How to build a portfolio career

by Rhian Jones



The internet is a double-edged sword for aspiring musicians. While the digital revolution has made it easier and cheaper than ever before for bands to get their music out to a large audience, it’s hard to get heard amongst the wealth of other people doing the same. So how do you stand out from the crowd? Whether you want to build a following and release music on your own terms or get noticed by an A&R exec you need to do a lot of legwork. It’s no longer enough to think about the music only; you’ve got to be your own marketing team, PR guru and art department.


Indie label 4AD has a rich history of signing interesting bands with a strong identity. Canadian musician Grimes and European rock three piece Daughter have been notable additions to its roster in recent years. Discussing what he looks for in new artists, the label’s boss Simon Halliday says a DIY ethic is important. “I’m always impressed when the artist has already done some work, they need to want it more than the label. They shouldn’t care about me and what I think,” he explains.

Head of Business & Creative Affairs/A&R at RCA Label Group Peter McGaughrin agrees. He signed Danish artist Mø to Sony after watching a self-made video she posted online of her in her bedroom with headphones on singing away intercut with footage of animations and artwork. They fell in love with the self-conceived and executed video, flew out to New York to see her play live and then chased her around Scandinavia persuading her they were the best people to work with. “I don’t think we’d have done all that without being able to see her creative vision and her self-determination that came through her making and then putting her video up on YouTube,” says McGaughrin.


What’s your USP?

First things first: your audience needs to understand what you’re about in order to form an opinion on what you do. What makes you stand out from the rest? What makes you, or your band, you? What are your passions? What don’t you like? Are you a political band? Or tongue-in-cheek bubblegum pop? Whatever it is, this is your starting point. Rizzle Kicks, for example, are a niche rap act from Brighton with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. Mariah Carey is a US RnB pop princess known for her diva attitude and belting voice. Grimes is a genre-defying vegetarian rebel who once sailed down the Mississippi River on a DIY houseboat loaded with live chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes. But you can’t be any of these – they are already taken. Dig deep and you’ll discover your own story. It doesn’t have to be ‘out there’; it just has to be true. Once you’ve done this:

Think about your audience, who are they likely to be? Are they part of the YouTube generation or vinyl luvvies? This will determine how you connect to them – Twitter, Facebook, old school record store gigs, YouTube videos, Soundcloud…the options are endless and it’s up to you to decide what will work best.

– If you haven’t already, you need to choose a name. Make sure it’s easily Google-able and that it hasn’t been taken by five other bands already. You can do something quirky to ensure search engine optimisation. If Scottish band Chvrches hadn’t replaced the U with a V in their moniker, fans would forever be looking at pictures of religious buildings instead of discovering more about their favourite band. Don’t name yourself after something well known/famous, or, if you do, make it different somehow.


Building an online presence

Your online presence needs to be easy to access and clear. It’s not hard to build your own website and even better if you’ve got an art whiz friend who can help you out with design skills in return for a few beers. is a good option and URL’s cost around £12 a year. Alternatively, Tumblr and WordPress are great free options and very easy to manage. Or you can just have a Soundcloud profile. Make sure your website/Soundcloud is clearly linked in your Twitter biography. Check out London-based up and coming singer Max Marshall’s for inspiration.

After you’ve mastered your websites, now you need to build a following. This is where the ‘knowing your audience’ thing comes into play. If you think you’re making music for young 20-somethings who also like [insert any artist name here], follow their followers on Twitter, in the hope that they’ll notice and check out your music from your profile. Make sure you communicate regularly; no one is going to be interested in something that doesn’t look alive. Post updates, tracks, videos, lyrics and/or blog posts regularly and engage with people. Are people talking to you? Talk back. Your fans are your friends.


Demos and YouTube videos

Thanks to reasonably priced and good quality recording equipment, you don’t need to book studio time to record your first demo. iMusician have done a great guide on how to build a budget home studio. You’ve got no excuse to upload bad quality live recordings. BBC Radio One’s Jen Long, who presents the Introducing show alongside Ally McCrae that premiers unsigned, undiscovered and under the radar music, each week choses a playlist for her show. When it comes to listening to the demos she knows nothing about the band – there’s no picture, no background information and no name – so the quality of the music is integral.

“Within about 20 seconds you can tell whether something has caught your attention. Does it sound different from other things we’ve played before? What’s the quality like? What is its identity? The vocal is really important too – that can kill it or make it,” she explains. BBC Radio One – one of the biggest stations in the UK with 10.97 million listeners, according to the latest Rajar figures – has a policy of not playing live recordings that haven’t been recorded by the station’s department. “Putting a microphone next to the stage and recording everything playing at once generally sounds incredibly crap,” says Long.

Sending in a decent demo was how Liverpool quartet Circa Waves were discovered, and are now signed to Virgin EMI and getting plenty of airplay from respected BBC tastemaker Zane Lowe. The band sent Long a demo on Facebook that they’d recorded in their bedroom. “It was a really rough demo but there was something about the song and the chorus that hooked and I loved it,” she explains.

With over 1 billion unique visitors every month, YouTube is now more important than ever as a platform for breaking bands. Island Records Director of A&R Nick Huggett says he spends around 50-75% of his weekly pitching discussions on YouTube. “That’s probably the first time we hear or see something”, he explains. “YouTube is very useful because you get a sense of the artists visually as well as musically.”

It’s how Huggett discovered Rizzle Kicks who were signed to Island after they posted covers of tracks by Lily Allen, White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and M.I.A online. “The way that they came across and the fact that they’d done it themselves, it had a homemade aesthetic to it but still gave a really clear picture of what they were all about. It was the first time I saw a video that made we want to sign something instantly,” he says. Having a visual aspect to the music shows that artists have a sense of their own direction and are authentic – both things that are likely to connect with a record buying public and making labels more willing to invest.

So there you have it, a world wide web full of tools that you can use to get your music career off the ground. You hold the keys to the door, what are you waiting for?