TThere is so much to consider when climbing the mountain of “making it” or of being a successful creative. We no longer live in a world where it’s enough to simply be talented, to be a great singer, or guitar player, or whatever you did. It feels like maybe there was a time you could lock yourself up in your room, away from the rest of the world and magically someone would come find you and make you a star, but the more I think about it, the more I feel like that never happened.
My friend and mentor John Grady always says, “The people who end up at the top are usually the most talented AND the hardest working.” It takes both, you cannot go light on either, and whether you are just getting started or you’ve been playing for awhile it’s really no different, you have to write, rehearse, book shows, make and sell merch, promote your music, promote your shows, interact with your fans, book more shows, write more songs, wash rinse and repeat.
This can be incredibly overwhelming and there is no way to get it done all at once, or ever. That’s why my mentor, Grady, always also says: “Only do music if you have to.” Because it’s not for the meek or the weak. BUT if you are one of us that “has to,” I’ve come up with a few strategies that are helpful in getting you on track.
1. Know what you want.
I’m starting with the hardest one first, because this is MUCH easier said than done, and admittedly it’s not a perfect science. It starts with knowing where you want to end up. Is your goal the Superbowl Halftime show or to pay all your bills with your art? These are different career paths, and there are potentially different ways to get there. So, having a reasonable sense of what you hope to accomplish is the first step of being on the right path, because to be on the right path, you have to know what the path is. Once you do, you can start setting goals that align with what you hope to accomplish.
2. Set Goals
It’s well documented that people with goals accomplish more than people without goals. Goals are critical because they have a pass/fail element to them; this is essential because it puts you in competition with your greatest foe, yourself. I like to always have a few goals that are very measurable. For example, if the goal is to quit your day job, you can basically work backwards from your monthly bills to know how much you need to make. Then you can take your average gig, merch, and online sales to figure out how much you need to be playing and selling to actually accomplish this. So if you needed to play 100 shows a year and make 500 dollars at each to make 50k then voila, you have a goal. (Although it probably needs to be higher because this doesn’t include startup costs, but you get the point – you can do some simple math to figure out goals.)
I also like to have “hail Mary” goals just to keep it interesting and to keep myself thinking big. These are goals like: I want to play Bonnaroo next year, or I want to write a song with (fill in your favorite artist). They provide the same value as more quantifiable goals, because you can start figuring out who you need to build relationships with to have a shot at such a goal. It helps you know what your priorities need to be, which is the perfect Segway to the next part.
3. Do one thing EVERYDAY in support of your goals
8 years ago I was a terribly unhappy elementary school teacher, that is a story for another day, but the moment my life began to change was when I committed to do one thing everyday in support of my music. Some days I could get more in, but this level of consistency, even at the smallest level, brought immeasurable change to my life. It took awhile, 3 years in fact, before I was able to leave my teaching job for music, but it happened because consistency creates momentum and momentum is the special sauce when it comes to accomplishing anything worth working toward. It’s also VERY important to make sure you are doing the RIGHT “One Thing” everyday. The old adage of 20% of your effort creates 80% of your results is true, so pay attention to which actions are the ones creating results for you and do more of that.
Make things happen
4. Surround yourself with like minded people
When you are trying to do something big, something hard, something great—not everyone is going to “get it,” especially if you are trying to make a career as a musician. People will either encourage you to do something “safe and secure” (read: lots of families, but not everyone) OR they commend your guts and tell you how cool they think it is. Both are distractions. Finding a partner or a small group of people that are focused on their goals like you are is absolutely necessary. This gives you a level of accountability and support that you have to have to be successful. It will drive you, support you, lift you up when you are down, and crack the whip when you need to get moving. Find someone who wants what you want and stay close to them.
These 4 steps do not guarantee success, only your hard work can do that, but this list reflects the way that successful people become successful, and I wish that success to you.
Jonathan Sexton is a touring artist, and serial entrepreneur. He’s played thousands of shows and started a few music tech companies, and as CEO of Bandposters, he works everyday to make tour marketing easier for hard working artists.
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