Published: 5 February 2016

Alex Cottrell: From medieval music to the virtual world

Musical instruments

School of the Arts student, Richard Bond, meets music graduate Alex Cottrell to discuss his career as music writer, performer, and producer in Liverpool.

Recent music graduate, Alex Cottrell (pictured below), is living proof that young musicians can make ends meet without having to live on beans on toast for months on end.

Whilst the idea of a portfolio career can be seen by some to have negative connotations, it appears Alex embraces the sheer variety that it offers: “I write, record and produce music for commercial use, which involves writing music for all sorts of mediums like video games and TV, and I’ve done logos for YouTube channels, as well as live and recorded music for theatre,” he says of his career so far.

He is aware that at such an early stage in his career, he must keep his options open, but the desire and requirement to take on as many jobs as he can manage also facilitates his further learning. He picks up new styles and genres on a daily basis. Indeed, one of his latest projects was composing the music for a play performed by the Liverpool Players for the Being Human Festival, a national celebration of the humanities.

The theatre troupe was performing a reworking of Marie de France’s 12th Century text ‘Bisclavret’ or ‘The Werewolf’, and subsequently he was commissioned to compose in a ‘Neo Medieval’ style using authentic medieval instrumentation and techniques, whilst also ensuring it remained palatable for a modern audience.

Alex speaks warmly of his experience at the University and the opportunities it has offered him in his professional career. He had previously worked with Professor Sarah Peverley, Director of the Liverpool Players and researchers in medieval literature at the Department of English, for a production of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market which was taken to the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as having his piece ‘transitions’ used for a programme for BBC Radio 3’s series Words In Music, produced by Professor Peverley.

Alex acknowledges that a large portion of his professional network as a musician working in Liverpool comes from the University, stating the institution to be ‘crucial’ to his career. In his opinion, it is the scope and flexibility of the programmes on offer in the music department which have provided him with such a variety of professional contacts specialising in both popular and classical idioms. His old classmates comprise a large portion of his professional network.

However, when it comes to his work composing music for video games, Alex has received all of his commissions through connections made on the Internet, such as via

online ‘games modding’ communities and other forums such as Reddit. This virtual networking perhaps suggests shifts in practice as we become ever more dependent on technology.

It’s no secret that being a freelance musician in today’s world of illegal downloads and cultural sector cuts is a tough career choice. To combat the instability inherent in making a living out of music, Alex says: “You need to be very honest with yourself; it’s about being able to manage stress, the anxiety of uncertainty, finances, and the willingness to make sacrifices.”

Alex Cottrell

He spoke of times where he often had the luxury of having too many jobs to take on at once, but also struggling to get any work at all merely a month later.

Everyone will have seen a Facebook meme of one form or another, posted by a friend who plays in a band or other musical project, expressing their anger at how musicians never get paid because of the popular adage that it will be ‘good exposure’ for them as an act. Many people in the business, however, know the value of a favour and therefore often work for free.

Alex suggests that it is not helpful to have a stone-wall approach because, as many people in the business know, there is true value in working for free ‘as a favour’, as it often leads to paid work and other opportunities in the future. Especially given Alex’s hunger to learn new skills, he often sees any opportunity as a personal lesson.

He believes that ultimately one must work out “what is work and what is a practical lesson” and what other opportunities this practical lesson brings.

Perhaps the single most important lesson he has learnt as a professional musician, “is to not let the blinders come down, especially when you are this early on in your career,” he says. “I found that when I was at university you can have very strong opinions about what is valuable. This can be a very dangerous attitude – you can develop negative attitudes to projects which might actually help your career. Being flexible and open minded is completely vital.”

It is important to remember though that whilst working for free can be beneficial, musicians do need to make sure they keep their water, electricity and gas switched on! Indeed, Alex also suggested that ‘composers need patrons’ and this is exactly what the Arts Council England and other funding bodies offer.

These organisations are an invaluable resource for working musicians and Alex believes them to be especially important as it lends the given project integrity both academically and artistically, and removes any economic pressure.

There is a pervasive belief amongst musicians that ‘you’ve got to be where it is happening,’ and that means London. However Alex wholeheartedly does not subscribe to this view stating that: “I would hate to contribute to the notion that successful musicians go to London.”

As he points out, there is no question that Liverpool is a musical city. With a rich legacy and thriving music scene, today it offers many opportunities for musicians. Indeed, more and more record labels and producers are beginning to recognise the importance of Liverpool for generating acts and as a creative centre, as they did in the days of The Beatles.

Alex adds: “In Liverpool, you can do a lot more with less – pragmatically that is a good move for somebody going into the arts.”

Alex currently performs in Liverpool with his band, Glossom, a five piece Jazz, Math, Rock fusion. Links to this and other projects can be found on his website: http://alex-cottrell.com/

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