Earlier this year I had one of the best single months financially I’ve had in my adult life. Multiple things were firing on all cylinders. I got a big fat licensing check. My business was rocking. I was making good money from performing live. Money from a few different endeavors I invested in started to come in. Things were going so well that I decided on a whim to take my girlfriend on vacation for a week in the Caribbean. We spent the week surfing, eating out, drinking beer, watching movies, reading and relaxing. It was a magical week. One of the best weeks I’ve had in a long time. Maybe ever. You ever have a week like that? Where everything just seems to line up.
The best thing about this week was I felt like it was well deserved since I had spent several months, and really several years, leading up to this and planting all the seeds that came to fruition. I didn’t just go drink beer on a beach. I worked really hard and then went and drank beer on a beach. There’s a distinct difference in feeling between the two. The latter being much more rewarding.
In contrast to earlier this year, last month was one of the slowest months I’ve had in a long time. By this point, I’m used to the ups and downs and the highs and lows of being a self-employed musician/entrepreneur. It comes with the territory. In fact, I’ve been through this cycle of things going up and down so long, that it no longer really fazes me the way it used to. Of course, I prefer it when things are going “well”. I’d prefer to have more money than less. I’d prefer to sell more songs than fewer songs. I prefer being up to being down. But these ups and downs no longer really stress me out anymore, at least not nearly as much. I don’t even look at “down” periods anymore as failing. It’s just part of the cycle of life.
I haven’t had a boss in ten years. I’m used to dealing with the stress and uncertainty of being a self-employed musician at this point. However, it used to really get to me. I used to sort of freak out and panic a little (ok, a lot) whenever things took a turn for the worse. It took me years to build up enough confidence in myself and my endeavors to be able to relax and ride out the down periods. I had to live through the periods of things going up and then down and then up again, enough times, to realize that it’s really just the nature of life. Especially for the self-employed among us. Things fluctuate.
So, I think one of the first steps to dealing with “failure” in life is to step back and really think about what it means to “fail”. Last month was really slow in terms of both licensing music and my businesses. Through some sort of strange confluence of cosmic events, everything just seemed to slow down last month. Interestingly, I went back and looked at my records, and last June more or less the same thing happened. So, this could just be a seasonal thing. Or perhaps the warmer weather makes me a bit less motivated. Either way, when things slow down, for whatever reason, it gets my attention. But I don’t panic anymore, and I don’t take it personally.
After all, did I “fail” because I had a month that was slower than previous months? Of course not, after all I didn’t make nothing. I still was able to pay my bills. I just wasn’t as successful as other periods. Both success and failure are relative.
The other thing to realize, is that even when you do “fail”, by your own standards, it’s still just a stepping stone to future success, if you keep moving forward. Like I said, the first part of the year was one of the best periods I’ve had in business and music, and just things in general, in a long time. But this “success” was really the result of having lived through a lot of periods of “failing”. I had to try a lot of different things and fail many times in the process, in order to arrive at what worked. You have to “fail”, in order to succeed. In fact, you could really just look at your temporary failures as a part of the larger process that leads to success.
None of us are hitting home runs 100 percent of the time. We all have ups and downs in life. Stay strong during the periods where you feel like you’re “failing” and stay humble and grateful during the periods you feel like you’re on top.
In the past, whenever things weren’t going the way I wanted and I would start to get stressed, I would imagine a time where I had the financial stability I craved and the external success I imagined I was working towards. Only then, I thought, would I be able to experience the sort of mental and emotional stability I thought having more money would bring me. And don’t get me wrong, having more money does bring a sense of relief and a sense of freedom, especially if you’ve been stressed about not having enough.
However, the real power, I would eventually learn, isn’t so much in trying to control the size of my bank account. The real power is in controlling my reaction to the events that occur on a day to day, week to week and month to month basis that are outside my control. After all, this is the only thing we can really control.
Because, at the end of the day, we can’t entirely control our external reality. Sometimes things just happen, things outside of our control that effect both our bottom line and our sense of how “successful” we feel. Sometimes we lose clients. Sometimes we lose partners. Sometimes opportunities come and go. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t go the way we want them to.
There are few things you can always count on in life. But you can always count on yourself.
Stay calm and keep hustling.
There are a lot of different niches within the niche of music licensing. There’s “stock” music, “production” music, artist music, trailer music, ad music, video game music and more. How do you know where to start? What kind of music should you be writing if you’re new to licensing?
When you’re first starting out, if you’re not writing music for a specific person or a specific project, you’ll most likely just be writing the kind of music you’re inspired to write and the styles of music you’re good at. That’s how I started. I wrote a batch of pop/rock songs and sent them to the person who ended up becoming my publisher. Of the initial batch of four songs I wrote, my publisher loved one of them. I signed one track, she pitched it to a TV Show and within about three weeks I landed my first placement.
Over time, as I figured out the needs of my publisher’s clients, I was able to write more and more music that worked for the places and projects my publisher pitched to. A lot of the songs I wrote were simply songs that I was inspired to write, that I intuitively felt would work. Other songs were songs that I wrote “on spec”. Meaning my publisher would give me specific assignments and specific music requests, based on what she needed and thought I would be a good fit for, that I would create music for specifically.
Over the years, I’ve written Goth Rock, Punk Rock, Singer/Songwriter, Christmas Music, Folk Music, Ad Music and more, all on spec. A lot of these tracks have gone on to be placed, and many of them are still being licensed frequently. By anticipating the needs of publishers and supervisors and creating music that you know they are specifically looking for, you increase the odds of your music being used substantially. If you just write a song you just feel like writing, and then pitch it after the fact, you may or may not find a home for it, depending on a wide range of factors, like the style of the song, the subject matter, the mood of the song and of course, the needs of those you’re pitching music to.
When you write music on spec, you’ll know that there’s an actual need for the kind of music you’re writing. Right off the bat, your likelihood of licensing your music goes up, because there’s an actual need and demand for the music you’re writing. You’re not just shooting in the dark. When you’re not writing for a specific project, it’s more of a crap-shoot in terms of if and when the music ends up being synced. You can of course anticipate the general types of situations and themes that tend to come up within the context of licensing, but how these songs end up being used is anyone’s guess.
These days, I write a lot of music. I write music almost every day. I write music that I feel like writing and I’m inspired to write, and I also write music for specific projects, specific publishers and so on, whenever I’m asked to write something that’s in my wheelhouse. I like the challenge of being given a specific theme, style or topic and then trying to get inspired around a specific idea. It’s different than they way my creative process tends to work by default.
Normally, when I sit down to write a song, I pick up my guitar and start strumming a few chords. Once I lock into a chord progression I like, normally I’ll start developing a melody to fit the chord progression I’ve come up with. Then, after I’ve established a chord progression and melody, if it’s a vocal song, the lyrics will be the last to come. Usually the lyric is the most challenging part for me. I’ll typically just write a few “dummy” lyrics that work rhythmically, and then once I figure out what the song is actually about, I’ll start crafting what hopefully, in the end is a poetic and impactful lyric.
When I’m given a specific topic and/or title for a song, it changes the creative process substantially. Instead of embarking on a journey of discovering what a song is about, and letting the idea and lyrics come to me, after the music is written, I’m starting with a theme and/or lyric suggestion and then writing music to fit that. It’s more or less turning the way I tend to write songs on its head. It’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just different. The challenge is making sure these songs don’t sound forced or contrived.
Here’s an example of a song I just finished that I wrote on spec for my publisher. This song was written based on a conversation my publisher had with my producer and I regarding the types of songs I’ve been placing the most through her, and the types of songs she needs going forward. It’s a good idea to touch base with the publishers and libraries you write music for, every few months or so, and try to get a feel for their needs, what’s working, what’s not working and so on.
Here were the notes from the call, that we based the following song on:
"I'm looking for songs from Aaron that have to do with first love, first date, spark of romance, but not love yet."
"Something About You - that would be a good working title. Perfect first date song. Have him write a song called Something About You. People are still strangers wanting to get to know each other. First spark. Forward motion, earthy, acoustic, like Headed Home."
"Something good for Hallmark, Valentine's Day, any new romance or relationship."
So, based on this conversation, and the notes we had, I got to work writing a song called “Something About You”. This particular song took me a little longer to write than what’s usual for me. I spent a good week or so fleshing out the chords and lyrics. I felt a bit stumped at first, but it ended up being one of my favorite, recent songs of mine.
It’s a song I probably would have never written had I not been given the “assignment”. That’s the fun of writing music on spec, you end up with music in your catalog you never would have created had you been left to your own devices. Sometimes the results are less than spectacular and other times you end up surprising yourself, by writing a song you never knew you had in you.
Without further adieu, here’s my latest track, “Something About You”. We just finished this one a few days ago, so no word yet on where it will be used. This track, as usual, was produced and engineered by Gary Gray, and also features harmony vocals by Chicago based musician “MJ”.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.