A logical approach to building a music career.
Growing your music career isn’t unlike growing beans from seeds in the Kansas soil.
In this edition of Guitar Notes I dive back into that scary place we call the music business, so hold on! We’ll be looking at the ways in which we musicians tend to both support and sabotage our careers.
I think many of us (me included) have been needlessly intimidated and frustrated by the music business generally and by the myth of overnight success in particular. Reflecting our popular culture and its desire for fast results, expecting overnight success has short circuited many would-be professional musicians.
Nurturing a music career is rather like growing vegetables. Our job is to plant the seeds then provide the necessities to help ensure that the organic processes unfold over time. I look at overnight success like winning the lottery. Sure, it happens, but not very often. If we look at our musical careers like a seed, which given the basic necessities, could grow into a healthy plant, then we greatly enhance our chances of success. But still, some things have to happen naturally over time, and we have no control over them.
In an encounter I had with the guitarist Steve Vai, he brought my garden analogy into sharp focus by playing a single note then saying to me, “Everything I have comes from this”. Maybe those vines twining down his fretboard are suggestive of his approach. Mr. Vai undoubtedly understands that music is the seed from which everything stems.
The vine inlay on the Steve Vai Ibanez Prestige Jem and Jem 7 String at Musician’s friend Private Reserve could represent the potential for success that grows from notes on the fretboard. Also pictured: Ibanez Prestige Tosin Abasi Signature and RG Series 9 String.
I’ve come to see that building a music career calls for some self-discovery and reflection. The first step in achieving success is an exercise in logic: understanding what you have control over and what you do not.
Stephen R. Covey brought this concept to life for me in his book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. He calls the things we can control our “Circle of influence” and the things we do not have control over our “Circle of Concern”. It’s essential that we focus our energy (and emotions) on our circle of influence, otherwise the energy is wasted, and quite often emotional problems including frustration, anxiety and depression arise.
Catering to our Circle of Concern by continually generating thoughts such as, “My career should be happening by now,” or “I sure hope it happens,” or “It never happened” can be crippling. Of course, it makes perfect sense that these thoughts and emotions arise when we struggle to control those things over which we actually have no direct control.
Instead, focus your hard work and energy on the things you can control, and try not to waste energy or get distracted by those things that are out of your hands. Returning to our vegetable-garden analogy, such thinking is akin to wanting the seeds to sprout faster or wondering exactly when you’ll be able to reap your harvest.
I got this book as a graduation gift from an aunt. Great book, but watch who you gift it to! They might take it the wrong way.
To me, the seed is your brand. I say brand instead of music because our image is nearly impossible to separate from our music. Even in jazz, where fashion generally takes a back seat, image is still closely associated with the music. Think Miles Davis and his huge shades or Pat Metheny’s crazy hair and striped shirt. From live concerts to album covers to magazine spreads, it’s hard to escape your look being closely associated with your music, regardless of genre.
If we are going to grow a plant from seed, then we need a good seed. You could try using an old one you found in the garage, and you might get lucky, but a high-quality seed from a reliable source has a much better shot at germination. I’ve decided to use a few high-quality seeds as opposed to planting lots of lower-quality seeds over and over, waiting for one to take root. Let’s break this down into how it manifests with music and image.
Jazz guitar great Pat Metheny playing one of his PM Signature Ibanez guitars in Topeka, Kansas. The crazy hair and striped shirt are a part of his branded stage presence.
I believe in my music. I’ve built it by playing what I like, what sounds good to me and what moves me in that special way. That’s really the only thing I know. I don’t know what you like or what the club, record label, or Facebook like. Sure I could guess, but why guess when I can use my own internal gauge? By playing what moves me I can trust that I’ve planted the best seed possible.
Image is a much more difficult concept for me. It’s like naming instrumentals. I have trouble manifesting my music in English and fashion. What I do know is that originality, consistency and color coordination are all valid branding ideas.
You might take elements from another artist and turn them into your own. Jimi Hendrix took some fashion cues from his former boss—Little Richard. Horror movies, comic books, Kentucky Fried Chicken—it’s all up for grabs. A little attention to your image/style can go a long way.
I work in a jazz trio where the look is coat and tie creating an effective image for the band.
Now that we’ve planted a good seed it’s time to provide it with the basic necessities it needs to grow into a healthy and fruitful plant. This is where the Circle of Influence comes into play. For instance, you can totally control how much water the seed gets but you cannot control when or if that seed will germinate. Let’s look at the basic necessities our music needs to thrive.
Some plants just won’t grow in some areas. You have to have the right climate for your plant to thrive. The same goes for your music. The music you listen to creates a climate for certain types of music to come out of you. For instance, it would be nearly impossible to embrace blues without being in an environment where blues was being played. Listen to the music that moves you and see if it aligns with something you’re trying to express. If it does, you’ll find yourself in the right climate.
Practicing music is just like watering a plant. If you don’t water a plant it may get some rain once in awhile and survive, but it won’t thrive. By watering the plant we help it to continue growing and producing. The same is true with music; by practicing our craft we give it the fuel it needs to grow at a quicker pace while keeping our bodies in condition to continue playing our instruments in the same way a healthy plant continues to put forth fruit.
Just as a plant needs sunlight, our music needs exposure. Putting out CDs and digital downloads, creating a website, having a Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube videos are all legitimate ways to shine a light on your music. This is where the quality of the seed you planted and your watering habits matter.
If you believe in your music, listen to inspiring music, and practice regularly, you can weather the inevitable failures and criticisms that come with exposure. So what if nobody bought your crushing progressive rock band's instrumental concept-album? Or only two people liked your Facebook post. Or somebody said your bass guitar duo sounds like whales humping? You shined the light on something you believe in, and you have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s critical you use your own judgment to decide whether something is good enough or not before sharing. That way you’re not quite so emotionally tied to its reception or commercial success.
I continue to shine a light on my music by making it available on multiple platforms and regularly putting out new material.
So there you have it. Believe in your music and image (brand), listen to music that creates a good climate for your own music to flourish, practice to continue growing and stay healthy, then shine a light on it! Best of luck, and until next time...keep playing!
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Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.