In the music industry, it can sometimes feel like you’re going it alone. There’s so many tasks to be done, decisions to be made, and moves to make, and oftentimes it falls on you to make it all happen. Sometimes this is due to lack of budget, but oftentimes it’s due to our need to feel in control, to handle everything in our own way. What this ends up doing is alienating those that want to help us and pushing us into burnout zone. Not good.
The simple truth is that you can’t be successful on your own. No one has ever reached the top without the help, influence, and guidance of others. In fact, if you ask most successful people how they got where they are, they’ll attribute a good chunk of it to a mentor who took them under their wing in the early days. Someone who helped them understand how the business worked, guided them in how to make their decisions, introduced them to others in the field, and just generally taught them what they know, so that they could focus on building, growing, and sustaining their business rather than wasting years struggling to figure it out on their own.
So how do you find a mentor?
Defining the types of mentors
There’s two types of mentors. Both are people you look up to, whose work and career you respect, and who you know you’d be lucky to learn from. Sometimes it’s possible to speak to that mentor one on one, to get in front of them, shadow them, and take them to regular lunches to pick their brain, while others simply aren’t available for the same level of one on one interaction. There’s value in finding both.
Even if you can’t speak to someone one on one, there’s still a lot you can learn from them. By perusing their website and their social media, signing up for their newsletters, and reading past interviews they’ve done, you’ll get a feel for how they operate their career, and what you can take from that. It’s not just what they do but how and why that you need to pay attention to. With enough research, you’ll begin to put together a formula and inspiration for your own career.
Then there’s in person mentors. For you introverts out there, this is going to be the scarier option, but a powerful one. These are the people you can talk to one on one in a highly individualized way. I don’t need to tell you why that’s extremely valuable!
Maybe their schedule only allows for a few emails or calls here and there, or maybe they’re interested in a long-term mentorship where you do weekly lunches or monthly coffee dates. (Generally, the latter is something that would unfold naturally, rather than being agreed upon up front) These are some of the most valuable mentors to have—to be able to access their knowledge, learn what has and hasn’t worked for them (and why), and tell them your own struggles to get their advice, is invaluable.
So how do you approach your in-person mentor?
First, you have to figure out who you want to have as your mentor. It’s best to have a few people in mind, while being open to suggestions that are put in your path. This way you have somewhere to start.
Remember, you may want to sit down with the head of a major label or a huge artist, but you’re more likely to get in front of someone at a smaller indie label, or an artist who isn’t touring the world yet, but is playing more shows/selling more merch/catching people’s attention at a level slightly higher than you right now. These people will still have a lot of valuable insight to offer, so don’t overlook them.
There’s a few ways to go about approaching them. All of them involve developing a genuine connection. If you can get in front of them at a conference or via a shared group connection, somewhere you can make a lasting impression, go for it. Even better, if you can find a common connection, it’s best to ask that person for an introduction. An intro coming from a trusted source is more likely to get you a response.
However, if none of those are an option there’s a few approaches you can try. I don’t recommend blatantly asking them “Hey, wanna be my mentor?!” but rather easing into it by asking them to coffee or lunch (at their convenience), or if they have a few minutes to jump on a call. For me personally, I’ve done this at conferences, when everyone is in networking/meet and greet mode, and I’ve also used travel as an opportunity to discover people I admire and want to learn from and take them out for coffee. You’d be surprised how often people are willing to spare 45 minutes to talk to you.
The key here is to 1) let them know you truly are genuine, admire what they do, etc and 2) to be realistic in who you approach and how much time they have to offer. Like I said before, aim for someone who is a few years ahead of you in success, rather than someone who is 20 years ahead of you, and you’re more likely to get a response and forge a real, lasting relationship.
What if they say no?
Firstly, don’t be discouraged. Them saying no or not responding is almost certainly not their way of telling you that you and your music/career choices suck. They’re probably just busy, haven’t seen the email, or simply don’t have time in their schedule. Keep approaching new potential mentors, and keep your goals realistic and you’ll land one who says “yes” before you know it.
What if they say yes?
When you do find someone who agrees to chat with you, don’t make them regret it. This means working around their schedule, and knowing what you want to ask/talk about ahead of time so that you’re making the most of your time together. Have a few set questions/directions, but be open to where the conversation goes. Some of the most insightful, inspiring conversations of my career have been with people I never expected, around topics I couldn’t have predicted. Take your time, be diligent, and you’ll have yourself a mentor (or two!) in no time.