PROfile is a series of interviews with artists and creative souls who have built businesses around their craft and passion. We'll dig deeper to try and find out everything you could want to know from seasoned pros who have experienced the full gamut of highs and lows that come from running a creative business.
Jerome Alexander is the composer and multi-instrumentalist better known by the moniker Message to Bears, behind which he creates musical soundscapes that transport us from the depths of an evergreen forest to the snowy tips of windy mountains in just one song. Here he shares with us how he makes a living out of his music.
What was your first ‘proper’ job and how did you land it? Was it what you intended to do as a career?
I don’t really feel like I’ve ever had a ‘proper job’ as such, maybe for 6 months when I worked for a company who dealt with international travel safety for businesses. I’m still not entirely sure what they did or what I was supposed to be doing, but I remember doing some research, email marketing, and proofreading. I got the job through a job agency, but only because the person they originally gave the job to pulled out. I definitely didn’t want to stay and spent half my time there with my headphones on secretly working on my own music.
Has music always been in your blood?
I wanted music lessons when I was about 6, but didn’t really get obsessive about listening to it, or want to write my own stuff until I was about 12. I was always surrounded by music though.
How did you know you were ready to do music as a career? Do you identify yourself as a business owner?
I decided I wanted to make my living from music pretty early on, but didn’t think it was really possible until I watched my exposure grow quite quickly through some viral luck, which enable me to cover my rent through music. I don’t generally think of myself as a business owner, perhaps momentarily when I’m doing my taxes.
How did you go about starting to make a living out of your music? How does self-employment work for a musician?
I started by posting my music online, gaging my response and selling very limited handmade CDs, with a very DIY feel and with the support of a small but great label. I also began to sell digitally and finally started licensing tracks to filmmakers and music supervisors through word of mouth. Self-employment for a musician probably differs from person to person. I tend to make all my stuff on my own, in my bedroom, before sending it off into the world and seeing what comes back to me. Rather than, say, relentlessly touring and playing lots of live shows. I also don’t work with any management or agency, nor label at the moment. I’m not sure how unusual that is for a professional musician.
How did you find your audience?
I began by posting my music on forums that catered to a similar style, from then on just word of mouth. It’s only more recently that I’ve started paying for PR.
What is your typical daily routine like?
It really depends what I’ve got on or what I’m working on right at a particular time, so it’s never really typical. If I’m in the middle of writing an album, I’m pretty bad at looking after myself and sometimes work solidly from waking up to going to sleep without eating properly. I’m trying to get out of that habit!
At other times I make sure I’ve got some breakfast and tea inside me before seeing what I can get on with, whether it’s a new song idea or working through emails. I’ll often spend a number of hours composing or recording a new idea before scrapping everything. If that happens, I try and get on with something different. I also try and make sure I go for a walk in the afternoon – I currently live by a canal which is nice for that.
Usually I have a few different things going on such as collaborations, my own tracks or film work, so depending on urgency I start working on whatever I’m the mood for and see how it goes.
What traits do artists have that help with running a business or making a living out of their art?
I think creativity can be applied to all aspects of life, so that!
Why do you choose the people you collaborate with?
Because they’re nice people and have a shared view on creativity and the world. Also because they have skills in areas that I am not so strong in, a harmonious difference in styles that can complement each other and hopefully make something different and beautiful.
What’s the process of writing music like?
Sometimes hard and frustrating, sometimes fun and enlightening. I try not to have too much expectation or plan too heavily when beginning something new and let intuition takes it’s course.
Do you have an allegiance to a particular type of gear when it comes to your instruments?
I have a soft spot for underused, small companies and things with a vintage flavour.
Artists and writers often describe the compulsion to work – do you experience an overwhelming desire to create new pieces of music?
Yes, I feel much better mentally when I am creating new work. If I go too long without starting something new I feel quite uneasy in myself. If I wasn’t making music I am certain I would be creating some kind of art.
Do you ever feel alone in your work?
Yes, I often spend long periods of time alone during ‘working hours’ as I work from home. If I could possibly afford it I would rent a separate space in a complex of different studios so that I would be surrounded by creative people.
How do you relax?
By spending time with friends and loved ones, ideally in nature.
Where do you find inspiration?
Nature, recent thoughts and feelings. And beautiful music.
What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
Create what you want to.
Be present in the moment.
Trust your intuition.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I’m really not sure.
What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
Perhaps going on the first little European tour with my band, playing new countries and having lots of people come to actually watch us was pretty amazing. The niceness of people coming to see us, letting us sleep in their homes and treating us like old friends was quite wonderful.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Getting touching messages from strangers just to show their gratitude or tell me how much a song means to them is a truly wonderful feeling.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your business and how did you overcome them?
I would say both financial worries and creative blocks. The former I guess just took patience, these things take time to build up in this industry and I just kept writing and recording without the goal of financial stability. I think if you concentrate purely on your art, the other stuff comes along as byproducts eventually.
I still get creative blocks, where it feels like nothing is any good or going right. I try and get through these periods again through patience, and not being too hard on myself.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Vulnerability leads to intimacy. Open yourself up to the world.
If you could have dinner with any inspiring person (past or present), who would you choose?
Alan Watts, good chats guaranteed!
All images by Marianne Taylor.
Web: Message to Bears
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