction and loving what you do is key for this type of work – understanding this and learning about its impact is something that could be effectively applied to all jobs.
  • Mentoring and having someone to bounce ideas off is another positive element to this story. It would be useful to consider how this could be rolled out across other workplaces.
  • The balance between having clear direction and autonomy is a factor to consider in all jobs. How can that best be managed to ensure individuals feel valued, gain job satisfaction from what they do and that organisations gets the best out of them?
  • Reward and financial security are important, but they are not the only motivator – consideration of factors such as job design, recognition and work-life balance is key to ensuring job satisfaction. Understanding individual goals and aspirations is also important to ensure high performance in role and retention.
  • Opportunities to collaborate and work in teams is important for individual health and wellbeing – giving people the opportunity to share ideas and feed off each other is important for job satisfaction.

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