Why Only Few People Become Successful Professional Musicians And How You Can Join Them

by Tom Hess


What makes some musicians extremely successful with a long term music industry career, while so many others struggle to make ends meet and end up working non-music related day jobs? In my previous music career articles, I explained that a huge part of the answer lies in the ability of successful music business professionals to offer “maximum value with minimum risk” to every company, band, person or organization they come into contact with (if you haven't read my previous articles and aren’t familiar with this concept, take this short music career test to learn more before reading the rest of this article). Obviously there is a LOT that goes into this seemingly simple concept, but ultimately all things you do must tie into this idea in one way or another if you want to be a professional musician. However, as you may have already guessed, there is a big difference between ‘knowing’ a simple idea and actually ‘making it a reality’ in your music career.

As a music career mentor, I spend a great deal of time training musicians how to build maximum value with minimum risk in everything they do in their music industry careers. I have observed that most people can easily understand the need to minimize their risk in obvious, common sense ways. However, most musicians have a hard time seeing how their positive skillsets and elements of music career value ALSO bring with them some unexpected elements of risk. Not understanding this fact is a crippling flaw in the music career plans of most people, preventing even those with very high potential from succeeding as professional musicians.

If you want to be one of the few musicians who DO become successful versus ending up among the majority who fail, it is critical to learn how to minimize the hidden risks/weaknesses that exist ‘beneath the surface’ of your strengths as a professional musician. In this article, I will show you how to dramatically boost your chances of having a thriving music career by getting a much clearer picture of your inner profile of values and risks.

The Inner Profile Of A Professional Musician

As musicians (and as people), we spend a lot of time developing a variety of skills and areas of expertise that we hope will help us in our chosen field (of having a music career). However, if you are like most musicians (who have never received specific music business training), then all the skills you have achieved were developed largely ‘at random’ (without clear planning and understanding of how they fit into the big picture of your long term goals). Because of this, every skill or strength you possess (both as a musician on your instrument and in your experience of working in the music industry) contains an ‘opposing’ weakness that can be perceived (by others) as an element of ‘risk’. This can often overshadow your strengths if left unchecked. I have seen this happen to musicians VERY frequently (regardless of their work ethic or motivation)… and the worst part is, they are often totally unaware of it.

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To speed up the process of growing your music career, you MUST know how to maximize the strengths you already possess while recognizing (and eliminating) the opposing risks that they bring to your music career plan. This is done by ALL successful professional musicians (whether they consciously realize this or not), while everybody else struggles to understand ‘what they are doing wrong’ in their pursuit of a music industry career. Fortunately, this analysis is possible for anybody to do, and I'm going to show you how to begin this process in the rest of this article.

To help you do the above analysis for yourself, look at the table below to see several seemingly positive skills/strengths that many musicians have (listed in the left column of the table). In the right column of the table is an explanation of how that same strength can very often be a risk factor in your music career efforts. When I train musicians to start a career in music, these are some of the common problems I help them to correct after they come to me frustrated with getting nowhere in the industry despite having achieved many impressive credentials. There are actually DOZENS of examples I could write here, but to avoid making this article too long, I will limit my list to the items you see below.

It's important to recognize that the strengths listed in the left column of the table below ARE of course ‘good’ things to have and in most cases they DO help you in some way to grow your music career. However, it is critical to recognize how each of these items can ALSO become your weakness UNLESS you find out how to stop this from happening.

Your Music Career Asset/Value Your Corresponding Risk/Weakness
You have excellent skills as a musician. While having advanced skills on your instrument IS of course essential for playing at a professional level, many high level musicians spend ‘too much’ time continuously trying to improve their musical skills further and far too little time is invested into learning how the ‘music business’ works. Additionally, too little action is taken to actually grow your CAREER in the music industry.
You have lots of experience playing in many different bands over the years. Believe it or not, this can be a red flag when trying to join a major band because the fact that you played in many bands before demonstrates a ‘potential’ lack of loyalty or commitment on your part to any one project. Note: Your ‘actual’ loyalty and commitment may be very high, but unless you are careful, the way this credential is ‘perceived’ by others may often not work in your favor.
You have an advanced music degree. The weakness of this asset is that despite the enormous investment of time and money that goes into getting a music degree, this credential will do little or nothing to help you make any money in your career as a professional musician (unless you want to teach music ONLY at a college level). In 99.9% of cases, your time and money can be much better invested into actually growing your music career AND on getting specific ‘music career training’ from a successful musician who is already doing the very things you want to achieve (versus a professor who only reads from a book).
You play multiple instruments very well. Although this credential may be necessary to have for a studio musician or a composer for hire, outside of these niches your skills will be in much greater demand if you are known for being a true ‘expert’ in one instrument. You must decide for yourself (based on your goals) what kind of reputation you would rather have and position yourself accordingly. Note: Of course having the general knowledge of more than one instrument IS good, but there is a difference between simply playing several instruments and ‘trying to POSITION yourself’ as someone who tries to ‘specialize’ in playing lots of instruments.
You play many different styles of music. Just like the credential above, marketing your ability to play in many styles can either help you (if you aspire to be a studio/session musician or composer for hire) or hurt you in your music career (if your goals require you to be a ‘specialist’ in one style only). Think about the big picture of your long term professional musician career and plan accordingly.
You are full of new ideas and enthusiasm about growing your music career. Musicians in this category are known for joining/starting many different projects, but leaving all of them unfinished along the way. In addition to a high potential for overwhelm and burnout, ‘unrestrained’ enthusiasm often leads to taking actions on random impulse at the expense of planning your music career in a strategic way (and therefore will likely lead to ‘random’ results).
You are good at planning projects and paying attention to details. Musicians in this category frequently hold themselves back by taking too long to make up their mind and start DOING things instead of getting stuck only in ‘planning’. While attention to detail and planning are all important, you must be careful to not allow this to stop you from moving forward.
You are dependable and rely on yourself to get things done. As valuable as it is to have self-reliance, many people with this quality struggle to work together in a collaborative group environment (as you frequently will need to do in your music career). In addition, relying on yourself for everything can prevent you from asking others for help in your music career when you truly NEED it. To be a successful professional musician, you MUST learn to be a team player.
You are highly determined and persistent. Too frequently, the positive qualities of determination and persistence can turn into ‘stubbornness’ that will keep you making the same mistakes over and over again rather than abandon a certain music career path that has proven to be ineffective.
You are very cooperative and get along well with others. Musicians (and people) who are too accommodating to an extreme degree often hurt themselves in music business negotiations (that will happen VERY frequently in your career) without realizing it.

Now that you have seen how any of your music career strengths often can also conceal a significant element of risk, here are several important steps you need to take now to get on the right track towards your goals of being a professional musician:

1. Realize and remember that not all of your ‘assets’ (skillsets and elements of value for your music career) are ‘good’ when seen in the perspective of YOUR specific goals and music career situation. Some things that can appear to be positive on the surface may actually hurt you, often without you realizing it (as described in the table above).

2. Get a more specific picture of your current arsenal of strengths and weaknesses for pursuing a professional musician career by taking this music career test.

3. Put together a music career blueprint listing the specific elements of value that you must develop for your music career AND outline the steps you must take to minimize their opposing weaknesses and risks. If you are unsure of how to do this on your own, find someone who can coach and mentor you through this process. In addition to helping you understand what elements of value are most applicable to your specific music career, an experienced music career trainer can help you discover completely new and innovative ways of growing your value to the music industry that you have never realized before.

4. Recognize that putting together all pieces of the puzzle into place for your music industry career requires a clear vision of your goals and lots of effective training. The reality is that most musicians do not have the patience to plan their music career actions in this way and instead rely mostly on intuition to guide them. Although listening to your instincts is valuable, guesswork is unlikely to ‘consistently’ give you the results you want in your music career. If this sounds like you, you will benefit greatly from working with someone who can show you the most effective way to achieve results in the music industry.

Finally, remember that as you go through the process of acquiring skills and ‘doing things’ to grow your career, your actions will continue to bring limited results until you go through the self-evaluation process described in this article. Once you learn how to maximize your existing potential, your progress towards becoming a highly successful professional musician will become much faster than ever before.

If you haven’t yet taken the music career test mentioned in this article, I encourage you to do so now.


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