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You have an amazing voice, you put yourself out there, and you’re ready to be the next Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. Yet the harsh reality is that most people completely don’t notice you, some of them dislike you, and among those who enjoy your singing, the majority of them give you a nod of approval which can’t pay the bills.
How then can someone realistically become a professional singer?
Becoming a professional singer isn’t just about being a good singer with a nice voice. It’s not about putting your dreams out in the universe and having the universe smile on you. It requires a lot of grinding, working with people, making connections and getting opportunities to showcase your passion and talent.
I have always naturally leaned towards music, creativity and being a certified drama queen. It’s just the way I was made. My whole family is musical, everyone can either sing or play an instrument. After church on Sundays, my aunt would play the piano while the rest of us would sing with the natural tendency to harmonise.
As much as I loved singing, I didn’t think I could make a living from it, so I did a diploma in mass communications and a degree in advertising in Melbourne. When I came home to get a job, it was just after the 9/11 tragedy and the world was frozen. No one was hiring.
I started to perform at pubs and clubs around town while going for job interviews. As time went by, I started earning enough to realise that I could do this for a living. The more I performed, the more the interviews started to feel like a drag and that’s when I realised that what I really wanted to do was to sing. So, after a year, I stopped trying to apply for a day job.
I’m not sure how far you are along your singing journey. Perhaps you’re just entertaining the possibility, or maybe you’re halfway through it, wondering if you’ve given up good career prospects for something unrealistic. Wherever you are along the journey, I hope to offer you some actionable takeaways that will help you go further as a singer.
For starters, let’s get rid of some common misconceptions that you shouldn’t be having if you want to make it as a singer without feeling miserable the whole time.
You have to accept the fact that you are most likely not going to get rich and famous. Realistically, only 5% of all singers could be rich and famous in their country. The percentage globally would be too depressing to calculate.
As a singer, you can’t do it just for the money. If you start your career trying to be rich and famous, you’ll find that you’re just hitting your head against the wall half the time. You need to love what you do, and the cherry on top is that you’ll earn from your passion.
For most Asian people, a steady pay check is a necessity, but you don’t get that in this business. Many people see singing as a side job, and most people still ask me to this very day what my real job is. So, you have to do it out of love for the craft, or you’ll get more frustrated than you need to be.
Everyone hopes to have a jaw dropping million-dollar voice like the competitive singing shows on TV. You watch a shy scrawny nerd who got teased by girls stroll up on stage and swoon the audience with his voice. You see a single mum who had given up on her dream, walk up on stage and belt out a powerful heartfelt song that both touches and draws you.
Yet the truth is that behind the scenes, the industry is extremely competitive. How many of the winners are top singers today? There are very few Kelly Clarksons and Carrie Underwoods out there who have continued success beyond their one minute of fame. Again, the reality is that the world may gawk at your talent for a week or two but they move on to the next, and you need to have more than a great voice to make it as a professional singer.
Apart from the many hours of practice on your own, you need to schedule the band and have many hours of rehearsals. You have to produce the whole experience - you need to think about the songs you want, how to arrange them, what journey to bring your audience on and what to say or do between songs. That’s just the singing part. Then you have to look at all the other areas like working with the venue owners, marketing the gigs and telling people about it.
You are switched on 24/7, and have to market constantly. Every time you meet someone, you have to tell them what you’re doing and share about your gigs. You then have to thank everyone after the show and follow up with them to stay in touch. Your art is your product, and you are also the advertiser, marketer, maid and every job in between. It’s a lot of work. It’s tough because public relations go against the nature of most creatives who don’t feel very comfortable marketing themselves in a certain way. Yet you need to do it if you want to succeed as a singer.
If you look at the internet sensations that turned into chart topping singers, you’ll realise that they are regular everyday kind of people. Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, and Taylor Swift didn’t do anything extremely new, they were doing what many other people were also doing. It’s never just about talent. It’s a lot about timing, what the market needs, what people are drawn to, who sees it, who likes it, who shares it, and who picks it up. Their talent is great, but there are many factors beyond a great voice that come into play. It’s not always about the art, it’s also about the bottom line. You have to make money for the record label and the people who take you places. Your voice alone is not going to cut it.
People are drawn to going from nothing to something very fast. Especially in today’s world when people want things immediately. This is such an unhealthy misconception because you get thrown into an industry that is very cut throat and if you are not mentally ready for it, it can throw you off.
Charlie Lim is a singer-songwriter in Singapore, with a beautiful voice. He plays multiple instruments, can mix master and record. He’s great on social media, making contacts, getting sponsors and getting support financially. He does collaborations with different types of artists and juggles everything so well. Not many people are good at that many things, but those who are, are the ones who really succeed.
Getting known and earning enough can take quite a bit of time, especially when you need to master so many things. You really have to be both disciplined and passionate about your craft and sustain it even if you don’t see success knocking on your door in a year.
As I’ve mentioned in the previous chapter, you need to go beyond your craft if you want to make it as a singer. The key things you need to do beyond your craft will always be related to people.
While I was born as a 200% extroverted, attention loving singer, which I attribute to my middle child syndrome, I know that not everyone is that way. No matter how good your voice is, you cannot expect to get very far if you don’t network in one way or another.
I got my first public gig because my friend invited me for drinks to see her fiancée play at a pub. My friend got me a chance to jam, and after jamming, the entertainment manager of the pub, Kara Van Meira, who went on to be a writer and editor for Straits Times, offered me my first public gig at 18.
After singing various genres, I knew that my passion was more for jazz. I finally got a gig at a jazz club in boat quay called South Bridge Jazz Club. This opportunity came through networking because one of my friends who was a radio DJ brought me to this jazz club because his listener recommended it. I liked it so much that I approached the owner and started attending the jam sessions. Then he asked if I wanted a regular slot and that’s how I got my 4-year residency there.
So, you have to be exposed to and start networking with the right community. You need to keep forming new connections. Even when you have a regular slot at the same place, you need to keep doing PR. My friends joke that I’ve never worked a day in my life because all I do is sing, but as I’ve highlighted, there’s so much more that goes into it and the bulk of it involves dealing with people and networking. I always have to interact with the audience, so I end up knowing the people who come to my gigs.
If you are a very introverted creative, then you need to have an alter ego. Many artists need an alter ego because they are naturally shy and introverted. When they get on stage, they need to be a different person. People like Beyoncé and Michael Jackson are all extreme introverts. When you watch interviews, you can see how shy and quiet they are. Yet they have created an alter ego that allows them to be bold and connect with people.
As an artist, if you’re naturally introverted then you need to have an alter ego because you have to constantly be networking and putting yourself out there.
Make sure you’re available on the platforms that your target audience use. I have had the chance to meet many famous people because the Jazz scene is small and only a few people are organising Jazz festivals. So the reality is that you have to be attending such events and being around the people who are in your genre or interested in it.
You have to bring in the audience and market it to people. You need to not only build your network but actually tap into every possible resource when you can. Even if it’s the musicians or people around famous singers, if you can tap on them, they could open doors for you.
In Asia or Europe, you could share your link and videos to get slots in jazz clubs, but in the US, they’re not so open. In the US they are very network based and only give slots to people they know because they are drowning in applications.
I was visiting my Bulgarian singer friend who had just moved to New York. My Bulgarian friend told her acquaintance who was a pianist for other famous singers, and this pianist got me a slot in Birdland. Birdland is one of the top 10 jazz clubs in New York. People still struggle to get a slot in that club. The only way I could get in was through reaching out.
When I travel anywhere, I send emails to every person and musician I have come into contact with in that country.
You, of course, have to return that favour to other people when you can, which brings me to my next point – you need to learn to treat others well, no matter how popular you become.
There is honestly no need to step all over people. Approaching everyone with sincerity and honesty is important. Of course, we are human and it’s okay to cheat a bit, but there’s really no need to be mean or to be an ass. Some people’s pride makes them unnecessarily rude. Treat everyone with respect just like how you would like them to treat you. In fact, if you can extend a helping hand, and do someone a favour, then you should.
You also need to be willing to share your connections and networks. You can’t always be out for yourself. If you keep doing the whole me, myself and I thing, you won’t get very far. I’ve even been lining up collaborations with someone I’ve not met face to face yet. We leveraged on both our contacts to open doors for each other.
It’ll also be very beneficial if you can connect to a mentor who can guide you, help you, push you in the right direction and show you the ropes. Dick Lee was a mentor to me, he put me in a lot of productions and had me as a guest singer at his concerts. A mentor can really offer you a lot of opportunities that you can’t get on your own.
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Global Jazz Singer