The journey from amateur to professional folk musician explored in new research
The researchers, Dr Stephen Henderson and Professor Karl Spracklen, from the University’s Carnegie Faculty, set out to discover the career arc that can develop for folk musicians as leisure turns to professional work. Their paper, From serious leisure to serious work, or, when folk music struck a chord: careers, Habermasian rationality and agency, has been published in Leisure Journal. The team set out to understand how English folk musicians engage with their community over a period of time, moving from amateur to professional, and interacting with actor roles such as managers, producers and distributors.
Dr Henderson said: “Folk music is music whose roots are in the long-held traditions of the local population. It is closely related to morris dancing, with morris sides often using local tunes that go back centuries. We were interested in the way music serves as leisure: in a sociable, ‘communicative’ way, and in the instrumental way of global capitalism.”
The researchers noted that folk musicians often fall into one of three categories: the casual leisure of the amateur performing in an informal setting with friends; the serious leisure of those performing in folk clubs, or the collectors; and the field of the professional artist – one which brings about a tension between the urge to create and to get their music heard by others and the need to work with managers and others who are often more concerned about the music’s economic capital.
The researchers carried out in-depth interviews with 13 people: 10 of whom had established careers within the UK folk music scene, one American musician, the daughter of a well-known folk musician, and a reluctant performer who found his way into the scene through photography.
The interviewees spanned a range of ages and experiences and included Kit Bailey, daughter of famous folk musician Roy Bailey, whose career has spanned more than five decades; Martin Simpson, a recording artist who began his career in the 1970s; the song-writer Steve Tilston; and American-born musician Anaïs Mitchell.
Photo: Anaïs Mitchell, used under creative commons license and courtesy of Alterna 2.
The interviews highlighted recurring themes, as Dr Henderson explained: “Most were influenced by relatives, though sometimes friends, who proved to be door-openers into the folk music scene. The folk clubs of the 1960s made many musicians feel welcome and, driven by their passion for music, some felt compelled to start writing songs, singing or playing instruments very early in their lives, becoming connected to a network of musical contacts.”
Most of the musicians interviewed moved on to become professionals within a working role but for some, playing music remains a casual leisure activity, despite being encouraged by others. Those with professional performing careers reported experiencing the tensions between their creative yearnings and the world of contracts and ‘crass’ and ‘manipulative’ managers, with the less materialistic Yorkshire musician Fay Hield stressing: “I’m not really about where I end up in life. I’m certainly not interested in financial rewards and just want good stuff to happen.”
Dr Henderson added: “It is clear from all of our interviewees that other actor roles, such as managers, are essential in offering platforms for those who gravitate to being professional folk musicians. Technology and the ability to access archives of folk music and generally share the musical outputs has also proved very helpful as serious leisure is developed into career. However, we see that the nurturing folk music scene alone has allowed talents to develop depth that contrasts with the likes of X-Factor and, as Joni Mitchell said, ‘the star maker machinery behind the popular song.’”
Top photo: Steve Tilston, used under creative commons license and courtesy of Bryan Ledgard.