(Photo by Jon Forster)

My name is Rebecca James, I am a singer-songwriter who attended the recently completed cohort two of the Ladders Music Programme and I cannot speak highly enough of how enriching and career-defining it has been. The Ladders Music Course, developed by Generator and TICE, is a free 8-week creative enterprise programme designed to bridge the gap between education and employment for young people aged 17-24. Led by TICE Music mentor, Sam Burt, the music course was a multi-faceted and creative programme with a combination of talks, workshops, visits and practical work. My fellow students and I were at all different stages of education or employment, with our musical tastes varying from pop to hip-pop to indie, each part of solo acts, bands or in the process of working out the best route for our musical practise. I can safely say that due to the course and Sam’s mentorship we have all been able to move forward with our musical careers with the relevant knowledge, skills and most important of all, the confidence to achieve our goals.

Over two months, we covered key groundwork with topics such as ‘Skills Development’, ‘Business Know How’, ‘Employer Engagement’ and our own student-led projects. Throughout the course, we received pastoral and employability support from the fantastic Foundation Futures, with guidance on how to effectively prepare for company visits and communicating with industry professionals. Indeed, we met a range of inspiring individuals with successful, sustained careers in the industry, including Wayne C. MacDonald (DJ, Radio Presenter and Songwriter), John Elliott and Andrew Archer of Loft Music (Trafik), Keith Armstrong (Artist Manager and Music Publisher), Roma Yagnik (Composer), Marty Longstaff (The Lake Poets) Mark Bainbridge (Freelance musician and teacher) and Dan Burt (Border Scout). Each of the speakers provided new insights into the sheer amount of career paths available in the industry from the perspective of practitioners or supporting roles, alongside an abundance of essential advice on how we could develop our own skills. Personal development was an important aspect of these talks, with the need for self-belief, commitment and work ethic continually being flagged up by our speakers, which really helped to inspire and keep us all motivated through the course and whilst reflecting on our own musical endeavours.

Not only were our industry experts practitioners from music, we had talks from Dr Kitty Porteous of Arts Council England and Ellie Turner of Community Foundation who shared guidance on what funding is out there and how to apply for it, with funding streams allowing us to put our creative plans into action as artists, but also for our communities. As funding applications can be complex and potentially overwhelming for first time applicants, this session was invaluable for breaking down what the funders were looking for and answering any queries or hesitations we had with applications. Ged Robinson from Generator also joined us to give us a comprehensive overview of the various strands of their work, including their Business and Talent focus, as well as an overview of his career both supporting and practising music. Despite being a varied group, the talks had something for all of us as well as providing a networking opportunity.

Company visits took us to a range of venues including Newcastle University Music Department, 02 Academy Newcastle, DACS Audio, The Sage Gateshead and Leaf.fm. It was absolutely fascinating to have a behind the scenes look at these venues, to engage with employers and to truly appreciate the intricacies of the industry, for instance, at DACS Audio we could see how studio equipment such as pre-amps are constructed. Moreover, we gained insider information such how a close-knit, small team are responsible for the mammoth task of running the 02 Academy, contrary to common perceptions of the large-scale 02 brand. Another great benefit of the tours was to discover on-going musical innovation, such as how Leaf.fm are continually evolving features on their music and video-playing app to gather and maintain their solid fan base. The Sage and Newcastle University visits were especially useful to find out about their degree programmes and to tour their studio and practise room facilities. This is only a small fraction of the many highlights we experienced whilst touring musical venues across Newcastle and Gateshead!

Hands-on experience was a vital part of developing our skills and we were introduced to the world of sound engineering by spending time at Loft Music Studios, with the support of placement Music Production student Elli Ioannou and Blast Music Studios, with the support of freelance sound engineer Dean Thompson, with a session spent recording SoShe and Heartsetonhope in the latter. We were able to help set up the recording session with Dean and Sam, as well as chat to the artists. To finesse our knowledge, we had the unique opportunity to attend a Songwriting, Recording and Production Masterclass with Peter Brewis of Field Music at Newcastle University which was a public event hosted by our mentor Sam. The event was bustling with attendees and Peter did not disappoint by giving us an in-depth overview of his career background and a step-by-step guide of how he creates music. This included a mixture of specific guidance on recording techniques, alongside advice to help with sparking creativity, such as the importance he placed on feeling part of a wider and collaborative music scene. The insight we gained through this specific skills development work made for a smooth transition to the individual projects, as we gained more and more confidence in our ability to make original music.

The projects were especially exciting due to the chance to professionally record our music at Loft and Blast studios and we made the most of every moment of our time there! As the projects were not going to be formally marked and did not have be completely finished, we could let our creativity run wild and have room to develop them further outside of the course. Within our group, we all had a passion for songwriting and composition in our respective genres, resulting in an impressive range of thoroughly original projects. To assist in the process, we all discussed our favourite songs and shared our original songs, helping to give each other feedback and direction. For my project, I worked on writing and recording part of an original soulful, pop A Cappella song, which I could not have completed without the help of my course mates to add clap and stomp rhythms. As collaboration was encouraged, I also assisted fellow student, Jamie Davison, a songwriter who needed a vocalist for his wonderfully catchy indie-folk song, ‘Cigarettes and Time’, which you can hear here. Throughout the projects and indeed the whole course, Sam was on hand to give us advice on any and all aspects of the music industry and provided focused feedback to get our projects in the best shape possible. Furthermore, we all benefited and admired the tireless hard work and dedication of the sound engineers Elli and Dean.

After a whirlwind 8 weeks, we triumphantly finished the course and presented our projects to the entire Ladders’ programme on 30th March 2017 at Newcastle City Library. The evening culmination of an incredible amount of hard work, showcasing our original music to the other Ladders Programmes, Film/TV and Software Development, family and friends, as well as some of the industry professionals who joined us on the course. During the showcase, there was a short panel discussion where we each got the chance to introduce our work and discuss our future plans. All the students were incredibly grateful to their mentors, Generator and TICE, particularly Jennifer Barrett (Founder and Managing Director of TICE, Fashion and Enterprise Mentor) and Louise Henry (Enterprise Development Coordinator, Generator) and finally to the generosity of the industry experts and venues, all of whom refused to ‘pull the Ladder up behind them’ and instead whole-heartedly supported us as up-and-coming professionals! The course itself has been closely followed by a series of Ladders Enterprise sessions, run by TICE Enterprise mentor, Lee Casey, as well as Employability workshops run by Youth Focus, working to synthesise the knowledge gained from the course into concrete action and business plans.

Having completed an English Literature degree and committed myself to a career in the music industry, I can personally vouch for how successful the course has been to bridge the gap to employment in the creative industries, as I now have been set up with the relevant knowledge, contacts and skills to kick-start my career. I am so excited to keep working on my goals and to track the progress of my talented course mates all thanks to Ladders!

Want to get on that career ladder, just like Rebecca? Click here to find out more about the Ladders course, coming to Sunderland in September 2017.