Monday, September 12, 2011

The Secret to Success In Music

This is a post expanding on the subject matter of one I wrote in 2010, titled: "Making It" In The Music Industry."

Lately I've been getting the question. People want to know how to do it, how to make music a career. It's a misguided question, because the truth is that I lack the qualifications to answer it. I do not currently enjoy a career in the music industry. I enjoy a hobby that sometimes pays for itself, but most of the time it accrues thousands of dollars in debt. I'd hardly call that a career, but nonetheless it is the assumption of many that I am privy to knowledge beyond that of the average music hobbyist. 

I was that kid. I remember starting out and believing that nothing could stop us, that our music was this magical, momentous force that would roll perpetually onwards until it penetrated the hearts and minds of the masses. We actually believed that. With delightfully naive hubris we'd suggest to people that if they were nice to us now, we'd remember them when we hit the big time.

Then reality sunk in, and we soon realized it was hard to get shows, hard to get tours, hard to sell records, hard to draw crowds, hard to get signed, hard to pay expenses, and extremely hard to make money.

But we still believed. We believed we could convert every music listener who wasn't already indoctrinated by some hipster-driven fashion-music dogma. We believed we made music for the people. So why weren't we blowing up? We had to be missing something. So we pressed on, like the young bands still do, searching ever so desperately for the Secret to Success.

I remember being 19 and talking to Bobby Darling from Gatsbys American Dream outside of Ground Zero in Bellevue, WA. He was the most successful musician I had ever talked to, and I naively believed he had the Secret. Like he might pull me aside and lower his voice to a whisper, and he might impart some piece of wisdom; a phone number, some information that would help us get signed, rich, famous, noticed, whatever...

Perspective is everything.

I've been on both sides of that coin now, so I'll let you in on a few secrets I've learned since. These aren't really secrets, they're just common sense, but sometimes we can get so deluded that we disregard them altogether.

I want to debunk a myth your supportive parents tell you about the music industry when you're starting out. Don't get me wrong, I'm certain they love you and may even think you're God's gift to Screamo, or whatever genre, but they're wrong about this. Ready for the truth?:


Parents and ill-informed managers perpetuate this lie. This is 2011, there is no big mean force standing between you and potential fans... you know all the important "WHO'S" already. Their names are Twitter, Facebook, BandCamp, iTunes, Kickstarter, and a hundred others like them who invite everyone to use their services.

Nobody is going to do you a favor, so do yourself a favor and make the best music you know how to make, that is your best shot at making it. The fairy godmother isn't going to come turn your pumpkin songs into a carriage that you can ride to the ball. You're going to have to carve that pumpkin and carry it yourself.

With social networking and the internet you can connect with fans, market your music, raise money, and distribute your songs all on your own. If you're still looking for a label and you think a label would be right for your band, here's some free advice:


Build something that a label wants to invest in. That's all a label is, an investor... they have a million bands to pick from so why should they invest in yours? Where is yours heading? What have you built? Facebook was started by a couple guys leveraging all they had to get it going... they didn't get seed money until it was already national, serving hundreds of thousands of people. If you believe in your music, leverage everything you have and don't expect any hand outs from anyone. Sending demo's to labels is pointless, I know, because I've seen the pile at Tooth and Nail Records... it's depressing to see all those beautifully decorated packages with home-made D1 sheets go to waste. This isn't 1995, it doesn't work like that anymore. Make a name for yourself independently, because if you can't do that, you have no shot of ever getting signed.


People ask things like, "Well if it's about the music then how come that sucky band made it big?"

Music is perhaps the most subjective topic on the planet. The truth is there are a lot of people who think that said "sucky bands" music is awesome, and someone at a label saw the earning potential of that band in a certain market, so they got that band on the radio and big tours and dumped a ton of money into that band. You and I might argue that the bands music is crap, but if there's a market for it, that means a significant amount of people like it, and if people like it, that means there's money in it. If you think a major record label went to that band and said, "Hey guys, I know you suck, but we're friends, so I'll dump a half million into you" than you're more than fooling yourself.

Music is your greatest asset.

So many ill-informed bands place too high a value on their equipment, hair/style, choreography, live show, market visibility and production quality. The Song is the magic. The Song is the thing that transcends the tangible and grips the soul. The Song is what spreads like wildfire through iPods and Facebook and at parties and on road trips. The Song is the thing you should spend 99% of your time perfecting before you ever step foot outside of your garage. 

This doesn't mean you break it down into a formula. I believe we all must have a healthy respect for the science of Song (basic principles of structure, key, melody, rhythm), but it's more important to immerse yourself in the art of songwriting. After all, a musician is an artist. Dedicate most of your time to the art. If you're diligent and you spend enough time, and your art is great, it will get noticed.

So when people ask me how to make a career in music I tell them this: Write great songs. Not good ones, great ones. Great ones spread quickly, while good ones are slow movers. If you write great songs, great things will happen. One of them is the simple economic principle of Demand. More and more fans will start turning up at shows and buying your music online. Bigger bands will want you to tour with them because you now draw a crowd. Labels will start calling you when they see how many records you're selling independently. Your need for a secret to success will be obsolete, because suddenly you have demand for your music. Not because someone hooked you up, but because your music is just THAT good!


Let me go back again to when I was 19 and starting this band thing. We we're so full of youthful optimism and blind faith, which can be a good thing, but we made a critical error: We believed the hype. All of our family and friends loved our music, so of course we believed that it was perfect. The truth is those songs were good, not great. We had not focused enough time and effort on honing our craft, we simply followed inspiration down the rabbit hole and whatever we experienced became set in stone. This is typical of young writers. We get praise for everything we do because we are precocious, and we start to think that everything we do is great.

I think this is partially because we are so insecure. We're either inflated with ego or self-loathing, without much in-between. We're always viciously attacking or defending ourselves. A great artist says no to inspiration as much as they say yes. It's about knowing what is good and what isn't, and that often takes time and maturity. It's rare that someone can write a great song on natural talent alone, elements of greatness will be there with true natural talent, but it won't be complete. There is a certain amount of learned skill and experience required in order for the artist to say no to the cheap stuff and yes to the good stuff. A healthy sense of humility is good, and that's hard to find in the young and stubborn.

There are a lot of things that go into a successful career in music, some of which I may never understand. Is there luck? Sure. Intangibles? Yup. Often times you don't choose your band or musical background, you can't control chemistry and I don't care who you are, you NEVER have the corner on inspiration. So take all my advice with a grain of salt. Not everyone is cut out to do music full-time, and that may be the simple fact for many reading this.

With that said, I'll say that if there is one secret that is a non-secret it is this: Persistence.

Call it willpower, perseverance, determination, tenacity, resolve, whatever... we had it. The main reason we got as far as we did is because of our unwavering belief in our dream. 

By now you may realize that I don't believe in a "Secret to Success," but if there is one "non-secret" that I believe is more important than the rest, it has to be Persistence.

“Anybody who tells you to have a fall back plan are people who had a fallback plan, didn’t follow their dreams, and don’t want you to either.” - John Mayer


  1. This is the kind of post that forces me to marvel at the raw truth behind its words... As you say, these truths are so simple, but when simple ideas are put to text, they often seem so profound. I have never truly considered a career in the music industry, but it has long been a great passion of mine - I am in the midst of the very reluctant, tedious process of recording an album, solely for the sake of personal fulfillment. My opinion is that a great number of young musicians end up clinging to fame and wealth and popularity simply because they are convenient extremes in which to put one's faith. There's always that vague fear that one day the music will disappear, that this beautiful, wonderful thing won't work, that you'll be stuck in a desk job because it just wasn't enough... Young people are good at extremes like that.

    As always, thanks for the read.

  2. Really, an amazing blog post. I could not agree more - it's all about the music. Great songs get you noticed, and that's why I find it frustrating that bands of such potential are pushed a musical direction by labels and made to sound the same as the next band to make money. If your songs are great and you stick by your guns you'll get noticed. For sure.

    On a side note, I really hope TCC are currently putting all their efforts into some beautiful music that isn't driven by wanting to achieve success. Cannot wait.

  3. Every artist needs to read this. Wait, no...everyone needs to read this. I love your honesty, simplicity and wisdom behind everything you write and share. Well, except for that've created songs that weren't great part. Pshhh.