Musician, video game soundtrack composer, radio broadcaster and co-founder and director of forward thinking music label Spirit Level – Tim Shiel has serious music industry credentials having been involved in all facets of the biz.
Originating as a composer and producer fusing tones of melancholy, ambience and electronica under the monica ‘Faux Pas‘, Shiel released a number of EP’s, albums and remixes which developed his credentials as a definitive creator in the Australian electronic music scene. Years later he’s now cultivated a career composing soundtracks for video games with noteworthy appearances on 2013’s Kotaku Mobile Game of the Year Duet and AGDA‘s 2018 Game of the Year The Gardens Between.
Music hasn’t had him stuck inside the four walls of the studio either, having used his multi-instrumental talents and technical intellect to land him a gig travelling around the world with Gotye in 2011/12. Playing live shows at Coachella, The Letterman Show and The Sydney Opera House are just a few highlights that Tim can take with him until the day he dies. Shiel still works a day job as radio presenter and producer at Double J and Triple J respectively, where he hosts Afternoons on Double J four days a week and runs a weekly 2-hour music program ‘Something More‘ on Triple J endorsing some of the worlds most original electronic and pop music.
I haven’t even had the time to mention Shiel’s involvement with music label Spirit Level, so I’ll let him explain his own weekly schedule and industry wisdom in his own words… read below!
A job description in your own words
I do a few things.
I look after a group of artists all working together under the label Spirit Level. I help them as they make their music and then help them figure out what to do with it. This includes listening to their works in progress, sometimes helping with mixing & production, organising artwork, running special events occasionally, liaising with distributors, servicing to media and radio, developing special projects where necessary.
I also work in radio, hosting Double J’s afternoon shift from Monday to Thursday. In addition to being on air, off air I spend time developing creative content, listening to music to pass on to the Double J music team, and preparing for daily artist interviews which are sometimes live and sometimes pre-recorded. I also have hosted a weekly triple j show Something More since 2014, on which I play a lot of experimental pop and other forward-thinking music, and I program the music for that show entirely.
This year I am part of the programming team for the BIGSOUND Festival, working on the live music program alongside Melody Forghani. We’ve just announced the first batch of artists for our 2019 lineup.
I also make and release music myself, and have done that for a while now. Most recently I have worked as the audio lead and composer for several independent games including Duet and The Gardens Between, which recently won an Apple Design Award. Previously I’ve also written music for film and toured as part of Gotye’s live band.
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A brief daily journal over a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday)
My week technically starts on a Sunday night, when I head in to triple j at around 8pm to finish preparing my show Something More, which airs from 11-1am. I sneak time wherever I can throughout the week – and in the evenings and weekends – to seek out and listen to new music as well as get through as much as I can of what I get sent personally. On a Sunday night I take my long list of potential music for airplay and whittle it down to a two hour playlist, if I haven’t already done so. I’ll also edit any pre-recorded interviews or other bits of content that I might need for my show in the hours leading up to 11pm, and do some boring stuff like prepare songs for ingestion into our digital play out system.
Monday morning I’ll sleep in, and then head in to Double J for a chat on air with Zan Rowe on her show at 11:30am, where I’ll talk about whats coming up on my show that afternoon. Leading up to 3pm, I’ll be starting to prepare for the week ahead on Double J while also getting my head around what needs to be done around my other commitments, using email and Slack to keep in touch with collaborators and the extended Spirit Level crew.
Tuesday – Thursday
I’ll drop my oldest daughter at school (she’s in Prep) at 9am and then in the mornings I’ll often head off to meet someone, preferably at a cafe that’s walking distance from my house if I can swing it! It might be an artist on Spirit Level who needs to talk through some things in person, someone who has asked to meet me to talk through a new opportunity, or perhaps someone that I’ve reached out to who I’d like to get to know or maybe collaborate with in the future.
I really love meeting new people and cooking up big bold ideas, but meetings can swallow a lot of time if you’re not careful. I try to be strategic and only have a few of these kinds of meetings face to face each week – and usually these chats are about making new friends and possibly new future collaborators with for me or someone on the label. I try and maintain a lot of my existing friendships and relationships online which is far from ideal but is kind of where I’m at right now.
At some point in the morning I’ll start working through whatever is on my list for that week. Often I’m doing that from my music studio which is located in a meat locker in North Melbourne (more on that later). Sometimes I’ll find myself still sitting in that cafe, wherever I ended up, tethering wi-fi from my phone.
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At the moment several of the artists on Spirit Level are early in the creative cycle on new projects, so I’m spending a lot of time listening to their demos and providing feedback, plus suggesting ideas for visual direction and collaborators. We’ll kick artwork ideas back and forth on Slack or on email, or I may spend time experimenting with different sequencing for an upcoming EP or album, and shoot thoughts on that back to an artist. It’s always about giving them that extra perspective as an outside opinion, but hopefully someone whose voice they trust and respect. I always yearned for that sounding-board type voice in my own life as a creative person, now I try to be that voice for the people I work with. That mutual trust and respect as artists forms the fundamental core of my relationship with anyone I work with at Spirit Level which is why we are proud to call ourselves an “artist-run” label.
Because we have just been right in the middle of the BIGSOUND programming process, I’ve recently been spending a good chunk of time most days on the phone with my festival programming co-pilot Melody, where we’ll be deep in our own magical spreadsheets, listening to music together and sharing our thoughts, doing whatever research we can in order to make a lot of very difficult but exciting decisions about the final lineup. It’s not always easy but working with Melody makes it super fun because she is so generous with her thoughts and her energy.
In the afternoons – I’m on the radio from 3-7pm. Some of my interviews are pre-recorded so they slot in at random times sometimes throughout the week, like in the mornings or sometimes in the night. I pinch myself that I have the opportunity to talk to amazing artists every day – in the last couple of weeks alone I’ve spoken to Hot Chip, John Grant, Lucy Rose, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, Herbie Hancock – just today I spoke to Kav from Eskimo Joe and also Goku & Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z for some reason.
Beyond the interviews, it is just as much fun to simply spend a few hours every day with the Double J audience who are a lot of fun to hang out with. It’s a dream job because I love making radio and I love the overall project that Double J has embarked on in the past five years, it’s exciting to be part of that and it feels like we’ve still only just started.
On a Thursday night I’m usually really excited because I can put the radio hat away entirely and dig deeper into my other projects for a full day every Friday.
I head to my music studio which is in a building called the Meat Market in North Melbourne. It was indeed an old butcher’s market for many decades but more recently has been reinvented as an arts precinct and events space. Spirit Level has actually run several events there, I’ve performed one of my game soundtracks on the big stage there too.
Hidden up the back behind the main room is a little former meat locker where you’ll find me on a Friday (and other random times of the week). I share the space with my good friend Ben Abraham and the Melbourne-based artists on Spirit Level also make use of it from time to time. Its full of guitars, synths, leads, boxes of vinyl, and Ikea furniture. That space has been used for various band rehearsals, game soundtracks, film clips, Spirit Level releases, and at least one Grammy-nominated Kesha song.
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My goal for 2019 was to spend Fridays working on writing new music, but I haven’t had much of a chance to do that this year. I’ll generally spend my Fridays working on admin for the label, possibly tweaking mixes or artwork if required. I’ll also often be meeting up with one or more people to move projects forward. Recently, I’ve been spending chunks of each Friday catching up with a relatively new collaborator, finessing plans for some creative music tech ideas we hope to build into the label’s future.
Challenges and accomplishments in your week
The ongoing challenge is time management!
But after years of extreme multi-tasking I’ve becomed pretty disciplined and efficient. My days are a balance of being tightly scheduled, and having open space to take on what needs to happen in any moment. I tend to be able to focus very quickly on a task when required, and then shift focus equally quickly.
Studies say that multi-tasking and splitting your attention like that is not a good way to work. I too am not sure it is a great way to work. But it does seem to be when I am most comfortable, and productive. When focused, I try to be as hyper-focused as possible, always chasing what they call “flow” state, which I experience usually while making music, or making radio. But sometimes I get into a flow state when writing my emails. Sure why not.
Every week is so different. Some of my accomplishments this week: I got to interview Alexis from Hot Chip which is a big deal for me because I’ve loved that band from the start. We announced the first half of our BIGSOUND 2019 lineup on Thursday which is an immense source of pride for me and everyone on our programming team, because every single one of these artists are so exciting to us, and because we all know how much it can mean to be invited to play there.
And some behind the scenes accomplishments – we have six different artists on Spirit Level right now who are all gearing up to release new music before the end of the year, all of them right now deep in the creative process figuring out what they want to say and how they want to say it. Helping them with direction and strategy is so rewarding, and this week has been a particularly breakthrough week for many of them.
Being able to be a part of all these incredible, creative conversations about artistic direction, musically and visually, to play a part in steering the course for these artists whose music means so much to me (and who I consider to be friends) is always a source of pride and inspiration for me. That is, on a personal level, why I do it!
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Words of wisdom for people considering a job in your field
I feel so lucky to do the work that I do. I don’t think you can necessarily plan for a job in any of the fields that I ‘work’ in. The roles I’ve been offered in the last five to ten years have had less to do with any kind of career plan on my part, and more to do with other people perhaps recognising my passions and skill-set and reaching out to let me know they think they have a place for me. I feel very much like I have just continued to follow my own path and have landed in some pretty interesting places as a result. But I most certainly did not plan for any of it.
I have never had a five-year or ten-year master plan. My focus has always been to stay curious, always be learning, and do whatever I need to do to give myself time to keep pursuing about the things I am passionate about.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had the support and the time in my life to be able to spend many many hours working on developing my skill set – e.g. volunteering at community radio for many years, hours and hours spent listening to music and making music in my bedroom. Not all people are fortunate enough to have that free time during their 20s – I most certainly did.
I try my best not to take anything for granted. I tend to be quite motivated to see others succeed, and I genuinely like working with other people.
I think if you focus on your true passions, approach your art like a craft (ie practice, practice, practice, learn, learn, learn) then you will find opportunity, you just need to be prepared for the fact that the future might not look like the future that you expect. To me, that’s actually the exciting part – not knowing what’s coming.
Also: do not quit your day job. I’ve been playing around with music in a few different ways for a long time now, but I still have a day job – it just happens to be a really, really fun one. But I expect to always be juggling multiple sources of income, and don’t expect to always be so lucky to be so creatively invested in every one. I’m trying to make the most of where I find myself right now!
Tim will be involved in marquee event CHANGES at Melbourne’s Laundry Bar at 7pm on Wednesday July 3rd showcasing his co-found music label Spirit Level to a wide audience. You can check out the event website here.
If you found this article helpful or inspiring please feel free to check out our other WITLO pieces here.