With over 25 years on the NZ music scene under his belt and a three-time NZ Music Awards finalist, Wellingtonian Rob Joass has experienced a thing or two. His music bio is very lengthy. He writes compulsively, tours incessantly, teaches guitar, produces albums and can be found behind a mixing desk live and in the studio when time allows. In March 2019, he released a solo album called ‘Pencarrow’. We asked Rob to let us in on his tips for a happy career in music.
The following is based on a workshop I gave at the Ara Institute of Canterbury School of Music recently. Thanks to those who participated for their questions and thoughts.
Here are my six tips for a happy career in music – but before I even get started, this is not for the Lordes and Neil Finns of this world. Sure, be incredibly talented, famous and good looking if that is the hand God or fate (your choice) dealt you, but I know little about that rarified air. This is for us mortals…
Recording, mixing, live engineering, photography, graphic design for posters and album covers, press release writing, promotion and publicity and booking tours are a few things that I’ve learned to do myself over the years that can cost a ton of money if you ask a professional to do them for you.
Recording and releasing an album can cost a small fortune, but if you spend say $10k on your album and recoup $5k, you (or your nearest and dearest) will wind up unhappy. Be realistic about what you might sell, and set a budget. Being able to record some of your album yourself will save money, but remember, they aren’t called engineers for nothing.
So maybe you spend the money at first and pay attention to what the engineer is doing, or do a course. Or photography. I’ve taken shots for album covers over the years and enjoy the process, but I always pay a professional to take band publicity photos. A well framed professional looking photo is far more likely to get you an article or clicks on social media (and therefore free publicity) than something that looks a bit ordinary.
Okay, so I’m not advocating outright Marxist philosophy here, but minimising your overheads is the only way to go. Setting aside a portion of what you earn in order to buy your own van, PA, recording equipment etc will save you a fortune in the long run. It’s all about sustainable futures people! Here are a couple of related tips:
Taking up offers of accommodation when you are touring can make a big difference, and you get to meet some wonderful people. I’m not talking mattresses on floors here. There are many sympathetic souls with spare bedrooms who will welcome you into their homes. They will often cook a meal for you, so be a good guest. Never turn up empty-handed. Take wine, maybe a gift, and of course if you have merch give them some. When you are a long way from home having some home comforts laid on can make the whole thing a lot more bearable.
We also play on the Interislander in return for free passage. I tour in the South Island regularly, but if I had to pay for accommodation and the ferry my tours would lose money and I would have given it away long ago.
You have your good days. A great review, a full house, hearing yourself on the radio… hold those memories close, ‘cause there will always be a comedown coming right at you! Not everyone is going to love what you do, so try to filter those critics – especially the ones inside your own head.
We’ll all say we play for the love of music, but if that were 100% true then we wouldn’t really need an audience, would we? When we stand up in front of an audience, release a CD, or put a song up on whatever format on the internet, what we’re looking for is validation.
To my mind, there are three types of critics. Some people (like your mum) will listen to you with their hearts, and will always love what you do. These people are great to have in your life, but not really helpful as critics.
Some people will listen with their egos. These people might even be your friends, but they will feel your success as their failure and will look for reasons to run your stuff down. (Conversely, don’t be one of these people. Envy green is not a good colour on you.) There are also some music critics who seem to feel that dumping on artists is good fun. Filter that shit right out.
Find people (friends and critics) who understand your music and will listen with their ears. Constructive criticism can hurt but it is invaluable. Being the best musician you can be is a lifetime’s work, and these are the people who can tell you what you need to work on in order to achieve that.
All of which leads me to:
What are you in this for? I read something recently about a 15-year-old hell bent on “making it” in the music industry, and his mother being worried about what happens if he doesn’t. I’m not sure what “making it” even means. Of course in this society, it implies fame and fortune, but if you are any sort of student of contemporary music you’ll know well that that road is littered (literally and figuratively) with the corpses of those who tried and failed.
Or succeeded. At the risk of sounding like a motivational meme, success comes from within you. If you love music and want it to be your life, then managing to do that IS success. You might be giving a few lessons or playing some covers gigs, but that’s all part of the big picture. And it’s probably worth mentioning that I have learned an enormous amount from teaching and playing covers. You won’t become a better musician by spending 40 hours a week in an office or courier van, or whatever.
Talented but “difficult” artists might create great work (sometimes) but they are more trouble than they are worth in the long run. They might burn brightly, but they will burn briefly, and they will suck the joy of music right out of you. Big egos and/or drug and alcohol problems are best avoided. In others, and ourselves…
Venue managers and owners in this country are by and large good people and we deal with each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect, but there are those who will treat you as a necessary evil.
Disclaimer for my wife – that’s not why I married you, honey! I’m being very ironic here. Supporting yourself as a musician is nobody’s responsibility but your own. Music owes you nothing. Being able to stand on your own two feet and know that you don’t owe anybody anything is, to me, infinitely preferable to surviving on the dole and hoping to get a grant to achieve a goal.
On good days, there is no better job in the world. People will actually pay to hear you, then stand up and applaud you for doing something you love. Pretty sweet, eh? You meet amazing people and get to see this country, and maybe even the world, in a way that very few people get to do. It ain’t easy, but it’s a great life.