Make a career in music: seven rules to put you on track

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Following these seven rules can help you transition from someone with talent and a dream to someone with talent and a career in music.

Music Career Rules

Have you ever been a starving musician? Not metaphorically, but in reality? It’s no fun. Wondering where this month’s rent money is going to come from, scrounging up change in the sofa to put gas in your car to get to an audition, hoping that a string doesn’t break during the gig.

You get the idea. It’s not pretty. But most musicians know that no one goes from a little known performer to self-sufficient artist overnight. So how do you do it?

Rule 1: Always bring your “A” game

Deciding to spend your life as an artist is a big commitment. Once you’ve made that decision, you need to focus on bringing your “A” game to every interaction that impacts your music studies, performances, networking and other points of contact with what we loosely call the music industry.

Never put a half-hearted effort into anything musical. Why not? First, the competition to get work and keep working is fierce. Second, since so many gig opportunities rely on word of mouth, personal relationships and reputations, if word gets out that you gave a weak effort at a gig or rehearsal, chances are you may not be getting a call back in the future.

Rule 2: Get out of your practice room

Isn’t non-stop practice supposed to be the road to musical success, more gigs and maybe even superstardom? No, not on its own.

Actually, your musical chops, whether you are a shred guitarist or a video game music composer, is only one part of your overall career skill set. Not to say that playing, singing, of composing extremely well is not absolutely essential – it is.

But there are thousands of talented guitarists who can play every lick by whoever is the hot guitarist of the month, but seldom play a gig. Why?

While they spend their lives studying music, perfecting their skills, they are violating one of the most important rules of music career building. You must develop connections to people and institutions (think clubs, radio stations, booking agents, other bands, etc.) that are like-minded and can help you.

So if you’ve been spending four hours every night after work practicing, take one night a week off and get out and meet some other music professionals. Ask around your local music store or music school to find out where you can meet up with some people who may have similar interests. Find a club that hires bands like yours to play, go to a show, get the phone number of the booker and get your promo kit into their hands. Repeat each week and pretty soon you’ll be in the mix around town.

Most importantly, find a way to learn how other musicians and music industry professionals have become successful and what advice they might offer you to build your own career.

Rule 3: Nurture your network

Most of us have a network of friends and family, and many of us have various professional connections. This is your current network. To fast track your career you need to continually work to expand your network, adding people who can help you grow your career. Growing it is one important goal, keeping in touch with the people already in your network is just as important.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have created excellent opportunities for musicians and bands to create, grow and profit from an expansive network. Think of your connections on social media as your broader network.

But you’ll also benefit by developing a smaller, more select group of colleagues who will offer support and guidance, keep an ear open for opportunities for you, and even offer a shoulder to cry on from time to time. These people can be thought of as the “inner orbit” of your network.

Start today by making a list of everyone who you would consider supporting your music career goals and ambitions. Then, set a goal of adding a few people each month to your network, as well as giving support and aid to the members of your network. In more than 30 years in the music industry, I’ve found that the vast majority of gigs and jobs I landed in all the various stages of my career were the result of a personal connection, rarely from a posted job or gig listing.

Ignore your network and you are condemning your music career advancement to the slowest possible track.

Rule 4: Get a music industry day gig

This is counterintuitive to many talented young artists. Why should I get a day gig when I could/should be practicing my brains out, much less a music industry day gig?

Aside from keeping home and hearth together, using your love, knowledge and passion for music to help a music industry company meet some of their goals is a fantastic way to expand your network, and learn more about an area of the industry that you will likely be involved in when your career takes off. Making connections at your day gig, especially if it’s in the industry, has given many musicians a key boost toward becoming a full time musician.

For example, a rock musician may learn quite a bit about record distribution or radio airplay by working at a well-managed record store (yes, they still exist) or a radio station that programs the types of music you perform.

An aspiring opera singer can learn a tremendous amount about how opera companies or other non-profit arts organizations are managed by working for an opera, theater company, or orchestra.

An aspiring jazz drummer may forge many useful connections by teaching beginning drummers at a well-managed music store, opening up the opportunities to meet drum manufacturers, clinicians, and other drum and percussion professionals.

Remember, pumping out lattes is not likely to help your music career onto the fast track we all want to be on.

Rule 5: Get educated

Are you in school right now studying music? If so, congratulate yourself. You are investing in your future success and should make the most out of every opportunity to connect with teachers, fellow students and professionals who have contact with your program. Be sure to attend every master class at your school for performers, no matter what instrument.

Through with school? Not to worry, there are literally thousands of opportunities each month around the world to continue to learn about how to make a life in music at conferences, seminars, workshops, clinics and the like. How do you find out what opportunities are available in your area? See rule 3. If you’ve been building and nurturing your network, you’re already in the know.

One final element pertaining to your musical education is that everyone in music can benefit from a mentor. Did you know that superstars such as Adele, Renée Fleming, and John Mayer rely on vocal coaches to help them understand how to keep their vocal instrument in tip-top shape? Who are your coaches and mentors?

Rules 6A, B & C: Be humble, self-aware and self-critical

Getting up on stage in front of ten people or an audience of 10,000 takes courage. If you are very talented, it’s easy to “believe the hype” that may be swirling around after a particularly successful concert or club gig.

Don’t buy it. Be humble, because everyone in the industry would prefer to support a talented artist who is striving to be the best they can, rather than a pompous, egomaniac who causes everyone backstage to roll their eyes when she or he struts past (think Russell Brand’s over the top portrayal of Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek). Industry people who have been around for a while also won’t intervene to help such an ego tripper, but will often make considerable sacrifices to help out a centered, respectful, and humble new artist on the rise.

Being self-aware is a wonderful life skill for everyone, but especially so for musicians. When you play your instrument, what is your body language conveying to the audience? Are you loving or hating the piece you play?

When you go to meet with a potential club booker, are you prepared, confident and able to communicate what you or your band can offer as a musician? Or are you nervous, edgy and feeling naked in front of the world? Know yourself, and your level of preparedness for whatever the next step you are about to take in your career.

Being self-critical means taking your work as a musician seriously, providing yourself with the tools to record your progress, and carving out the time to evaluate your work. This can be as simple as using your cell phone to record the piece you’ve been learning and listening back to it to identify the rough spots or asking a trusted colleague or teacher to offer constructive criticism after a live performance.

Remember, to a musician, there is really no such thing as a perfect performance. Instead successful musicians learn how to create a situation each time they perform to allow for an optimal performance tailored to connect with the audience in the seats in front of you.

Rule 7: Keep your sense of humor

Did anyone tell you the music industry is a pretty crazy way to make a living? One minute your life can be filled with the rapture of a musical triumph, and the next day you’ll be wallowing in agonizing doubt because you didn’t get a call back for a crucial audition.

In order to cope with the stress and struggle of a career in music it is absolutely essential that you maintain a sense of humor, as well as a few non-musical outlets to allow you to keep on an even keel. Whether it’s yoga, hiking, or brewing up your own beer to share with friends, have a non-musical activity you enjoy to provide a relief valve for your artistic self.

Take these seven rules and add them to your musical game plan. Doing so will help you acculturate your music career and signal to those around you that you are serious about advancing. Nobody likes to hear a starving musician whine, but many industry folks are willing to support an artist on the way up that is self reliant and focused.

Take charge of your career and good things will start to happen. Really.

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Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

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8 thoughts on “Make a career in music: seven rules to put you on track

  1. Any advice for me? I live between Minneapolis and Des Moines, about two hrs each way. I’ve tried contacting people on Craigslist but they all want somebody closer for jam or practice sessions etc.

  2. Start by finding dedicated sober band members! Easier said than done, right? It doesn’t matter if the band has the best players in town, if they can’t make it to practice, aren’t prepared when they do show up, & their blitzed halfway through the first set. Better to load your iPad with backing tracks & go solo…literally! It beats wasting months of rehearsal with a band that won’t last more than a few gigs & then implodes.

  3. One mistake so many (usually talented) musicians make is they become more fixated on proving how awesome they are to all their fellow musicians in the band and local music scene, as opposed to proving how awesome they are to potential fans, the world, the media, etc.. This is what I’d say causes most band breakups, there’s usually one guy who feels it necessary to gain notoriety among their band mates instead of just playing music WITH them. Realize that your band mates are there to help fuel your dreams, and that they have important dreams of their own too, not just you. As soon as you start treating them like employees, you create a brick wall between yourself and them when you should be a tight knit team.

  4. Great post. I think the networking rules (2 and 3) are crucial for all of us younger acts. We have to get to know people. The industry is definitely an exclusive club so you gotta beat the doors down to get in.

  5. Here is another tip. If you as an artist invite people to attend your performance(s), when they take time to show up you should also take the time to recognize them, greet them during your breaks, and show a genuine appreciation for their presence. Many times when I’ve made the effort to support an artist by attending, the relationship with the artist is not more than a “Hi-Bye.” Consequently, sometimes I won’t hang around for more than a couple of songs and leave, making you feel like it’s all about them. It’s not. Your fans are the ones who make you. And their absence is what breaks you.

  6. Wanted to add that doing things like singing and writing music, learning the art of producing/engineering ALONG with your chosen instrument is a huge way to insure success! As well as playing as often and with as many good musicians you can! Live it.

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