After two plus years working at this thing, wrestling with the beast that is the music industry, I’ve finally figured out the secret to success.
It’s not how many Likes on your Facebook page, or how many Twitter followers you can get. It’s not how much you spend on your website, or your PR campaign, or making a viral music video.
It’s pretty simple: Be better than everyone else.
Yup. That’s all. Just be better. Be a better singer, a better guitar player, be better looking, be sexier, be a better storyteller, be more shocking, be more thoughtful, be more profound, be more evocative, or be more provocative.
Make it impossible for your audience not to feel something.
Be Remarkable and Be Unique
Here’s the caveat: you have to be a lot better – not just as good as, or slightly better – than everyone else. You have to be really amazing at doing at least one thing, whether it’s vocally, instrumentally, lyrically, sartorially, or as a performance artist. I suspect you also have to better at more than just one thing in order to be unique, because there are a lot of good musicians out there.
Seth Godin said: Be Remarkable. I say:
If you are that much better, that remarkable, you will get peoples’ attention. They will even pay for you to do whatever it is you do. Because only you can do it.
How Do You Get There?
OK, so that’s the secret, but how do you get there? And how do you know when you are remarkable?
Well, that last one is easy. Strangers will tell you when you’re remarkable. You don’t have to ask. If they’re not saying it, then you’re not there yet. It’s that simple.
Be honest: when was the last time someone walked up to you, unprompted and unrelated to you by blood or marriage, and told you that you were great? Whatever you did to deserve that feedback– do more of it.
The Feedback Loop
One of my biggest pet peeves is that there are a lot of musicians – myself included – who spend a lot of time working on their craft – voice lessons, guitar lessons, recording in the basement – but we just don’t get enough honest and constructive feedback to become remarkable. That feedback has to come from knowledgeable people who will honestly tell you: “You are not talented enough in this area, but you are good at this other thing,” or “Your skillset needs a lot of improvement. It’s going to take a long time, maybe a lifetime, to make a name for yourself in the music industry,” or (more optimistically): “That thing you just did was really good,” or “You need to make some little changes, let me enumerate them and show you how to make them.”
People Will Just Say Nothing. Crickets.
I read a musician Facebook rant the other night. This musician was complaining that whenever they posted music, no one commented on it, no one forwarded it, no one seemed to care. I think we’ve all experienced that, and sometimes it’s because we have put our art out there slyly, on the down-low, slipping it into the feed when we think no one is looking. But sometimes we do put it out there with a big red arrow – and we get nothing. Crickets.
Why? Folks with good manners will just say nothing if they don’t have something positive to say. If your stuff is just ho-hum, or just doesn’t grab them by the ears and heart and squeeze, it’s not good enough to comment on or forward. It’s good dinner music. But it’s not remarkable.
People don’t want to hurt your feelings – especially if they’re your friends and family.
Let me be clear – your loved ones’ opinion of you matters. But it’s not a professional critique. If what you want is external success, external validation, you need external feedback. You need honest, educated, professional feedback.
Feedback is costly. It takes someone’s time, it takes brain cells. No one whose opinion should matter to you professionally is going to give it to you for free. Why should they waste their time unless something is in it for them? If all you need are a few minor corrections (your look or a few lyric adjustments), and everything else – I mean everything – is amazingly standout, they may be willing to give you some pointers if they think they can make some money off of you. But most likely, you, like me, are not that close to remarkable. We need to change more than just one thing. I know I do.
The Myth Of The 10,000 Hours Rule
I hate to tell all of the basement musicians and open mic regulars, but Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours Theory is a myth. It’s been debunked by the social scientist Daniel Goleman. Yes, you can get better, you can improve, but the key to making those 10,000 hours matter is a feedback loop. Otherwise you are wasting your time doing the same thing over and over. Without information, without mentors, without knowing what to correct and change, you will never get better. The difference between a professional and an amateur, according to Goleman, is that a professional focuses their practice on specific feedback from a seasoned coach.
As my Master Teacher Mentor, Ann Kline, said when I was doing my 9 months in her third grade classroom, learning to be a teacher: “What’s the point of making kids do homework if you don’t correct it?”
Pay For Professional Critique
Some people say you shouldn’t pay to do showcases, you shouldn’t pay for industry feedback. The truth is, most musicians will need to pay to get feedback that is worth anything. And we need to pay in more than just money, we also need to pay in ego. We have to be willing to swallow our pride and fear, and put ourselves out there.
We have to get scuffed up, get back up in the saddle, take the feedback to heart, and make the changes. How many of us are willing to do that? How many have an open mind and an open heart that can stand to have that which so defines us cut down and dissected? Not many. But that’s what you have to do to be better. That’s called learning.
Oh, and if a professional gives you feedback for free, make sure you say “Thank You.” Why? Because they didn’t have to waste a minute on your career. They just indulged in a charitable act.
Finding Your True Self
And another thing I’ve learned: you need to find your own voice and style. It’s not enough to be coached by brilliance and made into somebody else’s idea of a musician. You won’t be successful unless you have a coach who helps you find yourself. Like being a habitual liar or con artist, it’s exhausting to be someone else. No one can do it for a long time. So what a good coach does (Tom Jackson of OnStageSuccess comes to mind, or Cari Cole) is help you find your true talents and your true purpose. They don’t cut you down, they help lift you up, but they push you, they don’t let you drift along inside your comfort zone, behind the lines, in the fox hole. They encourage you to dig deep, examine yourself, change, evolve.
A good coach guides you in clearly identifying the passion that comes from somewhere deep inside you and makes your music, your art, your performance so compelling the audience cannot look away. They help you discover what is unique about you.
When you are so good, and the performance comes from so deep inside you, the audience will see right to your soul. That is thrilling. That is what people pay to see in an artist – they pay to look right inside the artist’s heart and see all the ugly and sad, the joyful and ecstatic. It’s voyeuristic – they pay for you to split yourself open like a ripe melon. We all find it mesmerizing to watch other human beings feel things because it makes each of us feel more alive. Unless you are a priest, a doctor or a social worker, vulnerability is not something most of us are privileged to be in the presence of every day. It’s profound. It is remarkable.
Theory Of Supply And Demand
People will never pay you to be a musician if you are not so remarkable that you can do things that they have never seen anyone else do before. You must be unique. What you do must be hard to find. It’s that simple.
Everyone is a musician these days. There are amateur and professional musicians on every corner, playing for free, licensing their music for cheap, and giving it away for streaming or download for pennies or nothing. And some of them are really good! Probably better than you and I are in many ways. You (and I) have to be better than 99% of them to make people want to stop and listen, to say nothing of giving us their money.
Unlike Most Work, Making Art Is Intrinsically Rewarding
So why do we all keep making art? Why is everyone a weekend musician? Because we are all artists at heart. We love to make art – at least those of us who have not succumbed to the fantasy of our own maturity. We are all little children inside, and children love to make art just for the sake of expression. Art is instrinsically rewarding to make. Making art is fucking fun.
So everyone wants to do it, and no one wants to pay someone else to do it unless it does something for them. People will only pay you to make them happy, to give them pleasure, to make them feel something.
Capitalist economic theory dictates that supply and demand regulate price. So if what you (and hundreds of millions of other artists) are doing is making art for yourself, art is really not a scarce commodity. Even good art is not scarce.
I Get Frustrated Too
I know, I sound a bit like Bob Lefsetz here. But, like you, I struggle with these esoteric issues. I work hard to get better. I get frustrated. I doubt myself. You are not alone.
There is evidence that all, or at least most, artists have many moments of self-doubt. Most high-achieving brilliant artists are very insecure about their talent (its called “The Imposter Syndrome“). If, on the other hand, you’re feeling cocky about your musical talent, turn on the YouTube – there’s a lot of musical talent out there. If you’re so much better, then more power to you. Make your own YouTube video and it will probably go viral. Or maybe not. It may just get… Crickets.
We can all get better. We can all find our voice and our passion. We can all become remarkable.
So go out, get some feedback, and work on being so amazing, so remarkable, that they can’t look away. When they can’t look away, you will be a success in the music industry.