In this post, Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau shares his experience of making a living in the music business without being a superstar.
Every working musician’s career story is unique. Most have careers they could not have predicted, and most don’t know what the future holds. However, many people who last in the music business share similar traits, which are as important as their musical skills. Having patience and resilience, being a good listener, and showing up on time are just the beginning. It’s also important to be organized, work hard, and get along with a wide variety of people. But enough generalities for now. Let me tell you my story.
Make it Happen
“There are two types of music. Good music, and the other kind.” – Duke Ellington
I started out as a drummer. While attending high school in New Brunswick, Canada, the lack of local musicians made it possible for me to get work playing in country bands, marching bands, cover bands, and local musicals. I wasn’t very good, but I got paid, and that seemed pretty darn cool. These experiences taught me at an early age to be open to any style of music.
For college, I went to a music school and got some real performance skills. Then I went out and tried to make a living. Unfortunately, it was really hard to find enough work in Montreal, where I lived at the time. After hearing a few promising stories about work prospects in Japan, I packed my bags and moved to Tokyo. I went without contacts and little money in the bank. I made a demo and started going from club to club, trying to get a gig. Eventually, I convinced the owner of a club which did not currently have live music to let me set up and play. If they liked it they could pay me. Fortunately, they liked it!
This set of actions defined my professional career. After school, I could not make a living, so I moved to a place where there were more opportunities. I then created a job that did not exist previously. This gave me confidence and visibility, and with that visibility came opportunity.
One night, a saxophone player came to the club and sat in. The next day he sent a driver to my place to take me to Sony Studio for a recording session. While I was there, I started messing around with a synthesizer that was connected to a basic midi program (MOTU Performer 2.0). He liked what I did and offered me a job to write music for him that we would then record, and perform on tour. I had no idea how to do this but said yes. I had landed my first computer and synthesizer programming gig.
By taking this job, a whole world opened up to me. I was not qualified, but I knew that I could build on the skills I already had. I got to work and learned about programming as fast as possible. As a working musician, you’ll find that you’re never completely qualified for any job that you’re offered. However, it is almost always better to say “Yes” and do it to the best of your abilities. Otherwise you’ll be stuck at home reading a manual, waiting for the next opportunity. When it comes, you won’t be completely qualified for that one either. At some point, you have to be willing to learn on the job.
A few years later, I moved to San Francisco where I was able to get involved in sound design, originally through an ad on Craigslist. Around the same time, I began to incorporate live looping and real-time sequencing (with Ableton Live 1.5 and Reason 1.0) into jazz and world music groups. These groups wanted to sound more “modern” but had no idea how to do so. I didn’t know exactly what to do either, but I was willing to try. The more I worked and collaborated with these groups, the more people saw and heard what I could do. The contacts I made through these projects led me to work as a producer and remixer for Six Degrees Records. This led to work for music branding companies, some film scoring and even a little advertisement work (at which I failed miserably).
Currently, I’m doing live sound effects and percussion for a live concert accompaniment of a full-length animation called The Triplets of Belleville. We will be touring concert halls and international jazz festivals on and off for the next year. Originally, I was brought in to make some sample banks of bicycle spokes and plucked refrigerator samples using Native Instruments Kontakt. Once in the door, I showed I had other skills that made me an integral part of the project.
Say “yes” to opportunities and over the years you’ll acquire a unique skill set that makes you highly valuable in all sorts of situations.
Another reason I’ve been able to work in such a wide variety of situations is my ability to talk to artists and production companies, and ascertain what they really want. By listening, deciphering and comprehending, I can formulate suggestions and clearly articulate them. I can then take everyone’s ideas, mine included, and meld them into a clear musical vision that satisfies everyone.
I sometimes joke that my main job as a producer is being a therapist. In truth, it’s not far off. You need to get inside the heads of the people you’re working with so you can relate to them and direct them to a positive outcome. The art of listening is the most important skill of being a producer and collaborator.
No one can tell you how exactly to make a living in the music biz. Your route will be yours alone. Take chances, get out of your comfort zone, and don’t get discouraged. Do it for love and the money will follow. You’ll see these themes come up again and again, if you investigate the career arcs of other working artists. The stories are different on the surface, but the underlying principals that lead to success are universal.
Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.