How To Become A Musician: The Top 10 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Out In Music
I always knew I wanted to be a musician. Looking back at my youth, I see I had no real idea what that meant, or how I could achieve that goal. All I had was this vision in my head of playing onstage in front of huge throngs of adoring fans. I knew I had the talent to succeed and that I would need to improve as a musician to succeed. So I would practice my instrument diligently every day. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Today I can see I’m not the only musician who came from that innocent place. For every success story, there was a time when they knew nothing about how to become a musician. We all need to learn; it’s part of the growing process. Today, I will speak directly to my younger self, to tell him what I wish I knew back then. What’s most interesting to me is how on this journey, I needed to constantly reinvent myself, by questioning my beliefs. This process is ongoing to this day. The world is always changing and I need to change, too.
My hope is you, the reader, might benefit from this advice to my younger self, and find the path to success. So, let’s dive right in.
Top 10 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started Out
(Disclaimer: I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.)
1. Music is a business. Learn all you possibly can about business, as quickly as possible.
Many young musicians resist the idea that music is a business. To be more precise, music is a commodity, and like other commodities, is subject to the law of supply and demand. Your musical performances and recordings are products to be bought and sold.
As artists, we want freedom to create. The idea of not having a day job is part of why we want a career in music. The irony is we need to be the ultimate businessperson to achieve the creative autonomy we desire.
If you want a career in music, you had best accept the idea of being in the music business. There is no shame in asking for money. Money is but a token of the value you provide with your art. You need it to live. Andy Warhol said: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” The freedom a music career offers is valuable, so your art must add value to the lives of others. That’s the nature of any successful business. So, learn everything about business, quickly. Read good books on it, as there are many. Don’t only study the music business, study business. And study the business of art.
2. Become musically literate as quickly as possible. (Learn to read and write music).
I recall people telling me early on learning to read and write music would hurt my playing. While I was skeptical (my impulse was to learn as much as I could about music), it was easy to use this as an excuse for laziness. So, I put off becoming literate as a musician until I was almost twenty-five. I won’t berate myself over this because the important thing is I did become literate. The ability to read and write music has opened incredible opportunities for me ever since and is crucial to my career.
Oddly, there is a debate about whether or not a musician should be literate. Music is an aural art and the process of learning any music involves hearing and imitating. There are successful musicians (mostly in popular styles) who never learned to read or write music. It’s true there are fantastic performers and even Composers who don’t read and write music. Others are fully literate as musicians. Which would you rather be? Imagine living in a country where you speak the language but cannot read the signs or newspapers. Music is a language. The written form lets you process what you hear visually. It leads to deeper understanding, which is also enjoyable. I was annoyed at my lack of literacy, especially my inability to arrange songs to play with my band. I knew the writing out of my arrangements would be the quickest way to get the result I wanted.
Most working musicians read music. Not reading kept me out of better musical situations, so becoming literate was a goal. It led me to apply for music studies at Berklee College Of Music in Boston. Becoming musically literate was one of the best decisions I ever made. My advice is to buckle down and do whatever it takes to become literate as a musician, at the earliest opportunity. Also, learn to improvise.
3. Surround yourself with musicians better than you.
I always seek out high-level musical groups and situations. There is always a next level in music, no matter how well you play. There will be challenges to face, whether it’s learning a new skill, expressing yourself with more nuance, writing, producing, arranging, learning another instrument, or a new style. Music is never-ending, challenging the novice and expert alike.
Music is a collective art form. We usually play together with other musicians in a group (though maybe not always). As you grow and participate in musical collaborations, you will find some musicians will function at a higher level than you. Playing with these musicians can help you improve, as you learn from them. They will actively help the others in the group improve, as a way to make the group better. You may also find yourself in a group where you are more advanced than others. You might then actively help the others improve. It’s rare all musicians in a group will be at the same level, although it does happen.
When you are in a group with musicians who play better than you, you learn the most. When you are the strongest in the group you should pay it forward and help the others improve where possible. There are always ways to learn from these discrepancies.
If you want a career in music, you had best accept the idea of being in the music business. There is no shame in asking for money. Money is but a token of the value you provide with your art.
4. Learn about marketing and sales, and what the difference is between the two.
This comes logically from my earlier point about music being a business. Marketing and sales are the lifeblood of any business. The average person doesn’t know the difference between the two. Fortunately, there are many great books and blogs available to learn from. It wouldn’t hurt to take a few classes. Don’t limit your investigation to the music business; study marketing and sales as they relate to all kinds of businesses. (There isn’t space in this article to cover these areas in detail but I might cover music marketing and sales in future posts.)
5. Get good at math, and learn to execute complex equations in your head.
Math is crucial; music and business both relate to numbers. The ability to quickly do math in your head is so useful in music. Musicians use math a lot, with music theory (scales, intervals, time signatures, modes, rhythms, chords, etc.), contracts, marketing analytics, or music production (frequencies, equalization, signal processing). Music and sound follow laws of acoustics (the physics of sound), and there is always some math involved. Math skills help in music, and could even be a requirement for some areas, like sound engineering. if it isn’t your strong point, don’t despair. Just work at improving, through focused study and use. Over time, you will see numbers are your friend.
6. Study psychology, organizational behavior, physics, electronics, computers, history, literature, art, biology, and economics. Study ancient wisdom traditions and spirituality. Travel is also a great way to broaden your perspective.
While it is important to master the craft and techniques of music, the role of the artist is to express ideas about society, the world, and life in general. Many people appreciate art because it informs their worldview by holding up a mirror to society. Great music resonates because the listener experiences some shift in their perception that adds meaning. Some art is also purely entertainment. The listener gets to decide the meaning as it relates to them.
Each listener comes to music with the expectation to be either entertained or informed. This is what they are paying for and it is the job of the artist to deliver substance, which will attract and retain an audience. As such, an artist should be worldly and possibly also learned in (or at least aware of) spiritual matters. Many artists feel their art has a spiritual element to it and their work channels something greater than themselves, whether inspirational, revelatory, or motivational.
This might be a slightly controversial piece of advice but I have always felt artists should know as much as possible about the world and not limit their worldview to just music. Whatever interests you, learn as much as possible about it, be open to new experiences, and cultivate your outside interests as a way to boost the breadth and depth of your musical expression.
Broaden your perspectives and sharpen your mind in every way possible. As Leonardo da Vinci put it:
“Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”
7. Read biographies of great musicians and other successful people throughout history. (Read as many of them as you can.)
Understanding what made others great, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them, is not only an entertaining way to learn, it’s inspirational and will teach you specific strategies for success. You could start with reading all the biographies of musicians you admire to learn what was “behind the music.” Read about the people who influenced those you admire. Expand to reading about legendary people outside of music, in sports, science, business, or politics. You can learn important things from studying the lives of others.
Can we really improve our luck? Probably. But there’s a limit, and recognizing and moving on from the inevitable failures, while learning from them is a theme that successful people are familiar with. You can’t win them all, but if you are hitting a percentage of the shots you take, you will accumulate a string of successes.
8. Find and keep a great mentor. (It’s okay to switch once in a while).
Having a mentor is universally acknowledged as helpful or even crucial by many successful people. A mentor is someone who has walked the path you are on ahead of you, can warn you of pitfalls, offer encouragement and advice, and recommend your work to others. Most successful people believe in “giving back” by mentoring young people. So, find a good mentor. You can have more than one mentor, whether consecutively or concurrently. If the mentoring isn’t beneficial, move on and find someone else. Consider the benefits of your relationship from the perspective of your mentor and be sure to appreciate their time and efforts properly by making yourself useful to them wherever and whenever possible.
A good mentor helps you unlock your potential, challenges you to be better, provides constructive feedback, supports you, respects you, is a good listener, has experience, is available, and will be invested in your success.
9. Learn how to be loyal and encourage loyalty in others you work with. Always arrive early and be consistently reliable.
Loyalty and timeliness, along with enthusiasm, industriousness, and diligence, are the building blocks of a successful career. Be a loyal partner, collaborator, employer, boss, or employee, and expect the same in return from others.
Part of loyalty is being on time. In my experience, there is no such thing as arriving on time. You are either early or you are late. Strive to always be early. I can’t stress this point enough. As Woody Allen famously said: showing up is 80 percent of life. Show up, early.
10. It’s cool to have a day job.
My initial goal in becoming a musician was to NOT be a slave to the dreaded “day job” (sometimes called “straight job”). This is a subtle but insidious idea, that somehow working at a job outside music is uncool. Over time, I met many great musicians who had the coolest day jobs. They were working in technology, medicine, business, teaching, administration, psychology, travel, broadcasting, science, or just about any imaginable industry or endeavor. Their work outside music dovetailed with their music career in fascinating ways. For example, I played in a band with a Psychiatrist who traveled around the world on major tours to intervene when arguments risked breaking up the band (which could be very costly to a tour). Another acquaintance is a wine expert and Sommelier to the stars. I can think of many jobs or businesses that are creative, interesting, fun, and profitable, and for which a musician is qualified.
One friend became an Investment Banker, allowing him to fund his own recording studio and hire musicians to create the music he wanted to make. It’s great to be financially independent without relying solely on music to earn your daily bread. While I don’t buy into the idea of the poor and starving musician, most people, including myself, had to “pay dues” by living through some lean times while being fully dedicated to our music. Being financially secure affords the luxury to refuse the music work you might not enjoy so much. Having a day job allows me to say no to the gigs I’d rather not do.
Having a day job that funds your lifestyle, health insurance, retirement, and is flexible can be a great boon to a professional musician. Most of the working musicians I know have day jobs. The famous American 20th-century Classical Composer Charles Ives worked for an insurance company for much of his career. Acclaimed American Songwriter Bill Withers worked as an Assembler at an aircraft company. Having a day job can offer stability in your life, provide for your family, for health care, vacations, retirement, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is always dignity in work.
A few final thoughts:
It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know
Network, network, network. You will hear this over and over, but I have found the majority of young people don’t really know how to network effectively. The reason is they haven’t actually done it before. Networking is much more than handing out business cards at an event or following people on social media. It’s crucial to build real relationships with a wide variety of business-oriented people, both inside and outside your profession. In these relationships, you should find out how to add value to others in your network, It’s not just about how they can help you find work.
Learn about relationship marketing and do it. There is something called “client relationship management” (CRM) and there are software programs to help you do it. These areas are worth investigating. Become an avid networker, learn how to leverage your network, and you will see rewards.
It’s What You Don’t Know & What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know
Here’s some common-sense advice: keep an open mind about music, the music business, and the world. Looking back, I see I missed some important opportunities because I dismissed serious advice, suggestions, or ideas prior to investigating them. Now, with wisdom gained from experience, an alarm goes off every time I’m inclined to reject an idea. This doesn’t mean I always follow advice, just that it’s a good idea to investigate suggestions prior to dismissal.
Everyone is subjected to biases, without exception. There’s fascinating psychological research about how our biases cause us to act against our best interests. While we’re often acutely aware of holes in our knowledge, unsurprisingly it’s the unknown unknowns that have the most potential to disrupt our progress. Learn all you can about the areas you know you need to improve on but be attuned to the stuff you don’t yet know you will need to learn.
Marketing Is Everything, Except Luck & Timing
We want people to hear our music. We want them to know about us. No matter how great we and our music are, if nobody knows about us, we are doing it only for ourselves. Fame is part of being a successful professional musician. Music is a field where success must, by necessity, be associated with fame. While some musicians are well-known, others with equal or superior skill remain mired in obscurity. A reason is the well-known musicians are skilled at promoting themselves. This brings us back to marketing.
There is another factor which can’t be ignored. Some will do everything right and fail, while others seem to do everything “wrong,” and yet succeed. I believe luck and timing are indispensable to success. It may be true there are things you can do to increase your likelihood of being lucky. Putting in your 10,000 hours to become the best at what you do will certainly improve your results, but your luck can be either good, bad, or nonexistent. There are always some things beyond our control.
Can we really improve our luck? Probably. But there’s a limit, and recognizing and moving on from the inevitable failures, while learning from them is a theme that successful people are familiar with. You can’t win them all, but if you are hitting a percentage of the shots you take, you will accumulate a string of successes. The main thing is persistence. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. There isn’t any “easy” way to succeed. But not giving up is one key. Most people, when they encounter obstacles to their goals, will change the goal, instead of changing the path to the goal. It’s okay to dream big, but try to stay grounded in reality about what’s achievable. Don’t compare yourself to others, just try to be the best version of yourself.
I hope these words of advice are useful to you in your quest to be successful as a musician. Wherever you are in the process, being open-minded, inquisitive, and a critical thinker will aid you in getting to where you want to go with your music. You are not alone on the path; there are many who have come before, and many who will come after you. Bringing your music into the world is indeed a noble endeavor.
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