What does it take to make it in the arts and the music industry? Northern Soul investigates
As Fame‘s tough love dance teacher Lydia Grant so aptly put it at the start of the classic TV show: “Fame costs and right here’s where you start paying…in sweat!”
The entertainment world is full of clichés extolling the virtues of the fame game but these days you don’t have to possess actual talent to be invited into the big league. Television in particular is polluted by reality ‘celebrities’ for whom the definition of the word ‘star’ involves selfies, implants and the ability to make us all want to repeatedly hit them.
Spare a thought then for the genuinely talented who find the industry a tough nut to crack. It’s said ‘talent will out’ but working hard and perfecting your craft doesn’t always guarantee instant results. The truth is that it can be a long, slow process to get a foot in the showbiz door.
So, what does it take to make it as a full-time professional performer? Northern Soul spoke to some rising Manchester-based talents from the worlds of comedy, music and theatre to find out.
KATE McCABE, comedian
Who? Raised in Pennsylvania, McCabe started her comedy career in New York. Since becoming an honorary Mancunian, she’s performed stand-up, done improv and hosted her own comedy nights. This month she performs her first full length piece Stuff & Nonsense at the Manchester Women Of Comedy Festival.
During preparation for her solo show, I asked McCabe about the hardest part of making it in the world of comedy.
“For me it’s maintaining the discipline and drive to keep doing it alongside my full-time day job which I need to make money to live. You need to work equally hard on your craft. I feel very lucky that my employer allows me flexibility to come in a little later if I’ve been performing a gig out of town the night before. I’ve been really blessed to be able to support myself while pursing my dream as a lot of comics don’t have that.”
Like almost every other business, the entertainment world is about who you know rather than what you know. For McCabe, though, contacts can be a hindrance as well as a help.
“I’ve never had representation or been plucked from obscurity by an agent,” she says. “Being represented works really well for some comedians but for others, depending on your management, it’s not always worth the effort. Friends of mine are doing extraordinarily well having a great agent in their corner to take them to the higher echelons of the industry but it’s important not to bend over backwards to sign to the first agency that shows interest because many don’t know how to sell you yet still take their commission. Without that help though, you have to be very creative and industrious to promote yourself. I get out there as much as I can hosting my own comedy night and performing with two different improv groups. Comedy competitions like So You Think You’re Funny are also great because even if you don’t make the finals it looks good on your CV.”
It seems apparent that in showbusiness the emphasis is very much on the ‘business’ and the admin rather than the artistry. But for McCabe it’s all about keeping a healthy balance.
“A big part of a comedian’s career is getting the creative juices flowing. I’m trying to craft my solo show every spare moment when I’m not gigging or at my day job but it’s not just coming up with jokes. You also have to manage all aspects of the profession, book gigs, sort out invoices and taxes, update webpages. You also can’t just rely on clubs and the gig circuit because you may not always be what they want. It’s important to know where your strengths are rather than assume you’re good enough to get gigs here there and everywhere.”
Despite the level of effort involved, plus the inevitable disappointments along the way, McCabe’s motivation to pursue her comedy ambitions remains strong.
“I want to perform and write comedy full-time,” she explains. “I also want to push myself creatively with my long-form show which is the first time I’ve done a bespoke piece of new material generated for a particular performance. I also want to entertain people, that’s why anyone wants to be a comedian. It’s a mutually satisfying relationship when it goes well because you’re also making people feel good. Also, and no less important, I want to get attention. For me it’s about framing myself in a new way. People might know that I’m a safe choice to do an opening 20-minute slot but not be aware that I have the ability to write a 50-minute piece, so the new show might take me to another level. I just hope to god that it’s funny.
“The show is about nursing your fantasy life and maintaining idealism in a world that’s increasingly cynical. I have fanciful plans for my life so I talk about how I cope when things aren’t going to plan via some semi-disastrous stories from my life. I can now look at them positively and gain wisdom or value from them. Reality tempers my comedy dreams to an extent. My current role is slowly wrapping up and I’d like to be put my energies into a day job connected to my creative ideals possibly teaching improv or doing marketing work in the creative industries. I see these are acceptable compromises.”
LIAM McCLAIR, singer/songwriter
Who? Cheshire-born singer/songwriter McClair has been writing and playing music since his teens. A full-time musician for just over a year, he has already supported Echo & The Bunnymen and Newton Faulkner and recently played one of his biggest gigs to date at The Ritz in Manchester.
As with the world of comedy, the trials of representation loom large in music, as McClair explains.
“Unless you’ve built up a big online following, you need a reputable agent or manager who can best represent what you do. As a songwriter it’s also easier to get something to happen with your own material if you have a publisher. The right people aren’t easy to find and of course they’ll take a cut of whatever you earn. If the fanbase is already there because you’ve done it in your own way at least it decreases the chances of someone coming in and asking you to change who you are. One of the other main difficulties is the inconsistency of getting regular, paid gigs performing my own stuff.”
The DIY aspect of promoting your own music online has been a game changer in terms of artists getting their music out there without the help of music industry bigwigs. But for every Lily Allen or Justin Beiber who have successfully used the internet to make it, there are countless others still trying to make it work for them. McClair has already achieved success with this route.
“My song Hunted did well on iTunes and it’s a useful tool but it’s open to everyone so increases the levels of competition,” he says. “You can get a high position on that chart and still not be able to make a living out of it but once you record something you have to find any way you can to get it noticed. In terms of radio, we only hear what stations want us to so the full range of what is available is never represented. Mavericks like John Peel aren’t around to help and a DJ like him probably wouldn’t even get hired by a commercial station now. Most DJs don’t even choose the music they play. It’s all computer play-listed via demographics rather than actual musical value. I was fortunate to be featured on the local BBC Introducing slot which was great as they can suggest one of your tracks to be played by all the other shows as well so it’s a great opportunity to cause a few ripples in the right places.”
He adds: “Record labels have access via pluggers to radio plays and that makes such a difference to your chances and profile. Play-listing by a station is generally the result of labels with enough money for a plugger to go in there and call in a few favours. Pluggers get paid regardless of whether your song gets played or not so it’s a gamble. Some people from America contacted me because they really liked one of my songs and thought it was guaranteed to do well in the charts. For $600 they wanted to promote it but there’s no guarantee they’ll be successful. Radio stations might just say it’s not for them so you’re no further forward and $600 down. It’s also easy for pluggers to manipulate what they say they’ve done for your money because you can’t prove anything.”
So music appears to be all about who you know and how much you are willing to spend. The days are long gone when a record label would sign an artist and give them time to grow (and fail a few times) before they made it. Now, as McClair explains, you have to hit the target first time out.
“There’s got be a level of security from the label’s point of view so you need to have a good following. They occasionally take on raw talent and nurture them but the days of the ‘difficult second album’ are well over as most acts never get to make a follow-up. You can do a ‘David Brent’ and pay for tours yourself hoping the right people come along and sign you but that’s a big financial ask for an up and coming act. I do the cover version circuit to earn a living in order to pursue my own original music. It’s not cheap to record, tour to gigs and buy instruments. A lot of musicians still stay at home in order to save. As I’m self-employed I also have to do promotion and marketing which extremely time consuming.”
The music business has traditionally been regarded as a young person’s game, with managers and labels only interested in finding the next ‘big thing’. It’s still early days but McClair is already realistic about the chances of making it big.
“I’m giving it everything for the next two years to see what happens. I can’t look past that yet but there will be a point where recording EPs, getting songs online and doing more shows will become repetitive if it isn’t going anywhere. One of the tricky things about being a full-time musician is that there’s a lack of validity to it when you’re at the lower level. If you train in a more tangible skill there’s a good chance you’ll find a job at the end of it but, in something more creative, people see it as a hobby rather than your job unless you hit the big time. Every band that has ever succeeded has had to go through that kind of negativity. It takes hard work and effort and a hell of a lot of luck.
“Right now I’m making just enough to keep everything ticking along which is an achievement in itself. I always hope to be involved in the creative side somehow though, possibly songwriting for other artists. However frustrating it is at times, I really love doing this.”
KAYLEIGH HARPER, director; DANIELLE JAMESON, actress
Who? Harper began the Without Theatre Company in 2014 while Jameson performed in the company’s recent production Hollow Can You Go? A Journey into the Perpetual Limbo of Depression.
The acting profession is famed for its ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ attitude to new talent. Possibly the most competitive of all the creative areas, at any given time around 90 per cent of actors are out of work. With such daunting statistics it’s clear what one of the hardest things is about trying to make it in drama.
“When you’re looking for those first jobs, no one wants to give you the time of day and if you do manage to get some work, it’s really hard to get people to come and watch you,” says Jameson. “Without Theatre Company pay actors when funding is available but this is not the norm. There are even some open air companies in London where the actors have to pay them to be in a performance.”
“We’ve really struggled with our recent show to get reviews. We contacted magazines, newspapers and radio but nobody replied to us. Casting directors like to see you’re doing things so you have to take voluntary jobs just to gain experience and learn but then you run the risk of only ever being asked to do things for free. Many independent theatre companies start because it’s the only way the talent can get to do anything even if it is usually unpaid. It’s just how the arts world works here. We’ve been really fortunate to have received funding from the Arts Council for our show.”
Given the difficulties in getting work on stage, I wonder if the right contacts and a healthy budget allows sub-standard material to succeed? Jameson thinks so.
“I’ve seen some terrible stuff that has sold out and garnered five star reviews. Equally, you can have a fantastic show but end up with five people in the audience because you don’t know the right people. It costs money to pay for marketing contacts to get your show out there or to attract a known name to appear in it. The big theatres are very commercialised and put on musicals because that’s what’s bringing in audiences. The public aren’t risk takers anymore. They like to have heard of a show before shelling out for a ticket and are unlikely to see a new independent play unless it has a cult following or a telly name involved. I go to the Royal Exchange in Manchester a lot and see their numbers dwindle when it’s an unknown piece which is a shame because the people involved could very well be the next big thing.”
Theatre seems to have suffered more than most areas of the arts with online options providing the public access to entertainment any time, any place, anywhere. Perhaps there’s a need to re-educate audiences in the etiquette of the art form? Harper, however, understands the business aspects behind casting decisions.
“The Royal Exchange features Maxine Peake a lot. She’s a fantastic actress and has more than paid her dues but it sometimes feels like the venue hangs on to her name and what she does for them because the public know who she is and she’s a guaranteed draw. If this helps bring new audiences to the theatre though, it’s ultimately a positive thing.”
Manchester has a thriving theatre scene with a multitude of companies and venues peppered across the North West. And the arrival of MediaCity has opened up more potential for TV roles. But Jameson feels that London is still the place to be if you want a crack at the bulk of opportunities out there.
“I’m someone who has moved already (from Scotland) and there have been opportunities here that I wouldn’t have got back home, but eventually I’m going to move to London because the theatre scene is a lot bigger and most of the auditions tend to be held there. I can’t always take a whole day off work to go down and attend so it’s just more convenient when you’re supplementing your income with other jobs to be nearer the chances.”
It clearly takes a driven individual to push forward, whatever hurdles are placed in the way. Harper has a very clear idea of how she wants her career to progress.
“I’d like to run my own theatre company full-time, producing plays and also doing some acting, but it’s important to me to be developing emerging artists as well, helping them gain more experience to advance their careers. I’ve also done various marketing and event-led work so that’s hopefully a Plan B to fall back on. We all struggle to cover the bills at times and I have extra jobs just to keep afloat but ultimately it’s down to the kind of life you want and what makes you happy.”
Like McClair, Jameson has set herself an initial two-year plan.
“If, a couple of years down the line, it’s not working out, I’ll seek further training or just change the way I’m doing things. I just want to be an actress doing all different kinds of work, particularly the gritty roles that are now out there for women. The big thing about the creative industries is that you can’t give up. There’s no real time limit because this industry is always going to need older actors.”
By Drew Tosh
Main image: Liam McClair
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