James Morrison on success and unpaid gigs

The renowned musician tells us how he 'emerged'



You don’t think of James Morrison as the sort of musician who would have started out busking for food. But that’s what he did on the streets of New York, and it certainly paid off.

Today, the trumpeter is one of the best known musicians in the country. The ARIA-winning muso of the James Morrison Academy of Music will perform with young musicians in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Canberra Youth Orchestra.

Here, he tells us about his first big break, and what it takes to make it in the industry.


When did you decide you wanted to make a career out of music?

I decided when I was about seven. I didn’t think of it as so much of a profession then, because you don’t when you’re seven! It’s just what I wanted to do with my life – travel around the world and play music. I guess in my mind, it became a profession when I was about 13, around the same time I actually started working professionally – I started working in night clubs when I was 13.

As a budding muso, did you find your academic education or live performance experiences to be more valuable?

Musicians get into work and get into a career by knowing other musicians, and one of the worst things you could do is sit in your room practising. You’ll be getting better and better at your instrument, but no one will know. By all means, practice – but you must get out and play, find jam sessions on the side and other musicians to mix with. That’s one of the greatest things that comes from being at uni – hanging out with other musicians who are of like mind.

It’s common for musicians to start their careers by performing unpaid gigs. What do you think makes a good balance? How much unpaid work means you’re selling yourself short?

There’s a lot of unpaid work which is very valuable: it helps you hone your craft, but also gives you a lot of contacts.

I’ve spoken to many young performers over the years who have been asked to do something either for free or on the street, and they’ve sort of said, ‘I don’t know whether to do this’. And I’ve said, ‘It’s really simple – I think about it like the tide. Is the tide going in or coming out?’. What I mean is, are you getting something out of this? Is this going to lift my profile? Am I going to get something musically out of this, too? Career-wise, are more people going to know about me?

If we are talking about your career and whether you’re paid or not, you sort of have to make an assessment. So how much is too much? Is basically even one gig, where there’s nothing in it for you, too much?

Working every night for free at the stage in your career while you’re studying, if there’s something in it for you then it is actually not for free. It’s for no fee, but if you’re building a reputation, getting exposure, and making contacts, then that’s the pay. It’s pretty real pay, because it’s a commodity that’s bankable as a musician.

Do you feel musicians are business-minded?

No, not at all. In fact, I must write a thesis on it one day, because I’ve made quite an informal study of it over the years: the better the musician, the worse they are at business. They’re different ways of thinking.

What makes a great musicians to some degree is taking a chance to be artistically creative. But the kind of thinking that leads to inspiring performances is exactly the sort of thing that will lead to financial ruin. What you need, and what I’ve been lucky to do, is to find people who are of the other ilk – who are interested in your career and music and love what you do, but who have a business mind – and partner with them.

When you’re starting out in school, you don’t need a manager or an accountant. But once your career starts to move, one of the mistakes I think people make is that they stay solo and try and look after things themselves. But music is not a one-person business – a good financial manager is worth their weight in gold.

What was the defining moment that pushed you forward in your career?

I think going to jam sessions, which are unpaid. You just go along to where musicians are gathering or where there’s a band playing and you know that it’s ok. I’ve had some of my biggest breaks in my life doing that and if I was hunting for talent, that’s where I’d go to look.

I was in New York and didn’t have a gig. I’d been there for a year trying to get a break – I was playing on the street busking to get money to eat. I went along to a jam session one night and the band wasn’t even that great but I thought, ‘I’ve got to be out there playing’. And a guy came in hunting for talent. He needed a soloist, he needed one in a hurry and he was looking for someone unknown so he went to jam session. That day, I played on the street to get money for lunch, and the next day I was sitting business class up the front of an airliner on the way to Europe to do a three-month tour with a jazz group as a soloist. Had I been at home practising or waiting for some paid work, it never would have happened. You’ve got to be out there to be seen and heard. That’s what advances your career.

You’ve spent a lot of time working with young musicians over your career. What do you think drives Australia’s musical culture today?

It’s driven by the music. In institutions, I bump into students from other subject areas and it does seem there is more angst and worry. With musicians, it’s not that they don’t worry, but that when it comes time to play, music is music. It’s so uplifting and great to be a musician that all the other stuff is kind of like, ‘whatever’. The music itself is what it’s actually for.

You might be passionate about something else – but often what it’s for is a business outcome. For example, you might be great at geology and love it, and you go and work for a mining company. The end result is a stock price. No matter how much you love the rocks, what it’s all for is a stock price. But with music, what it’s all for is to uplift people and to change lives with music. You may make money, but that’s just a byproduct. We need all of those other jobs out there – everyone has their value and place, but the reason why I think there’s less angst in the young music world is because the purpose itself keeps coming to the fore. Even if you’re stressed about exams or a job, you’ve got this stress reliever every time you make music.


James will perform with the Canberra Youth Orchestra as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations at 7.30pm, November 11 in Llewellyn Hall.


This story was first published as James Morrison: On Success.


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