Welcome to “Many Hats”! Our career blog series that explores the various tricks and trades of the music industry. First up, we had to chance to chat to Richy Muirhead, Creative Director and Founder of the Scottish Alternative Music Awards – or SAMAs as you might know it – for a the low down on how he’s crafted his career, how a music education has helped him along the way, and the ‘many hats’ he’s adorned over the years.
SAMAs has been supporting underground Scottish music talent for a number of years now, including the likes of an up-and-coming Lewis Capaldi, with its 2019 edition even awarding some of our own talented students! But it’s not been a clear-cut path for its founder, with a varied career under his belt, Richy reflects on how he’s got to where he is today.
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! There’s so much to be gained from a career in music. But don’t let us do all the talking…
Hey Richy! Can you tell us a bit about the organisations you work with, and what your role involves?
Currently I am Creative Director of the Scottish Alternative Music Awards and an Advisory Board Member for the Scottish Music Industry Association. The SAMAs are an annual music awards based here in Scotland. We celebrate multiple genres like hip hop and rock, plus live and newcomer categories. It’s always a diverse shortlist of artists featured and we work with a range of creative organisations – from Creative Scotland to Academy of Music & Sound and Drygate Brewery. The whole purpose is to identify artists that do amazing work and shouting about that through events, social media and marketing. We also host events with Liverpool Sound City and we have our own music festival in Paisley – a two day music bash and really good fun!
Some award winning artists you might be familiar with from SAMAs include Lewis Capaldi through to The Ninth Wave, Be Charlotte, The Dunts, VanIves and many more. This year we’re moving into the virtual space which is going to be interesting! It’s an opportunity to attract a larger audience – a global audience – and we’re working with some great partners to make sure it’s delivered to a high standard. It’s a chance to learn about different genres bubbling in Scotland, a little bit about what’s going on up north, and to embrace a new challenge.
What is day-to-day work like at the moment?
Day-to-day I typically look after the majority of things! Because it’s all virtual at the moment, it’s a lot of meeting with partners via Zoom/Teams and ensuring our social media campaign is in place and going to be effective, as well as looking at new issues that could arise because of corona.
We’re planning stuff for next March and it involves a lot of careful monitoring of what’s happening right now and how to mitigate possible risks. It’s also about making sure the event is as strong as it can be. So, talking to people in the industry to get feedback and generate some ideas that might separate SAMAs from other music awards and develop its identity and tone. Yeah, there’s a lot going on! And it’ll be so nice to get back into venues, begin recording and work with a large team again. We’ve been having so many great conversations with people, even in the current climate, but it’s still relatively lonely on the ground! Usually the role involves socialising, going to gigs, checking out new music and so on.
"I really enjoy the fact that listening to music is such a big part of the role. Whether that's programming or curating an event, always being immersed in listening to music is my favourite thing about the job"
Great! So loads of responsibility then. When did you first launch SAMAs? It must have been an exciting new challenge!
When I was in education, about 11 years ago now – I’m getting old! [laughs] – I went to the MTV Music Awards in Berlin. I was lucky enough to be invited in some way or another and came back feeling really motivated and inspired about how great it was that music could bring people together from different backgrounds and cultures. I had to do a creative module in university, so I decided to create a national music award! A lot of people laughed at the time, and I completely understand why. We started things slowly, we worked it into the module, with outcomes, a lot of bullet points… And gradually we improved it every year. I started hosting other events and grew confidence, learnt who our audience were and developed it ever since!
Many artists are celebrated at the SAMAs and it gives them that platform and boost of confidence to grow. Whether that’s touring nationally or locally, collaborating with other artists or reaching new listeners, there’s that sense of achievement or award and community offered by being involved in SAMAs that I’m so proud of. I think I landed quite lucky with that university project!
Amazing! Has it always been a full time role?
I’d say in the last 4 years it’s really started to become full time which is nice. In the past I was juggling all sorts. As someone who currently works freelance across the music and events world, I do still find myself wearing a range of different hats and offering your skills to do a range of different things. And that’s a really important thing to be able to work with other groups of people and share skill sets – to learn from other people and teach others.
Recently I’ve worked on a project with BBC Scotland producing content which was really good fun, but mainly the focus has been on SAMAs and it’s been fun and challenging to turn that into a full time job. Because for that we had to grow, so we had to think about showcasing outside of Scotland and hosting events we hadn’t done before, being ambitious with funding, and just upping our game that little bit every year – so far so good! Hopefully we can continue growing and hopefully when it’s safe, we can return to live events, because that’s really where we thrive!
One of my questions was going to be ‘what experience did you need to get the role you’re in now?’ – I guess you crafted your own experience as you grew SAMAs rather than go through the usual interview process?
Yeah, exactly. When I was in education we were always encouraged to try new stuff and given time where we were allowed to make mistakes and be adventurous. The module project was a big part of how I began to hone my experience. But I also began to run smaller club nights, so I was learning the basics of how to run an event and what people’s expectations were (from artists to the public) and getting an understanding of the various aspects of what needs to come together for an event – from ticketing, to what catering is needed for events and what a technical rider is.
Some things I enjoyed, other things I didn’t perhaps love so much. I learnt pretty early that I’d have to hire people who can do [the stuff I didn’t understand]. Things like web design are essential for marketing an event but I’d need someone to create it in the beginning and do all the technical stuff. But having the time and freedom during education to try stuff, and take internships when I could afford to, that was really important.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job – or working in the music industry?
I really enjoy the fact that everyday, listening to music is such a big part of the job. Whether that’s programming or curating an event, having to listen to a playlist – I could do that from here, I could do it on a train, out running or cycling – there’s no limitations. Always being immersed in listening to music is my favourite thing about the role.
Obviously, when we put on events there’s that extra wow-factor and it’s a memory and a really good moment for a lot of people. For me, how I like to operate being self employed and organising my hours and when I want to do things, choosing who we work with and how we do things, I really enjoy that responsibility. Plus the amount of streaming via Soundcloud and Spotify is outrageous! And it’s great when people send me music, I always try to get back to people – they don’t always expect it [laughs] so it’s always nice feedback!
"When I was in education we were always encouraged to try new stuff and given time where we were allowed to make mistakes and be adventurous. It was a big part of how I began to hone my experience."
What was the most challenging bit of starting out in the industry?
It was – and still is sometimes – a lot of self doubt. Sometimes I don’t put enough value on what I do and I kinda imagine that other people think what I do is terrible – but it’s all just in my head! I think you can overthink things and that was one of the hardest barriers to overcome. It still can be! What I do tend to find is that when one door closes another one opens and more opportunities will come. But when you’re starting out you have to really go that extra mile, so it’s tough. And if you start to lose those skill sets doors can start to close as well, so if you want a career in music I think you really have to commit yourself, embrace it, go to events…
With many events moving into the digital space, now is a great time to visit other international events. Last week I went to Tallin Music Week virtually, which was cool! With events online they’re easier to attend and often cheaper. Plus the amount of people you can meet in a Zoom chat box is pretty cool! And if you’ve got a clear idea of what you want to be doing, you can spark up a connection pretty quick. There are opportunities, and it’s very difficult at the moment, however it’s always been difficult, it’s always been about your attitude and skill set and finding out exactly what you want to be doing.
Tell us a little more about your music education – what made you want to pursue a music degree? What did you learn?
Music was always part of me and my family, it was always on in the house so from an early age it was always what I wanted to do in some way. My parents weren’t fully committed to that – they wanted me to do something a bit more ‘secure’ maybe. However I wanted to really give it a bash. Going into education and having the opportunities from learning and meeting people in class who were like-minded, and then applying for voluntary internships allowed me to grow though that.
And I even ended up wanting to study more! So I went from a HND in Sound Production, through to a BA in Commercial Music, which was more of an open book. You could decide if you wanted to work in the industry or if you wanted to be a performer. By that time I’d kinda figured out I wasn’t that great as a music player, so events were where I began to really find my feet.
Then there was a new Masters coming out about music entrepreneurship, so I wanted to jump on that. At that point it was great because there was more business development and more chance to look a bit more 360 at what you do instead of project to project. It was great to spend a year immersed in that working with some amazing people in the classroom and the lecturers too. I think there was a lot of important education, and it was so vital for me to be doing what I was doing, but I was also very lucky to have gone to that music event in Germany. I realised how special it could be if a music award was delivered well, and had the right mentality.
So there was a lot of luck, and there always has to be luck, but there was a lot of patience too while going through education, when a lot of my friends had jobs and were earning a lot more than me and I was working part time in bars and so on… But if you want the career you’ll find a way to make it work. It taught me a lot of great skills and helped me find the opportunities I needed to get me to where I am today.
What advice do you have to give current music students, or those just starting out in the industry?
I think my advice has to change a little now because of corona. I think there’s some generally essential skill sets that are gonna be here for a long time, stuff like social media and digital marketing, which don’t on the outside sound like ‘music jobs’, however they absolutely are! Whether it’s for a creative law firm that needs music for campaigns, or musicians and artists who need this support. So my advice would be to look at the current situation, think about which skill sets you can bring to the party and what could you begin to learn that could increase your visibility and increase your skill set. There’s a load of digital tools out there for you to learn from.
And if it’s events that you really want to get into, head along to stuff like Focus Wales, Wide Days, Resonate, Tallin Music Week, because you never know who you’re going to bump into in the chat box and it might just open up some opportunities. We’re now in a world where we can work from home, it’s certainly a lot more acceptable than it was 12 months ago, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it if you can be disciplined and still deliver your work to a high level. A lot of the businesses in the creative industry have a much more lenient approach. But it all comes back to reliability and being able to deliver on the goods, you need to be the real deal I think!
Great advice! Now finally, what’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received during your career?
Not sure if I have one specific piece of advice… But I think the importance of building networks and relationships is something that’s stayed with me. Someone who supports what you do, whether it’s a peer, or a sponsor or another artist, you can build a relationship and pat each other on the back and watch each other grow. I think that’s a really good thing and a way to get ongoing advice and lift each other up.
There are people and organisations who have been involved in the SAMA’s from the beginning and share the same passion, and that is something really special! And we’ve worked with some great, dedicated partners along the way. That respect goes a long way and gives you the confidence that you can really deliver. It fights away that imposter syndrome. I think everyone has a sense of that in one small shape or another… And that’s definitely heightened by social media mentality too. In truth, it’s all totally fine, just get on with it! [laughs].