I recently received an email in response to my blog, “Swimming UpStream,” from a young musician in Germany. He had written previously to say that he had enjoyed my CD, and is a multi-instrumentalist, interested in pursuing a career in music. After reading “Swimming UpStream,” my critique of the music business, he wrote again, this time sounding a bit discouraged by the “current music industry.” Well, I hate the idea of discouraging anyone from doing what they love, so at the risk of once again sounding like a grumpy old bugger, I’ll offer some more advice: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Yeah, it’s a cliche, but it’s a good one. After all, do you really want to sit in your rocking chair someday and wonder “what if…?” My dad used to say, “Shoot for the moon. If you only get half-way there, you’ve still gone a long way.” Like the story goes, the older I get, the smarter my dad was.
The old joke went something like this:
“How do you get into the music business and wind up with a million bucks?” Answer: “Start with two million.”
So, the $64,000 question: How does one succeed in music? Well, first of all, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I’ve been asked questions like this a lot, and I do have a few thoughts on the subject.
First of all, you have to really, really love music, because if you want to be successful (or even competent) you’re going to put in hours and hours of work on your guitar, voice, musical saw, or whatever. Now, if you really love it, the hours you spend won’t be so bad; in fact, it may not seem like work at all. In my particular case, after fifty-some years of playing, I can spend an entire day playing / practicing guitar, and the time flies. (Maybe this is partly in contrast to some of the much less pleasant “life stuff” I might otherwise be engaged in). All this work will hopefully prepare you for the other half of the “success formula” : luck. Success is almost always a combination of “preparation meets opportunity.” If you’re not prepared, it doesn’t matter how much opportunity you get. The “opportunity” part will probably require a little effort on your part, too. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely that someone will walk into your living room and “discover” you. That means you’ve got to get out there and show the world (or at least a bit of it) what you can do. This advice may seem overly simplistic to some, but trust me, I’ve known musicians who should have been out performing but didn’t because they never, ever, felt they were ready. Another piece of advice - when you do go out to perform, (this goes for professionals too) and you make a mistake, don’t sweat it. Everyone, EVERYONE, makes a mistake occasionally. If it’s a small mistake, there’s an excellent chance that 95% percent of your audience won’t notice, so don’t “telegraph” it by making a face. On that note, don’t call attention to others mistakes either - it won't make you look better or smarter or more talented if you do. Playing music is all about teamwork. (This bit of advice goes for office workers too - don’t try to make your co-workers look bad; it’ll come back to bite you in the ass eventually).
When you are on “the gig,” remember, you’re a performer. The performance starts the moment you step on the stage. Your audience wants to think you’re something special, so be special. That gives you the opportunity to wear something you wouldn’t necessarily wear on the street. If you have to set-up your gear in front of the audience, try to be as discreet as possible. Allow plenty of time. If you have a stage costume, you might even want to wear all-black while setting up, so as not to attract attention, then take a few minutes to wash your hands and change into your stage clothes before you re-take the stage for the performance. Purchase a tuner you can plug your instrument into! Again, this sounds like total bone-head advice, but not long ago, I was enjoying a creamy pint in an Irish bar, and a band took the stage. They proceeded to tune - out loud, followed by a bunch of “noodling” - practicing parts of songs, scales, runs, more tuning, more noodling… you get the idea. They spent so long doing this that I had finished my drink and was out the door before the downbeat of the first tune. Not exactly the best way to hold a crowd.
Okay, so you put lots of time into your instrument. What else can you do? Well, that depends. Making a living in music does not necessarily mean being a star. In fact, more-often-than-not it means not being a star. Ironically, very often the musicians who are “side-men,” the “back-up bands” (to use the lay term) are better, more well-rounded musicians than the star performer. It might be, for example, that the “star” has a good voice, good looks, song-writing ability, adequate guitar chops when playing his own material, as well as dynamic energy and charisma. It’s also possible also that the star is a fresh face, without years of experience under his belt. A sideman, however, may have spent years preparing for that role - and possess innumerable musical attributes - like “doubling” on a wide variety of instruments, being well-versed in many styles of music, arranging, singing complex close-harmony vocal parts, sight-reading, etc. If the star’s career lasts, he (or she) may have it made in the shade. If not, it might be “see-you-later-alligator,” while the side-man is prepared to move on, from that gig, to another, and another, and another.
Simply put, there are many careers to be had in all areas of music. My advice is to try to be as versatile as possible. It might be advantageous to live in a music center - Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, but it all depends on your particular goals. A great regional band that develops a loyal following stands as good a chance of success as an L.A. band, and maybe even a better one. Every record company A&R exec is looking for new acts - that’s their job - and sometimes it can be a case of “the grass is greener” in (fill in your hometown). If you’re an original music act, be original. For every great artist that set a milestone, there were a dozen copy-cats. Every record label looked for the “next Elvis” and the “next Beatles,” but today we only remember the originals. That’s who you want to be - the guy or girl or group whose sound is instantly recognizable the moment it’s heard.
Every musician has different strengths. Capitalize on your strengths to make yourself as “hire-able” as possible. If you’re studying music in college, by all means take some music business classes. They’ll come in handy when you’re out there trying negotiate those shark-infested musical waters. As a working musician, playing a variety of instruments and musical styles, singing, sight-reading, arranging, composing, scoring, producing, editing can all increase your chances of employment. Many performing musicians also teach music. Some, in addition to playing, have “day jobs” as recording engineers, music copyists, piano tuners, musical instrument repairmen, work in research and development or sales for musical equipment companies or other music-related jobs.
That’s my spiel for now. I’ll probably think of something I forgot to mention, in the middle of the night, and be annoyed. My wife will tell me not to think about it, and that I should go back to sleep; and as usual, she’ll be right. So, I’ll just leave you with this: In the end, it’s better to regret something you did, than something you didn’t do. Shoot for the moon.
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