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.