Music books are ubiquitous. Everyone and their brother has self-published a book about how to be a musician in one form or another.
So how do you know where to start?
Well, I think this post is the perfect place to start. I’ve compiled a list of books that I truly believe can jumpstart your music career, whether you’re the person creating the music or the person promoting the music.
With each book, I’ll ask the questions “How can this book kickstart your career?” and “Who is this book for?”
The 7 best music books are:
- Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
- Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
- Keep Going by Austin Kleon
- Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo
- How to Make It in the New Music Business by Ari Herstand
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell
Aren’t books archaic? Don’t they age quickly? It’s the internet age, books are for old people.
Okay, good points. But I have some good points, too.
It all depends on the book. Some books do go out of style very quickly, but those are not good books. The music books I’ve listed below are books that don’t age — they’re evergreen. I think they’ll be around for a long while, benefitting who-knows-how-many artists.
That’s because the Authors know what they’re talking about, and they talk about useful stuff in inspiring ways. The thing with the internet is that anybody can start a blog and start pushing nonsense information into the world. A lot of times, we don’t know much about some of these Bloggers, why we should listen to them, or if what they’re saying is even true.
But not everybody gets a book deal. To land a deal with a publishing company, you must be someone who has experience, knowledge, and/or authority on your chosen topic. And every book has an “About The Author” section (or at least the Author’s website) so we can judge for ourselves if the book is worth reading.
Plus, books give you a ton of great content all at once — all compiled together in a nice orderly fashion. Websites have some organization, but they don’t feed you content in a specific order that makes sense for the given topic.
(Also, I’m a sucker for reading physical books, especially hardcovers. It just feels good to hold one in your hands. It’s much better than staring at a screen, in my opinion).
So here are the books I’ve read that have definitely kickstarted me into pursuing my goals with more intensity.
The reason I put these three books together is that they’re a trilogy. Through Austin Kleon’s years of creative work, he seems to have gleaned a lot of insights that have helped him create more and better art. And in these books, he passes along to us what he’s learned.
Steal Like An Artist is all about the creative process and allowing other artists to directly influence you. It’s about being proud of your work yet not thinking too highly of yourself.
Because there’s nothing new under the sun. Everything is a remix. We’re all recycling centers putting our own creative spin on the plastic bottles and tin cans we find.
Show Your Work! is all about sharing what you’ve made, even making the “sharing” part of your creative process. It sends the message that you shouldn’t wait until your art is perfect and polished before releasing it to the world, because it will never be perfect and polished according to you.
Get it out there. Show people what you’re working on. Get feedback and get better.
And finally, Keep Going is how to stay creative and motivated in a crazy and sometimes discouraging world. Kleon offers both philosophical approaches and practical things you can do to not lose heart as someone who makes art.
This trilogy has inspired me to create more stuff, feel freer to share it with people and to build up a thick skin of endurance. Those three attributes — creativity, engagement, and longevity — will serve you well in any music-related career.
These reads are perfect for literally any musician, Producer, Songwriter, A&R Rep, or a music business person.
Also, they’re good for people who aren’t fans of long books with lots of words. Kleon, a Visual Artist, includes plenty of photos, doodles, and hand-drawn charts to make his points clear.
Paul Zollo is a Songwriter and Author, and his book Songwriters On Songwriting should probably be on the shelf of every Songwriter. It’s a collection of interviews he did over the years with some of the most respected Songwriters, like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and many more. Probably none of us will get the chance to sit in a songwriting class taught by one of these Songwriters. But this book is the next best thing.
Motivational: that’s the word I’d use to describe this book if I could only choose one word. It’s not that Zollo wrote anything motivational — it’s hearing how these Songwriters approached songwriting and the insights they shared that makes this book one that will inspire you to do more songwriting.
It definitely got me to dive headfirst back into intentional songwriting.
This book is for Songwriters — that’s obvious. But it can also be good for music PR or marketing people because it can help them get into the mind of the Songwriter they may be representing. It can be difficult for non-Songwriters to understand where Songwriters are coming from, but this book can help clear some things up.
Although not everything in How to Make It in the New Music Business is evergreen (that’s what second and third editions are for!), much of it will work regardless of how the “new music business” changes. Songwriter/musician Ari Herstand has been a full-time musician for a while and shares what he’s learned in this thick book.
It covers recording, releasing albums, building a fanbase, playing shows, touring, sync licensing, and knowing how to use the internet effectively. He also goes through a bunch of business-growth stuff, like promoting your music, asking versus begging for support, and getting press.
Herstand gained notoriety through his blog for musicians, Ari’s Take. Thousands of DIY musicians have been trusting his advice, lessons, and insights for years. This book seems to be the culmination of that.
You can make this your music business bible. There’s so much info inside it, you’d do alright if it were the only book you referenced when releasing an album, collecting royalties, and crafting your public image.<
This is all good news for your career because the business and marketing side of being an indie musician can be very confusing. And that can make your music career lethargic. This book, though, can clear up a lot of “how to” questions, injecting your career with caffeine.
This book would help any independent musician — it covers pretty much every aspect, from recording to touring to get sync license placements. So whether you’re a studio rat or a trained monkey on stage, this book is for you.
It could also help Band Managers because there’s an entire section on booking and promotion, one on touring, and one on how to get sponsors.
Outliers by Author and thinker Malcolm Gladwell is all about success, luck, and opportunity. It’s the book where he talks about the famous 10,000-hour rule, which is that greatness comes only after doing 10,000 hours of the thing you’re great at.
Using anecdotes and statistics, he paints a picture of success being mostly luck and just being somewhere at the right time. He says after you get so good at something, your skill no longer helps you — at that point, you just need an opportunity to show your skills.
And a lot of that is luck. Even being born in the wrong month or in the wrong place can hurt your chances of success, Gladwell says.
That might sound discouraging, but, to me, it’s freeing. As a musician, this idea that a lot of our road to success is not paved by us frees me up to just create. Create art because I enjoy it. Yes, we should try to take every good opportunity and become as great as we can be at our craft. But some things are just out of our control.
And that frees me up to create for the joy of it. If this idea makes you angry, maybe you’re in this for the wrong reasons — maybe success is not why you should be in the music industry.
I think this book is mostly inspiring, so if you need a fresh and objective look at the idea of success, this book is a good place to start. It shows you that hard work and a drive to be great can (but not always) lead to great success.
Outliers can help boost your music career by freeing you up to create the best art possible and letting the outcomes be what they are.
This book would be good for anyone in a music-related career, but especially the people who create music. Songwriters, Session Musicians, Producers — they can all benefit from Gladwell’s view of success.
You may have never heard of Rob Bell, but he’s a Writer, Philosopher, and former Pastor. So his book Drops Like Stars deals with, not surprisingly, profound ideas. It’s all about how creativity and life difficulties talk with each other.
“It is the difficult and the unexpected, and maybe even the tragic, that opens us up and frees us to see things in new ways,” reads Bell’s website. “Many of the most significant moments in our lives come not because it all went right but because it all fell apart. Suffering does that. It hurts, but it also creates.”
In Drops Like Stars, he writes about how upheaval can lead to deeper creativity, how failing in life can lead to art you’re more proud of, and how subtracting things can often be part of the creative process.
It’s a book that will really make you think, but it’s one that could easily help you create more meaningful art.
Like some of the other books on this list, Drops Like Stars is one that is meant to free you up to create, to push you to new creative places. And anytime a book does that, people who create art should read it. It will only help their career.
Anyone who creates music can benefit from this book, but especially those who’ve had a rough life thus far. I think Songwriters specifically can learn from this book — they typically are the ones talking about profound thoughts or life insights within their songs. I’m a Songwriter, and I know this book was good for me.
So if you’re looking for inspiration — especially if you’ve had a difficult life — this book will understand you.
Don’t believe what some people say about books being archaic. Books are timeless, the great ones at least. You could pick any book from this list and it will kickstart your music career — as long as you approach it with a learner’s mentality.
Because you won’t get better at what you do — and your career won’t grow — unless you’re always trying to learn. And books are a great place to start.