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Nobody Loves A Starving Musician: Seven Rules To Getting Your Music Career on the Fast Track

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 isn’t pretty.

But most musicians know that no one goes from unknown artist to self-sufficient professional overnight. So how DO you do it?

Here are seven rules that will help you make the transition from someone with talent to someone with talent and a level of financial self-sufficiency. Someone who is well on their way to building a successful career in music.

Rule 1: Always Bring Your “A” Game

Making the decision to spend your life as a professional musician 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. First, the competition to get work and keep working is fierce in every city and town in the world. Second, since so much of the music industry is based on 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 practicing supposed to be the road to musical success, more gigs and maybe even superstardom? Well, no, it’s not.

Actually, your musical chops, whether you are a shred guitarist or a composer of madrigals, 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 the hot guitarist of the month but seldom play a gig. Why?

They spend their lives studying music, perfecting their skills, however they are unfortunately 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 4 hours every night after work practicing, take one night a week off and get out and meet some music professionals. Ask around your local music store or music school about meeting up with some people who are interested in similar types of music, careers, etc. 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.

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. (Hey, you’ve found Artist’s House, so you’re already well on your way to learning more about building your career!)

Rule 3: Nurture Your Network

All of us have a network of friends, family, and most 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 persons who can help you grow your career and you need to keep in touch with your network.

Social networking sites such as MySpace.com have created excellent opportunities for musicians and bands to create, grow and profit from an expansive network. But MySpace is primarily a fan-oriented medium. Additionally, you also need a closer group of individuals who will offer support, guidance, keep an ear open for opportunities that may help you, and even offer a shoulder to cry on from time to time. Call this 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 were the result of a personal connection, rarely from a job listing.

Ignore your network and you are condemning your music career 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? (Re read the first few sentences of the article, OK?)

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 be involved in when your career takes off.

For example, a rock musician may learn quite a bit about record distribution or radio airplay by working at a well-managed record store or a radio station that features 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, flipping burgers is not likely to help your 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. Of course, you attend every master class at your school for performers, no matter what instrument, right?

Through with school? Not to worry, there are literally thousands of opportunities each month around the world to continue to learn about music careers 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 even the highest paid opera singers in the world have a voice coach on whom they rely to keep their performance in tip-top shape? Who are your mentors?

Rules 6a, 6b & 6c: 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 do it.

Remember, there’s always someone who plays, sings, arranges, or composes better than you. Not to diminish your musical accomplishments in any way, but remember to 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 stuffy, egomaniacal artist who causes everyone backstage to roll their eyes when she or he struts past.

People also love to see a windbag fail, but will often make considerable sacrifices to help out a centered, respectful and humble new artist.

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 agent, are you prepared, confident and able to communicate what you 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 and providing yourself with the tools and time to evaluate your own efforts. This can be as simple as making a tape of the piece you have been learning and listening back to it to identify which spots still need work, to asking a trusted colleague or music teacher to offer you some constructive criticism after your next show.

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 for an optimal performance on that day, time and place.

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.

Take these seven rules and start building your professional music career today. Nobody likes a starving musician but everyone wants to support a young artist on the way up in his or her career.

Take charge of your career and good things will start to happen. Really. Endnote: The author gratefully acknowledges the inspiration for performers that can be found in Angela Beeching’s excellent book titled, “Beyond Talent,” which goes into much greater depth on how to become a peak musical performer.


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Published: 10/03/2006

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