Welcome back to “Many Hats”, the career blog series where we explore the various jobs, opportunities and career paths available in the wonderful world of music. This week, front-woman, band manager, label owner and music tutor Melisa Kelly of Melisa Kelly and the Smokin’ Crows (check out their latest release ‘Not Today’ now) steps up to chat all about her diverse career. Following the release of her excellent solo album ‘Love Letters to the Master‘, Melisa gives us the low down on the skills and tips she’s accumulated over the years, and dishes out some great advice for today’s students just starting out on their career in music.
Why ‘Many Hats’ you ask? Well, we thought it fitting because it was a term that cropped up in almost every interview we did for the project. People working in the biz we call music often adopt ‘many hats’ during their careers, balancing and trying out a range of jobs and skills whilst also crafting their passion – we think that’s fab and totally under-appreciated in the wider world of work!
Of all the many hats, jobs, and opportunities available you may adorn over your time working in music, the one thing we can be sure of is that working hard and enjoying the time, is essential for success. But don’t leave it to us to tell you…
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
I’ve been working in the music industry for 12 years now and I’ve had lots of different jobs over that time… At the moment I am a freelance tutor, solo artist, band manager and front-woman of my band (Melisa Kelly and the Smokin Crows) and I have recently started my own record label as well! So it’s a very diverse collective of things! [laughs]
Amazing! What do each of those roles entail?
As a freelance tutor I teach vocals mainly, but I also teach songwriting, and I teach music career-related things like employability. I’ve been teaching for about 5 years now, privately and with the Academy of Music and Sound.
On the performance side of things, my solo work has been going for about a year now. I was releasing coinciding with my Masters which I’ve just completed and my band (the Smokin’ Crows) that I’ve had for 5 years now, we’ve just released an album and an EP. We perform up and down the UK – before lockdown at least! It’s a soul blues band which I’m also the manager of. I also part-manage the band with a record label called Holy Smokes Records.
I also have my own record label (Riot Queen Records) – I founded it because I felt that the gender and other inequality in the music industry needed addressing and there needs to be more women in positions of power! So the record label is exclusively for female artists, LQBTQ+ community and people of colour – to hopefully try and readdress the balance of promoted musicians in the Scottish Music Industry. That’s what I’ve got going on right now!
"The great thing about the music industry is that it’s constantly evolving.
If you want a career doing something you love but its also constantly changing and you’re being challenged all the time, the music industry is the place for that."
Lots and lots – that’s great! Do you think the ‘portfolio career’ is common for people working in music?
It kinda goes without saying really – you have to have a portfolio career as a musician. Within reason of course, you should be as diverse as you possibly can be, it means you’re more employable across the board.
As much as having a portfolio career is really important, I think the smart and healthy way to becoming incredibly diverse is having a good academic background as well. It’s one thing to have a great portfolio career, but when it comes to if you want to teach as an additional source of income, you can’t do that without qualifications.
It’s also about the experience of going through academia and networking. People forget when you’re going to go and do something like a BA, yes you’re going to get a great piece of paper that says ‘I know how to do this’ and you’re gonna learn awesome skills, but it’s also about the contacts you make.
Being diverse and having a portfolio career should be high on your priority list, but also honing your craft, being a better instrumentalist, being a better songwriter, being a better sound engineer… Without academia that’s gonna be really tricky and a hard slog. Having a bit of both is the best way forward without a doubt.
What’s the best thing about working in the music industry?
One of the best things is that you get to work with a lot of really amazing, innovative, creative people. If you’re a people-person, then the music industry is great! Also it’s such a creative way of working. Like I said, there’s so many different aspects of my career – every day is different and a new challenge. You get to work with someone new, or you get to work in a completely different office space that’s different from yesterday – that’s really fun!
Also, the great thing about the music industry is that it’s constantly evolving. What you’re doing today will not be what you’re doing in a year’s time. If you want a career doing something you love that’s also constantly changing and you’re being challenged all the time, then the music industry is the place.
It must be challenging at times, how about the most difficult parts?
Being self employed a lot of the time, you have to be self motivated – that’s hard. Especially in music, where instant gratification doesn’t exist, staying motivated can be tricky, but if you love it then you’ll find a way.
The other thing is working in an industry where there’s so much competition. It does feel sometimes that you’re in a sea or an ocean of other people trying to get to the same place, so it can be really tricky to get above and be seen. But I think as long as you think you’ve got something to sell and you love music, just understand that it’s a marathon not a sprint.
You mentioned taking music courses to hone your craft – how has music education helped you get to where you are today?
On quite a few levels. Initially my education through a HNC/HND and BA level, it reinforced that I was 100% in the correct job I wanted to do and that there was a lot of things I was good at. But also it showed up blindspots in my understanding of my vocals and my songwriting and instrumentalism – it also showed up stuff like my blindspots when it came to things like copyright law – stuff that I hadn’t even thought about when I was just starting out as a DIY artist!
"The nice guy finishes first in the music industry, so if you have a fantastic reputation as someone who is great to work with, you will get hired first over anyone else. Be nice to people, polite and professional, and just be a cool guy because that will get you a long way."
When you are a DIY artist (as most people sort of have to be now because of the way the music industry is) it’s really easy to develop blindspots and get overwhelmed. Definitely doing the performance BA with the Academy helped with that. And then you know – down to really brass tax stuff as well – the vocal tutor that I had, she was absolutely fantastic. Some of the information she gave me not only helped me become a better vocalist, but has given me foundational stuff that’s meant that the stamina of my voice has really lasted. I’ve been singing for 12 years over some very technically difficult music, I would probably be running into some really severe vocal problems at this point in my career if I hadn’t had that education or understanding.
The more you know, the better your craft is and the more employable you are. It’s the support as well. If you’ve got great lecturers who are already gigging musicians going “well here’s what I do”, and “that worked for me”, and “here’s some great academic work that’s really inspiring” – that really reinforces that you’re doing the right thing.
What other experience did you need under your belt to get to where you are today?
It was a lot of performance based stuff, but not just going on the stage and performing, also the background stuff. I had a lot of experience of performing in venues where there wasn’t a sound engineer for instance and I had to do my own sound. And there wasn’t necessarily a booker or event manager so I had to do all that myself too. Or there wasn’t a promoter so I had to promote my own gigs and my own business.
That portfolio experience was really important to get where I am today. The experience as well of just networking with as many people music industry as possible was really important. And again on all fronts, the experience I got jamming with new musicians in an academic situation where we’re supposed to be learning something new, that was invaluable!
Plus my experience at The Academy – having studio skills to practice on a weekly basis with peers was really helpful. It’s also the DIY artist thing of just having to go out there and just do it.
And of course any career or business side of learning as well. Most people at The Academy, if not all of them, are out in the field currently doing what we wanted to do. For instance when I was doing my BA, I was getting told about this-and-that organisation, being asked stuff like, “are you registered with Musician’s Union?” – that stuff was really helpful.
What advice would you give to students or graduates currently starting out in the industry?
If I was giving advice on expanding or starting a portfolio career – be it performance or business – it would be to just be super organised. If you’re not super organised then it is a house of cards, it will fall down really really quickly. So be on top of things like your email, make lists and all those things! It seems really small and insignificant, but its really not. You do have to be so diverse its really easy for things to fall through the cracks.
The music industry – probably through film and TV – gets the rep that ‘the nice guy finishes last’ but the music industry is nothing like that! The nice guy finishes first in the music industry. If you have a fantastic reputation as someone who is great to work with, you will get hired first over anyone else. So make sure you’ve got business cards, be really nice to people, be polite and professional, and just be a cool guy, because that will get you a long way.
Great advice! How about the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received during your career?
There’s so many! People give me great advice all the time! There’s a piece of advice I received from the beautiful Georgia Cecile, a jazz vocalist tutor (AMS Glasgow). She gave me some advice about saying yes and no to things. We were talking about taking on performance work, she just said that scarcity will make you say yes to everything, but don’t say yes to everything! It’s really not good for and you really need to be thinking instead about what’s the most important stuff you can be doing.
What stuff will feed into your career and make it better? What’s the stuff that’s also going to pay bills? And don’t get into the horrible habit of thinking we have to tick everything – you don’t have to tick everything! Say no to things, be nice about it, but know that you’re allowed to say no.
Also get that monkey off your back! That’s another thing she said, whenever you get something and put it off for later, just do that 5 minute job now! She’s so right – get that monkey off your back!
And finally, what is the best part of being a working musician?
Performing! Performing to audiences who sing your music back to you. I realise that’s probably quite a narcissistic answer, but it’s true! [laughs]
We [Melisa Kelly & the Smokin’ Crows] played Kelburn Garden Party last year. We played the Square Stage during the day and the Pyramid stage at night. The square stage was amazing, there were loads of people there, it was really fun. But when we played the Pyramid stage, it was about half ten at night so of course everyone was a bit loose, and had a nice day in the sun, and it was totally amazing and people were singing our original songs back to us. We got two encores and the sound engineers threatened to turn the lights off on the stage because we wouldn’t get off and of course people were chanting – that’s a highlight, for sure!
But also– I really don’t want to sound twee but I’m going to say it anyway!– I think at this point in my career I’ve learnt enough that I can start helping other people with their careers, which makes me feel really good. Generally there wasn’t anyone like that for me when I first started, I was just winging it a lot of the time, but being able to turn to new artists and help them with things – like things with the label and Female Musicians Scotland – it’s really rewarding.
Is that twee? That is twee, but I don’t care! [laughs]
Words: Isobel Trott
Interview by: Alyssa Renwick
Photos: © Melisa Kelly / the Smokin’ Crows