Addressing the topic of “the music industry” has become an industry in itself. This chapter is not intended to give advice directly on how to make it in music. The strategies offered by experts (legitimate or not) are vast in number, and the appropriate measures to take may depend on where you live and what year it is. What follows is my personal advice on coping with the notion of being an artist culled from my years of experience as a performer and educator.
First of all, there are a number of factors to consider when building expectations for making it in music. The number of people who become a household name in the industry are a tiny handful. According to a 2014 United States Department of Labor report, that year there were 173,300 full time careers in the music industry and the projected number of jobs in 2024 is only 179,300. These are full-time positions in music for the entire country. By contrast, in 2024 the projected number of full time jobs in food service is 5,183,600. In 2013 Wired reported that the fraction of living famous people in the world is 0.000086%, this includes all famous people, not just musicians. I am not presenting these data to discourage you from becoming a musician, but to give you a realistic starting point when developing expectations for what is possible for you to attain.
Here are the factors that aid one in becoming a rich and famous American artist, in order of importance from my view:
personal wealth and resources
having family in the industry
having other close contacts in the industry
looking like society’s current view of the ideal
strong work ethic
being in the right city
ability to avoid abusing drugs and/or alcohol
The more of these on the list you have checked off the easier it will be. So, If you don’t have all of these can you still make a living as a musician? Yes. But my advice is to scaffold your dreams. You may not have enough advantages to become the next youtube sensation or touring top 40 artist, but you may find more attainable goals in front of you if you look for them. Sometimes people are so intent on high-in-the-sky aspirations that they don’t notice the immediate opportunities right within their reach. Many times these opportunities are actually steps up in moving toward higher goals. Many successful artists took work in more humble arenas such as teaching, playing in cover bands, playing weddings, etc. before they got their break, and in many cases, they got noticed by someone they met through a less glamorous job in music. Star gazing distracts a person from the humble work required to build that staircase upward. The scaffolded plan involves focusing on small successes and working hard to keep moving forward.
are you cut out to be a musician?
You may have been taken aback at how low I ranked “talent” in the list above. Talent is rather difficult to define. I will offer that it is aptitude plus passion, but I feel this definition, like many others is lacking. Try as I might, I can’t come up with a better description. Over the years I have had students hold hope for dreams I knew they didn’t have the aptitude for, regardless of how much they tried. Sadly, I saw others with what I considered to be that aptitude, that talent, but were not committed to putting in the effort to cultivate those abilities and do the leg-work necessary to promote themselves.
Studies have shown that many young people defined as a “child prodigy” tend to flame out as adults. Although music came easily at first, they relied on talent to carry them, they never improved from that level, and they were eclipsed by those who learned more slowly but steadily.
Relative to some of the other advantages listed above, talent is not the most important factor in succeeding at music, although I generally prefer to listen to music by people I consider talented. In my mind, I do believe talent is essential for longevity. Age and beauty march in opposite directions, but age and talent are best friends. One can only do so much to fight off the superficial breakdown of time, but the artist who constantly strives to learn more, to become better and better no matter how good they already are, is a person who will continue to have much to offer the world for a lifetime. This hard work is essential for sustainable success.
Many people are in love with the idea of being a musician and the fame and admiration that comes with it. However, they do not love the process necessary to become successful. If you are a person who does not like to practice the craft of music which demands hours of drills and studying, you are not being honest with yourself, and you are not being realistic in your expectations. Conversely, if you can lose hours, days, and sometimes friends over your drive to hone your art, you have the “work ethic” component on the list taken care of. If doing your art takes precedence over other distractions like binge watching, video games, partying, etc., you are on the right path.
Another test of your commitment to being a musician lies with finances. If you would rather spend money on musical gear or music education than the latest trendy fashion or the expensive new hot electronic toy, and related to this, you would rather take a job that works around your ability to create music even though it earns you less money, you are a true artist. Abandoning a taste for immediate material things is a must for someone with an eye on bigger goals.
That said, the romantic notion of the starving artist sounds cool at first but the charm wears off after a while. A person who struggles to pay the bills with a minimum wage job is often too stressed out and has too little time to be an artist! A recommendation I have for young people who don’t have the first three items on the checklist taken care of is to attend a trade school or community college, or apprentice for one or two years in order to get certified to work in a skilled trade. People I have known who have done this were able invest just a small amount of time and money in their education in order to find higher paying jobs to cover bills so that they could focus all their free and financially unstressed-out time on their art. This is a great strategy for the young aspiring artist because it also provides income for musical equipment. There are many jobs such as medical technicians, builders, electricians, etc., that allow a person to work part-time on a contract basis or work for themselves. This is ideal for the person who hopes to take time off for touring or needs to make their own hours in order to accommodate late-night gigs.
I also know many people who got a four-year degree in business, the medical field, etc., but stayed serious with their music career at the same time. One of my longest standing friends has a part-time career in the medical field but also runs a successful music business with three different bands, one of which tours internationally! Most people don’t make money in music at first, so counting on it may derail your dream. Making smart life decisions for where you are right now will set the stage for future success.
If you can’t handle failure, disappointment, and the disapproval of others, you are not likely to find success as a musician. Failure is part of most success stories because most people who have made it in their field have had to weather it and more importantly, learn from it. Sometimes, great people fail at first because they didn’t know what they didn’t know and made mistakes that blocked their path. These successful people changed course, turned to educators for advice, or simply picked up and started again.
Another part of the process of becoming an artist is dealing with the often brutal music scene locally, nationally, and internationally. In a very competitive world, the music business is rife with haters, con artists, and frenemies who are not interested in helping you. As mentioned earlier, it is important to listen to the constructive criticism of trusted mentors in the business, but becoming too emotionally attached to the opinions of other people can be debilitating. Be kind to everyone, but be careful who you trust!
Another aspect of coping with failure is assessing whether or not you actually even failed! Sometimes we don’t get what we think we want, however, what we end up with is satisfying in the long run. I keep in touch with a former student who is selling regularly released DIY recordings, playing out weekly in his adopted city, giving lessons here and there and generally living a creative lifestyle. This person has “made it.” I always joke that my first career choice was “rock star,” but all the positions were filled, so I became a teacher. The truth is, I fell in love with teaching. It is a separate art from being a musician, and I feel fortunate to be involved in both. I have had modest successes as a composer and performer that I am quite proud of. But, the joy of sharing my passion and my knowledge of music with other people has sustained me.
Furthermore, not everyone who gets what they want is actually happy once they have it. Be sure to measure your success, not by your fame and fortune, but by your own personal fulfillment in what you do. Enjoy the process and the small successes while always moving forward.
Some readers may be chuckling at all this because they are happy in another rewarding career and are studying and playing music as a hobby. Does this mean that this reader will never be an artist, or successful as a musician? It certainly does not. There are people who are accomplished musicians who do not care to be in the limelight with their art, or are satisfied with modest local notoriety along with a career that pays the bills. The joy of playing music very well is simply enough, and in my mind this is the definition of a successful musician. I know a number of “music hobbyists” who are actually better musicians than some who consider themselves to be “professionals.”
The path to success in the competitive business of music involves working hard to hone one’s abilities, having a strong constitution in dealing with failure, and a having a fluid and realistic set of goals that allows each step forward to be fulfilling in itself.