One of the awesome things about running my website, hosting my podcast, interviewing people in the music industry and so on, is that I get to keep learning about the music industry. In many ways, I selfishly run my business as much for my own benefit, as for my readers and subscribers. I want to learn as much as possible about the music industry, and what makes the industry tick, as possible so that I can continue to learn, grow and move forward. I want to get close to people in the industry so I can learn from them and potentially work with them.
Although I’m doing this in many ways for my own benefit, I’m also more than happy to share what I learn along the way via my blogs, podcasts, Youtube videos and so forth, because I also want to serve the community. Why? Why would I want to “serve” musicians and a community comprised of people that, for the most part, I don’t even know?
One of my biggest insights over the last few years and after interviewing and working with hundreds of musicians is the idea of shifting to a mindset of service, as opposed to a mindset of “what’s in it for me”. This is a theme that has come up, in a variety of ways, over and over again, in different conversations I’ve had, different podcasts I’ve done and in webinars I’ve hosted. It’s a powerful mindset shift and in this article, I’m going to explore different ways you can apply this mindset to your music licensing and music business journey and explain why it’s so effective.
First, let’s state the obvious. You want to achieve your goals. I get that. It’s totally normal and understandable. We’re all looking out for ourselves. We all have our own needs to meet. We all have to look out for #1. So, none of what I’m about to explain is an attempt to get you to deny that. In fact, I would say that if you’re not more concerned with your needs than those of others there might be something wrong with you. That’s right. I said it. I don’t buy into this whole idea of putting others needs before yours. That sounds a little masochistic to me. How can you actually be of service to others if you’re denying your own needs and goals? How can you be effective in the world if you’re denying your very real and important drives to make your mark on the world? How can you actually be happy and at peace if you’re putting yourself last?
I have a slightly different take on the whole be of service to others mindset that you may have not heard before. I think your needs and goals are actually the most important thing to you. They’re numero uno. But, here’s the catch, the same applies to EVERYONE else you’re working with, trying to work with, networking with, etc.
We all have our own needs and goals, and they are the most important thing to ALL of us. You want to achieve your goals, and so does everyone else you come in contact with. We’re all a bit narcissistic in this sense. Although, really, it’s not narcissism. I mean, it could be narcissism for some people. But really, it’s just survival. It’s the way we’re wired to experience the world. We view life through our own subjective lens and live life from our own unique vantage point. Of course we’re more concerned with meeting our own goals. Our life is the only life we fully inhabit.
Ok, so how does this apply to the music business and achieving your goals? That’s what you really want to know, right? (See what I did there) Well, here’s the thing, since your goals are the most important thing to you, and since this is true for everyone you come in contact with, doesn’t it make more sense to actually consider the goals and objectives of the person or people you’re coming in contact with, first and foremost, if you’re trying to get something from them (help, attention, feedback, etc)?
Wouldn’t it actually be more effective, in terms of making a good impression, to approach someone with the mindset of how can I help you or “serve” you, as opposed to “what can you do for me”? Think about it. Since we’re all basically, on a fundamental level, looking out for ourselves, wouldn’t it be more powerful to start by addressing this base need in those you’re interacting with?
Wouldn’t someone be more willing to help us, if we’re first willing to help them? Wouldn’t people be more willing to want to work with us if we can demonstrate we want to help them achieve their goals? Put yourself in their shoes, aren’t you more likely to want to help someone who has helped you? Can you see how in the long run, by helping others reach their goals, you’d be in a better position to achieve your own goals? My experience, and the experience of dozens of other professional musicians I’ve talked to is a resounding yes to all of the above.
I realize this can sound sort of calculated and methodical. Aren’t we still being narcissistic and self-centered if we’re helping someone with the expectation they help us in return? Maybe. I don’t think it really matters though. It only seems calculated when you analyze it as I’m doing in this article. When you put this into practice, it feels like the most natural and organic thing in the world. It’s just the way the world and human interactions work.
Social psychologists actually have a term for this. I’m not just making this stuff up. Social psychologists refer to the impulse to help others that first help you as “The Law Of Reciprocity”, or the “norm” of reciprocity.
In social psychology, reciprocity is a social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. As a social construct, reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much more nasty and even brutal.
Reciprocity makes it possible to build continuing relationships and exchanges. Fukuyama  states that “If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must coexist within certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning” (p. 11). He goes on to say “Law, contract, and economic rationality and prosperity…. must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust…. The latter are not anachronisms in a modern society but rather the sine qua non of the latter’s success” (p. 11) According to the sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1960), this norm is nearly universal, and only a few members of society—the very young, the sick, or the old—are exempt from it.
So, as you can see, this isn’t just anecdotal evidence from a few different people I’ve talked to. This is a principle of social psychology that has been studied and documented and is in fact a universal principle.
Let’s take a look at a few different situations, hypothetical and actual examples from my own life, to see how this principle can be applied:
Scenario 1 – Let’s say you approach pitching your music the way most musicians do. You have a batch of songs you’ve poured your heart and soul into and you understandably want to get them heard, make money from them etc. So, not quite knowing what to do or who to approach, you start blindly emailing anyone and everyone you can think of trying to get them to pay attention and listen. You basically say something like, “look at me!”. “I made this awesome music. Check it out!”. Messages like this tend to be ineffective, because you’re basically doing what everyone else is doing. You’re not really taking into account the law of reciprocity. You’re not really thinking about how you can be helpful to the person you’re contacting. These sorts of messages are all about you, and what you want. Now, granted, if you have amazing music and by chance, someone actually clicked on your link, or opened your mp3, a message like this could work every once in a while. Sometimes we just get lucky and happen to approach someone at the right time, with the right song and the stars align. It could happen. It probably happens every once in a while. But what would be a more effective approach? Let’s look at scenario 2.
Scenario 2 – Instead of just blindly throwing your music against the proverbial wall and hoping someone likes it, let’s approach someone through the lens of reciprocity. What if instead of just randomly hitting people up with random messages promoting your music, you instead actually put a little effort and thought into how you can uniquely contribute to the needs and goals of those you’re contacting.
How? Well, this does take a little work and effort, but it’s worth it. Instead of just sending the same copy and paste email over and over to anyone and everyone, take the time to research those you’re contacting. Try and figure out as much as you can about whoever you’re contacting, before you contact them. Look for ways you can contribute to their goals and mission, with your talents. Research the projects they’ve worked on and are working on (when possible) to determine how you could potentially help out. Do you have music that is relevant to the types of projects they work on? Is your music a good fit overall for the places you’re pitching to?
These types of questions are surprisingly overlooked by most musicians. Most musicians aren’t thinking through the lens of how they can be of service and contribute. Most musicians are thinking of themselves and their music. Again, this is understandable. I get it. But can you see how the second approach would be much more effective and powerful?
Real Life Examples – Think Long Term
The above example is a way the law of reciprocity plays out in the short term in the music industry. Of course, there’s no guarantee that if you approach people this way that they will automatically want to work with you, or like your music. Ultimately it depends on the music you’re making and each the variables of each unique situation. But it will help you get your foot in the door and get your music heard, and that’s a big start.
There’s another way I’ve seen the law of reciprocity play out in the music industry in my own life and that’s simply applying this mindset to all people you work with, over time. Sometimes your actions and goodwill won’t be reciprocated for a long time. You really have to think long term and not be overly concerned about how or when your good deeds will come back to you. But if you approach people this way and adopt this mindset you will see your good deeds come back to you eventually. Call it karma. Call it reciprocity. Call it human nature. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. It works just the same.
For example, I’ve been working closely with two musicians for my member site, HTLYM Premium, Gary Gray and Eddie Grey the last few years. Gary and I have been working together since 2012 and Eddie and I have been working together since 2016. There’s a lot of reciprocity flowing between the three of us. Gary and Eddie have both gone above and beyond to contribute to HTLYM Premium and as a result I feel obliged and more than happy to help them out in return. When I see how much work they’re putting into our website and the community we’ve created I want to “pay them back” out of a sense of gratitude. It just feels like the right thing to do and when they see me return the favor, they continue to contribute, I continue to pay them back, and so on and so forth.
Gary recently hired me to perform guitar on six songs he’s recording for 20th Century Fox and Eddie and I have been collaborating on different projects. I don’t think either of these things would have happened had we not had a history of working together, helping each other out, etc. We all help each other. We’ve created a situation where everyone wins.
And to sum up, that’s really what the “law of reciprocity” is all about. It’s about creating win-win situations. Instead of leading your interactions with people with a what’s in it for me mindset, instead shift to asking how you can those you’re interacting with reach their goals and look for ways to create long term win-win situations. That way, everyone wins.
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side. - Hunter S. Thompson
I’m going to go ahead and just say it. The music business is stupid. If my primary goal was to make money, the music business would probably be the last business I would go into. Think about it. It’s over saturated and filled with a ton of competition, all trying to create a product that consumers, for the most part, aren’t even willing to pay for. Let that sink in. The industry is filled with millions of people all lining up, for the chance to give their product away.
The music business is an industry where artists are convinced, after they’ve given their product away for little or free, to then play gigs for nothing but “exposure”. Exposure for what? To promote our free music. Awesome. Sign me up.
The music business is a business, where even when we do discover a way to monetize our music (ie music licensing) we have to wait up to a year to collect royalties (which may or may not be fairly distributed) and most of the time we aren’t even notified that are music is being used when it’s being used, so we have no accurate way to budget or account for the money we’re earning, until after we’ve received our funds.
The music business is a business where of the money that is generated, only about 12 percent actual flows to the artists (the music creators). https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/music-artists-make-12-percent-from-music-sales-706746/
The music business is a business where only about 0.9% of artists ever actually attain mainstream, commercial success.
The music business is a business where if you do actually “succeed” and “make it” in the traditional sense, statistically the odds are you will likely die an entire 25 years before the general population.
The music business is an industry where you’re much more likely to suffer from fun things like mental illness and substance abuse than the general population. According to a recent study, 73% of musicians report suffering from some type of mental illness. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8509490/mental-illness-independent-musicians-study-73-percent-record-union
Many studies have shown that musicians are much more likely than the general population to struggle with drugs and alcohol:
Ok, so now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you with the cold hard facts about the music business, let’s look at the bright side. Thank God there is a bright side. And what exactly is the bright side in all of this?
Drum Roll Please…..
So why in the hell are any of us still making music? Why am I still making music? Are we all collectively insane? Well, that is a distinct possibility. Musicians are known as being a bit of a crazy breed (literally, see above). But I think you probably already know the answer to why musicians keep making music, despite the difficulties we face in monetizing our “product”. I think you already know why, despite the vast array of challenges we face in making a living out of our passion, why musicians feel the need to continue fighting the good fight. I think you and I both know, why despite everything working against us, and why even though the odds might not be on our side, why we have to keep making music.
Why? Because music isn’t just something we’re doing to try and make a quick buck. Music isn’t some sort of get-rich quick scheme we devised to cash in on the latest fad. Music, if you’re anything at all like me, is more like a calling. It’s something that you feel compelled to do on a deep soul level, in spite of what on the surface may look like a bleak and depressing industry.
For most musicians, we’re not doing this for money, first and foremost. We’re doing this because we have to. We’re doing this because if we didn’t make music, that voice in our head would nag and prod us until we simply had no choice but to pick up our guitar or go to the piano, or whatever our instrument of choice is, and allow ourselves to be a channel for the music that wants to flow through us. That, or jump off a bridge.
And here’s the thing. Despite all the challenges and inevitable setbacks, when things are working, when you’re in the zone and writing and performing music from your heart, it’s magical. There’s nothing quite else like it, that I know of. If you’ve been there, you know it too.
Pursuing a career in music might not be the most logical or pragmatic endeavor. But I think for most musicians, we’re not doing this because it’s a “logical”, or practical thing to do. I’m sure we all realize there are easier and more conventional ways to make money.
Most musicians who go into the music business, especially the ones who keep going year after year, with no tangible form of commercial success, are doing this for one primary reason: they love making music and couldn’t imagine a life where they weren’t able to make music. I would even go as far as saying if you don’t feel that strongly about the music you make, if you don’t feel like you absolutely have to make music, you should probably quit and find something else more productive to do. Seriously. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have the fortitude to carve out a meaningful career if you don’t feel this strongly about the music you make.
But here’s the thing. If you really do have a pure, unrelenting drive to make music, you’ll figure out how to make money from it. Even in our current musical economy. I truly believe that. And I’m living proof that’s true, as our countless other artists I’ve worked with over the years, in licensing and beyond. In over 20 years of making music, I’ve never once been without shelter, or without food. Not even close. Sure, I’ve had to take a few odd jobs here and there to pay the bills, especially when I was starting out. There’s no shame in that. But every year it’s gotten easier, and more lucrative. Every year I get a little more in the flow and more and more opportunities show up. And I’ve found that the more I embrace what it is I really feel called to do and trust that things will unfold smoothly, that’s exactly what happens.
There’s also a lot of positive news coming out about the music business in general as we head into 2020. It’s not all doom and gloom. Things are improving. For example, Global music revenues grew at the fastest rate in more than two decades last year, as the streaming revolution more than made up for the plummeting popularity of CDs.
Rolling Stone recently declared we’ve reached a new “golden age” for up and coming artists, as more and more indie artists are succeeding on platforms like Spotify and there’s a been huge resurgence of indie acts playing small theatres and clubs.
Success in music is about working hard, but it’s also about something much more than that. It’s about getting to know yourself on a deep, spiritual level and going to places that most people don’t have access to and channeling that through your music. When you’re able to do that, people will respond positively to your music and even if for some reason they don’t (they will eventually), the satisfaction you’ll get from accessing those parts of yourself will make it all worthwhile. You’ll also develop a deep inner confidence that transcends things like worrying about money, the more you access the creative, expressive part of yourself. I don’t worry about money anymore because I have faith in myself, the music I make, my ability to be resourceful and at the risk of sounding a little cheesy, life itself.
In a not so subtle way, the path of the professional musician is a spiritual path. Regardless of what your religious beliefs are, your faith and inner resolve will be tested as a musician. So, it’s best to have faith in something. If nothing else, faith in yourself and your ability to rise to the challenge of being a musician, because being a professional musician is challenging in a variety of ways.
But, that’s ok. Confronting and overcoming challenges is what makes us stronger. The more you face and overcome the challenges on your path, the stronger and more resilient you’ll become. As Bruce Lee, who was an artist in his own right, so eloquently stated:
Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.