And you may say to yourself… how did I get here?

This week’s blog is going to be a little bit self indulgent – a few people have asked me how I ended up having a career in music, so I thought I’d spend a bit of time trying to remember how I ended up making music for a living. It’s not been the most obvious of routes and it certainly wasn’t the plan from the beginning.

My first musical memory is of being very young and very ill, wrapped up in a blanket, and singing harmonies along to the sound of my mum vacuuming the carpet. I remember the feelings in my head as I sang, and played around with different notes, seeing which felt nicest when sung along to the mechanical drones. My second musical memory is of a big kid picking on me for singing too loud in the school choir at Primary school – I’d always enjoyed singing up until that point, but suddenly I became very conscious of my voice, and this one comment damaged my confidence so badly that I became reluctant to sing alone for many years after.

Secondary school was a disaster for me musically – this was a long time before equality and diversity and Every Child Matters, and our teachers seemed to regularly leave less able students behind in order to focus on the naturally talented members of the class. And, so, after a few unsuccessful experiments with a recorder and a violin, I was classified as Not Musical, a state that could only have been remedied by a combination of costly private lessons and enthusiasm, both of which I couldn’t afford at that point.

Around this time I became an avid heavy metal fan, initially drawn in by the artwork of bands like Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and so on, before encountering Guns N Roses – apologies to any fans reading this, but I found Appetite for Destruction so repellent with its misogynistic lyrics and whiny vocals that I sold all of my metal records and disappeared down an electronic music rabbit-hole. For me this was the gateway to incredible new soundscapes and unexplored worlds, some of which were musically within my grasp through the magical powers of the holy trinity of synthesis, sequencing and sampling.

When I was doing my A-levels, we had a change of staff in the music department, and a more forward-looking music teacher called Mr Yarnley changed my life forever. He updated the school music room with a synthesiser and 4-track recorder, declared that he didn’t have time to learn how to use it and by some twist of fate, give me the keys to the music room to experiment with the equipment during private study sessions. I balanced my academic studies with an art A-level and as much music as I could fit in the gaps around the edges, learning how to put tracks together piece by meticulous piece, compensating for a lack of music theory with remorseless trial and error. These early experiments even got an opportunity to take to the stage, early synth-pop experiments sticking out awkwardly in the end of term rock concerts.

Electronic music became my hobby whilst I went through art college for 4 years, firstly in Cheltenham and then in St Albans. I spent all my money on music equipment and records. My first student grant (those were the days) went on my first drum machine, my second got spent on my first sampler, and the money from my job was spent on cheap food and gig tickets. My college course was in modelmaking – something I wasn’t particularly good at, but which gave me a wide set of problem-solving and business skills. With some friends we also staged a hostile takeover of the Students Union, and we started to run events alongside scraping a pass on the course. Although I was a barely adequate modelmaker, I was able to use computers to enhance and manipulate my 3D creations, and in my final year I was able to combine this with early experiments in computer programming, installations and composing film soundtracks. By the end of the course I knew I had no future as a modelmaker and knew that music was what fired my motor.

1997_Live_David-Birch_06-803x1024After the inevitable freefall from college graduate into dead-end job, I ended up working in music retail whilst starting to form my first serious band, The Chaos Engine. We were the band with no drummer at a time when grunge was big, but our stripped-down and portable stage set-up, coupled with our love of filling the stage with projections, smoke and strobes, meant that we got a lot of gigs and played all over the country. I always maintain that we didn’t necessarily get gigs because we were a great band as much as the fact that we were incredibly efficient, well organised and easy to work with. Most of my free time was taken up booking gigs, promoting, running our little fan club and writing & recording music at home.

The usual musical route of sending out demos to record labels and getting rejection letters was followed before we decided to self-finance our own CD – this wasn’t common at the time but thanks to some great T-shirt designs and paying gigs, we’d managed to save up enough money to give it a go. Suddenly, people started to take the band seriously, and because of my contacts in the record store, we were able to get the album on the computer system and shipped out to other stores. Accidentally, I was running a record label.

ChildrenObstinateWasp Factory Recordings escapeferocitywas a great idea in principle – it was more like a co-operative than a traditional label might be, and we got to sign and work with many of the bands that we had enjoyed gigging with in the earlier years. We released more than 20 CDs around the world, took artists to play festivals in Europe, North America and Australia, did deals with Microsoft to provide music for video games, won awards, had brilliant adventures, and made hardly any money at all. Whilst trying to control this juggernaut, I also worked at a local arts centre called The Axiom, which is where I learned how to be a sound and lighting engineer, DJ and events manager.

Somewhere in amongst all of this I met George Moorey, who asked me to do some music workshops for a project he was running called Wired Music. From this small seed, I started to get involved in teaching and mentoring young people in bands, briefly running the recording studio at Whaddon Youth Arts Centre and providing music sessions for young offenders and excluded school children. Of all the work I’d done to date, this some of was the most rewarding so far. When the funding for that project ran out, I decided to look for other work, and as luck would have it, I managed to get a job running a project called In Tune for Stroud College. Over 18 months, we worked with 150 hard to reach students trying to re-engage them in education through a programme of music, film-making, poetry, DJing, animation and anything else that would catch their imagination. It was here that I really began to understand the positive effect that music could have, how it could literally transform people and energise them like nothing else. It helped people to communicate and express themselves when everything else had failed, and I realised that it had done the same for me throughout my life.

comfort-zoneEver since then I’ve been working to try and provide these opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. I’ve started to build my own music interfaces to allow people with limited mobility to access music making, and to modify existing instruments to make them more accessible. I think back to my experiences of music in the past, and of all the barriers that were put in my way, and use this experience to try and help people overcome whatever barriers they face. In general, we have moved towards being a more egalitarian society since I struggled with a recorder in the 80’s, but in some regards, music education has failed to keep pace with these developments, and still judges musical accomplishment by a set of criteria that haven’t changed in 50 years. Similarly, the music industry has struggled with change and its reluctance to adapt to a digital age has stunted its growth of late. It’s time to move bravely into the future and maybe leave the recorders behind for a while.