Openness and curiosity are important positive traits for serious musicians to have. However, saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way is a bad idea. Whether you make music full-time for your job or during every spare moment you can, you have a limited amount of resources and time as a musician. Committing your time and attention to the wrong things in music means missing out on the things that will actually make a difference in your career. Here are five examples of things you should probably say no to in music:
Getting paid with exposure
The “We can’t afford to pay you to play, but there will be lots of people at the show” line is one musicians of all experience levels get from time to time. The idea is that the show you’re being asked to play is sure to be filled with so many people that you’ll miss out on a huge opportunity to make new fans if you say no. But here’s the thing: playing for exposure is almost always a bad idea. If there really are lots of people expected to show up, why can’t the venue organizers or promoters afford to pay the performing artists? Someone is going to make money, and it won’t be you. This issue is less about money and more about fairness. Music is constantly being devalued by situations like this one, so your refusal to play for free will help retain your dignity by demanding compensation and expressing the importance of what you do.
Collaborations you’re not passionate about
Your time is your most valuable asset as a musician. Wasting it by working on projects that don’t challenge your creativity or get you closer to your goals means squandering your most important resource. Whether it’s performing on an album or joining a new band, collaborations take up tons of energy and time away from the projects you actually care about. So while it might feel uncomfortable to say no in the short term, you’ll end up saving yourself a world of frustration and wasted time in the long run. Your talent is too important to waste on things your heart just isn’t into, so focus on doing what you love and politely say no to everything else.
Touring without benefits
It’s a constant temptation for some bands to want to hit the road for however long it takes to find success. Unfortunately, this idea is as romantic as it is unrealistic for most bands. If you’re not an established artist, the shows you’ll land outside of your hometown will probably be bad–– performing at a strip mall bar at 1AM on a Sunday night to an empty room or playing a couple of songs before a comedy open mic, for example. Don’t get me wrong. These sorts of tours build experience and character for musicians. But there comes a point where you’re far better off staying home and making the best music you can instead of spending night after night playing to empty rooms. Touring not only keeps you away from the studio, but also from relationships, paying jobs, and stability. If you’re not earning new fans, money, or experience, it’s time to be more discerning when it comes to touring.
Getting into debt
A countless number of talented artists have gotten into debt over their music. Many of these artists have had to put their musical ambitions on hold or quit making music altogether because their financial problems are so bad. To avoid the same problems, you’ll need to avoid financial debt. Sure, it sounds nice in the short-term to fund your next album with a high-interest credit card, hop in your van and tour for the next year, but is it realistic? Can you pay your bills with streaming revenue, merchandise sales, and the money you make at shows every night? Even if you’re experiencing some success with your music, the answer is probably going to be no. We’re living in a special time where it’s never been more affordable to make and share music. You don’t need to get into debt to be a serious musician, but it’s still easy to do. Be careful, be discerning, and say no when you have to.
Letting views, streams, and follows determine your worth as a musician
Whether you’re a famous pop star or an ambitious artist just starting out, making music today means having access to a constant stream of information associated with how well your songs perform online. Streams, views, downloads, playlist adds––these are just a few of the metrics offered by streaming platforms and music distributors. It’s tempting to obsess over these numbers, but you shouldn’t. Your most popular song isn’t necessarily your best song. And if your music hasn’t found an audience yet, it doesn’t mean your songs aren’t good. As an artist, you alone get to decide your worth. Letting algorithms define your value is over simplistic, superficial, and inaccurate. While these metrics can be helpful for things like deciding where to tour or focus radio campaign efforts, the numbers can’t tell you anything about your potential or creative merit. So say no the next time you’re tempted to let the numbers shape your worth as an artist.
If you’re inexperienced in music, you might want to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. But learning to turn down the things that don’t get you closer to your creative and professional goals is an important skill for an artist.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.