A couple of years ago, an inexperienced young musician messaged me for advice on how to be a better pro. It is a question I am posed in different ways almost every day from my students and others who want quick tips on how to short cut their careers. I am always happy to give advice and based on the context would offer from broad guides to detailed strategies, whatever I feel could benefit them and their careers.
Now, I am very fond of saying, if I taught from experience based only on my success it would be interesting (and more of a movie script) but a rather short class. Like most entrepreneurs, music professionals, music consultants and music educators (call us what you will) I have been wrong many more times than we have been right and that, in the being wrong, I feel is where the wisdom, if any, lies.
I replied to the young musician in a Facebook post with a short list of tips I could think of based on my unique experience. This list became the basis of a Masterclass I gave and now a deeper dive in to Ten Habits of Highly Effective Musicians. This was always supposed to be really only for musicians but I think could be used and certainly understood by creative professionals.
1. Perform live in an organised way in front of people as much as possible, even for free, for the first 30 odd gigs you will be learning a craft that can only be learned by doing it.
Especially at the start of their career’s, music artists need to play live a lot, they need to play well learning from every gig and above all they need to generate a following. There is a line separating gaining experience and getting exploited but if one is aware of how the industry works then the context rather than some misguided emotion will make the line thick rather than thin. The concept is a live music ecosystem with every participant from security guys to sound guys from performers to promoters and venues to vendors all working as part of this system. Artists have been told (and are happy to believe) they do not need to understand this and should focus on their art. The result is usually not so good. Musicians and live performers should know that we, as a part of this ecosystem, might well be the weakest link. A music artist is an opportunity for a promoter if they can pull a paying audience regardless of the art itself. This sounds hash but is still true. In a nutshell, stop being precious, get up there and perform.
2. Practice and rehearse every day, budget at least 4 hours working on muscle memory and another 4 hours on song writing and/or producing.
This is pretty basic but also needs got be made clear. The result of an artistic project is usually directly proportionate to the level and size of the effort put in. Its does not take long for inexperienced musicians to figure out that a 5 piece band is going to get very little from an hour long practice. One band member will be 15 mins late, set up and sound takes 10 mins till it is not distracting, take out 5 mins at the end for pack up and you are left with 30 mins of actual jamming and jamming can easily take 15 mins before it feels right. The only reason not to schedule longer and more frequent practice is sometimes it begins to feel like work, welcome to real world.
3. Surround yourself with like minded musicians moving in the same direction but not necessarily from the same backgrounds.
As a metal singer if I want to write or produce or play live I would gravitate to other similar level and genre musicians. I know the best ones in the country and we would sound brilliant but no better than any other metal band from the 90’s, we would not do anything new. Now, if I were to do an opposites thing then its possible we may create something special, if I worked with a 20 something South Indian percussionist or a modern hiphop producer there is no guarantee but this could be the foundation for fresh (and far more rewarding) music. The bigger the difference between the artists the more exciting the outcome could be. The only thing both need is attitude, what ever it is, this should be in sync.
4. Study music in any way you can including listening to a lot of music, going for gigs and if possible short cut your career by going to a progressive music school.
The best teachers are not always gonna be teachers but the best students are always gonna be students. Again, this is an attitude more than a skill. We are constantly being told to demonstrate confidence as performing artists and of course this is good advice when the confidence is founded on a healthy attitude. The willingness to take creative risks is all about attitude and essential for gaining a foothold in the ever changing music industry.
5. Be yourself, be who you are and no one else.
This is not at all metaphor for some psychological or spiritual quest for self belief, no, it is a productive strategy. The struggle is to stand out and be noticed, without discovery no mater how good the music, the artist will never be heard. Most brands are constructed for a target group where as with music artists it is more identifying the existing brand story that is worth marketing. So it is just better if the artist knows what they like to do, who they are and most of all what they have to say. The more unique and relevant this is the more productive any marketing strategy will be.
6. Have something to say, have opinions, be aware of what is going on, see what grinds your organ then put this passion in to your music and performance.
So many music legends are so for the best reasons – the impact they have had on culture and human behaviour through their music. And then when you look again you will see it is the other way round also, it is the issues that have provoked the artist to produce and perform stunning music. Learning how to play and write music is like learning how to type, its muscle memory and some are good at it while some are not. But the music that will never die was made but musicians who, like many others, knew how to operate their instrument but unlike everyone else, these people had some thing relevant worth saying.
7. Travel when ever you can especially low bucks and go places you have never been before, be safe but be bold.
I planned to travel by train from Bangalore to Bombay in the 90’s to record the vocals for our second album. I could have flown but I knew I had left quite a bit of lyric writing left that had ground to a halt leading up to the recording dates. I was confident the words would flow on the train and sure enough they did as we left Pune and wound through the Western Ghats to Bombay. In those beautiful 4 hours as the sun set in in the direction I was heading, I finished off the album. For creative people travelling has the effect of solidifying our creative swamps making it easier to pull away from the same old ideas.
8. Take non musical things like your set list, sound check and what you will wear on stage very very seriously.
The best professional musicians are those who take the profession as seriously as the music. What if one does actually write an awesome song, it will remain one of thousands of brilliant unheard songs because it did not come with a stage lighting idea or video concept and today this is no longer a luxury. A set list, for example, is like a movie screenplay, can you imagine a screen writer not knowing about the three act structure? But not many music artists or DJs consciously plan a set with this degree of objectivity, the ones who do are, well, successful.
9. Create spaces, Chick Corea said that, read about it.
One of the earliest direct pieces of advice I used from those on the front line and the basis of so many of my own thoughts and ideas. Chick Corea is a dazzling keyboardist so when he wrote about spaces I wanted it to make sense. Then, when I was 14 or so, I understood he meant to create spaces I music, the idea of the spaces in between the notes and phrases are as important to the music as the notes themselves, and of course he is right. But I now think there is also a deeper meaning, something on the lines of life as a melody, it needs to make sense and this means sometimes creating a space to put everything in to context. Maybe he just meant not standing too close to other musicians in stage but I do not think so.
10. If you want honest feedback (on your own music) form friends do not tell them it is your’s, if you just want affirmation, it is still a risk but tell them it is.
Most people wont give usable advice or actionable feedback on a performance or recording because they do not have any to give or they do but do not want to be honest if it triggers a mood spoiling awkwardness. It is just one of those things musicians are never taught, how to seek and take feedback. I prefer numbers myself and have spent fortunes on highly actionable feedback that brought the networks I programmed to financial success. I could afford to be incredibly emotionless in selecting a new presenter or putting a song on high rotation or creating a clutter breaking show name, there was too much to risk to cater to emotions so I learned how to ask the right questions. Every day I get links sent to me for ‘sampling’, I usually reply asking specifically what area of advice they want, usually I do not get a reply.