How you are perceived by others matters in life – perhaps even more so in the music industry than anywhere else. Are you seen as a genius? A hack? A savant? Unserious? Unscrupulous? Your reputation is your calling card in many cases, so knowing what pitfalls to avoid can make a difference in how smooth – or bumpy – your music career ends up being. Listed below are four ways musicians can put themselves in a less-than-ideal situation, and advice on ways to avoid each one.
Don’t Be Unfair
The golden rule applies – nobody likes to be treated unfairly, and it’s likely you can call to mind at least a handful of people who have given you the short end of the stick in the past. Obviously, misunderstandings happen, but I’m not talking about honest mistakes. I know a guitar player that was hired to back a singer – he was promised $200 for learning an hour’s worth of music and playing a couple practices. After the show the singer refused to pay, despite their previous arrangement. Unfortunately for the singer, the guitarist was well connected in the industry and had close relationships with many other influential musicians. Word got around quickly that the singer couldn’t be trusted to follow through on his word. He acquired quite a reputation for himself – and not the kind he wanted.
The flip side of this, of course, is treating people well. Be as equitable as possible in all your dealings. Be kind and grateful, particularly to those people who often get overlooked, like assistants and security. If you can afford it, a thank you card or cup of coffee goes a really long way.
Don’t Be Unreliable
In every project, money and reputation are on the line. If you show up an hour late to a co-write (or forget about it altogether), you’re unlikely to get another chance with those people. If you arrive disheveled and out of sorts for an important meeting, the powers that be may not take you seriously. Showing up unprepared for a gig is another cardinal sin – you stand to embarrass yourself, your bandmates, and possibly the venue. If you get the reputation that you can’t be counted on, industry pros will look elsewhere for their acts, regardless of how talented you may be. I know of artists who were picked up by labels, went on tour, and imploded overnight. They had a meltdown and walked away from everything. By the time they had sorted out their personal issues, the label had moved on, and few people in town want to work with them. There are, of course, exceptions – perhaps you are the most incredible and talented artist anyone has ever seen. You might – *might* – be given a pass. But patience will tend to be finite, even for misunderstood geniuses.
Show up on time as often as you can. I allow myself an extra cushion of time before every appointment – it gives me a few minutes to breathe and relax, and helps me not feel so rushed if I get caught at a red light or something. Always do your homework – know who you’re writing with, what the project is, and have hooks and ideas ready to go. If you’re performing at a gig, practice. Know your stuff cold. Don’t wait until the night before to rehearse. When you get a reputation for rock solid reliability, you’ll be taken a lot more seriously.
Don’t Be Argumentative
You get told “no” a lot in this industry – odds are, you’ve already experienced this at least a bit. So what to do when a publisher tells you your song isn’t ready, or your band isn’t quite what the label is looking for? Don’t argue – don’t insist that they “wait til the next chorus” before stopping your CD. Don’t tell the A&R guy he doesn’t know true art when he sees it. Don’t scream at your booking agent who couldn’t get you into that big concert, or the venue that didn’t plug the show to your liking. Doing this doesn’t show them that you are passionate about your music – it reveals that you aren’t a professional and can’t keep your cool. It also potentially burns a bridge – and as an artist, that’s not something you can afford.
Be gracious and grateful for their time. There’s no need to be a brown-noser, but sincerely thank them for taking the time to listen, booking you for the gig, etc. Ask if they’d be willing to listen to more of your stuff in the future. It’s also not a bad idea to *politely* ask what they think you can improve upon. But don’t ask if you’re not ready to accept the answer graciously (even if you disagree).
Don’t Be Negative
A friend of mine uses a phrase that applies pretty well here: “Don’t throw rocks at the parade you want to be in.” I see a lot of frustrated musicians and songwriters who rail at everything from the industry, to the kind of music played on the radio, to politics…you name it. You’ll hear them complain about how nobody today has any real talent, or music today sucks, or complain about perceived favoritism in the industry. Not only does it turn off potential co-writers, bandmates, and friends, it turns off industry people as well. If you walk around with a chip on your shoulder and angry at the world, nobody will want anything to do with you. Being negative also affects your art – I’ve never been able to create anything worthwhile in an angry, cynical mood.
This is a bigger task than the others, but try to pay attention to what you’re thinking and saying. Are you constantly complaining about how things aren’t going right for you? Try to rephrase your thoughts and words to be more positive. Consider mindfulness or meditation. Walking through a park can sometimes help, or reading a good book. Try to find things throughout the week that you’re grateful for, or happy about. Slowly, your negative attitude will start to lose its grip.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, these are some of the most common reasons musicians find their careers at a standstill. We all have shortfalls and things we need to work on, but take a minute to reflect. Could any of these relate to you? If so, consider changing course. It can only help your career.
Daniel Reifsnyder is a Nashville-based Grammy nominated songwriter, having started his musical journey at the age of 3. Throughout his career, he has had the honor of working with the likes of Michael Jackson and Little Richard among many others. He is a regular contributor to several music related blogs, including his own.