To succeed you need to be good but there is also a good deal of luck.
Shininglights has been talking to artists about the interaction between music and money. The aim is to understand how different artists approach this and how individuals can apply this to their own circumstances (whether as a musician or any other profession).
In this interview we talk to Ruth Royall. Ruth is a Bristol based artist who started on the music scene when she was 16 and for the last few years has been making a living purely from music.
We caught up with Ruth to understand more about how she has approached this.
SL: “Can you start by giving us a potted history of your career to date?”
RR: I grew up in Stroud and at 16 moved to Bristol to attend Music College (Access to Music). At the same time I met Steve Parkhouse of Jelli Records. This connection opened up the folk scene and over the next couple of years this was my main focus.
Much of my time in between college was gigging and this led me to the attention of a record label in Oxford which I signed for at the age of 19. At the time I had stepped back from folk and was developing my sound. The record label could see the Jazz side of my voice and with them we worked on developing this.
This cumulated in the production of my first EP, “Barracuda”. This was followed by tours across Germany and Holland which received a lot of praise. Shortly after, the contract with the record label came to an end.
From that moment I started to self-manage myself and sought an independent manager to work alongside me. I signed to a manager in Bristol very much on my own terms to give me the freedom to develop. At the time I was living in London and as part of the change it seemed the right time to come back to Bristol and redevelop as an artist. One of the first things I did with the management company was to re-record Mercy as my first single.
Moving forward to today, I have been developing a new sound and put together a new line up which was introduced for the first time at the Malt House at the end of 2015. This is a new chapter for me and gigs have already been booked for 2016 including festival slots.
SL: “Describe your musical style and how this has developed over time?”
RR: I am foremost a songwriter. Having the ability to redevelop my sound has given me the realisation that I want the focus to be on the songs I write. My musical style is R&B/Soul with an electronic mix but with a delicate space to hear the song. There is story telling but I aim to write songs about people rather than myself and therefore find the listener can relate more to them.
My musical style has changed and developed and this is important because it gives me confidence and clarity in what I am doing. If you consider an artist like Paolo Nutini who started out very young, he has been able to mature his sound from his first album and this is really important for an artist because the record label is selling an artist rather than a genre (like some pop artists).
SL: “I’d be interested to know who inspires you musically?”
RR: In my younger years I was inspired by the music played around the house which included songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and Annie Lennox. At the time I was interested in how they put the songs together.
As I moved into playing Jazz I started to listen to the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, with the focus shifting to the voice. Now I will listen to dance music and pull it apart to understand how it is made. The likes of Sigma, Rudimental and Clean Bandit have made dance music more commercial with the focus on the singer (Ella Eyre, Sam Smith, Jess Glynne etc).
I have moved from “old school” to discovering a whole world of music. Other influences include Jamie Woon, who takes real instruments with an electronic element, and Massive Attack.
This has led me to collaborations with the likes of Kevin Trail of the Streets and writing with other artists.
SL: “How have you seen the music scene change? What do you consider to be good/challenging change?”
RR: There are many more avenues for artists, which can be confusing.
Today it is “easier” to be an independent artist and do it yourself but there are lots of people doing it which also makes it very hard at the same time.
There is no magic formula to success and therefore you have to learn as you go along. I feel that PR is so important in music and this is an element you have to embrace as an artist. To succeed you need to be good but there is also a good deal of luck.
As a DIY artist you are your own PR agency, your own booking agent etc and you need to take this on board. There are many great musicians who don’t take this on and are therefore less likely to succeed.
Even being signed doesn’t make it easy. I feel that the industry can be very confusing for a young artist where they can become confused into thinking that opinion is fact. Much of it is just smoke and mirrors!
I find it scary but if you view it as a business then you are selling a product.
SL: “What was the trigger to make music your full time career, and how do you make a living from music?”
RR: Music has always been the main focus. At the start I did some work in bars and coffee shops but then started to teach singing. I have found that with gigs and session work teaching works well and can pick up the slack. It was therefore more about a natural shift then a conscious move.
I am currently teaching singing to students at Bridgwater College and this is great because these are young people who want to move into the industry professionally. Additionally, I also do function and corporate work.
SL: “What are the biggest challenges financially from making a career in music?”
RR: The hardest thing is the mental challenge of juggling things all the time.
You can work full time and earn money from original music but you have to work hard for a long time and it doesn’t always pay. There are therefore compromises, but these are not necessarily bad.
I feel the best thing to do as a musician is to be prepared to do everything! Never think you are failing because you are doing cover work. There seems to be stigma around things like session and function work but where else does the money come from? You can get a lot from this work and whatever you do you are still making money as a musician.
I have made money from original music but as I have been redeveloping my sound this has stopped. Last summer I worked with some fantastic artists doing function work which gave me time to develop my new sound. This year the focus will switch to my original work but it doesn’t lessen the importance of the other work I do.
SL: “In making this step, have you had to make compromises/sacrifices with your music, and financially?”
RR: It is all about choices. When I was younger I would do anything but now it is about getting the right gigs. Of course there are sacrifices and you have to put food on the table so naturally you will take things to pay the bills. In part, having the teaching job at the college provides an element of stability but I am used to this way and therefore don’t really know any other route.
SL: “You have released your music as downloads rather than physical versions. How have you funded the making of your music and do you have a preference for download over physical?”
RR: It is more expensive to produce physical CDs although with the single “Mercy” I did produce a small number of home-made versions to hand out. The design is easier now because there are websites that help you create your own design.
Downloads are more accessible and this tends to be a route many of my friends have gone down. Having said that, having something to give people at a gig is really good.
Turning to the funding of “Mercy”, this was done via the management company. I am currently putting together an EP with a producer and they will get part of the royalties in exchange for producing the EP.
At this stage the focus is on developing the sound and getting out and playing. Once I have some money from this I can look at using this to fund a PR campaign and decide whether a physical version should be produced alongside the download.
SL: “What made you decide to set up the Bristol Sessions?”
RR: I set this up about six months ago as a hub for amazing musicians to come together and play. My band are the house band and then we invite singers to come and play. It is a brilliant networking opportunity to meet other musicians and see what they are doing.
Although there are open mic nights in Bristol there is nothing like this. I saw this in London and have created the same thing with my own spin. It was initially two nights a month and I am relaunching it in February as part of the BBC Introducing Radio 6 slot which will also include some fantastic singers like James Paton and Alice Wild.
I feel it is a big soul driven family all playing good quality music and it is building a good following as well.
The new sessions will be once a month.
SL: “What do you see as your main goals over the next five years?”
RR: I would like to be doing choice gigs with a focus on small bars and lovely venues including touring Europe. The focus is on making money from original music which would include writing with different artists and collaborations.
Really it’s a refined version of what I am doing at the moment but with more time off!
SL: “And finally, what are your favourite venues and where would you like to play in the future?”
RR: In London I liked the Roundhouse and in Bristol the Folk House. The Folk House has a brilliant sound engineer (Rich) and this makes a big difference but also is where it started so it is a natural home.
For the new sound I want to find venues other than pubs and clubs, where the music will be heard. I would like to play in places like the Shepherds Bush Empire and the Albert Hall.
It has been interesting to get an understanding of how Ruth approaches her career both in terms of developing her style and financially.
I have only recently come across Ruth’s music and her track ‘Mercy’, and you feel that raw talent in her music. Just listening to a clip from her re-launch you still have that but the electronic mix makes it something very different. Really looking forward to seeing the new look hopefully in June when they play in Bristol and then hearing it on the EP (perhaps a physical version!!!)
If you take one thing from this it is about being flexible to enable you to work in the industry you enjoy.