How to get ahead in pop

‘You can be the best player in the world but if you don’t know how to market that and how to sell that then you’re not going to make a living,’ says the Royal Northern College of Music’s Andy Stott.

Bekki Bemrose
  • By Bekki Bemrose
  • 12 Dec 2019
  • min read
‘You can be the best player in the world but if you don’t know how to market that and how to sell that then you’re not going to make a living,’ says the Royal Northern College of Music’s Andy Stott.

Andy is head of popular music at the Manchester conservatoire, which offers the UK’s only four-year Bachelor of Music (Hons) in Popular Music.

Led by the kind of institution that is traditionally known for fostering classical talent, the course aims to provide the same level of excellence for students wishing to pursue pop music.

The course offers a rigorous and broad programme of study and will soon benefit from a new collaboration with the venerated Abbey Road studios.

Students on the RNCM’s popular music degree course will have the opportunity to collaborate with students on the Institute’s Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering and work in the iconic Abbey Road Studios.

Additionally, the RNCM recently announced it has selected nine students to become RNCM Pop Music Ambassadors and music role models of the future.

Ollie West and Charlie Sinclair, of the art rock band Sylvette, are two of the first ambassadors.

Both Ollie and Sylvette have recently released singles – Panel of Glass (Sylvette) and the double a-side Home/Thank You and Goodbye (Ollie West) – as they begin their post-course careers.

We sat down with Andy, Ollie and Charlie to get some insight into the course, how it’s shaping students’ careers and what advice they have for emerging artists…

What inspired you to run a pop course at the Royal Northern College of Music?

Andy Stott: Manchester has got an amazing, really diverse and rich cultural history, and pop music is a big part of that. So there’s a scene here that’s important within the world of popular music, and the opportunity to take that to the next level in terms of education and putting a pop programme into a well-established, well-respected, world class conservatoire environment was just a really exciting opportunity when it came around.

What is the process of identifying new talent?

Andy Stott: I think it’s a two-way thing, actually. I think the talent identifies us. They do come to see what we do, our open days, and they look online a lot at our promo stuff and our videos.

In terms of what we do proactively to sort of make that happen, a lot of it is around getting out and meeting people and going to schools and going to colleges. Thankfully, we are massively over-subscribed, so it’s a case of getting out there, I think, and being visible and meeting people.

Charlie and Ollie - what drew you to the Royal Northern College of Music to study on the pop course?

Charlie Sinclair: I felt like I was going to be able to get the best out of pop, but also have a wider education which would help me to expand my knowledge as much as possible, which I felt was necessary to try and make a living when I left.

Ollie West: It was really the only pop course at the time that was being held in a royal conservatoire. I was applying for a mixture of composition and popular music courses. It was an opportunity for a popular music course to be surrounded by all sorts of musicians and really high calibre classical musicians.

Can you talk a little bit about what you experienced while on the course and what you think you got from it?

Charlie Sinclair: I'd say the best part of the course overall is just the amount of musicians I've met and mixed with. You're constantly analysing what it is you want and making music with those students.

It's why we're all now in a position where we feel quite confident about the music that we want to make and how we enjoy music going forward for the rest of our careers.

Ollie West: I think I made loads of really good connections for the future because you're so integrated in the community with so many amazing musicians. I think the thing you get most out of it, other than of course being tutored by amazing people and meeting musicians, is actually making contact with those people who are on the course with you, who are now so integral to what I do as an artist and songwriter.

Can you explain what it means for a student to become an ambassador and what the process of selection is?

Andy Stott: A lot of the alumni up there now have got great success stories. We wanted to try and forge a mechanism that enabled us to keep in touch with them and them keep in touch with us and be more active in an ambassadorial role.

You were both chosen to become an ambassador, what does that role mean to you?

Charlie Sinclair: My band, Sylvette, went back and did a masterclass just on where we were at, and I was able to do that because I was an ambassador. It’s continuing the connection to the college, which is really lovely. It's also a network for myself with the other ambassadors of just strengthening all of our connections back to where we studied at the RNCM.

Ollie West: It's really great to be considered and chosen as a representative of such a high calibre course. What it means is when we go out and do things in the world, the RNCM have given us such a good backbone, such a good training and we want to promote that once we get people who are aspiring to be musicians involved in that conservatoire lifestyle and part of that because it's such an amazing opportunity.

The course covers the entrepreneurial side of the industry alongside the creative aspects. How important you think it is that emerging artists have a handle on the business side of being a music creator?

Andy Stott: I think it’s crucial. A lot of musicians, when you’re starting out, it’s kind of DIY, isn’t it? They’ve got multiple income streams. They have got original projects that they are trying to support through doing other paid work which perhaps is not their end game, but they’ve got to try and develop themselves as a brand, as a business. We teach all of that in the programme. I am very keen on making sure that that is as important as practising your instrument.

You can be the best player in the world but if you don’t know how to market that and how to sell that then you’re not going to make a living, are you?

Charlie Sinclair: It's vital because you learn very quickly that if you can't make a living, if you can't make ends meet, then you have to compromise your time and your music very quickly.

I think it means that you can get to a place where you can continue to learn and be creative, which is the most important thing. I think without that part of the course or without that being emphasised, we'd be in a worse position.

Ollie West: Actually having a really good understanding of how a business works and how you can handle yourself and handle your finances – especially if you are a songwriter or artist – you have to be your own manager, you have to be your own tour booker, you have to be all these different roles that you didn't really realise you had to take on. Having that sort of guidance there really put us on another level.

Do you think attitudes are changing in relation to the credibility of popular music?

Andy Stott: I do, yes. I think there was kind of a hangover from the view that, ‘Well, The Beatles didn’t study pop music and they did alright, didn’t they?’ to what the actual music industry looks like 50 years on. I mean, it’s no longer The Swinging Sixties, is it? Technology has had a big part to play in the evolution of this, more and more students wanting to study it and take it seriously.

Charlie Sinclair: Traditionally classical students would look down upon the pop course, initially, but that was natural because it came out of nowhere and the classical course had been going for however many years, like decades. Suddenly, these pop students popped up who were very different and doing a totally different thing. It was like a bit of a clash of cultures, really.

With the amount of cross-collaboration it seemed to just become more and more natural. As far as I'm aware, all the barriers have been taken down on that.

Ollie West: I think there is still a way to go. I think there is certainly still a divide. I think it is shrinking though. I think courses like this are doing lots more to close that gap, especially with generations who are coming through both these courses now. People who are on classical popular music courses who are working now side by side with an equal degree in an equal environment, an equal level of set standard that you're supposed to be working at.

What do you think the main thing is that students will draw from your collaboration with Abbey Road?

Andy Stott: Well, there’s the experience of working with producers who have been there and done it. The producer who they worked with when they went down there before has been the head producer at Abbey Road for 20 years. Just working with him was an absolute joy and an experience that you can’t really buy. More importantly, it’s about them developing networks with their fellow students. Those guys on that programme, in the next five or 10 years, will be the lead producers in the industry.

What do you think the biggest challenges are that emerging artists face, currently?

Andy Stott: I think the saturation, really. There’s so much out there.

Social media and streaming and the like, it’s quite hard to use that to your advantage. It’s a brilliant thing when you do but there’s a lot of noise out there now and it’s very difficult trying to break through. I see this in my students. It’s a frustration for them because they are training at one of the top institutions in the world and the calibre of their work is first-rate. And it’s still really hard to get that out there, to the point where a record label, for example, might pick it up and invest in it.

Charlie Sinclair: I think the number one challenge is just keeping going, because you have to be so well known to start to make a profit as an artist or a band. Everyone has to have an income doing other stuff. For us, we're lucky because we're able to all do musical jobs, which means we can organise our time, still make time for it and still put everything into it.

Ollie West: I think saturation because everyone can release everything at any time. It makes it difficult for people to be heard. There are a lot of people who are doing really amazing stuff and aren't getting through. Not that everyone else is doing amazing stuff but I think it's a really good thing that everyone can actually write, be expressive and creative. I really encourage it.

But when you're a band who doesn't have a fan base, how do you build a fan base? How is it possible? People end up going round and round in circles with these issues.

What one piece of advice would you give to an artist who was just starting out?

Andy Stott: Be yourself. Work really hard. For me, it’s all about drive and determination and believing in what you’re doing, but nothing really comes for free, you’ve got to work super hard at it

Charlie Sinclair: I would say just do it for yourself, musically. When you're writing music, make sure that you're the most excited about it rather than anyone else. It's really easy to compare yourself to other projects or to see other amazing artists or bands and think, ‘Why can't I do what they're doing?’ But so long as you're really true to yourself, your influences and the music that you want to create, that's where, ultimately, you'll get the most fulfilment.

Ollie West: Don't stop. Never stop. I mean I am nowhere near qualified enough to give advice when we've nowhere near made it but the thing I've never ever done is stop. You can't ever give up because you never know where your next opportunity is going to come from, where it's going to be. You've just got to keep going.

For more information about the Royal Northern College of Music, please visit rncm.ac.uk