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.
Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of musicians from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing over 100 different songwriters, producers, publishers and so on for my podcast and website.
I’ve had the chance to see first-hand what goes into creating numerous successful indie music careers in both licensing and beyond, and although there is a lot of common ground in terms of what contributes to a musician becoming successful in 2019, no two stories are exactly alike. Although hard work, persistence, dedication and an “eye of the tiger”, never give up sort of attitude are shared by all, there are a variety of ways to become successful in a variety of different niches.
One of the keys to success in the modern-day music business is finding your niche. Finding the particular part of the industry that you best fit into and can thrive in. I don’t think anyone can really teach you how to find your niche. It’s something each one of us has to figure out on our own, through trial and error. My niche might not be your niche and vice versa.
It’s sort of like dating. There are lots of different types of people out there, and not everyone fits with everyone else. I tend to click with Latin and Spanish women. Almost all of my serious relationships have been with Latin women. Of course, this doesn’t mean all men are going to click with Latin women. There’s something about my laid-back musician vibe and the carpe diem (seize the day) sort of approach to life that many Latin women possess that seems to work well together. But that’s me. What works for you or someone else is obviously going to be completely different based on personality, tastes, background etc.
I feel like finding your niche in music is similar. Part of finding your niche will obviously be based on your unique background, skill-set and interests. My niche is writing singer/songwriter/indie-folk vocal tracks. That’s what I enjoy doing the most and it’s what I tend to focus on the most. As a result, I’ve had the most success with these types of songs. I’ve had a few other styles placed here and there over the years, but my niche, my bread and butter, has been my own blend of singer/songwriter/indie/folk music.
What’s your niche? Do you know? Are there one or two styles you really excel in? Have you figured out one or two niches within the licensing world that you can focus on and dominate in? Or are you all over the map, not quite sure where you fit in?
If you’re not sure yet, that’s ok too. Part of the journey to success in music involves trial and error, experimenting and trying different things, until you find what best works for you. Sometimes we just stumble onto a niche through dumb luck. For example, when I first got started in music-licensing I stumbled upon the niche of writing music for soap operas by accident. The first publisher I worked with, and still work with to this day, places a lot of music in soap operas. For the first few years of my licensing career, I placed music in soaps exclusively. I wrote music for The Young & The Restless, All My Children and One Life To Live. Eventually I was able to branch out into other shows and projects, commercials and video games. But getting music placed in soaps is surprisingly pretty lucrative and I was able to make great money from this niche alone for several years. I still get music placed in soaps to this day. The Young & The Restless, in particular, use my music frequently.
Check out this Y &R playlist for the current season that features my track, Be On My Mind, for an example of a recent song of mine I’ve used. Track #7 below.
So, one of my niches has been vocal tracks in soap operas. But again, this niche might not work for you. Your music might not work in the context of these shows. Perhaps your music would best work somewhere else, in a completely different niche. This is something you’ll need to explore and figure out.
Here are some examples of a few other niches that writers and composers I work with have discovered.
Royalty Free Music Libraries
I worked with a client recently who informed me they were bringing in an average of 5k a month from just two royalty free music libraries. The libraries are both well known, easy to find royalty free libraries that are both pretty easy to get accepted into. I won’t tell you the exact libraries and give away my clients source of income, but there are plenty of royalty free music libraries to choose from. Just Google “royalty free music libraries” and hundreds of sites will come up.
A lot of writers sort of look down on these types of libraries due to the fact that they sell music so cheaply. I used to have this attitude as well. But, then again, this is a case where it’s more about quantity than quality and although I’m not big on cranking out mediocre tracks just to pay the bills, I’m all for writers figuring out how to support themselves from their music. This particular writer came to me because he was looking to branch out and expand his licensing work int other areas. But, hey, having a consistent 5k a month coming in from royalty free tracks is nothing to scoff at.
I’ve talked about my buddy Chuck Hughes a lot on my blog over the years, because he’s a great example of an artist who has found a successful niche. Chuck and his band “The Hillbilly Hellcats” create very well produced and well-crafted Rockabilly music and Chuck has done a great job at getting tons of placements for his and their music over the years. Over 3,500 placements last time we talked! I think one of the main reasons Chuck has done so well in licensing, apart from the fact that his music is great, is that Chuck’s music addresses a specific niche in terms of genre; rockabilly. Rockabilly might not be the first style that comes to mind when you think of music licensing, but Chuck’s music has been used thousands of times in TV shows and commercials. He's a big fish in a relatively small pond you could say.
Check out my recent conversation with Chuck about his success in licensing here:
My producer, Gary Gray, has discovered a lucrative niche within the licensing world, which is doing re-records for companies like Disney and 20th Century Fox. Gary has been contracted to do multiple re-records of well known, existing songs for use in commercials, tv and films. I’m not sure if I’m at liberty to say how much Gary earns from these projects, but suffice it to say, it’s a very lucrative niche.
I’ve worked with and have created composers with a couple different composer/writers that have specialized in writing music for commercials. This is a great niche if you can break in. Commercials tend to pay more than songs used in TV Shows. In some cases substantially more.
To learn more about this niche, check out my podcast with Michael Lande from Orange Music:
Production / Instrumental Music
Another niche I’ve seen multiple writers excel in is music that could broadly be defined as “production music”, or as Joel Feinberg from De Wolfe music described it on my podcast, “functional music”. Music that serves a function. I’ve worked with multiple writers/composers who have carved out careers in this specific niche, creating background music for use in TV shows. Like royalty free music, this is a case where you need a lot of music for the math to make sense, in terms of creating revenue. The good news is these tracks are much easier to create quickly and efficiently than fully produced vocal tracks with real instruments.
I created a course with a composer who makes a full time living just from Youtube ad revenue alone. Dhruva Aliman is a composer from California who figured out how to generate enough ad revenue from his Youtube videos alone to support himself. He teaches you how to do it here.
I’m sure we’ve all heard about Spotify by now. Although we all know how little Spotify pays per stream, if you get enough streams, it adds up. I’ve worked with several different artists now who have figured out how to generate substantial revenue from Spotify by getting millions of streams.
Check out these recent podcasts for two examples of artists getting millions of streams on Spotify and how they did it:
These are just a few niches to consider. There are many more areas you could look into within the niche of music licensing. Things like creating trailer music, specializing in other specific genres, creating your own music library and so on are all worth exploring.
Ultimately, a big part of success is figuring out what niche or niches you can excel in and doubling down on those. It’s hard to get any real traction in this business if you’re all over the place. It’s sort of like life in general I suppose.
I turned 45 years old a few months ago. Although I still feel more or less the same as I did 20 years ago, and as far as I know I’m still in good health, the truth is that with each passing year, my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber decline. Not that my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber were ever very good. But each passing year, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that my dream of becoming a teen heartthrob/pop star are slowly diminishing.
Jokes and sarcasm aside. Just like you, I’m getting older each passing day, each passing month and each passing year. Let’s talk about what it’s like getting older in the music business and how our age affects our role within the music industry.
First, let’s be honest with ourselves. Becoming a rock or pop star at any age is a one in a million sort of endeavor. The odds of “making it” in the music business arguably get harder as you get older, but it’s not really easy or likely (statistically speaking) at any age. Most musicians don’t become as famous as Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift at any age, and the odds are even more against you as you get older.
So, although the mainstream music business is arguably a very youth and looks oriented business. Most artists never become mainstream at all anyway. Most artists will remain in the realm of “indie” artist throughout their careers. According to my research, only about .4 percent of artists make it into the “mainstream”.
That’s the bad news I guess you could say. But it’s also sort of liberating when you think about it. Screw the mainstream music business is what I’ve always said. Actually, I’ve never said that, but I’m going to start saying it, because, the reality is although “making it” in the music business was always a long shot with the odds stacked against us, making a career out of music isn’t, and it’s something we can do at any age. in many ways it actually gets easier and more likely the older you get and there’s new data coming out that suggests it’s never been a better time to be an “indie” artist.
The Advantage Of Age
The reason age is advantageous in terms of building an “indie” music career is because building a viable music career takes time. Let’s take something like licensing. Licensing, although a competitive industry, is still a totally viable way of making money with your music. The main obstacle in terms of building up income with something like licensing is time. It takes time to create music. It takes time to network and build contacts. It takes time to build up a revenue stream from music that’s sustainable. It can take years to build up a licensing catalog to the point where it generates a sustainable revenue stream and as the years accumulate, you will of course be getting older. I think most musicians who fail to make it in something like licensing, simply give up too soon.
The good news is that, for the most part, no one really cares how old you are when it comes to something like music licensing. No one has ever asked my age when screening my tracks and to the best of my knowledge no one really cares.
Age is also an advantage in terms of simply getting better at the craft of writing and playing music. It takes time to learn and master an instrument. It takes time to excel at songwriting and composition. There’s really no end to growth in either of these endeavors. I feel like I get better at songwriting with each passing year. I have more life experience to draw from. I have more to write about. I have more to say. The same is true in terms of my skill as a guitar player. I continue to improve each year and I feel like I’m playing much better now than I ever have because I’m continually racking up more and more hours as a guitar player.
Also, depending on what style of music you play, age isn’t necessarily a factor in terms of playing music live. For example, I’m really into jambands, blues and jazz, in addition to songwriting. These genres are much less age-centric than mainstream pop and rock. There are plenty of thirty, forty and fifty somethings and beyond, playing live in these genres. Of course, having time and youth on your side never hurts. It’s arguably easier to deal with the stress and overall lifestyle of pursuing a live music career when you’re younger. But don’t discount the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.
In many ways I’m grateful I didn’t go further as a performing musician when I was younger, because I don’t think I was mature enough in my twenties and early thirties to deal with the lifestyle in a healthy way. In retrospect, I could have easily fallen into a very unhealthy lifestyle in terms of things like alcohol and sleep deprivation had I had more “success” when I was younger. Thank God I didn’t.
With age comes experience and wisdom. And although I’m not currently touring, I still perform live an average of once a week and I always make it home at a reasonable time and manage to get in a full nights sleep and wake up refreshed and hydrated, bright eyed and bushy tailed.
My buddy Chuck Hughes from the Hillbilly Hellcats (see previous podcast here) didn’t start touring until he was 45, my age now. Now in his 60s, Chuck was able to carve out a great indie career both touring and licensing his music, and he didn’t even get started touring extensively until he was 45!
One of my favorite guitarists, from one my favorite bands, Nels Cline of Wilco, is 63 years old. Nels didn’t join Wilco until 2004, when he was 48! The music business is filled with examples like this, if you know where to look.
Focus On Building A Career
One of the reasons I’ve focused so extensively on things like licensing and simply becoming a better musician and songwriter, is that I want to focus on things I can control. I don’t need the added pressure of worrying about getting too old hanging over me. It’s hard enough creating a viable music career as it is, without worrying about something that’s inevitable and completely out of my control.
The bottom line: Don’t let something as natural and inevitable as aging deter you from pursuing and doing what you love. I’m a big believer that having things in your life that you’re passionate and fired up about will actually keep you younger and more youthful longer. There’s absolutely no reason to stop doing something like creating and performing music just because you reach a certain age.
It might be too late to become the next Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift, but it’s never too late to keep doing what you love. If you’re still alive, you can still make music.
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 year was 1989. I was a Sophomore in High School, 15 years old, attending “The Chicago Academy For The Arts”. The Chicago Academy For The Arts is Chicago’s version of New York’s Fame. An arts high school where all the students who attend, major in one of four things; Visual Art, Dance, Theater or Music. I went as a music major and it was a magical year for me that in many ways helped shape the person I would become.
In the mornings at the Academy we took our core required classes. English, History, Math and so on. Then, we would break for lunch. It was an “open campus”, so we were allowed to leave the campus for an hour to eat where ever we wanted, which was extremely liberating to my 15 year old self. Then, we would all return and spend the rest of the day taking classes in our chosen field of study. I had guitar lessons, music theory classes, ear training classes and so on. It was an incredibly inspiring and informative year.
When I was at the Academy, I became friends with someone who would become my first songwriting partner, and ultimately a life-long friend, Mike Malone, or as his friends refer to him, MJ. MJ and I would spend countless weekends together making music, during the one year I attended the Chicago Academy For The Arts and for a couple years after. We would hole ourselves up in MJ’s home studio for the weekend and stay up until the wee hours of the morning working on music together. We wrote and collaborated on dozens of songs during this year.
These songwriting weekends were magical times. Music was still relatively new to me at that point. I had only been playing guitar a few years and I was brand new to songwriting. I was filled with a sense of wonder and awe about music that perhaps only someone who had recently discovered music can feel. This was long before the days of worrying about how to make money from music and long before the days of trying to write specific styles that have the greatest chance of “commercial success” and so on. These songwriting weekends were simply about making music for the sheer joy of making music. Nothing else. Sure, we would sometimes fantasize about how rich and famous we would one day become, but ultimately, we were just two friends getting together to share our passion for music in the purest way possible.
After my sophomore year in High School I chose to attend my local public High School where I was living in Kanakee, IL. You see, I lived about 50 miles south of Chicago and as much as I loved attending the Chicago Academy for the Arts, I had grown tired of getting up at 5 am to get ready for the commute, getting home around 5 PM, or later, then proceeding to study and practice until bed time, go to bed and then get up and do it all over again. As much as I loved the experience, it was also pretty grueling. That, and I didn’t have any friends in the town where I actually lived, since I wasn’t attending school there. My family and I had just relocated to Kankakee, from Florida where I lived previously. I wanted to get to know people locally and finish my high school years making friends in the town I lived in.
So, I made the difficult decision of deciding to switch schools and spent the next two years attending Kankakee High School. Ultimately it was a good decision and I ended up forming a lot of great friendships over the next couple years in Kankakee. I also continued to study and play music locally. But I missed going to the Academy and even would have dreams of being back there for the next year or so. It made that big of an impact on me.
MJ and I kept in touch and we kept collaborating as often as we could for the next couple years. Then, after High School, I went to Boston to attend Berklee and we ended up drifting apart for a number of years. Quite a few. A good decade or so. We would occasionally call to say hi and catch up, but we didn’t really start hanging out again regularly until around 2006 or so. MJ had gotten married and had a child. I had lived in a few different areas over the years and by the time I resettled in Chicago again, in 2000, after having spent time in Boston and southern Illinois, I think we were just in different places in our lives.
MJ and I have recently started writing and collaborating on music together for the first time in 30 years. Of course, MJ, has performed on many of my songs over the last few years, including on “hits” (to me) like “Headed Home”, "Falling Down", “Where We Were” and “Nobody Knows Us”, all of which have been licensed repeatedly. But this is the first time in three decades that we’ve been writing music together and we’re preparing to release an EP together in the Fall. We’re both excited to be working on music together again, and as a result of our collaboration we’ve been spending a lot of time together lately, in the studio and just hanging out as friends.
My collaboration with my friend MJ has really gotten me thinking about the many friendships and relationships I’ve formed over the years as a result of playing music. In many ways, when I reflect back over the last couple decades, I feel like these friendships and connections with people have really been the greatest gift music has given me.
Throughout both my adolescent and adult life, music has been the catalyst the has allowed me to form dozens of friendships and relationships with other musicians and people in the industry. Some of the friendships have lasted for a brief period of time, while we were performing or working together, others have lasted many years, and others, like my friendship with MJ, have come in and out of my life at different points.
But music, consistently, has been the thing that gets me out of the house and motivates me to get out there and “make things happen”. Whether it’s the desire to get a band together, the desire to go into the studio and record new music, or even something as simple as going to play at an open mic, music has consistently been the magnet that has attracted many of my closest friendships and relationships over the years.
As cliché as it sounds, life really is about the journey and not any particular destination. A big part of what makes a journey so enjoyable are the people we meet and connect with along the way. But the catch is, it’s hard to embark on a journey if you don’t have a specific destination in mind. So, set your sights high, and go for your dreams. Just don’t forget to enjoy and embrace the journey along the way. Because, chances are, when you look back on your life, from a future vantage point, it will be the journey you took to get to your desired destination and the people you met along the way that you cherish the most. Even the challenges and obstacles you overcome will be appreciated, if you overcome them with the right people.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Freud, which is:
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
Speaking of the EP I’m working on with my friend MJ, here’s one of the tracks that will be featured on our upcoming EP. We’re calling our project "Zen Folks". Our music consists of spiritually themed lyrics with elements of folk, rock, new age music and more.
Listen to our first track, "Slip Away (North Light)" here.
Follow me on Spotify and hear our full EP when it's released.
Back in December of 2017 my girlfriend of about two and half years, and I broke up, rather abruptly and somewhat unexpectedly. I’ll never forget that day. I went to a café a few blocks away from our apartment for a couple hours so she could move her things out of the apartment we were sharing together. I sat in a state of shock alone, drinking a cappuccino, as waves of grief, confusion, sadness and a tiny bit of relief that months of arguing had come to an end, washed over me.
I got a message from my now ex saying she was sorry things didn’t work out and that all her things were out of my place and that it was “safe” to go back. I went back to my place and opened the door to a now half empty apartment. A row of empty clothes hangers lined half of the closet, where a few hours earlier my girlfriend’s clothes were. All of her trinkets, photos and “girly” things that she spent months decorating our apartment with were now gone. There was a palpable sense of loneliness in the air, in my now sparsely decorated apartment.
As I sat on my un-made bed, my acoustic guitar laid next to me, out of its case. I picked up my guitar and I played with a sense of intensity and purpose that I hadn’t felt in years. I played guitar as if my sanity and emotional well being depended on it. I played for about four to five hours straight. The more I played the better I felt. It felt as if I was “exhaling” my grief with each note I played. The phrases and ideas I played that night felt imbued with a sense of meaning and power I hadn’t felt in a long time. It’s hard to put into words exactly. All I know is by the end of the night, I had a strange sense of peace about things. I wasn’t over the breakup obviously, but I went to bed with a knowing that I would get through this experience and that, as they say, “this too shall pass”.
Over the next few months, I returned to playing music with a vengeance. I regularly practiced guitar for several hours each day. Something I hadn’t done in many years. I played out every chance I could and developed a tangible sense of momentum, not just with songwriting, which I had never abandoned, but with my guitar playing and overall musicianship. This sense of progress and forward movement really helped me get through the next few months. It gave me something to focus on and channel my energy towards. It kept me busy and occupied. Whenever I had a free moment, or a feeling of boredom or loneliness, I would pick up my guitar and get lost in hours of improvisation and practice.
The great thing about music, is that it will never leave you. It’s there in the good times. It’s there in the bad times. No matter where you are in life, or what you’re going through, if you’ve been blessed with a passion and gift of playing music, it’s always there.
About six months after my ex and I broke up, I met my now girlfriend, Shantal, who is hands down, without question, the most stunning and beautiful woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending my time with. As my good friend Francisco always says, “Life has a funny way of working itself out”.
John Mayer is one of my favorite contemporary artists. He’s both an amazing guitarist and songwriter. He writes great, catchy pop songs and also has the ability play long, extended, improvised guitar solos with “The Dead & Company”. He’s also really funny, witty and I’m going to say it, pretty damn handsome. It’s true, I have a bit of a man crush on John Mayer.
Here’s John Mayer on a recent podcast explaining how whenever things are difficult in his life he always returns to his love of music. He describes playing the guitar as “hammering out the dents” in his psyche. I love that description.
Whether it’s getting through a break up, making sense of the world around us, or simply celebrating the good times, music and our passion for music has the ability to help us transcend the ups and downs we go through in life. Music has the power to both save our lives and help save the lives of others.
Here’s a song I wrote during my months as a single man in early 2018, about my ex-girlfriend. This one, as always, was produced by Gary Gray. We just signed this one to a publishing/licensing deal a few days ago.
I just finished a new song called “Breath Divine”, which I’ll be sharing below. It’s one of the more personal, introspective songs I’ve written in quite awhile. It’s about, you could say, the search for divinity, the search for something pure, something beyond the day to day monotony of life. Perhaps you could say it’s about the place “just beyond”.
I’m really excited about this song because I feel like I captured, or at least got a little closer to capturing, “that place” music has the potential to take you to. I put “that place” in quotes because I can’t fully put into words what I’m trying to say. I think that’s sort of the point of music, it allows you to express emotions and feelings that are beyond words and language. Music, you could say, transcends language.
It reminds me of a scene in the documentary about the band Phish called “Bittersweet Motel”. A Phish fan was asked why he goes to see Phish and prefers to see them sober and responds, “There’s less restriction to “that place” you need to go to appreciate music”. The interviewer asks, “What’s the place?”. The Phish fan responds, “The place? It’s in your soul. That place”.
Music takes you to "that place". As comical as this scene was to me when I first saw it, that about sums it up as well as I could. Music takes you to “that place” in your soul.
I spend a lot of time writing about and doing courses and podcasts about things like licensing, music streaming and music marketing. I tend to focus on how to make money from the music we create. I plan to continue doing this, because getting our music out into the world and marketing our music services a very practical, necessary purpose. We need, as professional musicians, to learn ways to monetize and promote our music. This is the practical and realistic side of being a musician. We’ve got to pay those bills!
I have a real passion for sharing what I’ve learned about the music business and helping other musicians get their music out there and make money from their passion. The world needs our music and if we as musicians don’t have the ability to earn a living from our craft, my fear is that fewer and fewer aspiring musicians are going to go into the music business in the first place, and fewer and fewer great songs are going to be shared with the world.
So, it’s an important mission to me, because in a sense, the future of music is at stake. And you could, somewhat easily, argue that we’re already seeing the result of a music industry that has become harder and harder to make a living in. Most people I know would agree, that at least the music that is making its way into the “mainstream” isn’t what it used to be. It’s somewhat subjective and if I had the time I could easily write a very lengthy book on this topic alone. But let’s be honest, the mainstream music of today, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it kind of sucks.
And that leads me to the point of this blog. Which is that even though figuring out how to make money from music is an important part of the conversation, there’s an even more important element to all of this, that I sometimes don’t talk about as much as I’d like. I fear that there’s something that maybe gets a little lost in all of this talk about different ways to make money from music and the music business.
And that is, simply the music itself.
There’s a much more important side to music than just figuring out how to generate revenue from it. There’s a magical side. A mystical side. My guess if you’re drawn to making music, you sense this. You can feel it. There’s a reason we’re all so drawn to something that is in many way, a much more difficult and uncertain career path.
Music feeds the soul.
And I think we’re living in a time where the world needs great artists and creative types, perhaps more than ever. Let’s not forget that as we all continue forging our way “ahead” in the music business. Let’s not forget that our true mission as musicians is to touch people and move people in a way that only music has the ability to do.
And yes, people may seem a little less likely to be moved by music these days, but perhaps that’s only because they need it now more than ever.
Let’s not forget that there’s a “place” beyond making money and paying bills, beyond the man-made system of currency, credit and debt. A place beyond the day to day grind. Let’s not forget that music transcends all of these concerns.
Don’t forget the power and magic of music. Don’t forget what it’s really about.
Check out my latest song, "Breath Divine", below.
[As always, a huge shout out to my producer Gary Gray for helping me bring my music to life. A great producer (like Gary), is like an extension of whatever band or project you’re in and he’s a huge part of helping me see my musical vision through and bringing my songs into the world.]
Without further adieu, here’s my latest track, Breath Divine.
I’ve got a short and sweet post for you today. I’m super busy behind the scenes here, but I wanted to check in with what hopefully will be an inspiring post. At the moment, my team and I are in the middle of relaunching our new premium site. We’ve completely revamped the look and feel of our site and it looks amazing. Go check that out here.
I’m more optimistic about the music business, the music I make and really just music in general than I think I ever have been. I’ve been hard at work over the last couple years or so really making things happen in both my personal and professional life and I’m starting to really see the fruits of that labor. Things are falling in place.
I’m a big believer in that when you really want to make something happen AND you take consistent action towards realizing your goals and dreams, things happen. I don’t want to get to all “woo woo” and “new agey”, but I really feel that when you really want something badly AND you work hard towards making your goals happen, the universe responds. I’ve seen this play out in my own life and the lives of my friends, over and over. Like Paulo Coelho says in The Alchemist, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
However, the key is that you really have to take action. You have to show both yourself and The Universe that you mean business. You can’t fake it and expect things to magically happen. You can’t just say you want something. It doesn’t work that way. You get back what you put out.
I’ve had a good friend who has expressed interest in helping him get started in licensing for years. My friend’s dream since he was a teenager was to be the next “Jan Hammer”. I’ve encouraged and mentored him a lot over the years and have shared as much as I can to help him get started. I’ve even placed several songs of mine that he’s performed on in tv shows. I’ve gone out of my way to try and help him with his own music career over the years. He talks very passionately about wanting to make a career in music. I’ve explained to him everything I’ve learned over the last decade in the music business and what the path to success looks like. He seems super inspired when I speak to him.
But yet, whenever I check in with him to see how things are going and how much progress he is making, I’m always met with a barrage of stories and explanations as to why now isn’t the right time for him to move forward. He seems to always set these arbitrary dates and times in the future when things will be aligned in his life in a way that will allow him to finally get serious about pursuing his dream of music. But things never seem to quite line up for him.
Last week we had another one of our motivating talks about music and agreed to start collaborating more frequently. It seemed like we were both on the same page and ready to really start making things happen together. We agreed to start recording one song a week together. I even agreed to advance my friend some money with the condition that he would record his parts and send me his stem files by the end of the week. We had a crystal-clear agreement and I was excited to start moving forward.
Sunday night about midnight I got the email that I was hoping I wouldn’t receive. His parts weren’t ready he said and probably wouldn’t be for at least another week or so. I received a three-paragraph email explaining all the reasons he couldn’t get his parts to me on our agreed upon time frame and how this was just “bad timing”. There was a noisy drunk neighbor, car trouble, a construction project, he had to move his equipment and so on. He even mentioned the “Polar Vortex” as a reason he wouldn’t be able to get the tracks done quickly.
I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. You see, I really think we as humans our great at talking ourselves out of things we say we want to do. We’re great at rationalizing why we’re not further in life and why now isn’t the right time. I do this myself from time to time. It’s easy to play the victim and blame circumstances and things out of your control. And yes, sometimes life does get in the way of our dreams and goals. Sometimes life really does present challenges and obstacles.
But yet, after all these years of pursuing and creating a career in music and building my business over the last decade, I’m convinced the biggest obstacle we all face, is ourselves. For most of us, we are the thing that’s holding us back the most. Not our circumstances, or our individual lives, or where we live, or what we look like or how old we are. All of these things factor in of course. But the single biggest obstacle you will likely face in realizing your dreams and goals is YOU.
You are the one who decides to write a new song, you’re the one who decides to record it. You’re the one who decides to try and sell it. You’re the one who decides to make the necessary connections. You’re the one who decides to make things happen. No one else. You are the one who decides to keep going in the face of rejection and setbacks. You are the one who decides if your music is worth pursuing and cultivating.
You have the potential to either be your greatest ally, or your greatest obstacle. What's it going to be?
I saw a documentary recently about the effects of solitary confinement. It was a pretty fascinating look into the human psyche and what makes us tick. I learned that just three days of solitary confinement has the potential to create irreversible brain damage. Being alone, with no way to interact and engage with our environment, is not just an unpleasant experience, but it’s an experience that in just a few days has the ability to actually cause permanent damage.
This documentary really blew away and also got me thinking. Why would this state of being create such agony and even potentially cause brain damage? What is it about being confined to nothing but our thoughts that creates such a sense of discomfort? Well, I’m not a philosopher per se and I’m certainly not a psychologist, but my own take is that it’s not so much that we’re uncomfortable confronting our inner most thoughts and selves, it’s that we as humans are designed to interact and engage with each other and the world around us. To go even deeper, I think we’re the happiest when we’re engaged in some sort of meaningful pursuit in the world. When we’re deprived of the ability to interact and engage with the world in a meaningful way (as in solitary confinement) we suffer, both mentally and physically.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp argues that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. “All mammals have this seeking system”, says Panskepp, “wherein dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to reward and pleasure, is also involved in coordinating planning activities. This means animals are rewarded for exploring their surroundings and seeking new information for survival. It can also explain why, if rats are given access to a lever that causes them to receive an electric shock, they will repeatedly electrocute themselves”.
The human desire to seek helps make sense of studies showing that achieving major goals, or even winning the lottery, doesn’t cause long-term changes in happiness. It’s not so much the fulfillment of goals we’re after, it’s the pursuit of the goal we’re really seeking, as seeking is itself a fulfilling activity. In other words, it’s the journey and not the destination.
I believe this sort of innate desire to seek and create meaning in our lives is deeply connected to goal setting. We need to have aims in life, otherwise we’re just, well, aimless. If we have nothing at all to shoot for, we’re sort of just blowing in the wind, rudderless and without direction.
Sometimes it’s nice to just sort of go with the flow and see what happens. I’ve had periods in my life where I wasn’t particularly goal oriented and was more just sort of open to seeing what life presented to me each day. There’s a time and place for this sort of open-ended exploration, and even when approaching life this way, we’re probably still interacting and engaged with the world, albeit in a less focused way.
But over the long term, I find it more satisfying to have specific long-term goals I’m working towards. I find it simply helps orient my life better. It gives my life a structure and a framework. It helps to lay out a direction and clear path I need to take. It helps me avoid getting into ruts and feeling stuck.
When I’m setting specific goals, for something like music let’s say, it helps dictate the way in which I’ll be interacting with the world. It lays out a self-evident course of action I need to take. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of how I’m going to spend my time. It orients me in the world.
As an example, for 2019 I have the very simple and straightforward goal of creating more music. My main goal, in terms of music, is to simply be more prolific in 2019. I’m already licensing a certain percentage of my tracks and I have connections and people willing to help shop my music in place, so I know that if I do nothing else but focus on creating more music, I’ll be able to increase the income I generate from music.
This one simple goal pretty much spells out how I’ll be spending a good percentage of my time this year. Of course, I’ll be recording more music, so I’ll be spending more time in one of several home studios I record in, working on laying down tracks. I’ll need more help on post production, in order to release more tracks, so I’ve recruited another producer to help with mixing and mastering a percentage of the tracks I release. And I’ll of course need to write more music, so I’ll be spending more time in my home studio, guitar in hand, writing and composing more music.
When we have goals we’re working towards, it helps us engage with the world in a more meaningful and cooperative way. Very few goals can be achieved completely in isolation. Even something like music, which at least in theory can be done alone, requires team work and people working together to get out into the world. And of course, without an audience to listen and appreciate the music we create, it seems sort of pointless. If I could never share my music with anyone other than myself, I doubt I would be very motivated to create it.
In the final analysis, having goals serves much more than just the practical purpose of helping us achieve our desires and make more money. Having and pursuing goals enables us to create meaningful and purposeful lives and stave off apathy and boredom, and in a literal sense, prevent brain damage.
The next time you’re feeling complacent and procrastinating, imagine yourself locked in a completely dark room, completely cut off from the outside world, with only your thoughts to help you pass the time, for days on end. Then, when the inevitable wave of gratitude washes over you, as you realize that’s just a fleeting thought and not your actual situation, get back to work on reaching your goals. Your situation could be much worse.
Let’s talk about passion. More specifically, let’s talk about passion for writing and playing music.
I’ve been a musician for a long time. I started playing guitar and writing songs when I was twelve. I played music all through high school. I studied music in College. After college I played in bands for a decade. For the last decade I’ve been writing and licensing music and playing shows pretty regularly.
These days I feel as passionate about music as ever. In fact, I feel like I’m probably writing and performing better than I ever have. But, there have been times where my passion for music has waxed and waned over the years. There have been times when, to be totally honest, I wasn’t sure if I should keep pursuing music. There have been long stretches of time where it didn’t really seem like I was making much progress at all and I occasionally felt like giving up or just sort of putting music on the back burner.
But, I feel like those periods of uncertainty are pretty firmly behind me these days. This last year or so in particular has been very exciting for me as a musician. I’ve had a lot of firsts in my career during this period; first song placed in a commercial (ABC Promo), first song placed in a video game (Catch & Release), first time I’ve had two of my vocal tracks placed in the same episode of a show (The Young And The Restless), my first track to surpass 100 different syncs, I wrote my first album of instrumental ambient guitar music and I launched the premium site for How To License Your Music.
Sometimes I feel like, in retrospect, the periods that often feel like we’re stuck and not progressing, end up leading to the biggest breakthroughs and successes. In many ways 2017 felt like sort of a “stuck” year for me musically. It was a slower than usual year in terms of licensing my own music and I felt at times like I wasn’t making much progress. I was also struggling to balance the different plates I had spinning in terms of different business endeavors, in addition to my own music related goals. I wasn’t quite sure at the time, how it was going to all fit together.
But looking back, I wrote and recorded a ton of music during this period, a lot of which ended up being licensed the following year and which I’m continuing to license. I also created the framework for what would eventually become How To License Your Music Premium, that I launched in January of last year. A lot of seeds that I planted in 2017 came to fruition the following year.
I think it’s normal to experience periods of both contraction and expansion and at times it can feel like we’re not progressing, when often times we’re really just paving the way for good things to come. These periods when we feel like we’re not progressing, are the times when we have to just keep going and keep putting in the work. Trust in the process and know that eventually things will start to happen, if you persist. Sometimes we don’t realize how close we actually are to succeeding.
Anything you do for long periods of time run the risk of leading to burnout and boredom if you’re not careful. Even the most passionate musician can end up feeling discouraged and can lose their drive, if they’re not vigilant about nurturing and maintaining their passion.
Intense passion for music is sort of like the beginning of a romantic relationship. The initial honeymoon phase is the easy part, it’s what you do when those initial feelings start to fade that will make or break you, both in relationships and in music. Falling in love with music is the easy part, it’s sustaining that love and passion that takes work and commitment.
With that said, here are 7 things that have helped me stay passionate about music all these years.
Keep Growing And Evolving – Doing anything for long periods of time can get a little monotonous if you’re not growing and evolving. One of the keys to maintaining my interest in music has been learning and discovering different styles of music and trying different things. Last year I started writing instrumental, ambient tracks, which was completely new for me. A few years ago I spent three months in the Caribbean playing solo gigs on the beach, just me, a guitar and a mic. I’ve played with dozens of different musicians in a variety of different live situations the last few years. I’m always pushing myself as a vocalist and trying to grow in that area.
For me, part of the fun of being a musician is the growth and the journey of improving, irrespective of any commercial success. There’s a part of me that just wants to grow as a musician first and foremost, regardless of whatever may or may not happen career wise. I think it’s vital to stay in touch with that part of myself and not get lost in simply chasing “success”. Of course, I want success too, success is exciting and rewarding, but ultimately the joy of being a musician for me, is really about the music and the process of growing as a musician.
Be Persistent But Patient – The music business is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve been at this a long time, and like I said, there have been a few periods where I used to feel like just giving it all up. At some point along the way, I’ve figured out how to sort of detach from the outcome and just let things unfold however they unfold. I’m still dedicated and persistent in terms of creating music, pursuing projects and so on, but I’ve realized it makes little to no sense to stress or worry about what happens. To the extent that I actually am able to let go of worrying about how everything plays out career wise and just go with the flow, I’m much happier and at peace! The trick is to surrender to the flow. Focus on the things you can control and don’t worry too much about the rest.
Take Breaks When Needed – I just got back from a two week vacation in the Caribbean. This was the first extended, legitimate vacation I took in quite some time. We value work in our culture, and we’re right in doing so, but we sometimes forget the power in stepping back and giving ourselves space to rest and relax and allow new ideas to emerge. I brought my guitar on this trip, but I actually didn’t end up playing it once. I sort of made a calculated decision to just give myself a break for a couple weeks from both work and music.
As soon as I got home, I started playing again and wrote what I think is one of my best songs in a long time, my first night back from my vacation. I’m also back into the swing of things in terms of creating content for my website, podcast and so on. I’m not sure exactly what the right formula is in terms of work/life balance, but I’m completely certain that periods of rest and relaxation should be factored into our lives. In the same way that sleep is vital for our health, I think occasional vacations, or just periods of down time, is vital for our well-being, creativity and vitality.
Find Your Niche – If your only goal related to music is to become a rock star and you feel like a failure if you’re anything other than a U2 or Shakira level success story, you could be setting yourself up for failure. You need to have goals, but they need to be goals that are motivating and inspiring, but also within reach.
If you find yourself more stressed and miserable when you think about your goals than excited and pumped, there’s a good chance your goals aren’t quite right for you. I struggled with this for awhile, early in my career. I set my sights high, as many of us do. It was motivating for awhile but after a decade or so of grinding it out in different bands, hoping to “make it”, the thought of trying to become a rock star really started to feel off and incongruent. My original goal, that at one time was so exciting and invigorating, began to feel more like a source of frustration and pain. I had to reassess what I really wanted from music and the music business as I evolved and grew as a person and as the circumstances of my life changed.
Develop A Routine – Having some sort of consistent routine is also important in order to maintain growth and momentum. If you’re only relying on making music when you “feel like it” and when inspiration strikes, you could very well be inadvertently stunting your growth. We all have periods where we’re more excited about making music than other times, but I’m a firm believer that we need to actively nurture and cultivate our skills, so that when inspiration does strike, we’re poised to harness and capture that inspiration.
Getting into a routine with music will help you reach greater heights and will elevate your passion for music over time. If you consistently put in the work, you’ll reap the rewards that come with that and your passion will continue to grow as you reach new heights and achieve new milestones. Success begets success.
Have measurable goals – I also think it’s important to have goals that are at least somewhat measurable. You need to know what it is you’re actually aiming for. Having specific goals, will also help focus your time and energy. If you don’t have any career goals related to music, it’s all to easy to just sort of drift aimlessly, never really getting anywhere. Having concrete goals will sort of dictate what to focus on and will lay out a more clear path to follow.
When you actually start achieving some of those goals, this will also likely lead to a huge boost in the passion and excitement you feel for your craft. At least it has for me. To this day, when I hear my music on TV I get a huge rush! It also gives me a sense that the music I’m creating serves a purpose, beyond just something I do for fun. It sort of validates that I’m on the right path, knowing that my music is being heard by so many people and that it’s serving a very tangible purpose.
Define What Success Means To You – My definition of success now, in 2019, looks a lot different than it did in 1999. With time and experience, your definition of what success means to you will likely shift. You might set out with an idea of becoming a certain version of what you consider to be a successful musician, only to find out that a different path is actually much more suitable to your personality, skillset, etc.
For example, when I was first starting out pursuing a career in music I really aspired to become a “famous” musician. Like a lot of musicians, I thought that success in the music business meant you became a rock star. Over time, I realized there are many different paths within the music business. There isn’t just one way to be successful. There are a myriad of different ways to succeed.
My role in the music industry and my role as a musician is much different than what I imagined it would be when I was 19 years old, first setting out to make my mark in music. But, that’s ok. I’m still here and I’m still making music that I’m passionate about.
I recently had two new tracks of mine on The Young And The Restless. These placements were particularly exciting because they were both tracks I sang lead vocals on. I haven’t had a ton of tracks that I sing vocals on placed over the years. I’ve had a lot more success with having other vocalists sing on my tracks and licensing instrumental music, so it was really exciting to see two new placements on my most recent ASCAP statement that both featured my lead vocals.
I’ve worked really hard over the last few years to improve my singing. I would say it’s been the single biggest challenge I’ve faced as a songwriter/performer. I started learning how to play guitar when I was twelve, but it wasn’t until I got into my twenties that I started, reluctantly, singing. It took me a long time to feel comfortable as a vocalist.
A lot of times I would end up singing on my recordings just because it was easier to sing my own tracks than to find someone else. I was the lead singer in my first band in Chicago, URB, until we found our front man a few months later. In my second band, Continuum, I shared lead vocal duties with our keyboard player. Same thing in my third band.
So, over the years I’ve sang a lot. But it’s always been something that I’ve sort of struggled with. Singing never came naturally, like it seems to for some vocalists. I’ve had to work really hard at it.
I’ve taken vocal lessons at different points over the years and those have been helpful. There are definitely techniques, like learning how to breathe properly and doing different vocal exercises, that can greatly improve your vocals. But like a lot of things, I feel like what’s helped the most, is just doing it, a lot.
Over the last couple years I’ve been singing every chance I get, both in the studio and in live situations. I’ve been singing at gigs and also trying new songs at open mic nights. Open mic nights are a great way to try new things and practice in a front of a crowd. Over the last couple years I’ve been hitting open mic nights pretty regularly, to specifically practice singing in front of people. It’s a great, no pressure way, to work on new material in front of a live crowd. If you’re not great, it’s not like anyone paid to see you! But of course, you should work on getting great so people will be willing to pay to see you?
I still have a lot of room to improve when it comes to my singing, but I’m making verifiable progress and for me half the fun of being a musician is the journey and the process. It’s exciting to reach new heights and be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.
All of this is to say, I placed two new vocal tracks. I might not yet be a good enough singer for The Voice, but I’m good enough for The Young & The Restless, and for now at least, I’m happy with that!
I’m working on creating new podcasts, videos, etc… I’m excited to see where our musical journey will take us in 2019!
In the meantime, check out the two tracks I placed recently.
This track, Headed Home, was used recently in one episode.
This track, Nobody Knows Us, was used in four episodes.
I often get asked to share more of my music with readers of my site and blog.
I just got my newest song, "Another Way" back from my producer, Gary Gray.
This is the first track from a new album in the works that marks a return to my roots of more guitar oriented, bluesy, "jammy", rock tracks.
I'm sharing this with you before I share it with anyone else. I wanted you to hear it first.
I'm really excited about this track and the entire project.
Check it out below and let us know what you think.
I dreamt of you again last night
It’s been so long
time just moves on
And though I chose to walk away
I wish you knew
that I wish I stayed
But all the choices that we’ve made
Have all been made
And yesterday is gone
and tomorrow waits
and right here where I am
I know it’s not too late
to turn this page
and find another way
And in my dream it felt so real
It felt just like
It used to feel
And all my sorrow went away
when I realized
it was not too late
But then my dream it turned to grey
I lied awake
And yesterday is gone
and tomorrow waits
and right here where I am
I know it’s not too late
to turn this page
and find another way
Do you ever find yourself so focused and fixated on earning money to pay for your bills and to survive that you end up focusing on doing things that you would rather not be doing with your time, but feel you have to do in order to pay your bills? Do you ever feel like reaching your goals is almost impossible because you have to worry about this money issue? Do you feel like money is holding you back from living the life of your dreams?
My guess is that most of you reading this will answer yes to these questions, to one degree or another. The vast majority of us are probably spending at least some of our time doing things that probably isn’t our first choice, in order to meet the needs of the world we live in. Many of us are spending a lot of our time in ways we probably would rather not, in order to just get by.
We live in a world that requires money in order to survive. You could, theoretically, live off the grid somewhere in a cabin you built with your bare hands and grow and catch your own food. But even this option is becoming increasingly harder and harder to pull off, for those of us who would even dare try. Laws and regulations, especially in the USA and the “first world” make this sort of lifestyle close to impossible for most of us. Not many people are able to pull of a Henry David Thoreau style lifestyle in our modern times and spend time simply contemplating the nature of our existence. I doubt many of us would want to, even if we could.
In a sense, we’re all sort of forced to play the money game, at least to a certain extent. We’re forced to dance the dance that is making money, paying bills, saving money, spending money and so on. And hey, don’t get me wrong, it could be a lot worse. In fact, it could be much, much worse. We could be in parts of poverty-stricken Africa, or war town Yemen, or any number of God forsaken times and places in very recent history that were exponentially worse than the situation the majority of us reading this find ourselves in today.
But yet, if you’re anything like me, there’s a part of you that strives for something “better”, a part of you that isn’t content with just paying the bills and getting by. If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to just survive, you want to thrive. If you’re like me, you want to live your “best life” and live a life that’s in flow and oozes with meaning and self-actualization. This urge is what I suspect draws artists to making music and pursuing a career path that we know, full well, is harder and more challenging than the average career path, in the first place. I believe that it’s our innate desire to self-actualize that inspires us to pursue the path of an artist.
But, it’s easier said than done right?
After all, we have this money thing to contend with…
Two Types Of Money Stress
I think there are essentially two types of stress, related to money, that are possible, and that people typically experience. On one hand, there’s the stress of not having enough money. Maybe we have a lot of free time, but we lack the resources to do much with the time we have. Maybe we even have so few resources that we fall behind or struggle to pay our immediate bills. I’ve been in this situation, and it sucks.
On the other hand, there is the stress of working so much that we’re not really enjoying the fruits of our labor. Maybe we’re making sufficient money to meet our needs and then some, but we’re so busy and stressed by our crazy, fast paced lives, that we don’t have the time or energy to actually enjoy ourselves.
I’ve been in this situation as well and it also sucks, although I would argue it sucks a little less than simply not having sufficient resources or money. Sometimes we have to go through periods where we push ourselves and work harder than we would like in the short term, in order to reach our long-term goals. We work hard and push ourselves to our limits, so that one day we won’t have to. Or something like that.
As an entrepreneur/musician, who hasn’t had anything resembling a traditional career or boss for the last ten years, I’ve erred on both sides of the money/stress equation. There have been periods where I’ve erred on the side of not working hard enough and taking it a little too easy, and I eventually paid the price that came with that. There have also been periods where, in retrospect at least, I feel like I pushed myself too hard and became overly stressed and worried about making money. Both extremes are a sort of tactical error. There’s a more balanced approach.
The Middle Way
I think the Buddhists got it right when they came up with the idea of the “middle way”. The idea of the middle way is basically that we need to find a balance between the spiritual world and the material world. The concept isn’t specifically about making money per se, but it’s entirely relevant. In periods where I erred too much on the side of wanting to not work and simply relax and enjoy life, I inadvertently denied the material reality of the world we live in. On the other hand, when I erred on simply being consumed with business and making money and the pursuit of success, I denied my spiritual side. Both sides need to be in balance, hence the term, “The Middle Way”.
Finding the “middle way” in life is of course, easier said than done, but I think it’s entirely possible. Each and everyone one of us can develop a relationship with our lives, our vocation and our place in the world that is healthy and in balance.
How? Well, each of our paths will be entirely different and unique and what works for me might not necessarily work for you. But with that said, let me tell you a story about something I experienced recently that has led to one of my biggest breakthroughs in how I approach “working”, both when it comes to my business and making music.
Liberation Through “Work” And Art
I went through a period not too long ago, where to be entirely honest, I was feeling “burnt out”. I’ve had mini burnouts over the last decade or so of running my business. I think that's pretty normal among self employed entrepreneurs. But this was different. A part of me hates to admit that, because I pride myself on having a strong work ethic and working hard. This part of my personality has served me well over the years. But, I also have another side to my personality that wants…. more, and wants it now. A part of me wants more success, more money, more accolades, more achievement and so on. Although I’m a pretty positive person most of the time, I have a tendency to sort of beat myself up when things aren’t going how I think they should.
Early in 2018 I started to feel sort of stuck in terms of my business and making music. During this period I started to really question the path I was on and started to feel more stress than usual. I’ve spent ten years making money devoted to more or less one topic (music licensing) and twenty years making money related to playing, teaching and writing music. Although I love music and the music business, twenty years of doing anything can start to get boring and bit uninspiring. However, it wasn’t as if I could just stop and completely shift gears, and I wasn’t even sure if that’s what I wanted. I just knew I needed to make some sort of change. So instead of quitting anything or making any drastic changes, for a month or so, I sort of did just the bare minimum and delegated as much work as I could to my assistant, as I reflected on where I was in life and why I was feeling so discouraged and burnt out at this particular time.
During this period I would take long walks every evening and contemplate my situation. I think I was hoping that if I slowed down enough I would have some sort of light bulb, “aha” moment about my situation that would bring a renewed sense of clarity and purpose. I thought that if I slowed down and allowed some space in, it would allow new ideas to emerge. After about a month or so of walking and/or meditating pretty much every day, my aha moment never came.
Then, one day, during this period, I read an article that helped lift me out of my funk and was a turning point in getting back on track. You see, part of the reason I was feeling discouraged was that I felt sort of trapped by the business and lifestyle I’ve created. I wanted to feel more inspired and excited about things, as I had in the past. I felt like I had sort of lost my spark and my motivation for doing what I was doing. I started to feel like I was just going through the motions in order to pay the bills and maintain what I had created. Even making music, which I've always loved, started to sort of feel like a chore. Like something I had to do.
When I first created my business and started down the path of adding “entrepreneur” to my resume, it was truly an exhilarating time. I would spend hours and hours at my local library reading everything I could get my hands on about business and internet marketing. I devoured multiple books on marketing and how to create a business online. I was on fire and super motivated to figure out how to replace my income from teaching music with something new and more exciting. It was a period that was in many ways similar to when I first discovered the joy of making music. In the beginning, I made progress really fast and was able to create a viable business in less than a year that fit perfectly into my path of being a musician. I figured out how to create a business that supplemented the income I made from music and also fit perfectly into my overall trajectory as a musician. I was pretty damn stoked, to say the least, that I figured out how to pull this off and this sense of momentum I created carried me forward for many years.
But fast forward ten years into my journey and I started to feel a little stuck. I was feeling burnt out and uninspired and I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why. My instinct was to stop and rest for awhile and this did help recharge my batteries. But it didn’t occur to me then that ultimately, the long-term solution would be to actually push myself harder and immerse myself more in both my work and art; to go even deeper. But that’s exactly what ended up working.
Let me explain…
How To Escape Wage Slavery
The article I read that day was called “How To Escape Wage Slavery Through Work”, or something along those lines. The idea is basically that we can’t escape the economic system we’re a part of. Not fully at least. You can try, and I do think our economic system needs a major overhaul, although that’s another blog post for another time.
But, until our Utopian economic system arrives, since we can’t really escape it, what we can do is find liberation and meaning through the work that we do. Instead of trying to escape and run from work, we can instead find liberation and meaning through our work by going even deeper into the work we do and the parts of our vocation that bring us the most joy and growth. By pursuing work and projects that we find the most meaningful and by simply having a more positive mindset about whatever it is we’re already doing, we can create more meaning and joy and fulfillment in our lives, right now. In other words, instead of trying to escape “working”, we can embrace it. I put the word work in quotes, because I'm not even sure it's the right word. Maybe instead of referring to what we do as "work" we should replace it with "doing our passion", or "fulfilling our dreams", or something more eloquent.
When I read this article, something sort of clicked. I realized I wasn’t so much burnt out from “working”. I was burnt out from my own negative thinking and lack of perspective about the work that I’ve been doing. You see, I make a pretty good income, relatively speaking. I’m definitely not a “high roller”, by any means. I live a fairly modest, but comfortable life. I make a salary above the median income in the USA, one of the richest countries in the world, doing something that I love and am passionate about. I have a beautiful girlfriend. I have great friends all over the world. I have plenty to be grateful about.
But somewhere along the way, for a brief period of time, I lost perspective. And I think perspective is ultimately how you avoid the “money trap” in the first place. We live, in many ways, one of the most amazing times in human history. I truly believe that. But it’s easy to forget. There’s an expression that sums up our problem that I’ve always loved, which is, “It’s hard to see the spot you’re standing on”. We sometimes get so lost in the drama of our own lives, culture, politics and ultimately our own minds, that we fail to see the big picture. We fail to see just how great we actually have it. I think now is one of the greatest periods in human history to be a part of. We live in amazing times, strange times you could say, culturally, but an amazing period nonetheless that is filled with opportunity and abundance.
So, how I got back on track and found my own “middle way” was by simply realizing how great I had it all along. Yes, I sometimes have a bad month, business wise, and I occasionally get a little stressed about money. So what? And yes, sometimes I want more for myself and my loved ones. And that's ok too, but it's nothing to get down about. I think we can both appreciate where we are now in our lives and also strive for more. These two things don't have to be mutually exclusive.
What worked for me, ultimately, was simply changing my outlook on my situation. Instead of moaning about the fact that there I things I have to do to make money, I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve discovered a way to support myself doing things related to my passion of music. Instead of bitching about the fact that I don’t make more money, I’m grateful for the fact that I make more than many. Instead of stressing about not selling or licensing more music at times, I’m grateful for the hundreds of placements I have had over the last few years and the new opportunities that continue to come my way. Instead of running from my work and business, I’m choosing to work harder and enjoy it even more by continuing to look for and find new projects and new topics that I’m even more passionate about. Instead of trying to escape my life and my role in it, I’m embracing it.
As we head into another New Year, I’m excited for the new year that’s coming. I have a renewed sense of passion and purpose going into 2019. I have several new projects and goals related to music, that I’ll be sharing with you all soon, that are a direct result of the “soul searching” and reflection I did earlier this year.
My wish for all of you is continued success and happiness. If you’re a regular reader of my blog and listener of my podcast, I’m grateful for your support. To all those who have bought my courses and supported my work over the years, my sincere wish is that my work brings you as much value as your patronage has brought me. Your support has helped me to earn a living and stay connected to my passion for making music for over a decade now. And for that I’m forever in your debt.
Here’s to an amazing 2019. I don’t know about you, but I’m just getting started!
One of my favorite quotes about music, came from Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, he said, “When you treat it like a job, they pay you like it’s a job.”. I always loved this quote because I think it really sums up the mindset you need to have to turn your passion for music into a full-time career. If you simply dabble in music, whenever inspiration strikes, and take a half-hearted approach to your music career, chances are your income that you generate from your music is going to reflect that.
If your goal is to make music a full-time job, that you can live from, you need to approach it as such. This entails getting up every day with a strategy and a game plan that you execute on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I think where a lot of musicians get stuck, is not knowing exactly where to focus their energy and not know what the best plan of action is. Making music is sort of the easy and obvious part. But what do you do once the music is made?
As I’ve often said, music is different from other, more traditional professions, in that there isn’t always a clear and concise path to success. This can be confusing and frustrating. If you’re not sure what to do on a regular basis, that will help get you closer to your goal, how do you know where to best focus your energy? How can you confidently work towards the realization of your goals?
Well, there isn’t one clear answer to this, but in the hundreds of interviews I’ve done over the last decade, and in my experience with all the musicians I’ve connected and collaborated with in a variety of different capacities, there are a few clear commonalities that most success stories share.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you already have music that is amazing and ready to be shared with the world. This is obviously a gigantic subject and one which is ultimately subjective. Which makes it sort of hard to talk about in the context of a “how to” article. How do you make “great” music? How do you know if your music is “great” and ready to be shared with the world? Well, I’ll leave that up to you as an artist to figure out. I personally think you sort of just know. When you write a great song, or complete an amazing composition, you can sense it. If you’re not really sure whether or not you have great music, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t, yet.
Marketing And Connections
Success in the music business, apart from the music itself, comes down to marketing and connections. That’s really it. Look at the music business around you. Look at the acts that have become enormously successful. Start to ask yourself why certain band and artists are successful and you’re not. Start to actually investigate the back stories of what led to successful artists becoming successful. You can often times reverse engineer the relationships and connections that led to an artists’ success.
For example, did you know that Taylor Swift’s Dad was an early investor in Taylor Swift’s record label (until a few days ago), Big Machine Records? Swift’s Father reportedly invested around 120k in Big Machine to help launch the label and Taylor’s career. Does that mean that he bought her career? I don’t see it that way. The public voted a resounding yes on Taylor Swift and I think it’s her music, drive and personality that ultimately cemented her success. But did her Dads connections and money help get her started? Absolutely and I think there’s a good chance you would have never heard of Taylor Swift had her parents not invested in her career early on.
For an artist to become successful in the mainstream, there needs to both be a “product” the mainstream public wants, and it needs to be marketed successfully. Money and connections open certain doors, but the music itself obviously plays a huge role, that really can’t be denied. Whether you like music that becomes popular or not, there is something about popular music that works and results in becoming successful. For example, in the case of Taylor Swift, her Father’s support in launching her career no doubt helped, but it’s undeniable that Taylor Swift is immensely talented as a songwriter and performer and has an incredible work ethic. Money and connections alone don’t create one of the world’s most successful artists. If they did, there would be a lot more Taylor Swifts.
Apart from the actual music itself, the common denominator I see that separates the vast majority of successful artists from those who are not successful, all other things being equal, is how well their music and brand is being marketed. If no one knows you, then you’ll never become “successful” in the public eye. The public needs to know about your music, to know whether or not it likes it in the first place. Part of your job, if you’re an indie artist, is to figure out how to better promote and market yourself to more and more people.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Ok, great, it makes sense and is sort of obvious, but how? How do I get my music noticed and heard in a sea of unknown artists? Well, that’s the 64 Million Dollar question we’re all trying to figure out. If it was as simple as do X, Y and Z and then you’re a rock star, we’d all just do X, Y and Z and be rock stars already.
It might not be simple or easy, but I do think a few conclusions can be drawn. Here’s what I see working among all the success stories I know of, both in terms of mainstream success and success on a smaller scale, among indie artists who are able to make a living from their music.
These are the areas you should be focusing your time, every single day, if you want to make a full time living from music:
The Music – Again, it all starts with the music. Regardless of what your thoughts on contemporary music, whether or not you like it, and whether or not you think the public has “good” taste in music, the music itself still plays a critical role. Public tastes change and trends come and go, but the performance, emotion and feeling you put into your music matter as much as ever. Focus on the music you make, first and foremost. Write great songs and build up a body of work you can license, stream, perform, sell and so on. Without great, marketable music, nothing else you do will really matter. Whenever I’m not quite sure what to focus on, I focus on simply writing the most amazing music I’m capable of.
Money/Connections/Networking – Money and connections help, as they always have. Knowing the right people or connecting with the right person, can make a huge difference in your career. We might not all have rich fathers that are willing to invest six figures in the launch of our careers, but all of us can do things like attend industry events, network, shake hands, make phone calls and so forth, in order to connect with more people in the business. Don’t come from a place of trying to use people or get something from them. This is almost always the wrong approach. Instead aim to make connections with people that are genuine and authentic.
Money, as in the case of Taylor Swift, can buy promotion and attention. Money buys things like recording time, promotion, advertising and on and on. Of course, if we all had an unlimited supply of money, we could simply buy our way onto the public’s radar. But, do your best with the resources and money you have.
Things like Facebook advertising, google ads, Youtube, Reddit and more, can all be great ways to promote your music on a small budget. Of course, it will be harder with a smaller budget in many ways. But the good news is that you won’t be able to simply waste money on a product that isn’t ready to be promoted. Hone your music and your marketing skills and make every dollar count, winning over new fans, one at a time. As your success in music grows, you can increase your marketing budget accordingly. Working on shoe string budget will force you to really focus on what works. (Yes, my glass is half full.)
Outside The Box Thinking (Branding) – This is probably my favorite part of the conversation in terms of marketing and branding. It’s what I call “outside the box” thinking. This is my favorite part of the discussion, because it’s something we all have access to. We don’t get to choose our parents or what kind of wealth and connections we’re born into, but we can all choose to look at the world in a more creative, “outside the box” sort of way.
For an artist or brand to become talked about in the press, there needs to be something extremely compelling to discuss. Again, clearly the music you make needs to be great. But, the problem is that there is so much music out there, that even if your music is amazing, it can be hard to break through the barrage of music that exists, if you’re not doing something unique and original and branding yourself properly.
Having an interesting and compelling story and brand, will make it easier for people to remember you and make it more likely that you’ll get featured in the press, on people’s blogs, playlists and so on. Don’t just release your music and hope that’s enough. It won’t be. Tell people why you’re creating music. Reach out to bloggers, playlist curators, press outlets and more and tell them what makes you different and unique. Be creative not just in terms of the music you make, but how you present yourself and your music to the world.
I find that often times adding fairly minor details in terms of what inspired you to write specific songs and release specific albums goes a long way in getting bloggers and play-listers to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a super elaborate back story.
For example, I’m going to be releasing a new EP of all instrumental, ambient guitar music soon, and I’ve been contacting blogs and playlists to get some help in promoting my new release. In the last few days alone my first single, Rays, was picked up by two new blogs and is going to be added to a pretty large playlist (several hundred thousand followers) next week! I simply reached out to a few different places and told them about my new release and how I’m inspired and driven to create music that is positive and uplifting, in order to combat all the darkness and craziness in the world. Which is entirely true, but I had never really taken the time to articulate that until recently.
What’s your story? Why is making music so important to you? How can you better convey what inspires you and motivates you in your branding? Improving your branding and marketing can actually be a really fun and insightful process. It forces you to really get in touch with what motivates you and drives you.
Check out the first single from my upcoming, instrumental, ambient guitar release, called “Rays”.
I was talking to a client a few weeks ago, who was trying to figure out how to make more money from his music via licensing his tracks in tv, films, etc. This particular client informed me that he had made about $2,000.00 from ten of his tracks over the last five years or so. The problem though, was that these particular tracks were signed exclusively to a publisher and for many years he couldn’t get the rights to these tracks back.
He hired an attorney and spent several years fighting to get out of the contract he had signed. Eventually, after what I can only imagine was quite a bit of money, time and frustration, the publisher representing these tracks agreed to give him the ability to sign these tracks to other companies and license them elsewhere. In the end, he was able to make a little extra money with these ten tracks, but he still wasn’t thrilled with his results.
This particular client came to me, mainly looking for advice on how to improve his success in music licensing and figure out how to make more money with his music.
One of the things I love about working with clients like this, is that I often have epiphanies and realizations as a result of listening to someone else express their challenges and frustrations. I’m sometimes able to express ideas in new ways, that lead to greater clarity for both myself and my clients. I often have “aha” moments that help both myself and my clients better understand this crazy business of ours.
With this particular client, I had a realization that I guess you could say was a twist on something I’ve known for quite some time but had never quite been able to articulate as succinctly as I did with this particular client, during this particular coaching session.
What was the realization?
Well, to put it very simply, your musical output will determine your income. In other words, the more tracks you create, the more money you’ll make. Pretty obvious right? It should be, but I think a lot of us have blind spots and get stuck on our musical journey, getting bogged down in worrying about things like getting out of bad deals we’ve signed, worrying about our rights and how to best monetize our individual tracks.
And these are all valid concerns. We should think about these things, at least to a point. We should be careful about signing bad deals and not getting locked into deals we can’t get out of. I’m sure we’ve all probably signed a few contracts along the way that we wish we hadn’t. I know I have. If you’ve been in the licensing game long enough, you’re going to learn along the way, and sometimes we have to learn the hard way, by making mistakes, or by making what seem like mistakes in retrospect.
With this particular client I was talking to though, he had spent a lot of money and time trying to undo a deal he had signed. He got sort of stuck on trying to undo this deal he had signed an in his mind, right a wrong. These tracks were his and he wanted them back. In my estimation though, his energy and effort would have been much better spent had he focused it elsewhere, on more productive things, like writing and creating new music for example and developing new contacts in the business and generating new revenue streams with his music. It's better to look forward, than look behind.
I broke it down for this particular client, like this:
If you’re able to make $2,000.00 from ten tracks, (which isn’t a bad return in the grand scheme of things) what if you had a catalog of 100 tracks? Assuming the same rate of return, you’d make about $20,000.00.
Now extrapolate that even further. What if you had 500 tracks earning the same amount of money? This would net you $100,000. What if you had 1,000 tracks that brought in the same amount of money per tracks? This would earn you about $200,000.00 and so on.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. To a large extent, our income in the music business, and in particular for things like music licensing and music streaming, will be determined by how many tracks we have in our catalog.
Now of course, there are a lot of other variables. The size of your catalog isn’t the only determining factor in licensing. There are other things, like the tracks themselves, how “license-able” and accessible they are, the connections you make and so on. There are a lot of different factors that will contribute to your success.
But, the size of your catalog and how many tracks you have available to be licensed is a key factor. One of the things you should be focusing on, at all times, is creating more music, so you have more music to license into more opportunities. It’s also one of the few things in this business, YOU have complete control over.
A few years ago, on my podcast, I interviewed a musician who made a full time living, based solely on this realization alone. His name is Matt Farley and his entire strategy is to make a ridiculous amount of music based around every imaginable, silly theme and idea he can think of. He has songs about poop, pee, UFOs, singing random people’s names over and over, writing songs about specific cities based on Wikipedia posts and much more. Thousands and thousands of tracks. His focus is more on making from streaming on platforms like Youtube and Spotify, as opposed to licensing. He doesn’t make much per track, but he makes so much music that, when I interviewed him in 2016 he was averaging about 2k a month in revenue.
That was a couple years ago.
I googled him to see what he’s been up to since and discovered he’s up to about 19,000 tracks and records under 17 different aliases, such as:
He’s also up to making about 65k a year from his massive catalog of almost 20,000 tracks, according to this article in INC magazine:
Matt is an extreme example, and it’s debatable whether or not much of his music would be considered great works of “art”. But, he’s paying his bills with music alone. Are you?
If you’re trying to make more money from your music, a great thought experiment is to simply look at how much money you’re making per year from your music, divided by the number of tracks in your catalog. This way, you can get a per song average of what your tracks earn. Then just extrapolate out.
So, for example, if you made $1,000.00 from your tracks last year and you have ten songs in you catalog, each song is earning on average about 100 dollars. Want to increase your income to $10,000? You’d need 100 songs, based on this rate of return. To get to $100,000.00, you’d need 1,000 tracks. Like I said, there are obviously other factors, but one of the easiest and most straightforward ways to grow your revenue from your music, is to simply make more of it.
This was the exact epiphany that Matt Farley had. He noticed one of his tracks earned almost 74 cents on Spotify, so he thought to himself, that’s not a lot of money, but what if I had thousands of tracks each earning tiny amounts of money. Eventually it would add up.
Of course, in something like licensing, there’s the potential to earn much more than 74 cents per track. I’ve made as much as 5k per placement and there are placements that earn much more than that. The problem though, with focusing on how much you earn per particular placement, is that you don’t entirely control when and where your tracks are used. You can influence this by more actively pitching your tracks, making new connections and so forth. But you can’t directly control it.
What you can control is the music you make. How much of it you make. What you make music about. Where you make it available and so on.
To a very large extent, your musical output = your income.
I’ll never quit music. Ever. This is a path I’m on for life. My entire life. I’m firmly committed to the path, for better or worse, in sickness and health. My commitment gives me a sense of clarity and calm. It also give me a sense of direction. I have my life purpose figured out, or at least one of them. Whereas many people struggle their whole lives to “figure themselves out” and “find their calling” and discover their purpose, I got that shit all figured out.
However, it hasn’t always been easy. It’s still not easy. Figuring out my life purpose hasn’t translated to a life of ease and leisure. To the contrary, I sometimes feel like figuring out my life purpose has brought with it an enormous weight and an added sense of stress and responsibility. After all, now that I know what my purpose is, I feel an obligation and pressure to pursue it, to make progress towards my goals, to not rest on my laurels and to keep advancing. This extra pressure is, in my view, a net positive. There is extra work and stress involved, but it’s worth it in the end, because of the meaning and depth music provide. I could just skip all the work and effort and not be bothered with any of it, but I would be missing out on something that also brings with it an enormous sense of reward and satisfaction.
But, there is a clear price to pay for being a professional musician and a career in music is filled with challenges, obstacles and typically, many setbacks along the way. If you’re pursuing a career in music or are thinking about going into the music industry, I don’t think this reality should be glossed over. I’ve seen multiple studies that show that musicians, on average, have much higher rates of things like depression, anxiety and substance abuse than the general population. I even saw a recent study of over 12,000 musicians that concluded that professional musicians, on average, die a full 25 years year younger than the rest of the population. That’s a significant difference and this reality of the music business shouldn’t be ignored.
Ok, so being a musician is hard, or at least it can be. Now what? Why on earth would anyone go into a business that’s fraught with so many challenges? Is there a way to mitigate the risks involved with pursuing a career in music? Well, that’s what this article is going to explore.
So, let’s get to it…
Let’s start with talking about the upside of being a musician and why a career in music is, at least potentially, so rewarding. First of all though, let me preface all of this by stating that what works for me, might not work for you, and vice versa. We all have different things that drive us and motivate us. Some people are quite content and happy to lead very simple, somewhat mundane and conventional lives. Nothing wrong that. Who am I or anyone else to tell you or anyone how to live? We all get to figure out what works for ourselves and ultimately, we’re the ones most qualified to decide how we live our lives. After all, no one knows you better than you. With that said, if you’re also drawn to making music and share that passion with me, it’s probably safe to assume we’re at least somewhat alike.
So, why pursue something that is so difficult and risky? Well, doing something that is difficult isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would suggest that what plagues many people living in modern, western society, isn’t that their lives are too difficult, it’s that they’re too boring and lack meaning and depth. Many people spend their time, or much of it, doing things they don’t find inherently meaningful or interesting, but that they feel they have to do in order to survive. A life spent simply working to pay bills, with occasional periods of relaxation mixed in, probably isn’t that fulfilling for most people. As Thoreau said, “most men live lives of quiet desperation”.
Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs
Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who came up with the idea of the “hierarchy of needs”, aka Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, observed that “the healthiest and most motivated among us, are those that are motivated by trends of self-actualization”. This was Maslow’s conclusion after decades of studying the psychology of those who excelled in life, in a variety of fields. Notice that he didn’t say anything about money or one’s net worth in relation to their well-being, although I’m sure many of the people he studied did quite well financially.
Maslow defined self-actualization as “an ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, as fulfillment of a mission”. Does this sound like something that could apply to musicians? Way before I had ever even heard of Abraham Maslow or his theories and research, it was self-evident to me that this was true. From a very young age, I sensed a deep sense of satisfaction from the process of struggling to get better at the guitar, putting in hours of practice and eventually progressing to higher and higher levels. It just seemed obvious to me that this process was somehow connected to my happiness and sense of fulfillment in life. By directing my energy towards something concrete and tangible, like progressing as a guitarist and musician, I grew as a person, which brought a deep sense of fulfillment and helped shaped my identity and path in life.
Maslow was so convinced of the importance of self-actualization in life, that he boldly stated, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life”. This idea resonates deeply within me. When I go through periods where, for whatever reason, I’m not working on and progressing with music, I feel a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness, that becomes more pronounced over time. It’s a feeling that grows and grows, until eventually, I’m motivated to pick up my guitar and get back to the process of exploring new song ideas, finishing existing songs, writing new music, and so on. I can’t go too long without returning to my love of writing songs and playing the guitar.
Reconciling Art & Commerce
So, if pursuing a craft like music can be so deeply satisfying, why does pursuing a career in music often times feel so frustrating and uninspiring? Well, this is a big question, and there are a lot of variables. But let me try to unpack this conflict by sharing a few things I’ve learned on my journey.
I think the biggest and most obvious conflict is that learning to play music, learning to write songs and so on, and progressing in these endeavors, is very different than learning to make money from music and learning to excel in the business of music. They are obviously related. You need a certain amount of talent to make money from performing and writing music. But getting good at an instrument or getting good at songwriting, is not the same as getting good at marketing and monetizing your music. They are completely different skill-sets.
So, one way of reconciling this conflict is simply seeing this dichotomy for what it is. If you’re struggling to make it in the music business, don’t allow this to take away the joy you get from craft of writing and/or performing music. Realize that your lack of success in the music business might not have anything to do with your lack of success as a musician and the talent you possess. This should be rather obvious, but it can be easy to forget. You might be an amazing musician whose time simply hasn’t come. You might be doing everything right but for whatever reason things just haven’t lined up for you. There are countless examples of this having happened in the music business. I’m sure you probably know plenty of musicians that fit this description yourself, right now.
This is why I think the most important barometer for success should really be your own internal sense of whether or not you’re getting better as a vocalist, guitarists, songwriter, etc. Are you getting better at your craft? Are you writing better songs today than you were a year or two years ago? Self-actualization involves realizing your full potential. How much money you make may or may not be connected to that. For many it will be, especially if you go far enough and excel enough. But it shouldn’t be the primary thing you focus on, especially when you’re first starting out. After all, I’m sure we all know plenty of well-off people, financially, who are far from self-actualized. Financial well-being and self-actualization don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
One way a lot of musicians come to terms with this reality of the music business is by simply not going into the music business. It’s hard to fail at something you’re not really even trying to be successful at doing. There are plenty of musicians who are actively performing and writing music who aren’t really trying to “make it” in the music business. Yet, they still get a deep sense of satisfaction from playing music on a regular basis. Maybe they have a completely different career or day job, but yet music remains an important and consistent part of their lives. This is one way to deal with the conflict, and for those that are happy and content to approach music this way, I think it’s completely valid.
But what if, like me, you do want to make a career out of playing and writing music? How can you focus on the benefits of reaching your full potential as a musician without letting the struggle and the grind weigh you down? Is there a way to reconcile the conflict between and art and commerce?
Well, no two paths are alike, but my general suggestion, if you do want to make a living out of music, is to keep your day job and consistently chip away at creating revenue streams from your music until they reach a point that allow you to sustain yourself. Then, make the leap to doing music full time and devote even more energy to it and keep building the revenue streams you’ve created.
This will obviously take a sustained effort to achieve, but the good news is that in many ways this is becoming more and more possible and easier to attain. I think that in the near future we’ll see a rise of more and more indie musicians who are able to make a respectable living from their music. I really believe that. In many ways, it’s already started. I might be a little biased, because I work in the music industry, but I’m meeting more and more musicians who have figured out how to create a career out of writing and performing music. Most of them you’ve probably never even heard of, but they’re quietly building sustainable and growing careers in the music business, doing what they love.
To me, this is the ideal scenario for musicians and is really the best of both worlds. It’s what I feel most musicians are shooting for; the ability to make a living doing what they love. When you can combine the benefits of self-actualization and striving for and reaching your potential as an artist and musician, and also figure out how to make enough money to sustain yourself, well, it doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?
Yesterday I interviewed Swedish based “Chillstep” artist Christoffer Hylander, aka “Killigrew” for my podcast, about how he’s been able to generate over 20 million streams on Spotify and has created an income stream from streaming alone that he’s able to live off of.
If you haven’t checked out that podcast yet, you can do so here: https://musicmoneyandlife.podbean.com/e/how-one-artist-generated-20-million-streams-on-spotify-and-makes-a-full-time-living-from-his-music/
In the beginning of the podcast, Christoffer said that his success on Spotify basically was a result of good timing and luck. He said that he wasn’t actively trying to get on Spotify playlists, but that a curator that runs a gigantic playlist just happened to discover his music and featured Christoffer’s musical project, “Killigrew” on his playlist and as a result, Killigrew’s music blew up, and to date has had over 20 million streams on Spotify. Christoffer has been living off the royalties he makes on Spotify alone, for over four years now, in Sweden.
Christoffer’s story is great, but I was a little disappointed at first, to learn that Christoffer basically concluded his success just boiled down to luck. That’s the way he described it at least. I wasn’t disappointed because I don’t like it when people are lucky and have good things happen to them, for no apparent reason. I love stories like that. It’s just that, from the standpoint of my podcast and website, I’m always looking for the takeaway. I’m looking for specific tactics and techniques that can be replicated by other artists, myself included. I want to know what the lesson is in each success story I hear so that we can applies these lessons to our own lives and careers. I almost always find at least one nugget of wisdom in each interview I do. There’s almost always something to learn from everyone I talk to. Sometimes I have to keep digging though before I strike gold.
As Christoffer and I kept talking, he eluded to his being lucky several times. I continued to question him about his success and what led up to it though, determined to find some practical advice and ideas that would apply to all musicians. Although I appreciate Christoffer’s humility about his success, I eventually found, as I suspected I would, three key things Christoffer did that led to his Spotify success.
Here they are…
Big Fish In A Small Pond – What’s Your Niche?
Christoffer told me that one of the keys to his success,was being one of the first “Chillstep” artists. Full disclosure: I knew more or less nothing about “Chillstep” until connecting with Christoffer. Christoffer discovered this genre in its infancy and according to Christoffer, he was one of the first dozen or so artists making this genre of music early on.
We might not all be in a position to be pioneers in a new genre of music, but the takeaway for me here is that it’s much easier to stand out when you’re a “big fish in a small pond’. If you’re making a style of music that there is a ton of, it doesn’t mean you won’t succeed, but you’re going to have much more noise to cut through. If you’re doing music that is more niche oriented, you’re going to have less competition and a greater chance of succeeding. What’s unique and truly original about your music? Is there an abundance of very similar music? These are important questions to ask yourself if you’re trying to promote your music on platforms like Spotify.
This is the part of Christoffer’s story that was really an “aha” moment for me. Although Christoffer chalked his Spotify success up to luck, he told me that prior to getting featured on the Spotify Playlist that catapulted his success, he spent weeks emailing thousands of people on Youtube his music. His strategy was finding other artists in his genre, Chillstep, and reaching out to fans of other artists who were making music similar to his. Christoffer said that although a few people would get upset and accuse him of being “spammy”, the vast majority of people were positive and receptive and he gained thousands of new fans using this method.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Christoffer said that it was a connection he made on Youtube that led to him inadvertently being featured on the Spotify Playlist that ultimately led to millions of streams. Someone who discovered his music first on Youtube, was the curator of the playlist that Christoffer was featured on that led to his Spotify success. So although he wasn’t actively trying to promote his music on Spotify, he was on Youtube, and the work and effort he put into promoting his music on Youtube, led indirectly to his success on Spotify.
Although I can appreciate Christoffer’s sentiment that luck played a role in his Spotify success, it’s also clear to me, after hearing his story, that had he not exerted so much effort in promoting his music on Youtube and in general, he never would have had the success he ultimately found on Spotify.
Finally, the last thing that Christoffer pointed to that led to his success was that deliberately created very distinct imagery and branding around his music. Christoffer’s project “Killiigrew” features an emphasis on nature and the beauty of nature and the outdoors. Like his music, his branding and the imagery he uses illicit a very calming, and relaxing feeling.
Here’s an example of some of the artwork he uses to promote his music:
It’s important that you have clear and consistent branding. Think about the kind of images, artwork and story would best fit your music and the message you’re trying to convey with your music. Good branding will help you stand out and make it easier for people to remember you and the music you create. There’s a reason major corporations work with ad agencies to help promote their products; because it works. Advertising and branding are a huge part of success in any industry, including of course the music industry.
So, what’s the ultimate takeaway? Does success in the music business simply come down to luck and being in the right place at the right time? I don’t think so. It’s clear in hearing Christoffer’s story and the countless other success stories I’ve heard over the years, that success in the music business is usually the result of both hard work and often times, what seems and feels like luck. Perhaps it’s better to say that success in the music business often arrives in unexpected ways, but if you re-trace the steps that led to most artists becoming successful, you’ll find that a lot of hard work was done along the way.
A few days ago I sent out an article I wrote, called “The #1 Problem With The Music Industry” to my email list. In that article I articulated why I think the biggest problem with the music industry is that there are too many musicians, in the sense that the supply of musicians outweighs the demands of the marketplace. I see this as the biggest hurdle most musicians will face, when it comes to creating a career in the music industry.
This was a really well received article, I received quite a few positive responses via email and many people who were in agreement with my assessment of the music industry. However, I also received a few replies from people who seemed pretty discouraged by some of the statistics I pointed out. I even got one response from someone who had decided to basically quit the business because of the statistics I pointed out.
I would like to address those that were discouraged by that article in today’s post.
Knowledge Is Power
In order to make an informed decision about anything in life, we need to take in as much data as possible. Of course, we’ll never be able to assess all the data related to any given situation. There’s simply no way of knowing all the different variables that are at play in something like the music industry. There are far too many people involved in the industry, and far too many factors at play to be able to dissect all the different moving parts that make up the music business.
It's sort of like sizing up a potential dating partner. It’s impossible to know everything there is to know about another person. So, instead, we get to know people the best we can, we meet their friends and family, we spend quality time with them, and in the end we make decisions about people using a combination of logic, intuition and heart. If we’re lucky, we make good decisions and surround ourselves with quality people and with quality partners. Sometimes we let our emotions over ride our logic and we ignore red flags that are warning us to move in a different direction. Conversely, sometimes we let our logic and intellect convince us to not give people a chance that would actually be very good for us. We don’t always get decisions right. We live and learn.
But, the more information and data we have going into a situation, the easier it is to make a decision that is right for us. There are a lot of marketers and bloggers that gloss over certain realities of the music business in order to sell books and programs. It’s easier to sell a program about how to make money in the music business, when you convince people that it’s easy to make it in the music business.
But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, my primary goal with my website and resources isn’t to make money. My primary goal is to educate and inform people about the realities of the music business, and in particular the music licensing business. The good, the bad and the ugly.
I don’t think the competitive nature of the music industry or the fact that it’s a relatively hard industry to succeed in should be overlooked. In fact, I think it should be embraced and fully understood. You need to be able to look at this business, for what it really is, square in the eye, in order to make an informed decision about whether or not you want to enter into it. You’ll also have a much better chance of success if you fully understand the reality of the business and what you’re up against.
With that said, you still need to have a healthy, big picture perspective of the music business. For example, in my previous article I pointed out a study that indicated that 90% of artists are completely unknown. Some of you took that to mean you only have a 10 % shot at any sort of success in the music industry. But, of course, that’s not how statistics really work. The study I pointed to simply reported that the vast majority of music artists out there are basically unknown. But that doesn’t reflect your individual odds of succeeding in the music business.
Maybe 90 percent of the artists surveyed are completely slackers with no work ethic. Maybe the vast majority are hobbyists who are also balancing families and careers. Maybe half of all the artists surveyed don’t even aspire to be full time musicians. The problem with statistics and data is that it’s impossible to tease apart all the different variables. Can we really know hard the competition wants to succeed? Can we really quantify how badly someone else wants to make it in the music business, compared to your own desire to make it as a musician? Maybe you are part of the 10 percent who have what it takes to succeed? Or, maybe you’re part of the 1 percent that go on to become ultra-successful in the music business. There’s really know way to know these things using statistics alone.
You also have to really look at the big picture, in terms of how being a musician factors into your overall life satisfaction. In other words, how much happiness do you derive from spending your time playing and writing music? Do you prioritize money and security over pursuing meaningful work? Would you be happy earning slightly less than the typical American or European (or elsehwhere) worker if you were able to make your living doing something you love?
The average professional musician earns $39,899.00 per year in the USA. That’s not a ton of money, relatively speaking. But the average person in the USA only earns $44,564.00. For an even larger, big picture perspective, consider the fact that if you make over $32,400.00 you are in the top 1% of income earners in the entire world! I realize that in certain areas of the USA, or other parts of the world, that would be very hard to live on, but I find it incredibly helpful to take a step back and look at just how much money, even a modest salary in the west is, relative to the rest of the world. Part of being successful is having perspective and knowing just how good you have it, even if you haven’t “made it” on the level of someone like Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande.
Again, these statistics are averages, and you could earn much more or much less than these figures, in or out of the music industry. But, success isn’t just about overall money earned, it’s also about other things, that are harder to quantify, like a sense of personal meaning and overall life satisfaction; things that are harder to measure, but are of vital importance to the quality of your life.
My goal is to provide the most accurate, up to date information about the music licensing business and the music business at large. It’s easy to get cynical about the music business and it’s easy to get discouraged. But in many ways, I don’t think succeeding in the music business is that much different than succeeding in other industries. A small percentage of people make it to the very top of most industries. How many multi-millionaire CEOs are there compared to minimum or low wage workers? How many rich entrepreneurs are there compared to entrepreneurs that struggle to get by? I’m not going to bore you with more statistics, you can look them up if you're interested, but I think you get the point.
Succeeding at a “rock star” level in the music business is hard, because it’s special. It’s not something everyone gets to do or can do, and that is what makes the goal so appealing. If it was easy, everyone would just decide to be a rock star, and then it wouldn’t really be that special.
Being a musician isn’t for everyone. In order to know whether it’s right for you, you need to deeply understand both the business and be very self-aware about how much talent you actually have. Do you have something truly unique and special to share with the world? Do you have a burning desire to share your talent? If so, in my opinion, you owe it to yourself and the world to chase your dreams!
Because remember, even if you don’t “make it” in the way that maybe you dreamed about when you were a teenager, even if all you ever become is a musician who succeeds on an “average” level, you’re still doing pretty damn good by virtue of the fact that you’ll be making way more than 99% of the entire world, doing something you love.
Think about that.
Here’s a video that sums up this article pretty well that I posted to my Youtube Channel recently.
On a positive note, here's a video I posted to my Youtube Channel a few years ago, that breaks down a straightforward way of making 60k a year as a musicians working 25 hours a week.
In my most recent webinar for How To License Your Music Premium, with composer Dario Forzato, one of the topics we discussed was the idea of luck vs hard work in the context of licensing. One of the topics Dario focused on in our webinar is how having a consistent routine and schedule that facilitates creating a consistent output of music will lead to consistent results over time. Of course, along the way, you might just get lucky here and there and stumble upon the right opportunity at the right time. There is an element of luck in the careers of most successful musicians and artists. But it’s the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly work you do, that over time will lead to the most consistent results and will greatly increase your “luck”.
My favorite expression about luck, that I’m sure most of you have heard, is that “luck is when preparation and opportunity meet”. I’ll give you an example. When I first got into licensing, I was lucky in the sense that my former songwriting teacher had gone on to form a successful publishing company and was in need of the exact kind of music I was making at the time. It was lucky, you could say, that I even knew her in the first place and that she just happened to need the kind of music I was into at the time. Of course, I had spent years writing and recording songs prior to our working together, which is where the work part of it comes in to play. Had I not been diligently working on the craft of writing songs and recording music for several years prior to reconnecting and working with my former teacher I wouldn’t have been prepared for the opportunity that presented itself.
According to Dario, and I concur 100 percent, hard work and consistency is what separates those that are able to do licensing full time from those who just get lucky and land a placement here and there. I did a podcast with Composer Eddie Grey recently where he more or less said the exact same thing.
If you make enough music and submit it to enough places, chances are you can get “lucky” and license a few random things. But it’s the composers and songwriters who diligently set out to create an amazing catalog of music and build ongoing professional relationships they cultivate and nurture over time, that end up in the “lucky” position of creating music for a living.
I recently created a Youtube video talking about this topic and someone left a comment along the lines of “Here’s another video that doesn’t really reveal the “secret” of licensing and doesn’t really say anything”. It was something like that. I sometimes get the feeling that musicians imagine there is some sort of insider, top secret, confidential knowledge, that only musicians “in the know” are privy to, that if they only knew would instantly lead to success in the music business and in music licensing. Maybe there is. Maybe the Justin Biebers and Bruno Mars of the world know something myself, and the hundreds of musicians I’ve worked with over the years don’t know.
What I aim to do with my website, podcast, webinars and so forth is share what’s worked for me over the years and also to find other successful musicians that have carved out successful careers in the music licensing business and find out what’s working for them. I came up with the novel idea of simply asking people who do music for a living to tell me how they do it, and I share that information with the growing community of musicians who read my blogs and are members of my website.
We all have slightly different paths and we sometimes get “lucky” in different ways. But what I know is true, across the board, of all the different people I’ve interviewed and worked with over the years who are successful in licensing, is that they’ve worked hard to get where they are.
If I discover some sort of “top secret” formula to success in licensing, believe me, I will gladly share it with you via my podcast, courses, webinars, etc. But, in the meantime, keep putting in the work. Hard work is the only thing that I know that works consistently and it's much more reliable than luck.
I've had a nice string of placements over the last several months. I've had songs placed in commercials, several tv shows and even a video game recently. I thought I'd share a few of my recent placements, so you can get a better idea of the kind of tracks I write and some of the places my music has been used recently.
Here are some of the highlights in terms of placements I know about. I've had a few other incidental uses of my tracks, but here are some of the more prominent placements I've had recently.... Note the diversity in terms of styles, vocals, instrumentals, etc.
Joy To The World (Instrumental Rock Guitar Version) - I recorded this version of Joy To The World a few years ago on spec for one of my publishers. It took a few years, but last December this track was used several times in different ABC promos for the movies Mary Poppins, The Great Christmas Light Fight, The Middle and ABC World News Now.
"Where We Were" - I recorded this track in LA with producer Gary Gray back in 2015. This was licensed for use a few weeks ago in a new VR video game called "Catch And Release". This was my first video game placement! I sing lead vocals on this one and my buddy MJ, sang the harmony vocal part. I never imagined, when I wrote this, that it would end up being used in a video game, no less a video game about fishing. But, now that I think about it, it does have a sort of, spending a day on the lake with a friend, casting out the line, drinking a couple beers, sort of vibe. This track is also featured on a corresponding soundtrack for the game, so in addition to an upfront licensing fee, I'll also be getting payments for the soundtrack going forward.
Closer To You Now - Here's another one that I sang lead vocals on. This was recorded a few years back with a full band in Chicago. You can really hear my Phish/Jamband influence come through on this one. I never imagined when I recorded this that it would end up on an episode of The Young & The Restless, but there it was on one of my recent ascap statements with a corresponding payment for a usage on The Y&R.
How Many Times? - For this track I recruited a friend of a friend to sing the vocal part. For certain songs, my voice simply doesn't work. I try to be as objective as possible about vocals and find the best vocalist for each track. Sometimes that's me, but a lot of times I use outside vocalists who can better capture the vibe of what I'm looking for. This track was also used on a recent episode of The Young & The Restless. I've had a lot of music used on this show over the years.
Falling Down (You Went Away) - Here's yet one more track that has been used on The Young & The Restless recently. I recorded this track with producer Gary Gray in 2015. My friend MJ sang lead vocals on this one. This one was has been used several times on The Y&R over the last two years, including a recent placement several months ago.
Up To You - This song holds the record for the single track of mine that's had the most placements. I don't know the exact number, but hundreds of uses over the years. This song has been heard on Fox Sports, The US Open, Rangers Insiders and several other sports shows I'm drawing a blank on at the moment. I just got my most recent Ascap statement, and sure enough, there it was again!
Retail Outlets - Blanket License Deal-Here's a few more of my songs that have been recently licensed into a blanket licensing deal for use in retail stores around the world. I don't know the exact details in terms of stores/locations yet, but should be receiving payment for these later this year. All of these tracks were produced by Gary Gray. I sing lead vocals on all of these, with the exception of "I Will Fly" and "Shooting Stars", which features vocalist Travis Nilan.
Venus And The Moon At Night
I Will Fly
Do you feel like your music career is on the right track? Or, do you feel like your spinning your wheels, not really getting anywhere? Are you sure your on the right track with your music career? Are you sure your pursuing the right goals for your particular set of talents? How can you be sure?
I had the revelation many years ago, that as long as I feel like I’m moving forward and making progress towards my goals, I feel satisfied. I’ve never been overly concerned with reaching a specific destination, as much as simply wanting to continually progress. For me, it’s always been more about the journey than the destination. Not that I don’t have specific goals, I do, but my over arching goal is to keep progressing and growing.
But how do you really know if you’re making progress in something like the music business? Is it enough to just have a vague sense of moving forward, or should you have specific, concrete goals you can gauge your success by? Is it about financial success? Is it about artistic satisfaction? Both?
Enjoy The Journey, But Know Where You’re Going
Ultimately, I think you need to have both specific goals and targets you’re shooting for, as well as a deep appreciation for the journey. The mistake many musicians seem to make is setting goals that are too distant and too lofty and then getting disappointed when they don’t reach those goals quickly.
If you’re obsessed with the idea of playing stadiums like U2 or The Rolling Stones, you’re probably not going to really enjoy playing small bars and clubs for many years, although it will be required in order to reach your ultimate goal of playing stadiums. If you have no appreciation for sweating it out in smaller venues and paying your dues, you’ll likely get burned out and give up way before every reaching your goal.
If your goal is to make a full time living licensing music and that’s all you think about, it might be challenging to appreciate the years it takes to get there by improving your tracks, writing more songs, spending days and months networking and building relationships, and so on. If you don’t truly enjoy the process, it will be much harder to push through the challenging times and ultimately reach your goals, whatever they are.
I used to fall victim to this sort of thinking in the past and it derailed me for several years. I felt frustrated because I wasn’t moving forward fast enough and wasn’t reaching my, admittedly, very big goals. It wasn’t until I redefined my own definition of success and changed my approach to making music and the music business, that I started to actually make progress and began to appreciate the journey.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. Because I’m thinking it even as I type this. Isn’t this just some sort of a trick to get your mind to accept settling for less? And the answer is a definitive no. I don’t want you to settle for less. I want you to push as hard as possible and give everything you have towards reaching your goals. In fact, you might even need to set bigger goals for yourself, to give yourself the proper motivation to truly grow and move forward. BUT, you also need to be truly in touch with yourself and with where you are in the grand scheme of your career and life, in order to set the right goals. You need to learn to enjoy the daily, weekly and monthly process of grinding it out and moving forward. And most importantly, you need to be sure you’re pursuing the right goals, the ones that are a best match for your particular set of skills, your personality and your desired lifestyle.
Part of success, in any industry, is being realistic about where you actually are and the things you need to work on to improve, on a daily basis in order to reach your goals. If your dream is to perform in stadiums in front of 50,000 people, but you can barely muster up the courage to perform for 40 people at your local bar, you clearly have some work cut out for you. If you don’t look forward to the incremental steps you need to take to inch your way towards your bigger goals, it’s going to be hard to move forward at all. Even if you get extremely lucky and somehow manage to skip the necessary steps you need to take in order to achieve success, there’s a good chance you won’t be ready for it when you get there, if you’re not prepared.
You also need to be realistic about how much you actually enjoy the work required to reach your particular goals, whatever they are. If your goal is to become a famous touring musician, but you don’t actually like being on the road and being away from your home for extended periods of time, you might need to reassess your goals. If your goal is to perform for thousands of people, but you don’t really enjoy performing or feel comfortable in front of large crowds, you might need to reassess you goals. If your goal is to license music full time for television, but you don’t actually enjoy the kind of music that’s used in TV, you might need to reassess your goals. If you want to be a famous songwriter, but you’re not comfortable with periods of struggle and uncertainty, you might need to reassess your goals.
Even though we live in a time where there are, perhaps more musicians than ever before, making a career out of music is still a fairly unconventional and risky career path. Although there are plenty of examples of people who have figured out how to turn their passion for music into a viable career, doing music for a living requires and enormous amount of both self-discipline and self-awareness.
You might have a dream of becoming a famous touring musician, but do you really, truly want that deep down? Is your passion and love for music strong enough to overcome the enormous obstacles and challenges that will inevitably present themselves on your journey? Only you really know the answers to those questions. Only you know if you really have what it takes to make it in the music business. Only you know what part of the music business your particular temperament and interests are a good fit for.
If you’re not sure what you really want and what you’re a really good fit for, perhaps some soul searching is in order. It took me many years to really figure out where I fit best in the music business and to learn how to turn my passion for music into a viable career. I’m still tweaking and modifying my particular formula for working in the music business, to this day.
Also, keep in mind your goals and interests may very likely change as you move forward and grow as both a person and musician. When I was younger, I was dead set on forming a band and becoming a famous rock guitarist in the vein of Carlos Santana, Trey Anastasio, Jerry Garcia, etc. So after I finished Berklee I formed a band in Chicago that lasted several years and played a lot regionally. After this first band broke up, I formed another band and continued to perform. This band lasted about two years. After that band broke up, I formed yet another band, that lasted about a year and a half. After that band broke up, I formed yet one more short-lived band, that only lasted about six months.
After a decade of playing in different bands, none of which became “rock star” level successful, I was forced to reassess my path and goals. I loved my time playing in bands, but as I got older, there were things about this lifestyle and path that started to feel incongruent to me. For example, when I was younger, I used to get pretty bad stage fright and my solution at the time was to simply drink alcohol until I felt comfortable enough to perform. After all I thought, I’m working in an environment where drinking is not only permitted, it’s given to me for free! Drinking alcohol is a really effective short term solution to stage fright. It works in the moment to relieve nerves, but like many “quick fixes”, it comes at a price. Negative health consequences, hangovers and social costs, are all part of the fun of using alcohol excessively.
So, after a decade of performing live I decided to step away from playing in bands for awhile. In retrospect, it was a much needed break, because it allowed me to really focus on myself and get healthy. I took a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua during this period, where I ended up actually performing a lot, particularly in Nicaragua, where I befriended a fellow musician and bar owner. Except this time, I was performing mainly for fun, so I didn’t really feel the pressure I felt before when I was trying to “make it”.
I learned how to perform either with no alcohol or very little. To this day when I play gigs, I will often have one or two drinks. I’m not against moderate drinking, I’m just against using alcohol as a crutch, to the point where it becomes a problem and bleeds over into other areas of your life. This is an easy and common trap to fall into if you’re not careful. In fact, I read a study recently that said the average “famous” musician has a life span of about 25 years less than the general population, mainly due to drugs and alcohol.
These days I perform live frequently. Usually at least once or twice a week. Sometimes I play solo. Sometimes I perform with different bands. Over the last several years I’ve performed in a variety of different contexts. Playing live is probably my favorite thing about being a musician. I love the immediate feedback and immediate gratification of getting up in front of an audience. But, it took me a few years to really learn how to perform in a healthy way. Ultimately, the best cure for stage fright, is simply experience. I don’t necessarily aspire to live a life on the road, but I’ve learned to love performing and it remains an important piece of the musical puzzle for me.
The point I’m making, is that the path you choose to pursue, will potentially impact your entire life. You need to know yourself well enough, to know which path you should go down and which path is really right for you. Being a touring musician, for example, isn’t for everybody and if you come to the conclusion that it’s not the life you desire, there’s no shame in that. I’ve talked to many musicians who have had considerable success touring who decided it wasn’t what they actually wanted after getting a taste of success and life on the road. A few years ago, I interviewed the former Saxophone player for Sublime and “Sublime With Rome”, who also happens to be a medical doctor, who decided after more than a year on the road with Sublime, playing venues like Red Rocks, that the touring lifestyle wasn’t what he wanted! He said ultimately, that he missed his family and didn’t really enjoy the extensive travelling and the lifestyle that went along with playing in a band as successful as Sublime.
Many Different Paths
The music business is comprised of many different roles and career paths. Becoming a famous musician ala Justin Beiber, Beyonce and The Rolling Stones, may be what many of us think of when we think of “making it” in the music business. But, it turns out there are many different ways of “making it” in music. There are songwriters who simply write music for a living. There are musicians who have carved out careers in only licensing their music. There are producers who produce music for a living. There are music publishers who publish and license music for a living. There are artists who make a living performing only regionally. There are music teachers who inspire and teach other musicians. And there are artists who do any combination of the above that make a good living though several revenue streams.
There are many different ways to make it in the music business. What path is right for you?
I played a gig a few nights ago that was one of “those” gigs. If you’re a performing musician you probably know the kind of gig I’m talking about. It was one of those gigs where something just clicked between myself, the other musicians on stage and the audience. During gigs like this it feels like I couldn’t play a wrong note if I tried. All apprehension and nervousness fades away, and the music seems to flow out of me, without my thoughts or ego getting in the way. It doesn’t happen every time I perform. Sometimes multiple gigs go by without getting into that “zone” or reaching that place. But when it happens it’s undeniable and palpable and the crowd responds accordingly. This feeling, this “zone”, whatever you want to call it, is the feeling I’m chasing every time I get on stage.
Things didn’t click until the second set. It started during the opening song. A song I sang lead vocals on. I could tell the crowd was into the song, which gave me the confidence to sing with even more conviction and excitement as the song progressed. The song ended and there was thunderous applause. I can’t remember ever getting that enthusiastic of a response to my vocals. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the crowd’s over the top reaction, which set the stage for the rest of the night.
As I thanked the crowd, a huge grin came over my face and we launched in the next song, an instrumental funk number that lasted about ten minutes and was built to a dramatic climax. As I launched into my solo, I stumbled upon a simple, but catchy melody that I continued to come back to throughout the jam. The saxophonist in our band latched onto the same melody and together we weaved in and out of this motif for the next several minutes. We played it in different octaves, with different rhythmic variations, sometimes together, sometimes more of a call and response, for several minutes, until the jam seemed to reach a natural conclusion.
Again, when the song stopped, there was thunderous applause. Mot of the second set was like this, until things seemed to peter out a bit towards the end. But by then, it didn’t seem to matter. Every one was clearly enjoying themselves, band and audience alike.
After the show, different people came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the show. I got a lot of “great job”, “you play great” sort of compliments, which is always nice to hear. But one conversation in particular struck me as particularly poignant. A girl I’ve know for a couple years came up to me and said how much she enjoyed the show. I thanked her and said something like, “thanks, I love to play”. “Well”, she said, “it shows”.
I had an end of the night drink after the show with a few of the musicians I performed with and went home. When I got home, I still had so much adrenaline and excitement from the gig that I couldn’t sleep. It was strange, because I’ve played so many gigs at this point that I’m usually not that amped up after shows anymore. But for some reason I was strangely excited and my mind was racing more than usual. It reminded me of how I felt when I was younger, in my early twenties, after a really good gig. I used to get so excited that I would stay up until the early hours of the morning, reflecting on the night’s performance and de-briefing, in my mind, the good and bad elements of the show.
When I woke up the next morning, my mind came back to my friend’s comment about how she could see how much I enjoyed playing music and it struck me, that that was probably about the best compliment anyone could give me. The show was great, because myself and the band I was performing with, we’re having a good time. The audience had a good time because they fed off the energy of the band. The band picked up on the audience’s response and we got even more excited and as a result played even better, with more confidence. And that, is essentially, what live music is all about. It’s an exchange of energy, if you will, between musicians and audience. It’s an opportunity to escape from the problems and stress of our day to day lives for a few hours, let our proverbial hair down, and simply have a good time.
When I was younger I used to be really into the band Phish. I saw them live dozens of times. Love them or hate them, in their prime, they were an amazing live band. They toured with Carlos Santana in the early 90s and Santana had this great way of explaining the live concert experience at a Phish show, and at concerts in general. His analogy was that music was like water, the band is like a hose, and the audience is like flowers. Yeah, it sounds like some super hippy, stoner talk, but it’s a beautiful analogy if you think about it. Here’s Trey Anastasio from Phish on Santana’s idea:
“When we went out with Santana, he had brought up this thing about the Hose. ... where the music is like water rushing through you and as a musician your function is really like that of a hose. And, and well his thing is that the audience is like a sea of flowers, you know, and you're watering the audience. But the concept of music going through you, that you're not actually creating it, that what you're doing is -- the best thing that you can do is get out of the way. So, when you are in a room full of people, there's this kind of group vibe that seems to get rolling sometimes.”
I love this idea that as musicians, especially during moments of improvisation, we’re not actually creating the music. It’s more like we’re channeling the music from a deeper part our ourselves, or from somewhere out there in the cosmos. This rings true to me in my experience, because in moments where I feel in the “zone” and things are flowing particularly well, a guaranteed way to screw it up is to start thinking too much about what I’m doing or over analyzing things. It’s better to not think about things at all, or as little as possible and just let the music come through. If you think about it, that’s what stage fright or nervousness is all about, it’s about focusing too much on yourself. When you an learn to redirect that energy towards the music, your stage fright and nerves will naturally dissipate.
I think that’s why music, at its best, is so enjoyable. It’s a way of getting outside of our egos and problems and transcending them, to experience even greater joy and reach greater heights than possible, when we’re stuck in our egoic, “monkey minds”. That’s why playing music is so enjoyable. Because, when we’re truly in the moment, in what’s known as a “flow state” we’ve transcended, albeit temporarily, the stress and problems that tend to permeate our day to day lives.
When I was younger I used to have this grandiose concept of what it meant to be a musician. I looked up to artists like Hendrix and Dylan and saw how music, at its most impactful, could change the world and impact culture. Of course, that’s still true. Music and art have that potential. Music and art have the potential to both reflect and shape culture in profound ways. The Beatles certainly impacted culture. Beethoven certainly did as well. As did Dylan, The Stones, Pink Floyd, Coltrane, Radiohead, Paul Simon and countless other great artists over the years.
But music also serves a much more practical and perhaps less dramatic function, which is to simply lift people’s spirits and help them enjoy themselves and well, as Prince said, “get through this thing called life”. If you accomplish nothing else a musician, other than simply entertaining people and helping to elevate their moods, even temporarily, know that you’ve still done something truly great.
Life is hard in many ways and on many levels for many people and the world needs as many people as possible sharing their gifts, lifting each other up and inspiring each other. If you have the gift to do that through music, you should, you know, like, keep doing that.
I did a live webinar a couple weeks ago, exclusively for members of How To License Your Music Premium. I’m doing one live webinar a month for members of the new premium site, focusing on different topics related to music licensing. The most recent webinar focused on how to build connections with music libraries and music supervisors and featured myself, TV composer Eddie Grey and music producer Gary Gray.
During the webinar, one of the questions that came up at the end was about how to stay motivated when you’re new to the industry and things aren’t going the way you want them to go. How do you stay motivated when you’re trying and trying to get your music career off the ground, but you haven’t yet achieved the success you’re hoping for?
This is a good question, because I think it’s all too easy to get thrown off track when you’re new to licensing, or even if you’ve been at it awhile, if you lose sight of a few important things. If you’re only focused on your lack of results, it can easily prevent you from taking the necessary steps to reach your goals. So, with that in mind, here are a few things to keep in mind and help you stay motivated and positive, even if you haven’t yet reached your licensing and music career goals.
It Takes Time
One of the things that you have to keep in mind related to licensing, is that it takes time. Almost everyone that I’ve interviewed and worked with over the last ten years that is doing licensing on a full-time level, has indicated that it took at least a few years for things to get to the point where they could live off the income they make from licensing. The exact time frame varies from person to person. I’ve heard two years, four years and even longer as the length of time it took for different composers to reach the point of making a sustainable income from licensing their music.
As my friend and composer Eddie Grey stated on a recent episode of my podcast, this business is a marathon not a sprint. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not seeing a ton of results right out of the gate. It’s normal. It takes most writers a couple years or more to really get things rolling with licensing. If you think about the way the business works and the nature of the music licensing business, this makes complete sense. Even in the absolute best-case scenario of writing a song today and licensing it tomorrow, it still takes time to get paid, collect performance royalties and so on. Music Licensing is a slow-moving industry. Of course, you probably won’t license your music that quickly. Most likely it will take time to write and record tracks, build connections, start getting placements and so on. You can avoid a lot of frustration in the beginning of your licensing career if you’re aware of this fact and go into the business with open eyes.
Focus On The Work
Because things do take time to get rolling in the beginning. The best use of your time will be focusing on doing the work. Focus on building and growing your catalog, making connections, signing with different libraries and so on. It makes no sense to get discouraged about not getting the results you want immediately and letting that throw you off track. Instead, focus on the things that need to be done, that you can actually control. The more you do this, the quicker results will come.
With a few exceptions, most of the writers I know that make a full-time income from licensing, have very large catalogs. Think anywhere from 500 to 1,000 or more tracks and cues. Licensing is a numbers game and the more tracks you have that will potentially work in a broad range of applications, the more money you’ll be able to make from licensing. Again, there are exceptions and some types of placements pay considerably more than others, but you should always focus on growing your catalog and continuing to write great material. When you write new tracks, you’re exponentially increasing your odds of getting more placements. Don’t rest on your laurels once you start getting placements and become comaplacent. Instead, keep writing new music, so that you’ll always have more tracks you can license down the road.
Stay Connected To Your Passion For Music
One of the best ways to stay motivated and positive about your music, when you’re not getting the results you want, is to simply stay connected to why you love music in the first place. I think most musicians have a love for music that transcends simply wanting to make money from music. Stay in touch with that.
I’ve had periods in the past where my frustration about the business of music led me to temporarily losing touch with my passion for music. Don’t let that happen to you. The music business and the music you make, that comes from you heart and soul, are two very different things. Don’t ever forget that.
Whenever I find myself getting discouraged or down about music, which fortunately doesn’t happen that often anymore, I simply go back to writing music from a place of joy and passion. I’m more prolific when I’m in touch with my passion for music, I tend to write better music and ultimately I end up licensing more music and making more money from my music as a result.
First and foremost, I’m in touch and connected with my love of music. I’ve often said, that as much as I love licensing my music, I’m not overly concerned or even that excited with any particular placement or usage of my music. Don't get me wrong, I of course am super grateful for every opportunity that has come my way and getting paid for my music is extremely satisfying. But, ultimately, it’s more about the joy of writing songs, building my catalog and trusting the process.
In the end, all you can really do is write the best music you’re capable of writing and connect it with as many people as possible. If you’re persistent in doing this and you do this consistently over a period of several years, you can realistically reach a point where you can live off the income you’re making from licensing, or at the very least, supplement your income in a substantial way. But to focus on the business of music at the expense of your love and passion for music doesn’t make sense to me, because even if you end up becoming successful, if you’re not enjoying it, you’ll end up with just another “job”. I don’t know about you, but that’s not why I got into the music business.
Speaking of my love for music, check out my latest track, produced by Gary Gray, called “You’ll Be On My Mind”. We just finished this track a couple weeks ago and just signed this to a new publishing/licensing deal this week.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.