Published May, 2019
Vibrant, culturally saturated, historically rich, current, and most importantly, diverse, London is a place where minds meet and ideas are brought to life.
All this is reflected in the music scene, crucially interwoven with the city’s spirit. Young musicians with an urge to experiment, break the established boundaries and open their minds to the world are brought together at the heart of the city, which, like a magnet, attracts them with its endless possibilities.
But what does it take to be a part of the wave, a little drop in the ocean of the thousands who want nothing else but for their music to be heard? A quick glance at a typical day in the life of four music students in London reveals just that - the struggles, trials and tribulations, the ultimate highs and the lowest of lows while trying to ‘make it’ in the big city.
The music was getting louder as Ramiz climbed down the stairs leading to the small stage of The Social, where he was about to perform in a few short hours. He probably should have been more anxious - after all, it was going to be the first-ever gig where he was the one under the spotlight. Being a lead singer was never planned. Producing was his forte. But no one else could perform his songs for him. He had his friend Nashe, of course, who was to join for one of the songs, but it was still mostly his own voice that people expected.
Ramiz went through the double doors and into the venue. It was a small one, probably the smallest he’s ever played. As the guitarist of Automatic Laughter, the band he’d joined a little over a year ago, he was used to being somewhat left in the background. He felt perfectly comfortable there. Tara - confident, charming, blonde, and an incredibly strong vocalist and a captivating performer, usually got most of the attention. She always directed the attention of the audience towards the rest of the band at some point during their gigs, but after that everyone inevitably looked back at her. But tonight wasn’t about Tara. She was going to be somewhere in the crowd this time, supporting her guitarist as he stood on stage.
Ramiz was circling the venue, saying hi left and right. Everyone was there. His two flatmates, who were also responsible for organising the gig. His cameraman, his friends from uni, even his dad. He felt a sudden burst of joy. Back at home, in Malaysia, family was everything, and the fact that they were so supportive of his attempts at music meant so much.
Currently, Jake, a friend from uni, was doing a soundcheck with his band. His songs were chilled, his mellow voice perfectly complimenting the lo-fi beats and the heartfelt lyrics layered on top of the hushed tones of the music. Under the stage name JMY, he was going to open for Ramiz and his band, The Dingalings, as they jokingly called themselves. What was best, Jake had a lot of friends, and he’d invited them all to the gig.
Not everyone was there yet, but the narrow space in front of the stage was almost filled out. The whole venue was like this - narrow. The lights along the wall on one side gave it an elongated, cinematic, tunnel-like appearance. According to the venue manager, the capacity could go up to 150. But Ramiz couldn't even imagine how crammed it would get if this many people decided to turn up. Good luck with trying to take deep breaths, he thought. Seventy was more than enough for him. Especially in his own first-ever audience.
Ramiz’s head was spinning a little bit thinking about it. He needed a drink. There was a box of Budweisers on the side of the stage, left there for the performers and their friends, he remembered. As he went over, he spotted his bandmate Tom, who’d just taken his guitar out of the case and was currently fiddling with the amp. Everything was almost ready.
Ramiz grabbed a beer and took a nervous sip. He’s got this. In just a few cigarettes’ time, he would go in front of the crowd, most of it formed of his friends, people who genuinely supported him and wanted nothing but the best for him. Even if he messed up, no one would care to remember, at least not when he got famous. Hopefully soon.
Jake was at the end of his soundcheck, which meant it was almost time to go. “You good, man?”, asked Tom, and grabbed his shoulder supportively. “Let’s go own this stage.”
“Richard, please bring me some oat milk from the stock room. And could you also take the plates down to the kitchen and wash them?”, sounded the voice of the manager of a little busy café at the heart of Notting Hill. It was Saturday, and the cosy narrow space was flooded with people. Richard took the heavy plastic case full of dirty dishes, and, trying his best not to lose his balance, slowly made his way down the stairs.
Someone on his right demanded more tap water, another voice asked him for the bill in a thick Italian accent, and a dog started barking his way. It was incredibly loud, he thought, so loud that there was no way anyone could hear the music over all the noise. And it was his turn to choose the music today. What a waste.
He hastily put the dishes in the sink and started filling up the bowl. This was his favourite part. He was left alone for a little bit, away from all the commotion. Richard didn’t hate his job. In fact, he was probably too laid-back to hate anything. But he wasn’t satisfied with it either. Washing dishes, making coffee, dealing with pretentious customers. His heart wasn’t in it, and it showed. Being the slowest out of all the people that worked there didn’t gain him any sympathy points, so everyone left all the dirty jobs for him.
That didn’t matter though, he would have to leave it soon anyway. Uni wasn’t going well, and he needed more money. At this point, moving back home with his parents wasn’t even an option.
For him, going to university was an incredibly difficult decision. It meant having to ditch everything he’d worked on for the past ten years. It meant settling down, finding a flat and a part-time job to support his endeavours as a poor London student. It meant finally admitting that his parents were right about him. It meant giving up.
The water was running over the plates, while he vigorously soaped, scrubbed, washed and put aside. It was all a bit gross, really. He started humming a melody under his nose, something he’d picked up from a performance he saw of one of his new favourite jazz bands. He loved jazz more than anything else. After all, that’s what he had wanted to do for a large chunk of his life.
Once, when he was only fifteen, he’d stormed into his parents’ room and announced that he’s quitting school so he could chase his dreams and start a music career. He was dedicated to making it, big time. He would be the next prodigy, the next big thing.
His parents, both retired musicians, knew just how difficult it is to ‘make it’. They were so strictly against him quitting school, that his dad gave him an ultimatum - either go back to school and graduate or get a job and find a new place to live.
Little did he know, that was exactly the push Richard needed. He’d called one of his bandmates, and so the couch-surfing for the next nearly ten years began. He would perform in countless pubs, restaurants and small venues, he’d tour with his band, he’d record and produce his own music.
But eventually, after many years of trying to ‘make it’, he’d realised that London didn’t favour everybody. That going to university and getting a proper degree was the only way to secure his future. That being a young, hopeful, naive musician in the big, hostile city just wasn’t that easy.
He finally finished washing the plates and headed to the stock room to get some oat milk.
225g softened butter, 4 large eggs, 225g golden caster sugar, half a lemon, zested… Bethan was making a cake. There was flour on every possible surface, even on the fridge, somehow. The mixture of butter and sugar, which at this point was supposed to be ‘pale and fluffy’, looked like a yellow lump at the bottom of the mixing bowl. She didn’t have enough eggs. It was a disaster. Bethan quickly grabbed her phone and did what she always does in times of disaster - she called her mum. Nicki picked up almost immediately.
“What happened, Bethan, how is the cake going? Did you manage to add the flour already?”
“It’s a bloody mess, M. It’s not mixing properly, and I have to go to Asda and buy another carton of eggs cause three of them broke.”
“Oh, dear. Why don’t you ask Mimi if you could borrow eggs from her? And don’t forget to pre-heat the oven. How are things with Jack going, by the way, did he text you back?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it, Nicki, I just want to make the bloody cake and be done with it!”
Bethan put the phone down. Why would her mum even mention Jack? Of course he hadn’t texted her back. He wasn’t going to, because that’s how his delicate man ego worked. It was all a disaster, really, just like the cake.
She turned on her favourite podcast. A new episode of “A-Z of festivals with Rob da Bank” had just come out. Rob was talking to some journalist lady called Gemma Cairney. Apparently, before they sat down in the studio, they went for a swim together, as some weird ice-breaker.
It was all a bit too much, if you asked Bethan. The most efficient ice-breaker she could think of was discussing favourite types of crisps. Although, in her opinion, no one had sufficient enough knowledge on the topic to ever rival her own. However, it was a good way to tell if a person is worth investing time in.
In her life, she had to deal with a lot of awkward ‘first dates’. That’s what she liked to call her writing sessions. As a songwriter, she was constantly working with new producers, vocalists and all kinds of industry people. A writing session could take up anything from a few hours to a whole day. It all depended on how well she got on with the particular person.
Songwriting is an extremely intimate process. It’s all about the individual feelings and emotions, and how best to translate them into the lyrics, the chord progressions and the performance. Although it comes natural to some, it’s sometimes a struggle to express yourself, and so you have to rely on other people’s experiences and emotional affairs. A session can be similar to a therapy or a date, because of how awkward it is in the beginning. The trust has to be built first, and only then something beautiful can be created.
At the moment, she was working on her songwriting portfolio for university. It was going, but not too well. Lately, she’d started feeling a bizarre emptiness when she sat down and tried to write. Sometimes she couldn’t even put pen to the paper. It was normal, she knew. Inspiration struck the least when she needed it most. And it was not like she didn’t have things to write about - all the crazy, beautiful memories she was making at uni, how uncertain the future was, crisps… and Jack.
How desperately she wanted to spill her soul on the paper, to turn it into something tangible that other people can listen to as well. Hopefully, someone would resonate with exactly what she was feeling, and maybe even give her an easy solution. That was the endgame, that was why she started making music in the first place.
Bethan turned her attention back to the mess in front of her.
“I’m making a cake,” she mumbled to herself to gather her thoughts. “I’m making a cake, I’m putting sugar, butter, lemon zest. I’m buttering the tray. I’m decorating. Sprinkle some sugar on top…”
And then it struck her. It almost came out of nowhere. She frantically searched her bag for a pen, grabbed her notebook from the bedroom, sat down at the kitchen table and started scribbling. Less than an hour later, she had a song.
The afternoon sun was low in the sky, so all the shadows in the living room seemed elongated in a funny way. If he put his hand in the way of the light and blocked the last rays of sunshine entering through the open balcony door, Philip could create different animal shapes on the white wall. He could also see his red nail polish, chipping off at the tips of his nails. It must be from all the work, he thought.
Philip stretched back in his chair. He was just finishing a song he was working on for a while. He might use it for a project in the future, but it was stuck in his head for so long, that he had to finally record it. His instruments were all laid out in front of him - his keyboard, the synthesiser, the mic, and most importantly - his laptop. All of his work, and therefore his life, was on there.
He’d finished so many songs lately, that he had a hard time choosing what to release next. It was crucial to choose the ones that corresponded with the image he had created for himself over the past few months. Philip Brooks: 21-year-old, bleach-blond, German, based in London. His music soft, atmospheric dream-pop.
Creating an image and sticking to it so people start recognising your work is incredibly important in an overly populated, competitive and brutal industry like music. That’s what his manager, Rafi, was saying time and over again. Rafi knew a lot about music management, so he could be trusted. He was the best friend for letting Philip stay with him in London whenever he wanted. He will rent his own flat in London soon, he thought, but it wasn’t that easy.
A few months ago, Philip decided to put out his first single on Spotify, without expecting it to get any attention at all. A week later, he’d woken up and checked his phone. Almost overnight, he had reached more than 100,000 streams. ‘Heatwave’ had been added to a playlist with more than a million followers. This was all it took. What was even more unexpected, was the payment he’d received a few days after. He was still getting some money now, months later, but it wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a flat in one of the most expensive European capitals.
But oh, how appealing London was to him. With its people, millions of them, its endless parks, galleries, back alleys and underground clubs. Most importantly, its enormous, diverse music scene. Everyone had their own place there, everyone belonged. For a budding musician, who loved nothing but his music, there was a certain kind of appeal in a city with so many possibilities. To get lost, but also to be found.
But soon enough, Philip thought. Soon enough the dusty old streets would embrace him, and his music would be heard. London wasn’t going anywhere.
There was no other time like 7 p.m. in Batu Pahat. Something about the stillness of the air, the last rays of sunshine, the heat still lifting up from the ground. The ocean was the best of all - so much bigger than everything people get caught up in, the little everyday troubles, so much bigger than people themselves. A kind of unique sense of tranquillity wrapping everyone up in a soft blanket. And with it, comes excitement for what the night ahead could bring.
Ramiz often reminisced about his time back at home. It was crazy how different the pace of life was back then. He never thought he would have to leave it. He missed his family, friends, his girlfriend, he missed playing football on the street, and after that eating so much food he would always feel sick. He missed swimming in the river or getting high with his old college mates. But then one day, right before his A-levels, he’d fallen and broken his leg. That had put a hold on his life and an end to his football ‘career’.
At that moment, he thought life as he knew it, was over. And he wasn’t entirely wrong. In those endless afternoons, when he was able to go nowhere and do nothing, he found his dad’s old guitar. He started playing around, not entirely sure what he was even doing. But whatever it was, sounded good. Rebecca, his girlfriend, had walked in on him one day, while he was in the middle of teaching himself the chords to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. He was scared she would mock him for it. Instead, she encouraged him to record himself. And he did, using the mic of his laptop. That’s how it all started. He wasn’t really religious, and he didn’t believe in faith. But maybe it wasn’t all a coincidence. Because now he knew music was what he was born to do.
So, after an entire summer of messing about on his laptop, and teaching himself all of his favourite classic rock anthems possible, he made the decision to leave. Definitely not an easy way to make it, but possibly the only way.
His mum cried a lot. It broke his heart. But he swore to her that this was the right choice for him. He swore to her that she might stop hearing from him as often, just so that one day, she will hear him everywhere. “I will be okay, Ma,” he’d said to her. “We all will be.”
Bethan was doing that thing again, where she was trying to count the people on the tube platform, while the train was still moving. It was making her go cross-eyed. She was now on her way to the studio, about to work again with one of her favourite producers.
After almost three months of hardly hearing anything back, Bethan had finally gotten a response from Ramiz. She couldn’t blame him, though, he had so much going on for him at the moment. His first single was just released, he was shooting a music video, gigging with his band almost every week.
And she knew all that, of course. But she was also so self-critical, that she couldn’t help but think that maybe it was Ramiz who was not entirely too eager to work with her again. He hadn’t called to schedule a new session for a while, and she didn't feel comfortable always being the first one to ask. Funnily enough, that’s exactly how things with Jack had ended.
What she didn’t know, however, was how fondly Ramiz was talking of her and their work together. They had done a song, and it was now a matter of re-recording the instrumental and the vocals. He’d listen to it sometimes, or play it to his friends during their late-night hangouts in his attic, which he’d turned into his home studio.
Bethan had finally created a plan for herself, after months of ‘just living’ for the sake of gathering life experience that she could turn into music. She had recently shot a music video, which a good friend of hers agreed to animate. She was releasing an EP soon, and hopefully, if everything worked out, a collaborative project with Ramiz. It was all coming together, and, although she knew how hard it would be, she was determined. There was the summer to look forward to and apart from money issues, nothing could stop her. She was motivated now, after seeing how well her friends were doing. Somehow, in spite of all the chances, they were going to make it. London was big, but their dreams were bigger.
She plugged her headphones into her phone and put The Cake Song on, so she could decide if she wanted to work on mixing and mastering it later, with Ramiz in the studio to help her. The first few chords sounded, and then her voice, singing the lyrics she knew so well by now.
Just leave me to sleep,
you can butter up my dreams, and make me feel weak.
I’ll nervous laugh my way through all the good things,
I’m hoping we can decorate the bad things.
I’m making a cake,
so won’t you tell me what you’re wanting to taste?
I’m making it loud and big, and short, and tall,
and all the different colours.
It was blinding. A bright light was shining straight into his eyes. He was standing at the centre of the stage, holding onto the end of his guitar, the band somewhere behind him. There was no way to see the people in front of him, but he could hear an enthusiastic chatter. He put his face closer to the mic. Everything suddenly fell silent.
“Hey, everyone, thank you all for coming. My name is RMZ and these are The Dingalings.” The crowd snickered at that.
Right in front of him, he could see familiar faces. Rafi had just finished talking to some retired musician guy called Richard. He didn’t know him personally, but he was a friend of a friend. On Rafi’s other side was Bethan, who was smiling at him encouragingly. On the right of the stage was the cameraman, talking to his flatmates. His dad stood behind them, pointing his phone camera at the stage and looking prouder than ever before.
Ramiz tightened the grip on his guitar. If it wasn’t so exciting, it would be completely nerve-wracking. He reached for his cup, buying a few more seconds.
“I’m gonna shut up for now, but I hope you enjoy the set!”
The backing track started playing. Tom was behind him, and Bill with his bass, James on the drums. The sound was so familiar, the instruments sounded perfectly upbeat, and Ramiz felt he was sinking deeper and deeper into the music. It was engulfing him, a powerful, sweet sensation as if at that moment, everything in his world was right. It was so real and so all-consuming, and if he wasn’t careful, he could get addicted to it.
The rest was all a blur. He was singing, and playing, and owning the stage, and everyone was happy. Nashe joined and they had fun, they had so much fun, and it shone through everything they did, said and sang.
He was convinced now. That was what he wanted to do, possibly for the rest of his life. In the ocean full of people floating around, he had found his little happy island, there on stage. He was going to make it, whatever it took.