Where should I begin to being an artist and to be able to do this full time one day? This is a question I get a lot from my students at Florida International University, from podcast listeners, blog readers, musicians I mentor, and when I public speak. Everyone is trying to figure out where to get started in the music business as a songwriter and touring musician. Most of the information out there teaches people how to get managers, labels, how to book shows, copyrighting, and so much more. But it really starts a lot more basic than that. It starts with what the core of your daily activity should be regardless of what phase you are at in your career. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out, have been a struggling musician for the past 5, 10, or 15 plus years, or if you have already reached some level of success and you’re doing music full time. There are four things that I truly believe should make up the core of every artist’s career.
There is a famous quote that says “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” To me this quote is more than the actual clothes you wear. It has to do with your behavior. What you do consistently every day, week, and over a long period of time is going to determine on what your outcome is going to be. Your behavior is what is going to open opportunities for you in the future. If you want to be successful in your music career, you have to study what successful people do. What do the people one level above you do, and what do the people a level above that do. I’m a big believer of not skipping steps, because you learn very important lessons at each step. It is great to have vision and to be a big dreamer, but dreaming without action doesn’t produce results, and skipping steps will cause issues in the future when the opportunities are bigger. Learn how to do things right at each step of the way, so when the big opportunities come, you are ready.
When it comes to songwriting and being a performing musician, there are things that the most successful people do consistently. Yes, there are outliers and people that have extraordinary gifts that they are just born with. However, one thing we all can control is our work ethic. How many hours we put into our craft. Someone with natural talent that doesn’t put in the work, can be surpassed with average talent and hard work. When looking at the most successful touring musicians and songwriters there are four behaviors that they become really good at. Four behaviors that you see consistently over and over again. These behaviors will help you become better at your craft, grow an audience, and build your network. It’s as simple as writing more songs, practicing your live performance, creating consistent content, and engaging people on social media and the real world. Let’s take a deeper dive into all four of these.
1. WRITING MORE SONGS
The professional songwriters in Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, and pretty much wherever they are, do one thing really well and with a lot of discipline. They write songs pretty much all the time. Those who have publishing deals will have as many as two to three, 2-4 hour writing sessions per day, for 5 to 6 days per week. In most of these sessions they complete a song or more. This means some of the professional writers are writing close to 18 songs per week. In my interview with songwriter Jeffrey James, who’s on a publishing deal with Warner-Chappell, he talks about this mantra in Nashville amongst songwriters. The first 100 songs that you write are usually not any good. So, one of their goals is to get to their first 100 songs as soon as they can.
You may think that you’re not creative enough to write songs every single day. It’s not about creating a smash hit or a song you’re super excited about everyday. What matters is that you get into the habit and practice of writing. There are many people that believe that creativity is like a muscle. The more you train that muscle, the stronger and better it’s going to get. Meaning, the more you write the better and more consistent your sessions are going to get. So, what do you do when you can literally think of nothing?
For starters, you should map out and schedule your writing sessions every week. Then it’s very important that you treat these scheduled times very strict. Treat them like doctors visits or scheduled classes or time you have to be at work. Think of something that you know you would not miss, and think of your writing appointment with that seem level of importance. It’s a commitment to yourself. Now when you’re in that sessions, and you can’t get into a flow, the most important thing is to just start writing. In that moment, write about whatever comes to your mind. This technique is called “freewriting.” You can literally write a song about not knowing what to write about. Or look through your room and the first object you see, write a song about that. This exercise will help you get into the flow of writing, and when your flowing, ideas will start coming.
People who write full time, write songs all the time. Chris Stapleton had over 1,000 songs he wrote for his publishing company before ever releasing his debut album. One of my good friends asked me about how he can get better writing opportunities around 2016. I asked him how many songs he had written that year. He said five songs. I shared all of the above with him, and told him that he needs to be writing at least five songs a week if he wants to be a professional writer and write music for a living. Today, he’s taken workshops in songwriting, will co-write with anyone possible to get more reps in, and is writing close to 5-10 songs per week. His songwriting has way surpassed the level of writing he was at in 2016. If you want to be a better songwriter, do what professional songwriters do. “Dress for the job you want.”
2. PRACTICE PERFORMANCE
If you’re an aspiring performing touring musician, and you want to get better shows, have more people come to your shows, get an opening slot, or get on a tour, you have to become the best live performer possible. Again here, what do the professionals do? They play all the time. A lot of the full time touring bands play, especially first starting out, play anywhere from 120-250 shows per year. This doesn’t include soundchecks, rehearsals, and time playing in the studio.
In 2019, I worked a show with Santana. That man loves to play his guitar. He spent hours playing in his dressing room prior to soundcheck. Then an hour long soundcheck, dinner, then a 2.5 hour show. On a show day he plays the guitar for close to 8-hours. No wonder he’s an all time great, and still playing at the age of 71. Same thing with Kenny G. In 2018, I worked three shows with him. Usually the main artists arrive for soundcheck, and a lot of times not even that. They’ll show up close to show time. Kenny G. came in at 1 pm in the afternoon for a 8 pm show. Spent 3-4 hours playing each day in his dressing room, running through scales, practicing techniques, and going through songs. Then a 2-hour soundcheck, dinner, meet and greet, and then a 2.5 hour show. Same here, on a show day, Kenny G. is playing his instrument for 7-8 hours a day. Harry Connick Jr. was the same way, and so do many other greats.
In an interview with Drummer Magazine, Dave Grohl said “Just go play live. If you’re good at what you do, people will recognize that. I really believe that going out and playing good songs live as a great live band, will make you successful. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the shithole down the street, or if you’re playing the side stage at Bonnaroo, or if you’re headlining Lollapalooza, if you’re a great band with great songs, people will notice it. That’s it!” If you want to be a great performer, you should always be working on your craft.
3. CREATE RECURRING CONTENT
Have you heard the saying “Content is King”? We’ll it’s true. Sure, there are always exceptions. For maybe one percent of artists out there, you can get away with not creating consistent recurring content. However, for the other 99% of the artists out there, this is how you can stand out, build an audience around your brand, and make a living being an artist. Music is media. The most successful companies over the last century, have been media companies.
If you operate and build a media company around your music, you’ll have a higher chance of being successful. I can write several separate articles on creating content, and perhaps that would be a really good series down the road. However, until then I have some great recommendations in helping you figure out what type of content to create. Listen to my interviews with Mark W. Schaefer and Joe Pulizzi. Then I highly recommend their books KNOWN by Mark W. Schaefer and Content Inc. by Joe Pulizzi. These are two of my favorite marketing books out there. They are the detailed textbooks on how to get started to what the very popular marketer and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk talks about. Just I prefer the more practical and hands on approach by Mark W. Schaefer and Joe Pulizzi. Here is also a great podcast episodes from Kyle Lemaire “Circa” from his podcast Creative Juice on creating recurring content. These are some great places to start.
For my Advanced Music Business course at Florida International University (FIU), I use the book KNOWN by Mark W. Schafer to help guide the students in creating weekly content for the class, and hopefully beyond the course. In the book, Mark talks about finding your sustainable interest, and creating content around it. A sustainable interest “is something that you love, a topic you’ll have fun with for years to come. But it’s also a theme you want to be known for, something that will help you achieve your long-term life goals.” Find some kind of interest you can create content around to add a personality to your music brand. This is something people can connect with and that you can create an audience around. With this strategy, you’ll build an audience while working on your craft and becoming a better songwriter and performer.
4. ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE BY ADDING VALUE, NOT PROMOTING
Lastly, to build an audience and kick start your music career, or really any career, you need to engage in conversation, but not be promotional. I want to challenge you to engage at least 10 people per day on social media, without ever trying to promote something. If social media is not your thing, then do it via email, phone, or in person. Regardless, you have to engage with people to build an audience and learn about your potential audience. Just get involved in the conversation and try to add value by creating constructive ongoing dialog, advice, encouragement, or entertainment. That’s it. Find people that are engaging in conversation around your sustainable interest that you’re creating recurring content around and people in your scene. Whichever genre you are in, engage with people who are talking about that genre. It’s as simple as that.
One of my past podcast guests, publicist, and music marketer, Angela Mastrogiacomo has a really great rule around how to best utilize social media. It’s her 70/20/10 rule. 70% of posts are engaging and brand building, 20% are promoting other bands, venues or something within the music industry, and only 10% of selling yourself. Angela says “It’s such an important component to building your brand to promote other bands and building your network.” This should give you a solid foundation on how to best utilize social media and engage with people, and build a lifelong community versus temporary fans.
It all comes down to mastering your craft and building an audience. Mastering your craft will get the attention of the audience, and an audience will get the attention of the industry. Sure, there are very few instances where your craft will get the industries attention. However, having a record deal, an agent, or manager doesn’t guarantee success. The biggest labels, agencies, and managers with the most successful artists, have signed other artists and didn’t have the same success. At the end of the day, your faith falls 100% on you. The harder you work, the harder the people working for you will work. The minute you start depending on others for your success, you can kiss the fate of your career goodbye. Because the second your audience starts to disappear, so does the attention of your team, and eventually you’ll be back to where you started. Always focus on your craft and build your own audience. “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” - William Ernest Henley.