In this instalment of our Featured Alumni series, we catch up with Music Business alumnus Leon Waters!
Leon Waters graduated from ACM in 2012 with a Degree in Music Business. We caught up with him to find out about his music blog, Leon TK, which he has developed since finishing his Degree. Leon also shares his advice for musicians submitting their work to blogs and reviewers!
Tell us a bit about your background – why did you want to work in the music industry?
When I first moved to Surrey, my neighbour had a band and a studio, so I spent a lot of time hanging out as they rehearsed and worked on new material. Then I started helping out at gigs, got some instruments, and formed a lot of fairly short-lived but super fun bands before deciding to take music more seriously as a career path and joining ACM.
What motivated you to come and study at ACM?
Everyone I knew was considering studying there, or had at some point. So it felt inevitable that I would head your way too!
My first ACM experience was a part-time guitar technique and theory course taught by Adam Pain. Some people see technique and theory as soulless, draining a musician of their “feel” somehow – but at ACM, I was shown how to approach those aspects of musicianship in an organic and natural way.
After a couple more part-time performance courses, I signed up full-time for the Guitar Diploma, and then moved on to the Higher Diploma after that. I met a lot of great friends who I still stay in touch with today and got to live the dream of living and breathing music every moment of every day for two solid years. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
For me, the Music Business Degree course made sense as my next move. I knew that you need more than just instrumental and musical ability to work in the music industry, and the music business course turned out to be the ultimate highlight – even more so than rocking out onstage during gigs and live performance workshops.
What was the best part about studying at the ACM?
While I was studying guitar, the tutors’ openness to different musical styles really inspired me. I went in as a more or less strict rock-and-metal guy with long straightened hair and a Steve Vai signature Ibanez in my gig bag, and came out a lot more enlightened! I learnt to appreciate every style of music there is, and now when I hear something new I listen for something in it to appreciate, rather than reacting in a stereotypical prejudiced way and rejecting it just because it’s not what I’d normally listen to.
If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now – taking music submissions from everyone from Universal and Virgin-EMI to kids just starting out in their bedrooms (and everyone in between!) and considering featuring them on my blog – which was called The Musical Melting Pot, but was recently rebranded simply as Leon TK. As a reviewer / interviewer / blogger / journalist / whatever, you can’t do what you do with a closed mind.
The Music Business Degree course was pretty hardcore – three years of studying in the space of two years – but it kept everyone there focussed and immersed in the ways of the music industry. You have to work hard to get anywhere in life – and that goes double for the music world – so it was the best preparation for the Real World that anyone could ask for.
I also learnt how to write well during the dissertation stage of my degree. At that point, I discovered how important constructively critical feedback is. A lot of people (especially in music) want to be told how great they are 24/7 – but the truth is, if you don’t consistently work to improve yourself, you’ll end up being overtaken by someone who is. That means you have to listen to people who offer constructive feedback – you can still ignore your haters and love your supporters, but don’t automatically dismiss the others in the middle ground.
That’s true in any creative industry – whether you’re talking about music or writing. Even now, I’m always working out what to improve next.
Tell us about what you’ve been involved with since leaving ACM?
While I was at ACM, I fell ill with a complicated medical condition that took a long time to resolve itself. The school and staff were beyond amazing in supporting me through the end of my studies, and I spent my time post-ACM working toward recovery and running a music blog in between tests and operations. Through that project – The Musical Melting Pot – I developed a wide network of industry contacts that allows me an incredible amount of freedom in terms of music to review, gigs and events to cover, and bands / artists to collaborate on for interviews.
Today, I’m in much better health and taking on blogging / journalism as a full time occupation as Leon TK. As with every part of the music business, there are glamorous sides to it (guestlist spots for shows, free music sent straight from record labels, interviews in swanky Soho hotels, etc) but you have to earn the good stuff through solid hard work. It’s worth the effort though!
What are your aspirations for the future?
To keep on the path I’m currently on. I’ve already gone further than I initially expected to, so I’m just keeping my mind open to future opportunities and seeing where they take me.
How did your course prepare you for life in the music business?
Aside from opening my mind, helping me develop my ability as a writer, and emphasising the importance of hard work, ACM also encouraged me to think for myself. For some reason, there are people who claim that music schools somehow turn students from individuals into cookie-cutter clones – but that’s definitely not the case at ACM.
You only have to walk in to see that ACM is full of individuals, from the staff to the tutors and of course the students. As an ACM student I got to look at music from every angle, from performing and instrumental technique to theoretical analysis, listening and training my ear, exploring the structure of the industry, marketing, psychology, law, critical thinking, and the more traditionally academic side as well.
But more than that, I was taught how to apply the above in a creative way. Knowledge is a tool – it’s all about how you use it, and it’s useless if you just keep it locked in a dusty box in the shed. Fortunately, ACM teaches you how to use it – and that’s priceless.
Do you have any advice for those looking to get into the industry?
As a blogger, I get sent more pitches and submissions than I know what to do with – but there are a couple of words that crop up a lot in my inbox which bands and artists should delete from their vocabularies and never use again.
Those words are “aspiring”, and “unsigned”.
Honestly, there’s no such thing as an aspiring musician if they already have an instrument and play it regularly. When anyone picks up a guitar or tries to sing or whatever, in that moment they are a musician. They might not be very good, but they’re still a musician.
The rest is a matter of practice; although natural talent can help speed things up, a hard worker can overtake a lazy but talented musician in all but the rarest freak-of-nature cases. Of course, a hard-working talented person gets the best of both worlds. But the point is, there are no aspiring musicians – just musicians who either haven’t started playing yet, or are playing, and are therefore musicians from the moment they start.
Some people get a bit snobby and elitist when judging whether or not someone who plays music is “really” a musician. But whether they’re playing their first barre chord, playing their thousandth orchestra or West End gig, or pounding out a beat in a bedroom or on the main stage at Glastonbury, as long as a person is making music, they are a musician. They’re not “aspiring” to anything – they’re already there, on one particular stage of a journey that never really ends.
The word “unsigned” divides musicians into two camps – signed, and unsigned. It implies that if you’re signed to a record label, you’re a winner – and if you’re unsigned, you’re presumably a loser / failure until a label picks you up.
That’s not healthy, and it’s definitely not realistic either. Today, you have to do a lot of things yourself as a musician – from booking gigs and handling finances to self-producing recordings on a laptop and so on – making you a DIY musician from the outset. Without first putting in effort as a DIY (or “independent”) band / artist, your chances of getting signed are slim to none.
So it makes sense, if you don’t have a record label behind you yet, and whether you want one or not, to refer to yourself as “DIY” or “independent” rather than “unsigned”. It might seem like a subtle difference – but if you want to work in the music business, you’re going to be dealing with people who’ve been immersed in it for so long that they’ll be keenly attuned to small details like that. You want to separate yourself from the pack in as many ways as possible – and this is a great way to do it.
Of course, just changing your vocabulary isn’t everything – you also have to adopt the right mindset. As a DIY band / artist, you will have to put in the work and take care of the business side at least until you can find others to help you, such as a manager and / or booking agent. Meanwhile, your “unsigned” competitors will stay stuck waiting for a golden opportunity to fall into their laps (which it probably won’t) while you work for it and make it happen.
If you’d like to be a student at ACM and kickstart your career in the music industry like Leon, please call our Admissions Team on 01483 500 841 or visit www.acm.ac.uk/open-days/ to book a place on an ACM Open Day today.