I’ve known and met a LOT of musicians in the last 20 plus years of working in the music business. If you factor in all the musicians I knew from way back in my Berklee days, to the bands I played in and hung out with in my Chicago days, to the musicians I’ve met and interacted with via my website, I would estimate I’ve met at least 1,000 musicians over the years. That’s a lot of musicians! In fact, it’s a large enough sample size that I think can draw some fairly statistically sound conclusions about musicians and the likelihood of “making it” in the music business.
Of all the musicians I’ve met and interacted with over the years, I know of only one musician who I would describe as having “made it”, for a time. It was actually my former lead singer of a band I played in from 1999 to 2002, Joshua Scott Jones. He moved to Nashville after the band we were in together broke up, formed a country duo called “Steel Magnolia”, went on the CMT reality tv show called “Can You Duet?” with his singing partner in 2009, I believe, and won. First place.
As a result of their exposure on Can You Duet, for a time “Steel Magnolia” was riding high. They had two top 20 country singles. They toured arenas opening for artists like Reba McEntire, Brooks and Dunn and the like. They were nominated for several Country Music Awards. They appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. They were signed to Big Machine Records, the same label as Taylor Swift.
Their success continued for a couple years. Then problems ensued. My former singer, Josh, had drug and alcohol problems that forced him to leave a tour with Steel Magnolia to go into rehab. Problems developed between Josh and his singing partner, Meghan, who he was also dating and engaged to. They ended up breaking up. They were subsequently dropped from their label, Big Machine. They both went their separate ways and although they have both had limited success on their own, neither of them have been able to achieve the success they experienced together, individually.
I can think of one other musician, out of the 1,000 or so that I’ve met over the years that has had a relatively successful career as a songwriter. This particular person, the artist Bleu, that I crossed paths with a bit during my Berklee days, has written songs for a lot of well known artists like The Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez, Hanson and the like. He tried to launch a successful solo career early on, and although immensely talented as a writer and performer, his career never fully took off. He’s opened up for artists like Jon Mayer and Train over the years, and was signed to a subsidiary of Colombia Records, but for reasons I don’t fully understand, it just never quite happened, at least in a major way.
The music business is a fickle business, achieving what most of us would consider “mainstream success” is something most of us will probably never achieve. I don’t say that to discourage you or get you down, it’s just a statistical fact. It’s pretty hard to argue with statistics and facts.
However, I’m also here to say that it doesn’t matter. In fact, I think this whole obsession with trying to “make it” and reach a certain level of notoriety and fame that we associate with success is actually what prevents many of us from ever actually achieving real, sustainable success.
Let me explain…
I think a lot of us, as musicians, have a sort of preconceived idea of what success in the music business looks like, or that we think should look like. Most of us started pursuing our dream of “making it” in the music business at a young age. I was 12 years old when I started playing guitar and daydreaming about becoming a rock star! We often start pursuing music from a fairly naïve, inexperienced place. When I was 12, for example, I loved the idea of being a rock star. Who doesn’t fantasize about things like becoming a rock star or a famous actor or celebrity? These sorts of goals seem to be part of our collective consciousness. Most of us have some version of this fantasy during our adolescent years.
As we grow up and move into adulthood, most people decide to “grow up” and pursue more traditional and stable ways of making a living. Some of us though, decide to go for it and chase our dreams. People like myself, and I’m assuming people like you if you’re reading this. A few more years go by and most of us don’t “make it”, because let’s face it, it turns out to be much harder than we thought it would be and as I’ve already pointed out, statistically it’s simply very unlikely. The odds were against us going into this.
However, maybe if you associate with enough musicians, you see one or two people that actually do, through a combination of talent and being in the right place at the right time, go on to “make it”. Then you think to yourself, it really is possible and so you decide to keep going for it. But, deep down, you feel discouraged that you haven’t gone farther, and you can’t help but to compare yourself to those who seem further down the road than you are.
All this comparing ourselves to other people and wishing we were somewhere else ends up slowing us down. Instead of loving the process of becoming better at our craft, we obsess about why we’re not “bigger” or “more successful” than we are. Instead of falling in love with the journey, we end up hating the fact that our journey is still unfolding. We long for our journey to end, or at least to lead us to a better place. We want to get to our destination already.
What started out as something we loved doing, making music, turns into something we end up despising, trying to “make it”. As we feel the abyss grow between where we are and where we think we should be, we grow resentful. The joy we used to feel when we picked up our guitar, or sit down at the piano, or sing, starts to fade. We start to associate something we were once passionate about with a feeling of failure and negativity.
This is the part of the journey, where most musicians just throw in the towel and resign themselves to the fact that they’ll never “make it”. It just wasn’t in the cards they think. They went for it, they tried, but it didn’t happen when or how they thought it should, so they decide to give up. I know this part of the journey, because I’ve been there.
But there’s another possible realization, one that I eventually reached, which is the realization that you can keep going. You can realize that although time does fly, life is actually pretty long and you still have time, so you get back to focusing on what you can actually control, the effort and dedication you put into your craft. You can realize that for 99.99% of us, there are really only two elements at play that really make a difference that we can actually control and influence; effort and talent.
Just like most businesses don’t unfold in the same way that Facebook or Google did, most artists won’t break onto the scene the same way Justin Beiber or Miley Cyrus did. And that’s ok. Most successful businesses are built on years of blood, sweat and tears. The same is true for most truly successful music careers. Most of us will never be an “overnight success”. Most of us will have to fight for whatever success we attain. To me, this is true success. Success that just luckily falls into your lap isn’t true success, it’s luck. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been very lucky.
This blog post was inspired, in part, by Gary Vaynerchuck and the following video:
If you want an amazing dose of no holds barred, in your face motivation, be sure to check out Gary’s channel. Great stuff!
I often get asked to share more of my music with my readers.
I just finished my newest track, Our Love, a few days ago.
Although my producer Gary and I just completed this one,I actually wrote this song for my girlfriend a few months after we met.
Now, close to two years later, we're still together and I have this song to share with the world.
I feel like I did a pretty good job of capturing the sweetness and innocence of a new relationship in this one.
I also just signed this one to an amazing agency that I'm working with and should have some good news to share about this track soon!
I’ve been having a blast lately connecting with and interviewing so many different people working in different facets of the licensing business for my podcast, Music, Money And Life. It’s one thing to be able to give you my own anecdotal stories and experiences about licensing my own music. But it’s a whole other thing to be able to bring together and interview dozens of people working successfully in different facets of the licensing industry. I feel like I’m able to provide a much broader perspective by bringing so many different people into the conversation.
[By the way, speaking of my podcast, thanks to everyone who has been leaving me positive feedback. Thanks to you, I made it onto the charts as one of the highest rated podcasts in the music category yesterday! I really appreciate everyone who took the time to leave a review.]
By interviewing supervisors, publishers and songwriters all working full time in the business, I’ve been able to get a real “bird’s eye” view of how the business works. The big picture, if you will, of the music licensing industry. The life of a musician can be lonely at times, and one of my main goals with my podcast is to bring as many different people as possible working in the business on to share their stories, so that you can learn from a really wide range of people that work in the industry. So that you’ll get a better perspective on your own journey and hopefully feel a little less isolated and alone.
One of the best ways to learn, is to hear directly from people who are doing what it you want to do. I have some really great guests lined up for future episodes, so be sure to subscribe to my podcast if you haven’t already here:
In today’s post I thought I’d break down 7 key takeaways that I’ve gotten from the last few months of doing my podcast on a weekly basis and networking with a variety of people in the business. These are 7 points that pretty much everyone I’ve interviewed and spoken with has been in agreement on.
1) You can make a full time living, but it’s takes a lot of time and effort – One of the questions I’ve been asking everyone I interview is about the viability of turning music licensing into a career. Is it possible? Feasible? Is it practical to try to make music licensing a full time career? Everyone I’ve spoken with has said more or less the same thing. Yes it’s possible, but it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to get to that point.
Music licensing, most of the people I speak with say, should be approached more like a long term investment. Sort of like a 401k plan for musicians. It’s something that you need to build up over time. You need to approach music licensing like you would investing in the stock market. In other words, think long term and diversify. Write a lot of different songs. Place them in different libraries and with different publishers. Go direct to supervisors if you can. You might get lucky and land a huge placement right away. It could happen. But don’t necessarily count on that happening. Keep writing and pitching and over time the money you make will grow.
2) It’s better to write from the heart than to try and write what you think will work for licensing – Although it’s important to be aware of what works and why in the context of licensing, the overwhelming consensus has been that, at the end of the day, you should just write great songs that are inspired and from the heart. This advice that I’ve gotten, over and over, sort of took me by surprise, in a good way. I hate the idea of trying to force my music into some sort of pre-conceived, pre-determined, homogenized mold. The artist in me cringes at this thought. I went into this business to make art! If I wanted to just create cookie cutter widgets, void of substance and meaning I’d work in a factory or something. So the fact that the majority of people I’ve interviewed, from supervisors to publishers to songwriters, all agree that as songwriters we should, first and foremost, strive to write great, inspired music gives me hope.
Of course, you should still pay attention to things like lyrics and arrangement and make sure they’re not too far out of the realm of what works for licensing. You still need to consider the way in which your songs will be used, if and when they’re licensed. But don’t do this at the expense of the music you’re creating. Don’t forego writing a great song too simply try and make it fit the music licensing mold. Music supervisors are music fans. They’re drawn to the music business because, for the most part, they love music. Don’t forget this when you’re creating music you plan to pitch for licensing opportunities.
3) It takes a lot of pitching and submitting your music to land placements - The music business is competitive. There is a lot of music being pitched. I spoke with one prominent music supervisor who told me that she gets as many as 1,000 submissions a day! Many supervisors simply don’t have time to listen to everything that is being sent to them. Your job as a songwriter, is to rise above this noise and competition and get your music heard. Going through libraries and publishers is a good way to do this, as they can help you do the job of pitching and finding out about projects. They’ll take a cut of what you make of course, but it’s well worth it in my experience to have the extra help.
You can go directly to music supervisors as well and if you catch them at the right time, with the right track they might be open to it. In my experience, supervisors draw from a lot of different sources to meet their music needs and many are open to working directly with artists when it makes sense to do so.
Whatever route you go, if you want to do this at serious level, you need to devote considerable time to pitching your music and finding out about projects. Most writers that do this full time, devote at least two to three days to doing nothing but pitching. It really is where the true work comes in when it comes to landing placements. I wish there was an easier way, but the consensus is that to be successful at licensing, you need to keep pitching and networking on a regular basis.
4) You have to approach this like a job if you want to be successful – I think this piece of advice applies to any aspect of the music industry. You have to approach this like a job or business if you want this to be your job. Songwriters that make a full time living doing this, work full time hours! I think what Sam Beam, aka Iron And Wine, said about the music business sums it up, “if you treat music like a job, they’ll pay you like it’s a job”.
Apply this mindset to everything you do in terms of being a musician. Set up regular hours to write and record music. Have a set schedule you adhere to when you’re pitching music. Be consistent. There are a lot of musicians out there, but in terms of musicians that are really going for this in a serious way, it’s a much smaller pool.
5) You need to have thick skin for this business – This probably comes as no surprise, but the music business is really hard. It’s competitive. You will be rejected, most likely a lot. Don’t even pay attention to the rejection. Keep making music. Keep improving your music and keep pitching your music. If you’re passionate and motivated, eventually you’ll win other people over.
Of course, listen to the feedback you get, if you send your tracks to 20 people and they all say that your vocals are off key, take note and work on improving that. We all have things to improve. But, music isn’t an exact science. What one music supervisors hates, another might love. That’s why I don’t pay too much attention to criticism or rejection in general, unless it points to something specific that I hear over and over. There’s a difference between someone just not feeling a track and someone not liking it for specific reasons. If you know deep down you’re writing and recording great songs, keep pitching them until you find others that agree.
6) There are no guarantees when it comes to licensing, until a track is actually licensed - At the end of the day, there are no guarantees in this business until a song is actually licensed. You might find ten publishers who love your tracks and they all pitch them to no avail. It happens. Until a specific supervisor wants to use your track for a specific project and the song has been synced, it’s all speculation. Don’t let this discourage you, but also don’t forget this reality of the industry.
This is why the ongoing pitching of your material is so important if you want to approach this like a career. You never really know if something is going to happen, until it happens. Unless you are on staff for a network or hired by a production company to write music on a salaried basis, you’re always going to be looking for the next project and the next place to license your tracks. Of course, you’ll be building up residual income too, as some of your tracks will likely be used repeatedly and in different projects over time. But for most writers that are doing this on a freelance basis, in other words, most of us, the pitching never really stops.
7) You might decide this isn’t for you, and that’s ok - With all this talk about competition, rejection and how hard licensing is, you might come to the conclusion that this simply isn’t for you and that’s ok too. I feel like the only real reason to go into the music business in general is because you absolutely love making music more than anything else. If you don’t have that sort of intense passion for making music, than it really doesn’t make much sense as a career path. I believe success is possible for all of us, but if you don’t have an innate sense of passion for music, it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to push through the challenges.
Music, to me, is a calling. It’s almost a religious like calling. Any money and success I may happen to attain is really just a byproduct of my desire to get my music out into the world and have it heard. That’s really what drives me more than anything. At the end of the day, I don’t really care if my music is played in the background of a soap opera or a reality tv show. It’s nice when it happens, but more than anything I just love playing music and you know, I have to like eat and pay bills.
In my recent podcast with Emmy Award winning songwriter Michele Vice-Maslin, who has had over 5,000 placements in tv shows, films and ads, Michele stated that she works 15 to 16 hours a day, six days a week and takes Sundays off. I don’t know if Michele works this schedule every week, or if she was simply giving me an idea of how often she sometimes works to achieve the level of success she’s achieved. Michele is incredibly accomplished as a songwriter and in the world of licensing and I’m not surprised to hear how much work goes into her career.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the podcast I did with Michele, it’s one of my best yet.
Our conversation really got me thinking though about just how much work being a successful musician in 2017 requires. Michele also said in our interview that on average, she lands one placement for every thousand pitches she makes. In the last 25 years she’s had over 5,000 placements. That’s a lot of time spent pitching music!
Michele said in our interview that being a musician is so hard that she’s known a lot of musicians over the years that have quit and gone on to other careers that are less competitive and offer more stability. I’ve known plenty of aspiring musicians over the years as well that have changed career paths and pursued more conventional ways of making a living. Being a musician isn’t for everybody and if the pain of trying to make a music career happen outweighs the joy of being a musician for a sustained period of time, there’s no shame in making a decision to do something else in order to lead a more balanced, stable life.
But, how do you know when the pain you’re experiencing is simply a temporary setback that can be overcome, compared to knowing when you’re simply on the wrong track and no amount of goal setting or hard work will get you to where you want to be?
Is there such a thing as a goal that is simply too hard to attain because the insane level of work and effort required to achieve it simply isn’t worth it? Obviously we can’t all do anything we want to do. For example, I’m pretty sure at my age and with my lack of athletic prowess, I could never become a professional football player. As much as motivational speakers like to tell us we can all do anything we set our minds to and that if we can dream it we can do it, this simply isn’t true. Some goals are simply out of reach.
Knowing this, how can we distinguish between when we’re giving something up because we’re just too lazy or lack ambition, compared to quitting something because, despite our best effort, it’s simply not happening and we feel miserable as a result? In other words, how do we know when to quit something vs. when to continue the path we’re on and keep going for it?
There’s actually a great book about this exact subject that I read recently called “The Dip” by Seth Godin. It’s a short, simple book that breaks down when we should quit something that simply isn’t working for us versus when we should plow through the pain and setbacks we will inevitably confront on our journey to success.
One of the key points of the book is that contrary to popular opinion, quitting the right things at the right time is actually one of the keys to achieving success. To put it another way, if you stay on the wrong path long enough, you can actually prevent yourself from achieving success, since you’re spending time and energy doing something that you’re probably never going to be successful doing. In other words, there is an opportunity cost to our decisions. Whenever we choose one path, by default we’re giving up all the other paths we could have taken. We need to choose wisely.
The title of the book, “The Dip”, refers to a phenomenon that anyone who embarks on any sort of meaningful and worthwhile endeavor will experience at some point. Whether you’re starting a band, starting a company, launching a website, embarking on a solo career or fill in the blank and insert worthwhile objective here, you will experience “the dip”. The dip is when things get hard. The dip is when the fun and excitement of doing something inevitably wears off, but you still haven’t quite mastered what you’re pursuing and achieved the success you’re after. The dip is when some people make the correct decision to quit and it’s when others bail prematurely and probably could have had success had they endured this period a little longer. The trick is knowing what to do when this period sets in. Should you stay or should you go?
Knowing whether or not to quit really depends on whether or not you have what it takes to make it through this “dip” period. If you’re trying to do something meaningful and worthwhile, it’s going to inevitably get hard at some point. This period is the barrier to entry that prevents others from achieving the success you’re after. As Godin states in The Dip, “It’s human nature to quit when it hurts. But it’s that reflex that creates scarcity.” Of course scarcity creates value. The more scarce something is, the more valuable it’s perceived to be. If what you wanted to accomplish was easy, everyone would do it. If everyone could do it, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
So how do you know when to quit something you’ve started compared to knowing when to continue and push through the painful period of struggle that inevitably comes? Godin sums it up this way, “The decision to quit or not is a simple evaluation: Is the pain of the Dip worth the benefit of the light at the end of the tunnel?”
Should You Quit Music?
Seth Godin’s book, The Dip, provides some great things to think about and contemplate as it relates to pursuing worthwhile goals, like a career in music. However, real life isn’t always as clear cut as authors like Godin like to make it out to be. We don’t always know what lies on the other side of our efforts. How do we really know if we push through the painful difficult periods that success will actually be waiting for us on the other side? How long should we wait until we move on to something different? How can we tell when we’re on the right track?
These aren’t easy questions to answer and there aren’t always clear cut ways to determine what the right choice is, but one of the ways we can get a sense of whether we’re on the right path is to look at others who have come before us. How long did it take them? What did their trajectory to success look like? This isn’t a perfect barometer of course, but as Tony Robbins has stated, “success leaves clues”.
This is one of the main reasons I do my podcast and interview different people in the music business on a weekly basis. I want to know their stories. I want to know what it really takes to succeed. Everyone I interview has a different story. No two paths are exactly like. That’s one of the exciting, albeit challenging, things about the music business. There is no formula. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. However, if you speak to enough people in the industry that are succeeding on any sort of significant level, you start to see some commonalities. There are places where most success stories overlap.
One of the common themes that ties all the success stories together of people I’ve interviewed over the last few years is that they both really, really love making music and they’re willing to work extremely hard to achieve their goals. Like crazy hard. Succeeding doesn’t mean that every moment of every day is filled with ecstasy and bliss. I doubt this is ever the case for even the most “successful” musicians. But what it does mean, is that the moments of elation and joy you do experience, at some point, make the pain and frustration of the dip worthwhile. In other words, you’re willing to pay the price that success inevitably costs because it’s worth it. If the price isn’t worth it, then why pay it?
An Alternative To Quitting: Pivoting
In the past I’ve considered quitting music when I was in a fairly severe dip, when things didn’t seem to be working out at all. This period was in my early thirties, after a decade or so spent playing in bands that didn’t go very far, or at least didn’t go as far as I would have liked. I felt burnt out and frustrated and for a time I considered quitting music altogether.
Instead of quitting though, I modified my course. I decided to continue playing and pursuing music, but at the same time I incorporated some “safety nets” into my plan. I developed a few different revenue streams all connected to playing and writing music, and simply continued my path as a songwriter and performing musician. This modification in my approach to music, freed me up to pursue music in a way that isn’t quite so intense and anxiety inducing. It lowered the price I had to pay, if you will.
These days I make a good portion of my income directly from music. I perform regularly. I have fairly stable licensing income. I also make money from my various websites and courses. Together, these different income streams provide a level of security that allows me to continue to make music from a place of peace and calm.
Have I “made it”? I guess that depends on how you define making it. In a way I feel like I have, in the sense that I support myself doing things that, for the most part, I enjoy doing. But I still have much larger goals that I’m chasing, so in that sense, I still have a long way to go. And, I’m ok with that. Part of the fun is the journey, and as long as I’m able to provide for myself and meet my needs, I’m happy to keep fighting the good fight.
I’ll never quit music, because I’ve set my life up in a way where I’m not forced to make an all or nothing decision. But I also have enough of a vested interest in my continued success as it relates to my own music career and music business career, that I’m highly motivated to keep going and keep pushing things. This balance works out great for me. I know that no matter what, I’ll figure out a way to continue to provide for myself and my loved ones, but I also know that I can’t get too complacent and give up on my dreams and goals. To a large extent, my business and income depend on continuing to push myself and others, to find continued success.
What about you? How do you balance pursuing and/or growing your career in music and maintain your sanity and happiness? Are you experiencing a dip now or in the past? And if it was in the past, how did you overcome it? How are you able to push through your hardest moments? Where do you draw inspiration from when things get tough?
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.