Back in June, the band Advent Horizon came through my regular gig. They’re in the “mind-blowingly good” category. There’s certainly a lot of excellent musicianship to be had, but there’s something else. Let me tell you about when the display of that “something else” peaked:

Rylee’s guitar was having some tuning issues with a particular string.

Having identified the problem, Rylee stomped on something other than his tuner. The button that got pressed first was actually the one that switched in his looper. Rylee proceeded to play a little something on the strings that were in tune, looped the phrase, kicked on his tuner (in “silent” mode), and then directed the rest of the band to play over the loop.

Which they did.

It was brilliant – so brilliant, in fact, that I was a little disappointed that the tuning fix didn’t take longer.

Obviously, there’s a “how to” here. If you have to tune midstream, using what’s in tune to build a quick coverup soundtrack for the audience is a great idea.

But I think there’s something much more generally applicable to be gotten from the whole thing.

Owning The Stage

When Advent Horizon (or a band like them) is on deck, they truly “own” the stage.

That is to say, it is immediately apparent that they belong on that riser. They are fully in control of what’s going on, and are ready to manage pretty much any crisis that might occur. They have mastery over the show, and can decide to take it in any direction they wish.

The “looped tuning coverup” was an acute example of that reality. Their mastery of what was going on was so high that they could (seemingly without effort) take a musical detour to fix an issue…and not only keep their audience entertained, but use the problem as an occasion to show just how completely they were in command of what was going on.

No matter what happened, the entire band was eminently comfortable with what they were doing.

This kind of confidence is a huge part of what makes good playing into a great show. This kind of confidence can NOT be faked.

The Lie

I’ve been in the presence of performers who don’t truly own the stage, but try to act like they do. They attempt to deceive the audience and themselves into believing that they’re the master of what’s going on, but something always gives them away.

It can be quite subtle – little body-language and mannerism-driven cues that say “The events of the show are in control of me, instead of me being in control of them.”

On the other hand, the issue can also be brutally obvious. A performer might be so mechanical, and so unable to connect with their audience that even a distracted idiot would see the truth: That the show is fragile enough to crumble at the slightest provocation. The unfortunate musician is not captain of the ship in any sense; they’re completely at the mercy of what’s going on around them.

The latter case belongs most often to the deeply inexperienced.

The former case – the subtle giveaway – can belong to performers who have been doing shows for a short time, or years and years.

…and like other occasions where one pretends to be “in charge,” but aren’t actually, it can breed jerkdom. People who are not actually comfortable with being on stage constantly feel threatened, because they ARE constantly under threat of the show spinning out of control. This can make these folks anywhere from mildly to enormously unpleasant. They will grab at anything for control, refuse to let others do their proper jobs, and jump at the chance to place blame. They most certainly are not the true kings of the stage, and they know it – so, they cook up all kinds of bluster, bravado, and false machismo (this goes for males and females) to cover up their lack of actual command.

True Ownership

The fix for all this can boil down to one overarching concept: Internalization. Internalization creates real confidence, because it reduces the need to think actively about the whole show in real time. The show becomes effortless action, instead of a struggle.

Internalization comes from practice, preparation, and perspective. (Amongst other things.)

You obviously have to practice your instrument, and your show. Practicing to the point of internalization means that you don’t have to think about the mechanics of what you’re doing. You just decide what to execute, and then you execute. Internalization to that degree means that your higher cognition can go into connecting with the audience, responding to them, and making snap judgements about turning a problem into a demonstration of how in-control you are.

Part of practice is just plain-old immersion. To get comfortable with being on stage, you have to be on stage. You have to keep performing in an actual performance environment to become used to that environment. Where regular folks would walk onto the deck and be awed by it all, for you “it’s Tuesday.” (This doesn’t mean losing a sense of wonder. It just means that the wonderful and awesome fuel your enthusiasm instead of your nervousness.)

Another part of practice is having a backup plan, even if the plan isn’t explicit. The best performers I’ve worked with are able to deal with all kinds of problems – even those bordering on catastrophic – because they have internalized the building blocks of their show to a mind-boggling degree. They can strip their show down to nothing but the minimally required elements with zero notice. In the worst case scenario, they could walk out in front of the stage and sing acapella while everything else collapsed into a heap. They don’t just know the show, but they know the show with such intimacy that they can take it apart and put it back together again.

So…what’s the difference between that and preparation? For the purposes of this article, practice is what you do to get yourself ready, and preparation is what you do to get your tools ready. It’s also the knowing of the limitations of those tools. If that amp of yours is getting weird, what’s the workaround? Do you have spares? Is everything in the right case? Is your pedal layout organized so that you can figure out how the signal flows? Have you figured out how to pack everything for transport?

Preparation to the point of internalization means that you don’t have to think about whether or not your tools are going to perform for you. It also means that if something has an issue, you spend minimal mental energy on figuring out the fallback. The fallback is ready to go with as little effort as possible. This is also true in a wider sense. Literally everything having to do with your guitar/ vocal/ bass/ drum/ horn/ kazoo/ whatever rig should be ready to happen without you having to stop and think.

Perspective can encompass a lot more than what I can write in this space. It can be summed up, however, as knowing your place in the show and the show’s place in life. When you realize that you can be completely prepared, yet still somehow be surprised, you don’t have to agonize over the consequences. When you realize that the audience really would prefer to like you, you begin to see them as entirely non-threatening. When you realize that something going very wrong will probably be just a funny story in a week, you can stop worrying. When you understand that the performers and the crew are all full-partners in creating a great experience for your fans, you start to have a real chance at functioning as a team.

When perspective is internalized, you become secure in your own role…and thus, you’re willing to let everyone else have security in their own part of the gig.

Internalization creates comfort and confidence. If you’re naturally comfortable and confident on stage, you will have no problem having ownership of the show and the stage. It’s not a grasping, exclusionary ownership either. Because you’re completely un-threatened, you can be completely gracious. You aren’t in danger of losing anything, because you can’t help but be in command of the ship.

And when you truly have that kind of ownership, even a problem (like a string that’s out of tune) is an opportunity for you to show just how good you are.

I was in a band that got lazy.

We had a solid stable of clubs that we played regularly. We were growing and starting to make decent money.

Well, we stopped scouting new places in order to focus on building our fanbase in the clubs where we were regulars.

Not a good idea…

We were no longer relentlessly marketing. In fact, we weren’t marketing at all. We had become complacent.

By and by one bar went out of business, one quit having bands, and one now only has bands once a week.

There are a lot of dangers out there that will cost you gigs if you’re not marketing yourself relentlessly. In addition to the reasons that I mentioned, you need to realize that a DJ or Karaoke host will charge a club between $150-$300. So if you don’t pull in a crowd you can easily be replaced.

So if you are gaining momentum with your gigging don’t ever stop marketing relentlessly because it will stall or even completely derail your momentum.

Have you ever lost a gig due to an oversight? What happened? How did you recover?

“We were a band of white boys from Ohio that hitch-hiked our way to New York to try and make it big. Needless to say, by the time we arrived we were completely broke. We had nothing but the gear we hadn’t pawned yet and the clothes on our back. So when it came to finding a place to stay we were limited by the budget of what we were able to scrape together by busking in front of Yankee Stadium and ‘donating’ plasma.

Our first stroke of luck came in the form of a cab driver that was inspired by our tenacity and offered us the spare room in his townhouse in Queens. So we found ourselves the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ in a neighborhood that was racially, culturally, and financially worlds away from anything we had ever known.

Honestly, we were scared and intimidated. We really weren’t sure we were in a position to find any success in such unfamiliar territory. What we discovered was that music is a bond that builds bridges across unknown expanses. Beyond the differences separating us from the community that had taken us in, we realized that we were all blue-collared Americans looking to blow off steam after a hard day’s work.

We quickly established a reputation as the neighborhood good-time band by playing house parties and getting paid with fried chicken and cheap liquor. And from there it snowballed into steady gigs at the hottest clubs in the city and a national touring circuit that took us places we never imagined. We became more than just a band of musicians. We became cross-cultural ambassadors for sonic manipulation!”

It’s true that there are bands out there whose music is so compelling and instantly connects with such a mass audience that the story doesn’t matter. But that’s a one-in-a-million shot. You would be better off buying a lottery ticket. But then you’d have a story to tell.

The truth of the matter is that if you want to take a proactive approach to getting attention for your music you have to think about that kind of stuff. Whether you are looking for some press or simply to connect on a deeper level with your fans, your story matters.

That’s right. Not only do you have to write and record the songs, but you also have to tell an engaging story.

What stories are people looking for?

Press and fans alike want to know what makes you stand out, what makes you unique. Your awesome voice and catchy melodies simply aren’t enough to make you stand out from the rest. That’s not to say that skills don’t matter. Your musical ability is the first thing you must master on your way to becoming a professional musician. However, it is the context with which your present your music that will give you the edge when it comes to getting the gigs, fans, and attention you will need in order to sustain your career.

The good news is that the stories are already there. All you have to do is develop the narrative. Think about that throughout your creation process so that it doesn’t sneak up on you. What you will discover is that you have a way to present your music with context.

Did your crazy producer help you develop your sound by locking you in a basement full of vinyl and throwing hammers at you? Did your neighbor call the cops on you because of your noisy rehearsals, thus inspiring you to steal his girlfriend and write a song about it? Was growing up next to the airport the catalyst for your love of tube screamers? Did a spiritual journey to the homeland shape your vision of the world? The key is that you have to dig deeper than, “We showed up in New York and paid our dues.”

The stories are imbedded in your life, your music, your career, your lyrics, and your inspiration. All you have to do is apply a simple process to formalize the narrative. Then you can string a thread from all of those pieces that illustrates an overview of your entire career and creates a philosophy that resonates deeply with your fans.

Try this:

Go though every song you have ever written or played and ponder the most interesting thing about each one. It could be something you are doing musically, a technique you are using, your inspiration, or an idea you are trying to articulate with the song. It could have something to do with the instrumentation, the lyrics, the arrangements, the context of the music, or the band dynamics when you recorded the song. It could be about the traditions that you are drawing from, adapting, or changing. It could be an experience from your tour or feedback from a fan. Well, I think you get the idea.

For each song, write that singular element on a post-it note and stick it on your wall. Then rearrange, expand, and rearticulate the narrative as your catalogue grows and your music matures.

That is your story: A living, breathing, evolving, aspect of the art that you have been creating the whole time.

I sure do spend a lot of time talking about non-audio topics. I guess it’s because I’ve worn different hats in this business. Sure, the sound-dude hat has always been the one that fit me best, and also the one that I’ve always worn – but even so.

There’s a certain point where a production tech starts to notice and internalize various other aspects of the business. Because we see so much of what goes on behind the scenes that are, themselves, behind OTHER scenes, audio and lighting craftspeople can develop a certain sense about how the show fits into a much bigger picture.

For me personally, this “dip” into the other aspects of the business was pretty deep…because I used to run an all-ages venue in Salt Lake. Like I said, my main role was to be an audio tech, but I also did all the booking, financial, general admin, and janitorial work. It was a BLAST, and I developed quite an appreciation for the “full spectrum” of the live-music biz.

I also developed quite an appreciation for bands that were great to work with. Concurrently, I began keeping a mental list of things that made me never want to see a band again, ever. This article is all about putting that list (or bits of it) into a written form. What’s odd about an article like this is that you wouldn’t think it would be necessary – you’d suppose that all of this is common sense. However, these issues do come up again and again, which suggests to me that maybe all of this ISN’T common sense.

…and please be assured that nothing in this article is meant to be “snarky.” I love bands, and I want you guys to succeed.

That sometimes means that things get a little pointed, though.

Also: Be aware that my opinions and perceptions may or may not reflect anyone else’s opinions and perceptions.

Shall we begin? Here’s how to influence people to not book you:

Bring Nobody To Your Show. Act Like It’s The Venue’s Fault.

Before you hit the roof, let me say that, yes, venues should update their calendars, do something to get the word out about upcoming shows, and just generally be a place where people want to go. If a venue has found a promotion avenue that seems to work, they should make sure that every show is announced through that channel.

Absolutely agreed.

At the same time, though, promotion isn’t magic. (That’s a concept that I repeat like a mantra these days.) If the venue has done its due diligence, and nobody cares enough to come to your gig, then laying the full measure of blame at the feet of “the room” is just jerkery. As far as I can tell, folks are very unlikely to go out to see some random act anymore. On any given night, “just getting there” is NOT half the fun for people anymore.

It’s not 1975, folks. People are laser-focused on what they want to do these days. If they don’t care about your act, then there’s probably no reason for them to visit the bar/ club/ theater/ whatever that you’re playing at.

If you don’t draw in the venue’s market, then no amount of venue promo is going to change that.

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody will eventually book a room that their fans don’t want to visit. Everybody will have an off night. It’s inevitable, and I think most venues get that.

But if you “fail to convert,” and then start to publicly moan and groan about how the room didn’t do its part (when the room did what it’s done for successful nights), then you are going on my “don’t book these guys again” list.

Steal Or Damage Something…Or Have Fans Who Do

I once worked a show where a relatively spendy mic was on a stand in a backstage area. At the end of the show, the mic was gone – and the “geniuses” who took it were so clueless as to how to get it off the stand that they broke the stand.

I never found out who absconded with my microphone and busted my gear. It could have been the performers, or it could have been “the entourage.” (There was a point where it was hard to tell which group was which.)

Do you think I cared about who it was, exactly? Nope. Not a snowball’s chance. That group was very unlikely to play the room again. (The whole thing was unpleasant, not just getting robbed.)

Yes, accidents happen. Gear gets broken unintentionally. Also, there are bad apples to be found in the nicest groups of fans. Trust me, venue staff are aware of this.

However, gear does cost money and time to replace. It’s the same with the building we’re in, the accoutrements used to serve concessions or drinks, and everything else in the room. If you are intentionally abusing a mic stand, or threatening a monitor wedge with a beverage, you should consider yourself marked for “never coming back” status.

In the same way, if your fans are a pain in the venue staffs’ various body parts, or if your fans are an outright threat to the room’s property, you ain’t comin’ back. Again – one person being a fool is something that can be understood, but the consistent behavior of your fan base has a lot to do with whether or not you’re bookable. If a show with you and your followers consistently ends with something missing or broken, why would the venue want you back? No, you aren’t responsible for the behavior of every individual who comes to see you, but you ARE intimately connected to the general tolerability of your crowd.

If you and the people who follow you are a liability, then there are plenty of other acts that aren’t. They’ll get the nod.

(On the other side, though, being clear that you want your following to respect the venue goes a long way towards venue staff being more tolerant of shenanigans.)

Fail To Honor The Payout

If the room pays you what was agreed, in good faith, and you still get bent out of shape about it, then the booker might just think twice about doing battle with you again.

This applies at all levels.

I once had a touring act come through a venue, and they didn’t draw very well. The deal was that they would get 60% of the door, and the house would get 40%. (The venue didn’t sell drinks or anything else, so the only money for us was the door.) By “didn’t draw very well,” what I mean is that the house cut for the night was $4. (Yikes!)

After loadout, without a word, the band grabbed the entire stash of door money and bailed.

It wasn’t about the amount. I could live without having the $4. The problem was that we had made a deal, the band had suddenly decided it wasn’t good enough, and they took money that wasn’t theirs. I know they needed gas money. If they had asked, I’m pretty sure that I would have “recut” the deal to 100% and wished them well.

Instead, they didn’t honor their end of the agreement, and they stole money from me. Do you think I responded to their “booking manager’s” e-mails after that?

Look, it’s perfectly okay to wish you had made more money on a night. It’s even okay to say it. This isn’t about being happy when you aren’t. The key thing is, though, that acting like the venue screwed you over when YOU AGREED to the terms of the settlement is…well, unfair, unprofessional, and unlikely to endear you to the folks who work at the room. You want to negotiate? Go for it! Just do it at the right time, which is before you agree to appear.

Leave An Unwarranted Mess

So, your drummer got a little excited, and left a pile of wood shavings under the kit? It’s cool! We have a vacuum.

You accidentally spilled your drink when you were changing guitars? Stuff happens!

You threw food at each other, spat a fountain of beer over everything “because rock and roll, Dude,” left bottles and string-package wrappers everywhere, tossed your used band-aid or finger wraps on the floor (EWWWW!), and just generally treated my stage like a trash bin?

Here’s a hint: I am either going to refrain from booking you myself, or urge the booking manager to have you back as infrequently as possible.

Act Like The Venue Owes You Its Profit Center

If you walked into the room, and the venue staff immediately started rummaging around in your merch bins for free stuff, you would be irritated, right?

Yes, you would. It would be different if you were thrilled with us, and wanted all of us to have a free shirt in gratitude – but us costing your band money because “we should just get what we want” wouldn’t be something you’d appreciate.

So, if you’re playing at a place that makes money by serving food and drinks, why do you think it should be automatically free?

Now…I get it. Back in the day, it became a bit of a tradition that the band was fed and watered (or beered and liquored) on the venue’s tab. It was part of the compensation package, because the room would make it all back anyway.

Like I said further up the page – it’s not 1975 anymore, folks.

Those days are gone, unless you have proven yourself to be a huge draw at a particular room. If your show isn’t going to bring outsized profit to the venue, then no, the venue isn’t obligated to subsidize your meals and beverages. If you want to fight about it, do so when you’re negotiating the gig’s compensation. If you didn’t get food and drink explicitly included in your gig agreement, then trying to pressure the venue into it “the day of” is inappropriate.

Being inappropriate makes you less bookable.

Eat, Drink, Or “Guestlist” All Your Profits, Then Complain About It

You: “Oh man, we let a ton of people in for free, and we ran a huge tab. We barely made any money on this gig. Your venue should have a better payout and treat artists better.”

Me: “Maybe you should drink less, and not let all your friends in for nothing.”

Say That It’s Not About The Money, Then Be All About The Money

If you can’t be consistent about what you want to get out of playing, then I will eventually begin to desire that your inconsistency be inflicted on someone else. This connects with failing to honor the payout, and complaining that the venue didn’t do its part (when the venue DID do its part).

If you go through this whole spiel about how music is a spiritual thing for you, and you just want to play, and everything is too commercial anymore…and then later grumble about how venues are greedy, and don’t support musicians, and how “stuff costs money,” then I would just rather not be subjected to it all.

I’m fine with you thinking that money is worthless in music, as long as you’re willing to apply that thinking in a way that’s predictable. Trying to manipulate your way into more money after everything has basically been said and done is seriously unpleasant.

I don’t like being manipulated, so if you try it on me, I’ll be happier when you aren’t around, thanks.

Be Too Drunk Or Too High To Play Properly

Wrecking your own show is never a good idea. (Duh.) It’s also bad for the venue, because it chases away the people who, you know, pay money to see you. If you want music to be your full-time job, then please act like you actually care about doing a good job. That means being in a mental and physical state where you can actually play properly.

…and don’t hand me a bunch of fluff about how “Janis and Jim Morrison and those guys did it.” I don’t mean to be mean, but if you aren’t drawing thousands to arenas then you definitely are NOT in the same class as Janis and Jim and Hendrix and Bonham and [insert classic act here].

At an utterly selfish level, I can tell you that one of the worst feelings I get as a tech is being embarrassed for people. In some cases, I have become physically uncomfortable at how badly a musician has sabotaged themselves. I don’t think – and I’m pretty sure audiences don’t think – it’s “cute” or “rock” when a musician can’t even play their own songs.

Also, when you’re toasted/ baked/ cooked/ whatever, your personality tends to change. That change is rarely a pleasant one. I don’t always get to pick and choose who I work with, but when I do have the choice, I work with pleasant, professional people who don’t undergo frightening mood swings.

Play Too Loudly For The Room, Or Each Other

It’s a little ironic that I left this for last, but here’s the thing:

You can get everything else in this article to be spot on, and then wreck it all by being too freakin’ loud.

I’d have a nice stash of mad-money if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “They were great guys, and really decent players, but they are just too loud for this room.” Too much volume is INCREDIBLY powerful as a factor in whether or not you get asked back, and it’s very rare that I’m successfully able to tame a “too loud” situation in real time. The fact is that what you’re used to doing on stage and in rehearsal is what you’ll always tend to do, so please:

Practice the snot out of being tolerable in very small rooms, and if you can’t hear someone in rehearsal, fix the problem in rehearsal.

Otherwise, you’re very likely to be a pain in the neck, and pains in the neck don’t get rebooked very much.

The Fix

So – there’s a lot up there. What can you do?

Simple:

Be courteous, kind, and professional. Make agreements and honor them. That might seem tough, but it’s actually a lot less work than the alternatives.

For the first time I’m promoting a record of my own to radio. I wanted to do this because a) it’s a great way to get my music heard and expand my fan base and b) radio airplay can open up touring opportunities in new areas.

Being new to DIY radio promotion, I’m learning a lot about it works. So, here are a few tips for you artists who are about to embark on the same journey!

Just as a bit of background, radio promoters essentially work to sell your record (and you as an artist) to radio stations and programmers. The costs of these services vary widely, but in the Americana market you’re looking at about $5,000 for the life of the record (i.e. about three months worth of promotion). Americana promotes a whole record, not just a single. In the country market, a single is promoted. It’s a very different story and price point, because typically in country there is a team of promoters that specialize in getting your single onto different stations and charts.

In the absence of funding for promotion, you’ll be going the DIY route like me. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1- Start by creating a plan. When will the official add date be for radio (typically you will want to promote a few weeks leading up to the add date)? How will you handle all of the contacting? By yourself, or with the help of friends?

2- Identify your contacts. A full list of stations is listed on the Americana website of reporting stations, but I would also suggest reaching out to Fred Boening (a radio promoter) to ask him about a list of additional stations as well as an hour’s worth of consulting. He not only promotes to radio, but he also helps indie artists succeed. It will be well worth your time and a small investment, believe me.

3- Start to connect on social media. Find and like Facebook pages and follow on twitter. This page on my website has all the Facebook pages listed you can like. You can begin to learn more about the station, DJs and what kinds of music they are playing.

4- Prepare a one-sheet to go along with your cd. This will tell the programmer about the CD and you and an artist. Click here to view my one-sheet as a sample.

5- Join AirPlay Direct. It’s a site where radio programmers (and only programmers) can download broadcast quality tracks from your record. Here’s a sample of my site. They also have advertising you can purchase to help spread the word.

Shantell Ogden6- Mail out your CD. Remove the shrink-wrap and put a sticker that says FCC Safe over the UPC code if there are no swear words on it. Put a couple of songs on the sticker that you want to highlight as featured tracks. Include the one sheet in the package you mail. You may also want to add a little something in the envelope to help people remember who you are (for example, I added a cow tale candy because I grew up on a farm).

7- Follow up with calls and emails. Programmers have call times when they accept calls about music. Here’s a list of those call times for you, thanks to Fred. This is probably the most important step of all because stations literally receive hundreds of CDs every week. You want them to hear it, not get lost in the huge pile on their desk.

This is just a high-level outline, and I’m happy to say that this process is working for me so far. But, I could really use your help too…so will you please call a station on this list and ask them to play something from Better at Goodbye?

Look forward to hearing your songs on the air too- and please let me know if I can help you!

No, this isn’t going to be some cheesy-as-all-get-out “hold onto your dreams” article. We’ve all heard that a squillion times, and it’s not particularly helpful. (It IS actually relevant, but as practical advice it has limited value.) What we’re going to talk about instead are the “not quite as obvious” lessons that can be learned from Ms. Swift’s career – and, indeed, from the careers of other stadium-filling acts.

There are a lot of folks who don’t want to learn these lessons, and it’s understandable as to why. It’s much easier to believe in comfortable, but false mythology about the music business than to have the anvil of truth dropped on your head. Ultimately, though, putting one’s hope in a false myth is not a good career move.

I’ll also mention that my experience has told me that, yes, there are true myths…but that’s for an article about philosophy and not the music industry.

Anyway.

Luck IS A Factor

What I’ve read suggests that, contrary to the opinions of folks suffering from “sour grapes” or “it’s all just a bunch of A&R-spun crap,” Taylor Swift worked LIKE MAD to get where she is. She’d sing at Karaoke contests to get opening spots for bigger acts, and when she would lose, she would just keep going back until she won.

She wrote songs, appeared wherever she could, and worked with artist-dev folks.

And she kept grinding at it all, relentlessly.

Here’s the thing, though: She was lucky.

She was lucky that she was being “eaten alive” by the ambition to perform. She was lucky that her parents were willing to support that ambition. She was lucky that her parents had the resources to help her along. She was lucky that she met the right people. She was lucky that her luck changed at EXACTLY the right time for her to be a key player in the “country-pop-rock” crossover that burst into full-bloom. She was lucky that teenage girls actually listen to the country genre, and she was lucky that her songs ended up resonating with them.

Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky…

Taylor Swift’s hard work doesn’t invalidate her luck. Her luck doesn’t invalidate her hard work. They’re inextricably intertwined for her, and luck-and-work are inextricably intertwined for you, me, and all the rest of us.

Hard work and tenaciousness are the tools necessary to help you be “in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, playing the right material, to the right crowd,” but with anything that involves the tastes and opinions of humans, luck will always be a significant factor.

And, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, that’s enough to raise the head of the kid who just bought a guitar, and humble the gaze of a performer as massively successful as Taylor Swift.

Virtuosity Isn’t The Point

I once read a forum post by a fellow audio-human (a much more successful and well known audio-human than myself) that was in reference to Ms. Swift. It went like this: “The guitar is just for show. So is she.”

My internal reaction to that line was, “HAHAHHAHAHAHA that’s was a pretty good burn, yeah…holy CRAP you’re a JERK.”

What brought me around to disliking the zinger was my complete exhaustion with people who label successful acts that they don’t like as “talentless, manufactured crap.” They may actually be manufactured. They may be carefully presented. They may have a media team that tries to sanitize everything. Their shows may be “everything on rails so that it’s all perfect at all times” affairs. You may not like any of that.

But if it didn’t require a certain kind of talent to be a functional part of all that, then everybody would do it.

Taylor Swift isn’t Steve Vai. Or George Lynch. Or Joe Satriani. Or Slash. Or Yngwie Malmsteen. Or Eric Johnson. Or Herman and Sam from Dragonforce.

And it doesn’t matter one tiny little bit, because being a mind-numbingly brilliant instrumentalist isn’t what she’s all about. Heck, being a socks-explodingly masterful vocalist isn’t even what it’s all about.

What she’s all about is writing material (and putting on a show) that resonates with tens of thousands of screaming fans. She plays guitar well enough to write her songs, do the occasional “one woman and one guitar” section at shows, and get her ideas across to an arranger. She has good enough vocal power and intonation to make records and keep live audiences hooked. That’s plenty – and she is REALLY good at fitting into her place with it.

So, yeah, you may be a much better instrumentalist than Ms. Swift. You might even be a better singer in terms of range and tonality. That’s great, but if it doesn’t bring people out to your shows and help you sell merch…who cares? Nobody gives a rat’s dirty buttocks how brilliant you are at weird chord voicings if the songs aren’t fun for them. There isn’t some invisible group of “music adjudicators” who award success points based on how much time you’ve spent practicing. If you think that knowing everything there is to know about instrumental execution and music theory automatically grants you an audience, then you are probably going to be unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong, though!

If you love your instrument to death, and want to become a master at it, YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. Practice 18 hours a day if you want to. That’s fantastic, and I applaud it – but please realize that becoming a virtuoso is primarily a thing that you are doing for yourself. Being technically skilled at music is really good for you, because it means that you have more flexibility to take part in a wider range of projects. (Being involved in a wider range of projects helps you have more luck, by the way.) Skillful execution, by itself, rarely brings show attendees out in force, though. If you have to pick and choose the skills to cultivate, then put entertainment and engagement above technical ability. If you want to play to niche audiences that are interested in technical mastery of your instrument, and you can find those audiences, then great. If you want to play to huge crowds that just want to have fun and don’t care if the playing is transcendent, then your focus should be somewhere else.

Taylor Swift is proof that a professional performer has to play well enough to put on a show in the context that works for their audience…and that’s it. Anything beyond that is a nice extra, but not strictly required.

Marketing Is For The Audience You Already Have

When Ms. Swift (or her media team) Tweet, or Facebook, or put something on her website, or buy a traditional-media ad, or write a press release, it gets a big response. People talk about it. People share it. Ticket sales are driven up.

And it’s not really because these folks know marketing strategies that you don’t. Sure, they know how to be tactful, effective, and exciting when breaking a bit of news, but that probably only accounts for about 5% of their success. The other 95% is that a whole bunch of people are actually listening to them, ravenous to hear what they have to say.

That’s who marketing is for: The people that you either know are listening to you, or who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you. Marketing is NOT for people who aren’t interested. It doesn’t conjure fans out of thin air.

“Now, hold on!” You might be saying. “Taylor Swift got millions of fans from marketing and radio play. You’ve got it all wrong, Danny.” Fair point – but let’s dig a little deeper. Maybe those droves of screaming, teenage girls weren’t specifically fans of Taylor Swift before the marketing and radio play…

…but they were ready to be. As such, they fall under the “who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you” bit from up there. I’m not an insider, so I don’t know the precise story, but here’s how it looked from the outside: Ms. Swift, and the folks who believed in her, got her songs on country radio. Their pitch was probably something like: “Taylor sings these songs about country themes in a country style, and she’s young, so she’ll speak to those teenage listeners that you want to keep listening to your station.” Yes, this is marketing, and yes, these folks were speaking to people that they figured were ready to listen – the radio programming directors.

Not the general public! The actual audience that mattered at that exact moment.

Some number of those programming directors gave Taylor a shot, and everybody discovered something: There were indeed a lot of young girls that listened to country radio, and they were indeed just aching for someone their age to sing songs that they could relate to. (Remember that “luck” thing I talked about? This is an example.) Someone also realized that there was a lot of “pop” crossover potential in Ms. Swift’s tunes, and so they remixed some of the songs for that market. Taylor Swift was the right thing, at the right time, for those audiences.

Blammo! A huge star was born. People wanted to hear more, and they wanted to know more, and be in the loop, and not miss anything. If there was some mention of Taylor Swift in their local paper, they were ready to devour it. If there was something new on her website, they would look for it. They followed Taylor on Twitter. They “liked” her Facebook page. When Taylor Swift’s marketing team talks about a new release, or a huge concert event, they talk to these people. That’s who the message is for, and that’s what the message is for: To get the word out to the people who are listening. The people who are listening then spread the word, which creates more listeners.

And of course the marketing team uses traditional media. Taylor Swift has mass appeal, so traditional media campaigns make sense. That’s what traditional media is for – to send a message that appeals to a very large audience. “Old-media” campaigns help to cover all the bases, and they’re worthwhile…because Ms. Swift’s marketing team can be very sure that a good number of those consumers are listening to them.

The takeaway from all this is that your marketing efforts are best spent on the people you’re already connected to. I run into so many folks that erroneously believe in the idea that just “making more noise” is the key to marketing themselves. They think that marketing is about magically turning people who don’t and won’t care into people who do. It isn’t. It’s about drawing in the people who you already know, and helping them experience so much enjoyment that they can’t help but to spread the word. It’s about identifying who’s listening, and who’s ready to listen, and playing to them – literally and metaphorically.

So, you might not listen to Taylor Swift. You might not even like Taylor Swift. But you can learn a lot about how this business works by thinking critically about what fuels her career.

The first requirement for being successful in anything is to define what success means to you. That is one of the biggest challenges musicians face today. There is no standard to follow.

It’s not like going to college, where there is a defined set of measurable parameters. You attend classes, you pass exams, you write papers, and after completing all of the requisite steps you succeed in earning your degree. That’s an ideal scenario where you can demonstrate that you are making progress and, therefore retain the ever so important support of your friends and family. Unfortunately, the pathway to a career in music isn’t so cut and dry.

Let’s first examine some characteristics that are pretty much universal in successful people:

  • Authentic Interest: A genuine state of curiosity, concern, or attention.
  • Consistency: Steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form, etc.
  • Persistence: Firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or oppression.
  • Goals: The objects of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

Those are the basics. Those are the characteristics that will enable a student to take the SAT, go to college, pass the exams and write the papers, take the MCAT, attend medical school, complete a residency and come out the other end as a doctor.

A career in music, however, is far less arbitrary. There is no curriculum, no checklist, no predetermined pathway to become a professional musician. And because of that lack of definitive stepping-stones you find that the people that are supposed to be your cheerleaders (friends and family) start to celebrate your failures more than your successes. They really do want what’s best for you. And since a career in music is not a sure thing, they think that it’s better to get you on track for something with more defined goals and measurements.

The fact that the people that are supposed to be your biggest fans are pressuring you to follow a well-worn path, and treat your music as a hobby can be very discouraging. And it is real easy to start believing that what they think really is what is best for you. And I know how heartbreaking it is when you tell people that you are a musician and they ask, “what’s your day job?”

So how do you turn music into a viable option as a legitimate career choice and convince your friends and family (and more importantly yourself) that you can and are succeeding? Here are a few traits that you need to embody if you are going to go against the grain and make music your full time income.

Avoid Self-Deprecation. Always remember that you are your own worst critic. Bitch into the mirror all you want. Review performance tapes, take notes, and use them to improve for next time. Just keep it to yourself. When you are in front of other people, the last thing you want to do is feed their beliefs that you can’t make it as a musician. That goes for your fans as well. You my not have played all of the notes exactly as you had intended. But you are the only person that knows that, or ever needs to. Maybe that dissonant chord you played was the spark that grabbed the attention of that future super-fan and made him notice your performance over the droll conversation he had previously been engaged in.

Give Value To What You Do. Because if you don’t, no one else will. When you are booking shows think in terms of what you need, not what you can get. If you need to make $50,000 a year for you to consider yourself a professional musician, then you have defined yourself a goal that you can aim for as well as demonstrate to your naysayers. That’s $4,167 a month, or $962 a week. Once you set the goal you have taken the first step toward accomplishing it. Keep in mind that not all of your income will come from performing. There are at least 101 ways to make money with music. Once you realize that, your financial goals won’t seem nearly as difficult to achieve. Also keep in mind that not all value is money. There gigs that pay well and you should definitely seek them out. And there are other gigs that don’t pay so much but provide great opportunities, like playing to a large crowd of potential new fans, opening for your hero, or traveling to a new destination.

Show No Fear. My college diving coach constantly reminded me that, “confidence is key.” That’s how you accomplish the impossible. When I was standing on top of the 10-meter platform about to do a backward 3½ somersault, I was shaking on the inside and thinking, “this is impossible!” But I did not show my fear. The fans in the stands believed that they were alone in thinking this stuff is crazy. I went after the dive aggressively, and confidently with all the control I could manage. Never letting on for a moment that I wasn’t completely sure I knew what I was doing. Once I made that change in my approach, I landed on my face way less frequently. The fear will always be there. Once you know that, you can choose not to let it control you.

Be Authentically Confident. In the business world they say, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” And I’ve seen it work. The guy that shows to up work in a tie everyday is invariably the guy that climbs the ladder the fastest. It’s not specifically because of the tie. It is because of the peripheral psychological effect that comes with dressing and acting the part to which you aspire. The same thing goes for music. Only we have better style. You wanna be a rock star? Then start acting like one. No, I don’t mean to mainline booze, knock up groupies, and throw TVs through hotel windows. I mean get your gear set up early enough to get a solid sound check, put 100% of your energy into your performance, and play your complete set no matter what goes wrong. Even if it’s just you and the sound guy. Maintain your performance persona from the moment you walk in the door until the last embers of the after-party die out. The trick here is that you have to believe it.

Welcome Criticism. Nothing helps you learn and grow faster than constructive feedback. It’s easy to get lost in the universe that you create with your music. In that universe you are a god, and a genius, and the creator of all that is and ever was. Of course, that universe can easily be shattered when it collides with the “real world.” Especially since a lot of musicians are actually very shy people that use their performing persona as a tool to give them the confidence to interact with earthlings. The best thing that you can do is transform the things that hurt you into things that help you. Keep in mind that people don’t generally care enough about you to want to hurt you. Anything they say to you is really just a reflection of their experience. And their experience is ultimately the source of your income. Pearl Jam once played a set-list concocted by one of their fans that turned out to be arguably their best show ever.

Develop Your Talent. You must commit to spending time every single day practicing your craft. I know there is a lot of other stuff to do like performing, networking, booking, marketing, and tweeting. But it’s all for naught if you aren’t consistently creating mind-blowing music and advancing your skills. Don’t ever let you chops get stale. A good buddy of mine told me recently that he hadn’t played any of his own songs in over a year. He was just sick of playing those same songs all the time and took a break. The only thing I could respond with was, “If even you’re sick of those songs, imagine how your fans must feel!” This guy is one of the most amazing musicians I have ever met and the songs he was sick of are spectacular, but he had gone through a period of stagnation. Even though he hasn’t writing new stuff, he spent the last year learning new covers, exploring new ideas, and exercising those music muscles that had atrophied by playing exact same set-list over and over.

Well, this is turning into a fairly lengthy post so I just want to share some final thoughts with you to help you achieve your goals:

  • If you truly believe that what you are doing is beautiful, so will your audience. Performing is like telling a joke. It’s all about the delivery. You can tell a joke with confidence and projection or, you can use the exact same words but be timid and unsure. I’m sure you can guess which one people are going to laugh at.
  • A singing voice that is not “traditionally” great can give you the great advantages of character and distinctiveness, especially when coupled with good songwriting. I’m thinking of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Jimi Hendrix just to name a few.
  • When you play something “perfectly,” stop. Then take a moment to reflect on the feeling. Your brain doesn’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined. The same neurological pathways are used either way. You’ll find it’s much easier to reproduce a feeling than a specific combination of notes, yet the result is the same. So rehearse the way you want to feel and that will come out in your performance.
  • With anything you want to accomplish, trial & error is the best way to gain knowledge. Thomas Edison said, “I have never failed. I have just discovered 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
  • Other paths in life have predefined goals and curriculums. The first challenge in choosing the musical path is defining your own terms of success. And hopefully, after reading this article you have a better idea of how to do that.
  • And finally, differentiate yourself by creating the element of the unexpected. The well-worn paths are full of people driving down the highway and getting startled by roadrunners that dart in front of them. Be the most creative roadrunner you can be. Because there aren’t always roads where you’re going.