Basic Ideas in Making It in Music

People send me messages, asking for the secret to success in music. I give answers based around the four pillars below.

“Does anyone wanna collaborate on a song as well as I’m looking for a producer or record label that’s looking for new artists”

“I’m trying to be a rapper….any advice?”

There are answers but most are not what people want to hear. This article will look firstly at what we know does not work, then what does – given time, courage, and luck.

In A Broken Dream

It used to be that lots of people could at least basically play a musical instrument, but the number of people saying they were trying to become Rock/Pop Stars was pretty small.

Then the internet arrived and the DAW became easily available to all, even those unwilling to invest $1. Suddenly (within a decade or so) it seems like no one can actually play any sort of musical instrument (let alone be willing to sing), yet many people seem to think it is a totally practical and likely outcome that they are about to become successful in music. Famous even.

The First Cut Is The Deepest

Let’s look at how practical that is.

  • Person after person appears in groups & forums wanting the secret of how to go from dabbling with a little bit of something to being able to be a Pop Star. Many can’t/won’t sing (let alone show their face in public) yet expect that their lyrics should become the next smash hit for {insert Pop Star name} – if only someone would give them the email address for whoever chooses that person’s songs.
  • People appear every day saying that they have amazing talent if only someone would just give them time in a Pro recording studio. There is never any of their work on show to entice anyone to take them on. When asked, more excuses about how they are too hard done by to be able to show anything. But if they got a shot…
  • Song after song, album after album, get uploaded to Spotifry in the assumption that the music will be “found”.

These people are following the popular misinformation and trying to erect one pillar (out of four needed) to get a mansion. Yet none of these things ever happen – at least outside of myth-making Popstars who made it the usual way but want to sell a fantasy.

Some Guys Have All The Luck

Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart

In simple number terms, the number of people in London alone in January 1964 who could play a harmonica & sing was huge. Yet Rod Stewart got chosen by Long John Baldry to work for him. Why Rod? Why not one of the many others tootin’ and croakin’ around the scene? Coz let’s face it Rod is not exactly a pretty singer. Further, how is it that despite quite a few failed records over many years that Rod became one of the biggest names in music history?

In many ways, this is impossible to answer in simple terms, but having read up on the history of many successful acts from Rod Stewart to Boz Scaggs, Elton John to Fleetwood Mac, Judas Priest to Madonna one of the most common things is that these people did a lot of groundwork. None leaped from obscurity to fame. The other is that they worked with other people and learned from them. Whether they realized it or not at the time, these people were building their four pillars of success.

Have I Told You Lately

While the internet allows us to put new material online daily, it is not enough. Nor is it always smart to be doing this unless your path is to be a YouTuber or Instaham influencer (which is not actually a musician, even if you sell to them or their fans).

The internet, places like Bandcamp & YouTube (as well as Social Media), is important for aspiring musicians. However, let’s stop thinking “aspiring artist” and transition to Developing Artist.

The foundation for acts who went on to the top echelons of popular music is the time in which each of those performers (note this word) transitioned themselves from an ordinary person, who could do some music stuff, into being a nuanced performer with the experience necessary to lead people (fans).

This is what most people wanting a life in music decline to do. A life in music means devoting a lot of life to music. Not only once it starts paying for your lattes & colonics but today. This is where most people trip themselves up, they don’t commit life to develop their music now so nothing happens.

As already noted, an Artist never appears from nowhere. By the time average people are becoming aware of them, that performer has been developing their act for years in front of smaller audiences where they can see, smell, touch, and taste the happiness (or otherwise) they are helping to create from their stage.

Tonight’s The Night

Making a record these days is pretty easy (technically) so people rush in thinking that this is how they will make-it, seeing the first time they heard of their fave performer was when a single or album was released. Therefore if they do the single/album thing, they are most of the way there already.

It seems like a win to be making a song or album and jamming it up online. But if there is no one waiting for that recording doing so makes no great sense. A recording should be part of a clear & understood strategy that involves a lot of work in the mud and the blood and the beer (clubs – music venues).

As a Mix Engineer & Record Producer, I love helping people get their stories on record. But I also hate that all too often there is no strategy behind the record so it will be put online and essentially abandoned, with no shows, no tour, no interviews, no radio. Just silence.

No herd, No getting heard

The problem with this is that an act on commercial radio has done a lot of work that is largely unseen to get to where you first noticed them. Skipping that work means that while there is a recording (single or album) there is no one waiting to hear it. Getting people to want to hear an already released album with no fanbase is all but impossible. People follow the herd. No herd, no getting heard.

What Am I Gonna Do

The things that must be done are many but we can split them simplistically into four pillars that form your house. If any of these pillars are neglected your house will fall.

  1. Develop as an Act: Artists do not spring fully formed from their cradle. They take years to get to their “beginning”. Avoiding that work will guarantee that any possible success will avoid you. Experienced people, fans or industry, know who has developed any sort of act, and who has not. Any artist not regularly thinking about their Artist Development is planning to fail right where they are. What are you doing to develop as an artist?
  2. Develop a Backline: Artists are not lone wolfs (no matter how much they pretend). All success is a result of many people, some very visible, some not so much. Working with others is not always easy but if you are developing the right people the right way, people should want what you got as collectively you all rise. Not developing positive productive relationships with others is a guaranteed dead end. I see many complain that no one will work with them but usually, they have not done any development themselves and assume that others will email it all to them (usually for free). Do not burn your backline as without them you have no ability to do anything. A radio presenter is backline. A person giving constructive advice is backline. Help these people to support you.
  3. Develop Where You Are: Despite seeming the most obvious and practical this is not what people think. Where you are is the base from which you operate. Or more accurately the base from which your fans come to see you operate. Where people can find you. When starting out you absolutely do not want this to be “everywhere” as that makes your thing non-exclusive. People go out of their way for the exclusive, the scarce. They ignore what is everywhere as it is not special. You need to have a special sense that there is a place where you are (therefore places that you are not). This is your Bandcamp, YouTube channel, your Website, your Facebook. This is NOT Spotifry. In the real world this is the venue where you play, esp when you get to the stage where you get a residency. This is also the scene in which you operate. If you are not part of a scene in some way, make one within the closest scene to your desired outcome. Dwight Yoakam started out in Rock & Punk Venues and did the Cow Punk thing, until he could stand alone as a Country Artist. Even as a Country artist, Dwight is uniquely Dwight Yoakam.
  4. Develop Fans: Note this is last. People rush into this first, thinking that once they have this, everything else will follow. Think of it this way: your favorite act, why did you start to follow them? They offered something to you that you value. Right now Rod The Mod is reminding me how great he makes me feel. How he offers a feeling of hope, of connection to something larger than everyday life. In the gaps between his croaky words, I feel the Universe and it is comfort. Rod can do this because he is a well-developed Artist (#1) with a great Backline (#2) and I know where to find him (#3). Initially, fans have to be developed one by one, usually by you personally. No, that does not mean spamming groups asking them to like you. Developing fans means being where people who want what you have to offer are. If you are a Rapper, there is little sense in being in places where people listen only to Country or Death Metal. It also makes very little sense to try to get other musicians to be your fan. Fans are end-users, people who get that hard-to-define something I pointed to above. To gain a fan you have to be a Leader with something to offer for following you. If you look again at what makes me a fan of Rod Stewart, note it is not anything technical. What Rod really brings is something far more special than his hair & dancing.

This video next introduces the 4-Pillars and focuses on the 3rd Pillar: Location and particularly the mistake of trying to be everywhere, especially Spotifry, which undoes any sense of your act being Special.

Is hard not to include this clip of David Hasselhoff schmaltzing his way through Rhinestone Cowboy. While David may not have the same natural inbuilt talent as Glen (or Springsteen), he does not swallow the concept of “no” or “fear” and delivers a joyful performance wherever he goes. What “The Hoff” really gives audiences is not technical excellence but joy. This is why David is still a successful entertainer.

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