So, you want to be a successful musician. Well that’s a good start, it shows very positive thinking. So how do you define success? If you set yourself goals with deadlines and meet them you can consider your self successful. An example could be to practice your instrument for two hours a day or to learn one new song a week. It could be to have a number one song in the UK charts or to be a full time professional musician by the time you’re thirty. It could be anything in between. So you really do need to know what you want to do before you can start planning how to make that happen.
Quite often the most successful way to do this is to work backwards from your goal, setting smaller achievable goals with realistic deadlines. If you think of your overall plan as a game of snakes and ladders you’ll realise that apart from a few short cuts, the ladders, there will also be obstacles along the way, the snakes. You will need to plan how to avoid or overcome them or how to “pick yourself up, brush yourself off, start all over again”, as the song goes, by having lots of stamina and determination plus some contingency plans.
There are many stories of bands being rejected several times before finally being successful, even the Beatles were rejected by recording companies before getting a deal with EMI’s Parlophone label. An anecdote says that Dire Straits were playing their last pub gig before giving up/selling their instruments when an A&R rep walked in.
In fact Dire Straits took their five-song demo tape, which included “Sultans of Swing to MCA in Soho but were turned down. Then they took the tape to DJ Charlie Gillett at BBC Radio London, who played “Sultans of Swing” on his show. Two months later, Dire Straits signed a recording contract with the Vertigo division of Phonogram. They and many others will all say how they worked for years to get to that point and than they hard to work even harder to stay there.
There are a variety of ways to have a successful music career. Success for you could mean being a full time professional musician and earning enough money to live on without having to have another job. There are various ways to do this such as working in the orchestra in a theatre, working on cruise ships, doing five pub gigs a week or landing a recording contract. You could be happy to be a semi- professional musician maybe doing two pub gigs a week and having a daytime job in another profession.
One person I know, who I first came across playing guitar in an excellent soul band, went on to make a living writing tailormade music for TV productions. He continues to play with friends who do occasional gigs at local venues and festivals. Another friend played local gigs for years then managed to set up and run a rehearsal studio. He still plays and the combination enables him to make enough money to live on.
One common problem is that often you won’t know exactly what you want to do until you stumble into it, which is usually governed by the people you meet and situations you find yourself in through the years.
Successful people in a variety of careers are often described as being lucky. One famous quote by Samual Goldwyn sums it up, “the harder I work the luckier I get,” and the way to become a better musician is to practice, practice, practice. Some people decide they have been born with enough talent to go it alone in their pursuit of a musical career but most people will benefit from some tuition.
You may decide to get private lessons or do a course. A course will require you to invest more of your time and money and has pros and cons. You could be required to cover a lot of ground in areas you’re not that into such as musical theatre, composing and arranging, event planning and promotion but you will get qualification out of it. Private lessons can be expensive but they will help you improve your technique and you could do your music grades exams this way.
The thing is the old saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know,” is the same in music as in any other industry. Whichever strategy you choose should not only enable you to get advice, encouragement and some type of qualification at the end but also create opportunities to start networking with people already working in the area of music that you are hoping to have a career in.
These people will be a mixture of other musicians, agents, promoters, venue owners, music publishers, producers, managers etc. and before signing up for any course you should research what industry contacts they have. The BIMM colleges in London, Brighton, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham in the UK have a good track record borne out of good training and good contacts. The Access to Music courses are also good and are available more widely across the UK.
One past student of Access to Music is Jess Glynn. She completed a year long Access to Music course in London in 2010 where she met one of her future collaborators, songwriter Jin Jin. One of Glynne and Jin Jin’s compositions caught the attention of Black Butter Records who signed Glynne to a publishing deal and introduced her to music managers and lawyers. She signed a contract with Atantic Records in August 2013, and was able to leave her job in brand management for adrinks company.
She went on to collaborate with many different people resulting in seven number one records in the UK charts, among many other successes, by the age of 30. So there will be elements of business potential, chemistry, timing, etc that will result in you working with particular people and there are common things that will help this along such as being prepared, practiced and confident. ‘Prepared’ usually includes having business cards, promotional photos and examples of your best performances at the ready. ‘Practiced’ means what it says on the tin, being the best that you can be at your instrument/voice by regular practising and improvement. ‘Confident’ means knowing you are prepared, practiced and good at what you do but most of all that you really and truly enjoy what you do.
Some musicians will tell you honestly it took them a while to work out what they actually enjoyed doing, often by working out what they didn’t enjoy doing along the way. You may enjoy playing covers to holiday makers, even if that involves playing the same songs from a very large playist every night, over and over again because that’s what the audiences and the venue owners want. You may try that and decide. it’s not for you.
You may want to write and play your own songs and find a way of earning money from that. It’s harder than the previous option. One very talented singer I know started off as a soul singer in pub bands but ended up singing his own songs, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar on the folk and theatre circuits. Many musicians I know make a living with a mix of live gigs playing covers with some of their own songs mixed in alongside teaching private lessons.
To be popular or to be famous is something that you may yearn for and you really need to get exposure on TV and Radio in addition to online platforms for this to happen. There are always enough people wanting to do this for production companies to make long running talent shows such as The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent. There’s usually a follow up tour of the UK for winners and runners up, and various routes to go afterwards. Some of these artists go on to have recording contracts and perform in stage show such as Leona Lewis. Some may gather enough of a following to do the larger gigs in towns such as the Colston Hall in Bristol and some end up performing at mid to top end holiday resorts.
Even if you do work hard enough, make enough contacts and are therefore lucky enough to reach your goals don’t forget the snakes. Successful music artists of great talent can still be victims of fashion or fraud and to quote another song, “Fame if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.” Some people can work hard for years achieving massive sales and income only to discover that their manager mismanaged the money and not only is there none left there’s a massive debt to pay back.
Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin and Nile Rodgers all had ups and downs in their careers and had to do some serious lateral thinking to find new opportunities. Collaborating with other successful artists or songwriters is one way forward whether you’re still performing or working in production.
Some musicians decide that they are better at producing rather than performing and can end up writing songs for other people to record, some do both. As a child Quincy Jones taught himself piano and various other instruments before settling on playing the trumpet in local bands as a teenager. He never stopped trying to improve his skills and through his lifetime became successful at writing songs for other artists, producing them, composing music for films and tv, writing and arranging music forbig bands and in later years promoting events to encourage young musicians. Hecan be considered to be a shining example of someone who had great success in his musical career, but he sure worked hard for that and his personal life and relationships suffered as a result. That’s why it’s important to know what success means to you.
As well as having talent you need to develop persistence and resilience. Be grateful for your own talent and acknowledge the talent of other musicians. Being a solo act has advantages in terms of pay, organisation etc but working with others can be rewarding in terms of the musical interaction, practical help and fun. When you start out you need to work out if you have the character and skills to promote your own gigs or if you just want to be the go-to musician and leave that to someone else.
Be wary of other musicians who are very egotistical and competitive, who will invite you on stage in order that they can show off their superior talent. Be wary of musicians who seem nice but will readily jump into your shoes and steal your gigs at the slightest opportunity. Be proud of your achievements with a good dose of humility and gratitude. Enjoy what you do, practice, improve, network and never give up.
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