How To Become A Professional Musician - Part 5: How Successful Musicians Build Their Careers

by Tom Hess

Do You Have What The Music

Industry Looks For In You?
What Does The Music Industry Look For In You Assessment
2-Minute Music Industry Quiz
2-Minute Music Industry Quiz
Take It Now

What do successful musicians do to become successful (and how can YOU do it too)? To answer this question, you need to look one level deeper and first understand how successful musicians ‘think’. Looking only at the ‘actions’ of musicians you look up to (and trying to blindly copy them) is what most people do and is one of the reasons why they fail. Fact is, the actions that professional musicians take to become successful are the product of how they think and are (in most cases) only relevant to THEIR music career situations, not yours. The true gold is in learning ‘how to think’ like these musicians so that you learn how to design your own path towards music career success.

Do You Have What The Music

Industry Looks For In You?
What Does The Music Industry Look For In You Assessment
2-Minute Music Industry Quiz
2-Minute Music Industry Quiz
Take It Now

For the rest of this article I will assume that you have already put some thought into determining what it is you want to achieve in the music business (if you haven’t done this yet, read this article about music career planning before reading further). I will now compare and contrast the thought process of successful musicians vs. unsuccessful ones and explain the impact each has on reaching (or not reaching) a variety of music industry goals. Realizing the critical differences that exist in the two approaches (and mindsets) will help you make your music career much more successful.

Understand The Difference Between Tactics And Strategy

To have any chance of a successful music career, you must first establish the goals you want to achieve in the medium and/or long term. Examples of such goals might include getting a record deal, getting into a band you really want to join, touring the world and/or building your financial freedom to allow you to write and record your music without having to work for a living.

To reach such goals, a successful musician will plan out an ‘organized’ and well thought-out series of tactics connected together by an overarching strategy.

A ‘tactic’ refers to an isolated action taken to achieve a short-term result. Playing a gig, seeking reviews for your new record, building a website to promote your music are examples of tactics. Any single action you take could be considered a ‘tactic’.

A ‘strategy’ (in a broad sense) refers to synchronizing many short term tactics in a well thought-out way to achieve a medium or longer term objective.

To use a simple analogy to illustrate the difference between the two concepts, consider the game of chess. A ‘tactic’ in chess is the move of a single piece on the board. A ‘strategy’ is the awareness of how the move of that piece ties into your big picture plan to win the game. This means knowing how that move is connected to all the moves you made before and all the moves that will follow after to lead to victory.
Unsuccessful musicians live in the world of isolated tactics. Many people genuinely try to ‘do stuff’ to grow their music careers, but because their tactics are not organized together into a strategy, their hit or miss approaches never deliver big results (if any at all). This is one of the big reasons why copying what other musicians do will not help you - because you are copying only the ‘tactics’ rather than the underlying strategy they are a part of.

Of course not all musicians are naturally born strategists when it comes to building their music careers (I wasn’t either), but you need to learn to become one to maximize your chances for success in music. The fastest way to do this is by working with a mentor or a coach to help design your music career success plan.

Have Laser-Like Focus

Successful professional musicians make sure that every action they take is consistent and congruent with the big picture goal(s) they seek to achieve. They are focused like a laser on their long term objective and don’t invest time, money or energy into any other musical activity unless they know with certainty how/why that action will benefit their careers. For example, if you wanted to join a successful touring band, you need to put all your efforts into becoming the most in demand musician for such a band, instead of also (at the same time) working to become a studio musician, a concert promoter or a composer for hire.

In contrast, unsuccessful musicians follow the conventional wisdom of trying to ‘keep their options open’ when building their careers. As a result, they spread themselves too thin and achieve only mediocre (if any) results in all the areas they are involved in. Fact is, to become successful, you must become the BEST at whatever you do and this can only happen when your thoughts, beliefs, desires, strategy and tactics (actions) all line up to take you in the same congruent direction.

Another element of ‘congruency’ has to do with being true to what it is you really want to achieve in your music career. If you ultimately want to be a touring musician but you instead pursue a job as a music producer because you perceive that to be a more ‘secure’ path to take in the industry, it will be extremely difficult for you to line up all of your thoughts, beliefs, strategy and tactics towards the goal that is not in line with your true desires (more on this below).

How can you implement this in your music career? The simplest way is to ask yourself one question about everything you ever do in the music business: “In what ‘specific’ ways is the action I'm about to take helping me reach my ultimate music career goals?” If you cannot answer this question in ‘specific’ terms, that is a clear sign that you are on the wrong track with what you are about to do and need to learn a lot more about how to achieve your goal. Ironically, even if the action you are about to take IS valuable to your music career, it will often not have any positive effect if you do it without an understanding of how to best integrate it into your music business strategy.

In addition, some actions may (on the surface) ‘seem’ unrelated to your big picture goals but in fact are TOTALLY related to them. For example, most musicians who have a goal of playing in a touring band resist the idea of getting into teaching music, fearing that this will distract them from their goal. In reality, building a teaching business is the fastest, most secure and most flexible way to support yourself as a musician while giving yourself plenty of freedom to pursue career opportunities (such as touring) that you would never be able to do if you were working a steady 9-5 day job.

Bottom line is that your understanding of ‘why’ an action is important is just as critical to your success as you actually doing it. To test how prepared you are for success in the music business, take this short music career test.

Forget “Zero-Sum” Thinking

Successful professional musicians think, believe and act upon the following 2 premises:

Premise 1. Money is NOT ‘the root of all evil’ and it is not immoral or unethical for musicians (or music business companies) to seek to make as much money as possible. Unless you fully believe this (and act in congruence with this belief), no music company is going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into your (or your band’s) career. Why? Because whether you like it or not, all companies in music exist for only one reason: ‘to make money’. These entities will never put up huge amounts of money at risk for a musician who believes that money is evil and doesn't intend to help the company make their money back with interest. This is why this industry is called the music ‘business’ and not music ‘charity’. Note: Companies who are considering partnerships with bands and musicians WILL easily sense what your attitude is regarding this issue even if you try to trick them about your true intentions or beliefs. This is another reason why it is so critical that your beliefs, mindset and actions all become congruent with each other (as mentioned above).

Premise 2. The world is filled with abundance and there is no limit to the success you can achieve for yourself and those around you through win-win thinking and mutually beneficial partnerships.

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The above mindsets and beliefs are the foundation from which successful musicians determine the ‘action steps’ to take to reach their goals in the music business.

In contrast, unsuccessful musicians generally believe the opposite to the 2 ideas above. They think that the amount of wealth/money/resources in society is limited and that when someone becomes wealthy or gets a certain opportunity, that only limits the amount of wealth or opportunities available to others. In addition to these beliefs being proven completely false, the actions that will spawn out of this ‘scarcity mindset’ will always lead to lose-lose outcomes in all music career projects you become involved in. No serious company or band wants to work with musicians like this.

This is another reason why copying individual tactics you see other musicians do is a waste of time. In addition to the need for a big-picture strategy, if you lack the matching belief system to support the actions you take, you will never get the results you could and should get in your music career.

Lose The Entitlement Mentality

The unsuccessful musicians erroneously assume that musicians need to ask/beg for opportunities from the gatekeepers in the music business (such as by sending promo packs, demos and press kits to record companies) and the few who ‘get lucky’ receive the big breaks that the majority of musicians miss. When this common approach (predictably) doesn't work for them, they can only complain and perpetuate the myth about the ‘cutthroat competition’ that makes it hard for the average person to make it in music.

In contrast, successful professional musicians do not hope, wish for or think that someone will ‘give’ them music career opportunities simply because of who they are or because of how great their music is. They know that they need to ‘earn’ the right to be successful.

Doing this requires them to:

  1. Know the needs and objectives of the companies (or bands) they want to work with. This music career success survey will help you learn what these things are.
  2. Design a plan to help the other side meet their needs in some way.
  3. Make it known (to the company you seek to work with) how partnering with you will be of mutual benefit to all parties involved.
  4. Follow through and provide value to the other side, proving that you are reliable, dependable, trustworthy, loyal and valuable.

The musicians who do the above steps automatically cut to the head of the line ahead of millions of musicians who are left in the dust, wondering when things will ‘start to happen’ to them. To learn more about how you can make this happen in your life, get this free 6 day mini course on how to build a music career.

Become Selective In Who You Associate With

You know that music companies are very selective in who they work with and who they invest money and resources into. All successful professional musicians are this way also…and you should be too.

Here is a simple example of how ‘not’ being extremely selective can cost you your entire music career:

When amateur musicians (who want to become pros) put together a band, they rarely look beyond someone’s musical abilities. No discussion is ever held about how each member’s long term goals and vision fit into the band, and no strategic business plan is ever set into motion for how each member will help the band become successful. Such bands rarely stay together for more than a few months. Worst of all, the risk to record companies now becomes exponentially greater when they have to deal with not just one, but with several individuals who fail to deliver any real value to the music industry. Chances of such a project ever becoming successful is exactly zero.

Successful musicians know how important it is to not simply find musicians who can ‘play their instrument well’ but whose mindsets and beliefs match their own in all the ways I described in this article. 

Even if you don’t plan on playing in a band, you still need a network of like-minded musicians, associates and partners who will support you as you will support them in your efforts to build your music career. Just like I wrote above, it’s not enough that these people merely be ‘good musicians’. They need to possess (or be in the process of developing) all the same pieces of the puzzle that successful musicians share.

I have seen firsthand just how valuable such a network is to musicians as the members of my Music Careers Mentoring Program created money-making partnerships, joined successful bands and toured the world (and achieved many other amazing things) all as a result of the relationships they built with each other that were based on the foundation of the success principles laid out in this article.

Now that you understand the main differences between how successful and unsuccessful musicians think, it should be much clearer to you why so few ever truly make it. When it comes to building a music career, your mindset can be your strongest ally or your worst enemy and you must learn how to make it work for you. After you get yourself on the same ‘mental wavelength’ as successful professional musicians, THEN every action you take will bring you so much more benefit than it ever could otherwise.

If you haven't yet studied the free 6 day mini course on how to make it in the music industry, you should do it right now to learn how to apply the ideas from this article into your musical life.

To learn more about becoming a professional musician, read parts 1-4 in this article series:

  • How To Become A Professional Musician - Part 1: Learn the most common myths people believe about the music business and how this can stop you from building a music career.
  • How To Become A Professional Musician - Part 2: Find out why even the best musicians often fail in their careers and how to not let this happen to you as you enter the music industry.
  • How To Become A Professional Musician - Part 3: Learn how to build your music career success plan to make it easier, safer and more rewarding to find work in the music business.
  • How To Become A Professional Musician - Part 4: Discover why there are A LOT more ways to succeed in music than most people realize and what it really means to make it in the music industry.

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