Facts And Myths Of Becoming A Professional Musician

EEditor’s note: here is another reincarnated article by Tom Hess, originally published on UG few years back. There is something timeless in the post below, and I highly recommend you checking it out to understand what I mean.

“What does it take to become a professional guitar player and musician?” The answer remains a huge mystery for the vast majority of people. Traditionally, conventional wisdom has offered three separate statements that are supposed to be answers or explanations to the question. I choose to call them what they are? MYTHS! Here they are in order of greatest levels of falsehood.

MYTH number 1: If everyone knew how to do it [become a pro] then everyone would be doing it.

MYTH number 2: You have to get lucky, get discovered, and to do that you need to be in the right place at the right time.

MYTH number 3: You have to be talented and have key connections with important people in the industry.

Image credit: weheartit.com

Like most clueless-guitar-playing-teenagers of my generation, my friends and I (back when we were in high school) believed each one of these so-called answers to our own questions about how we could make our records, tour the world, be rock stars, etc, etc, etc,. Since we all knew absolutely nothing about how the music industry really worked, the types of statements we heard from the adults around us (who were also clueless about the music industry) seemed logical enough for us.

So in addition to doing all the stuff that music students do (take guitar lessons, read about music, listen to music, practice our instruments, jam with friends, form bands and dream about making it), I figured I needed to do more than the obvious (improving as a musician) and try to discover how to become a pro, how to create luck, how to know where the right place and right time is (and then figure out how to get there), how to get discovered, how become more talented faster, and how to make key connections with people in the music industry.

Becoming more talented faster was the easiest task since I did have a really good teacher who helped me dramatically increase the rate of my improvement. But all of the other things seemed out of reach (it didn’t help that I lived far away from any of the music centers in the United States). My greatest perceived challenge was that virtually everything I thought I needed to happen for me was out of my own control (so I thought). In reality, my truly greatest problem was I was aimlessly chasing all the wrong things (and in the wrong order).

Let’s go back to the conventional wisdom (the myths) and we’ll see how it is all wrong.

MYTH #1: If everyone knew how to do it [become a pro] then everyone would be doing it

This could not be more false. There are millions of guitar players in the world today who dream and desire to be professional, successful, famous, or whatever. Now that I actually do know (and have done) what it takes to become a professional musician, I also know that the vast majority of people are simply not willing to do what it takes to make it. Many talk about it, dreams about it and some even try it, but few people have the will to take accurate-consistent-forward-moving-intense-action over the long term. This is also the primary reason why most people in America who want to be wealthy are not wealthy. (the opportunities exist for every American to be wealthy who wants to be). The problem isn’t in knowing what to do. The main problem for most people is that they would not choose to do what it takes even if they did know what to do and how to do it.

MYTH #2: You have to get lucky, get discovered. And to do that you need to be in the right place at the right time

About luck, I could talk about this one for many hours, but instead, I’ll just say this:

Luck is the residue of design


Luck can be created, directed, manipulated and controlled” (at least as how it applies to our topic)

Being in the right place at the right time is very, very, very easy to do. Have you ever heard of music industry showcases? Or Record Label showcases? Or MobFest? These are events (and there many of these around the world) where you (YES YOU) could go to (for usually a very small fee) and bring your songs, cds, etc. and give them to producers, publishers, record company A&R people, etc.

But before you get all excited about those opportunities, you need to know that a very tiny percentage of the musicians that attend these events ever get anything out of it. Why? How can this be? Certainly there are many talented people there who are all in the right place at the right time. So why do so few walk away with anything significant after meeting with key people in the industry? Think about the answer before reading any further????

Image credit: Grocerybag on Flickr

Was your answer something like this?: “Perhaps the record companies/producers, etc, are only looking for 2 people/bands. So if 100 people/bands attend the event, 98% of those musicians will go home with nothing.” That would seem to make sense, but is that how it really is????? No it is NOT!

Many times it is the music industry people who go home with nothing. They meet all of the musicians and may choose not to work with any of them. It is also very important to know that the music industry is starving for new talent, with great music. Many of the musicians attending these events are very talented and do have excellent-marketable music. So it would seem that everything matches and deals could be made. But it doesn’t generally work like that, its not that simple.

Music industry companies aren’t going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into an artist/bands career unless these companies are totally certain they are going to make a lot of money (and not lose their huge financial and time investments). So now, the truth comes out. And that truth is this: Investing large sums of money on Human Beings is extremely risky. When music companies work with you, they are investing in YOU – not just your music. They need to be convinced that an investment in YOU is going to make them tons of money with the least amount of risk. Yes, publishers want good songs and record companies want good music and musicians, but they want to find the “right people”. That does not necessarily mean only someone with a name.

The fallacy is that the competition is too great, there are simply way too many musicians out there trying to become rock stars. The reality is NOT that record companies have “too many musicians out there to choose from”. The reality is there are not nearly enough of musicians out there that have “the total package together”. That total package goes far beyond music, far beyond your band and far beyond your songs. The secret to what is missing in most musicians, is what is (or is not) in their minds.

Joan of Arc once said, “All battles are first won or lost in the mind.” This is perhaps even more true today than it was in her time.

MYTH #3: You have to be talented and have key connections with important people in the industry

My reply to this is basically the same as my response to myth number 2. I’ll simply add this thought about connections: Record company A&R guys, executives, managers, producers and publishers know thousands of musicians (and have met thousands more throughout their lifetime). Just because somebody “knows” somebody else doesn’t count for anything – unless two primary things are intact:

  1. You have a high quality relationship with that person (knowing someone is not enough – since they already know tons of other people).
  2. You are the “right person”. Yes, that implies that you must have some musical talent, but as implied above, being the “right person” goes way beyond music. It must be obvious to the-powers-that-be that an investment in YOU is a safe, secure and very profitable one.

It took me many years to come to these understandings, and they are true. Certainly we could point out some exceptions to what I’m writing here. The further back in time we look, the more likely we are to discover such exceptions. But the music industry is extremely different now than it was in the 1970’s, 1980’s, 1990’s and even the first 2-4 years of this decade. It has evolved quickly and the nature of how the game is played has changed dramatically.

So, my advice to you (those seeking a music career) is:

  1. Focus on your mind and look at the value you have to offer the industry as well as any possible areas where parts of your personality, habits, actions, or situation may be a liability in the eyes of the-powers-that-be.
  2. Continuously work on your songwriting.
  3. Learn about the industry that you are seeking to enter into and don’t listen to anyone that hasn’t actually “lived in the industry”. If you want to tour the world, don’t take advice from anyone who has not done that. If you want to sell records worldwide, don’t take advice from anyone who has not done it himself/herself. This is why going to college to learn about the music industry is usually (but not always) a bad idea since most university professors are not (nor have ever been) professional musicians (that why they teach at the college and are not out in Europe or South America or anywhere else, out there “living” what they are talking about. (Yes there are some rare exceptions to this and you might find someone that has done things in the past).
  4. Be certain you know exactly why you want to become a professional musician. This might seem like a pointless piece of advice, as we all think we know why we want what we want. However, on a deeper human level, people generally want more than what is on the surface. To read more about this final point, read my previous article called “Take the Test”.

Copyright by Tom Hess. All rights reserved. Used by permission.