Growing up in my generation we were taught to learn how to cook meals for ourselves. We’re not talking microwave or frozen dinners. We’re talking the ceramic flour canister, teaspoons for measuring, and electric burner stove tops with a cast iron skillet. Mom would quickly slap a meal together throwing cabinet doors open to find the various ingredients. It just seemed to appear on the kitchen table. We were taught to replicate that process.
In the music business, it used to be that simple. Watch the veterans make the stew and repeat for yourself. The formulas and ingredients were pretty well defined and the outcomes predictable.
Back in 2014, Rock legend Gene Simmons gave an interview that all but declared to the starving and upcoming artist to not quit their day job… I can’t say I disagree with his statements in the article. It’s been proven to me over and over again that the music industry’s music-stew is not repeatable any more. The problem is, the ingredients are essentially the same, but the way they are cooked is completely different now.
Most recipes have an order or priority when adding ingredients. They are sometimes laid out in a particular order because it makes the end meal taste better. In the case of music, the order isn’t always as critical as the time needed to prepare and cook the meal.
One of the most frustrating parts of being an artist today is understanding that timing is everything. No matter how much talent, charisma, good looks, or whatever other ingredient you may think is important, timing is the one thing that trumps everything. Market niche or the need for what an artist is making will dictate how much attention people give to the music being made.
Much like any product in the free market, music has various levels of demand. Imagine a mom and pop corner grocery store. The size and level of inventory will be suited to their local town. They stock enough to keep up with the local demand. A store like Walmart Supercenter will likely carry a lot more inventory and varieties of the same product. It’s because they know the customers they serve have a broader requirement for various ingredients for their food needs. The same applies to music. If an artist is serving a local area well, the demand may seem big. But on a larger scale, their product will likely get lost on the shelves of the consumer’s favorite store. Creating demand for your music is difficult and most artists get discouraged long before they make it from local celebrity at the mom-n-pop mart into a larger super-store.
This is probably the most obvious ingredient on the list, but one that is so completely misunderstood. Talent is a broad description mostly pigeon-holed into the artist’s skill of voice or instrumentation. However, talent is a much bigger ingredient because it can encompass things like stage presence, audience connection, dance, songwriting, etc. This single word must really be broken down into segments that are part of the formula of succeeding. Instead of giving my personal definition of talent, it’s enough to say that a total package evaluation of an artist is a better definition of talent and will allow more people to endorse the artist if we accept the diversity of perspectives. Simply, an artist like Bob Dylan is not a vocal prodigy, but his songwriting and passion make his talent off the charts and defined his success for sure.
IMAGE / BRAND
The appearance and what an artist talks about and stands for can all be critical in maximizing success. Knowing your platform and what makes you stand out among the competition regarding your image is very important. It’s what makes your “stew” taste better than the next guys. Too many artists get obsessed with trying to replicate what is already popular in the music scene. You hear songs that sound the same, hairstyles that look the same, clothing that represents the culture of the scene they’re trying to impact. The consumer of music likes originality, but also likes something they already are familiar with. Like food, it’s ok to try a hamburger from a different restaurant and in many cases, you can acquire a new taste for the same basic sandwich that is prepared differently (flame broiled versus grilled).
There’s no substitute for experience. I’m not talking just the amount of preparation you’ve put in for rehearsal. I’m not talking the amount of shows you’ve done necessarily. I’m talking how you’ve weathered the storm of the life of an artist. How many gigs went wrong and you overcame and still did the show? How many times were you rejected by the industry executive you thought for sure would sign you up or put you on a tour? How many times have you read reviews or comments online that make you out to be a joke for an artist, yet you still keep trying? This kind of experience is the “seasoning” of the stew. It’s the flavoring that give your music and artistry it’s reliability. Labels and venue owners as well as consumers of music all can tell when your experience is at a level of professionalism. It becomes obvious that you’re not a microwave dinner, but more that you’re a 4 course meal waiting to be consumed.
I recently watched the movie about James Brown and his nickname of the hardest working man in show business was certainly well deserved. He tirelessly worked at his craft and held his team to the same high standards. An artist who is not recklessly working, but organized and committed to a disciplined routine of practice and getting better will successful. It will show in everything they say and do on and off stage. People around them and observers afar will know that they’re not dabbling or kidding around.
FINANCES / RESOURCES
Sorry to say, but the fairy tale of being swept off your feet by a prince-charming record label is just that, a fairy tale. Even those who have been signed by a major label often realize they are paying in the long run and not just getting free money with their signing bonus. I was saddened to read that one of my favorite bands from the 90’s, “The Goo-Goo Dolls”, lost everything financially after selling over 2 million records in their first few years. Their lucrative deal with Warner Brothers had them so upside down financially, they never made a dime. Even without a sugar-daddy label to bolster your success, it takes serious, serious money and resources to launch and sustain a career. Money and calendar time are essential if you’re going to want to get exposure and continue to develop. It’s not just playing gigs or paying for studio time. It’s also the endless need to constantly network with other artists and industry people so your reputation and skill can be discovered when the time is right. This takes money and time.
MENTORS / ADVISORS
This is often overlooked or often taken too seriously by some artists. Listening to the advice of experienced artists can taint you or save you a ton of regrets. Who you align yourself with along the way can make a difference to the time needed to cook your stew. It can help prevent forgetting an ingredient and spoiling the taste. It can also lead to a mentor focusing too much of one or two ingredients and ruining the taste. It’s a very necessary and very frustrating balance to have mentors and advisors. As an artist continues their process of becoming known, they will figure out personalities along the way and avoid the sharks and find the trustworthy allies who will help them succeed.
With social media today, this is easier than it has ever been. It’s also a faster way to know how to hone your craft to please your fan base. Some artists are too stubborn to listen to fan demand because they are stuck in the artistic and creative world. Some are like pollen in the spring time and blow in whatever direction the fan-winds decide to go. Both are extremes, but one truth is that in our reality-TV generation, fans want to know the person behind the artist now more than ever before. They want to know what’s behind the song and that requires a tighter connection with fans. As an artist gets more popular, so does the need to create intentional fan moments. Publicists often take over this area at some point, but as long as social media is a viable path, an artist always has a pipeline directly to their fan base.
KNOWING YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
For an artist to truly break out of smallville, they must know what they are personally good at doing and find a way to delegate the rest to a team around them. This requires trust and knowledge. It’s not advisable to delegate something you don’t have a firm understanding about like booking a show, how the contracts work, the revenues and expenses of being an artist, the selecting of a producer, song-writing, or whatever. All these areas are essential in success in the music business but there are only 24 hours in a day and hopefully a portion of that is spent getting rest. The remainder is devoted to babysitting (stirring the stew while it cooks) the many details of being an artist trying to earn money and exposure. Delegating responsibilities is important. It’s as important as a CEO not trying to answer phones on the front desk. At some point, the easy work or repetitive work should be turned over to someone who is good at it and can free you up to focus on the areas that you are best at. Sometimes you’re stuck with having to do the mundane because you don’t have that person yet. The only way you will discover your strengths and weaknesses is to experience doing everything you are capable of doing and then taking an inventory of what you should or shouldn’t continue doing when the opportunity for delegating becomes real.
RECORD SALES & RADIO PLAY
Sadly, the path to record sales and getting on radio is like a vicious circle chase. It’s often a chicken and the egg dilemma. It takes radio to get record sales. It takes record sales to get radio. It takes a lot of show dates to get exposure… to get legit fans… to which radio reaches… to which buy the music… which drives the SOUNDSCAN reports… which tells larger market radio stations to take you serious, etc. This part of the process has never changed from the beginning. There are gatekeepers at major labels, smaller labels and in between that care about these two aspects more than anything else. They figure if you’re selling records and on the radio, you must have all the other bases covered. It’s a quick litmus test or spoon taste of your stew to determine if they should consider mass marketing your music. Emerging artists know this all too well and it’s a nightmare cycle to get stuck in. Even hitting radio doesn’t equate record sales or visa-versa. It’s complicated, but a vital ingredient in success.
This is a loose term to simply mean remaining patient while the stew is cooking. Sometimes an artist thinks they have the right song, right live show, right amount of fans, right venues, right advisors, some cash coming in, right amount of exposure, but nothing’s happening. Nobody is calling to sign them or ask them to tour with a major artist. This is where flexibility comes in. It’s what an artist needs to do to get over the hump of being a potential artist to being a widely known one. Sometimes flexibility means to temporarily stop pushing so hard and let the hard work permeate the music landscape for a little while. It’s like taking the stew off the hot stove and letting it simmer while the ingredients intertwine and season. Sometimes it means stepping back 4 or 5 levels and playing a coffee house and getting back to your roots. Sometimes it means taking a sabbatical and focusing on something else for a season (however long) to revive your perspective. Sometimes it means accepting an offer to play a gig you’d normally ignore. Sometimes it means recording a song you’d normally not do. Sometimes it means hiring a helper you don’t think you need or can afford. Grinding in the music industry is physically, mentally, and emotionally difficult. Being flexible to break routine is important. Being able to adjust to do things differently from time to time is often the epiphany needed for that breakthrough you’ve always hoped for.
INDUSTRY TERMS AND PROCESSES
If an artist is to ever truly succeed, they will at some point need to understand the moving parts of the music industry. Knowing how radio works, how to work in a studio environment with professionals, how live venues book artists, how royalties and revenue streams work, how a publishing deal works, etc. are all critical for an artist to truly understand if they are to be successful. It will avoid a ton of regret and starting over if you can gain as much knowledge as possible early on.
I’m sure my list could continue with words like passion, commitment, opportunity, networking, etc. There are a lot of adjectives and nouns we can add to the list to help define the keys to success. Depending on your end-game, success is something you should never declare for yourself. Never be satisfied with the level you’re at for too long because it will disappear over time and you’ll find yourself getting hungry again. That’s the beauty of the metaphor of my mom’s cooking. No matter how good the meal, nature has a way of burning off the benefits you gained and will start wanting you to make another pot of stew, just like the music industry requires. The appetite for good music and artists is insatiable. The ability for you to continue to adapt and adjust in the music industry is critical if you are to survive, and that may simply mean switching up the method you cook your stew and a few ingredients along the way.