EXPLORING THE AGE-OLD QUESTION: HOW TO BE FULFILLED CREATIVELY AND STILL MAKE MONEY
Mike Ausden, co-founder of live music booking agency Function Central, shares his journey to becoming a professional musician, and insights on how to lead the creative life you want whilst still earning a living.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do
I’m a guitarist and jazz trumpet player who was taught by Abram Wilson. A few years ago I set up a live music booking agency, Function Central – it’s an easy way for event planners, brides, grooms and just about anyone planning a party to find and book musicians online.
What were your experiences of arts education/creative education at school?
My school was very much focussed on classical grades. There was very little encouragement to learn jazz. I remember asking my trumpet teacher a question about jazz theory once. He didn’t have a clue and sent me off to ask Ted the guitar teacher next door. Unfortunately Ted was a rock guitarist who spent much of the day in an alcoholic stupor so this didn’t help. I left school armed with little more than a pentatonic scale and a hungry ear.
Despite this, my early classical education taught me the importance of developing and maintaining technical fundamentals. This is so important, no matter what genre you go on to specialise in.
After this I spent a year at The Guitar Institute, which is where I finally learnt jazz theory. I didn’t study jazz trumpet formally, but I don’t regret this; the jazz vocabulary I’d picked up on guitar was easily transferrable to the trumpet and playing a chord instrument had helped develop my sense of harmony. Ultimately, jazz is about getting out there, playing with people and for people, as much as possible. One gig is worth 10 rehearsals, as they say.
I think the main benefit of a higher education in music is to learn in a structured, supportive environment, where you can build relationships with other students who will later become your professional network.
Of course, it’s the work we put in at music college which counts, rather than the grade per se. We get gigs due to the quality of our playing (and our attitude) rather than our degree certificate. Also, I’m a bit suspicious of grades and exams in music. Too much pressure can produce a climate of fear (of failure), which can sap the joy from music and slow the learning process. Jazz, after all, is about freedom and celebration. The desire to learn and improve has to come from within.
Tell us about your journey as a creative professional from leaving school to where you are now. What have been the key highlights?
After university I played guitar in signed bands and supported myself through paid functions on the weekends. I started Function Central with a friend as a way of advertising my own band, and my friends’ bands online. So it grew from there. We now have 400 artists on the roster, including function bands, DJs, string quartets and jazz bands. We provide live music for around 2500 events a year all over the UK.
Now that we have a small team behind us I have more time for music than I did in the early days. I only came back to jazz trumpet five years ago, after a long hiatus, which coincided with meeting Abram. Within the first 15 minutes of my lesson with him, he’d fixed a few technical issues I’d been having and encouraged me to take my playing seriously again. He was an inspirational teacher and person! Thanks to Abram, I’m now gigging regularly on trumpet and writing music again.
What are the challenges and what are the rewards of pursuing a creative career?
No day is the same and each one brings with it new experiences. Music – particularly jazz – is a sociable art form so it’s a wonderful world in which to meet new people and appreciate other people’s musicality. Jazz venues and gigs are usually very welcoming places, so musicians really feel the freedom to explore their own creative expression.
I suppose the age-old challenge is how to be creatively fulfilled whilst generating an income. There are very few musicians who end up playing exactly what they want 100% of the time. Jazz gigs can be particularly badly paid and many musicians may need to teach or play in a wedding band to make ends meet. But there’s no shame in functions! Three well-paid wedding or corporate gigs on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday could be enough to support a passion for German jazz experimentalism throughout the rest of the week.
A lack of routine and structure can be frustrating for many musicians. To make progress you need to be self-motivated and inspired at all times. I’ve learned how important it is to schedule gigs at regular intervals (or exhibit if you’re an artist; publish if you’re a writer). Having your art appreciated by an audience and fellow musicians is so rewarding. That validation – even if it’s a nod of appreciation – is a powerful incentive to keep learning and practising. It keeps you remembering why you picked up an instrument in the first place.
How can musicians interested in Function Central get in touch with you?
Send a description of your act (whether you’re a soloist or a band), together with links to any promotional material you have to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll let you know if it’s something we’re currently looking for. If it’s not, we’re happy to provide advice on any changes you could make to things like demos and song selection in order to make your act more marketable for function work. We work with a range of clients and events, so if you’re at a good standard musically and have a great repertoire, chances are you just need a few tweaks to your material and brand to get you function-ready. And you don’t need to play it safe. Even in the function world it’s possible to feel creatively fulfilled, especially if you’ve got an original idea. Events companies get excited by acts that offer something different, so if you’re thinking of putting something really original together, get in touch and we can offer advice on how to polish your act and help you find your audience!