How To Become Successful In Music: A Tom Hess Review Of Common Music Career Advice

(This article is an excerpt from a music career interview with Tom Hess. The interview was conducted and transformed into an article by Ryan Buckner.)


Do you ever receive music career advice from friends and family about how the music industry works? If you are like most musicians, you get a lot of advice about the music business from a variety of well-meaning people in your life. In many cases, these people have genuinely good intentions for helping you make it with a successful music career. However, the truth is that unless they are professional musicians, they are not truly qualified to give you music career advice. If you follow the advice of these people, you will be much less likely to succeed in the music business.

With this in mind, I wanted to get the perspective of someone who IS a successful professional in the music industry and hear his thoughts on the most common advice given to musicians looking for a music career.

To help you get some clarity on this issue, I caught up with professional musician and guitarist Tom Hess (Rhapsody Of Fire) and got his personal ‘review’ for 3 of the biggest music career advice topics that come up from non-musicians or amateur musicians. After talking with him, it was clear that most of the advice given out by non-professionals is highly misguided at best. Here is his full review:

Tom Hess Music Career Review Topic 1:

Ryan Buckner: Before pursuing music, you have to go to university to get a degree in business or some other field. Only then should you attempt to pursue a music career…” What are your thoughts about that, Tom?

Tom Hess: This claim is frequently made based on the assumption that a career in music is “too risky”. Most likely if you have heard this, you have also heard about “starving artists” who barely make enough money with music to survive. These thoughts lead friends or family to tell you that you must first go to university so you can get a stable and secure job. Then (they say), once you have worked 4-5 years to earn a degree in a field that is totally unrelated to music, you can maybe consider doing music on the side.

I have two main points to say about this music career advice:

1. The music industry is NOT highly unstable and risky.

The truth is, most people who work in the music industry are not “starving artists” who struggle to earn enough money just to get by. Additionally, it is not true that the only people who are making it in music are rock stars who earn millions of dollars and tour around the world. In reality, the music industry consists of a HUGE middle class full of successful musicians who make a very secure and comfortable living. In fact, it is much easier to make a good living in music than it is in many other industries. As a musician, you have the opportunity to create multiple sources of income through things such as selling your music, touring, instructional products, session recordings, and other music related tasks. This makes earning a living much more stable than if you were only to receive a single paycheck at the end of your pay period (like in non-music related jobs).

2. Working in a job outside of music will only take you further away from your dreams.

Have you ever stopped to think about what is really going on when people tell you “don’t pursue music - it’s too risky”? Although these people may have good intentions, in the end they are not really trying to help you. This may sound harsh, but the truth is that these people are giving you advice based on their own fears and ignorance. On top of that, they are not truly paying attention to YOU and what you want to do with your life (music). To illustrate a point, imagine that instead of becoming a musician, you wanted to become a doctor. Do you think that these people would still insist that you pursue a degree in a separate field for many years before studying about medicine? Of course not, right? If this approach wouldn’t make sense for becoming a doctor, why would it make sense for becoming a musician? The truth is, becoming a doctor and becoming a musician are both equally valid choices for how you want to live your life.

So, it is true that

a) You want to become a professional musician, and

b) Making a living in music can be both highly stable and profitable.

With this in mind, there really is NO good reason to abandon your music career dreams. Remember, the path you choose to take in life is up to you, don’t live your life based on the desires of other people!

That said, there is nothing wrong with developing a backup plan in your music career, as long as your plan is centered around (and is not a distraction from) your highest goals as a musician. By focusing all your plans around your most important long term music goals, you will drastically increase the chances that you will reach them.

Tom Hess Music Career Review Topic 2:

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Ryan: To be able to make a good living with music, you must write popular music that is used on major radio, internet and television stations...” What is your opinion about this issue?

Tom: It is not true to say that getting your music played on major stations or writing ‘popular’ music is “how to make money in music.”

Although writing a song that makes it onto the charts is certainly a great goal to have, it is important not to confuse your ‘goals’ with your ‘actions’. Getting your music played on a major radio station is a goal that is reached by taking a specific set of actions. However, ‘making money’ from this result is an entirely different goal, and in order to reach it you need to take another set of steps. Everything starts with clearly understanding the steps to take in order to achieve the outcome you desire. This may seem like common sense, but it is actually a very frequent misunderstanding that causes MANY musicians to fail in their music careers.

Additionally, there are many avenues available for making a lot of money with music and being a songwriter is only one of them. Ultimately, to have the most security in your career it is important to develop more than one source of income so that your livelihood is never dependent on any single activity. The best way to develop these things in your music career is to seek out the advice of a music business mentor who understands what it takes to achieve great things in the music business.

Tom Hess Music Career Review Topic 3:

Ryan: “Making it in the music industry is all about being in the right place at the right time...” What do you say Tom?

Tom: People who believe that you must be in the “right place at the right time” usually also support one or more of the following beliefs:

1. To have a successful music career, you have to be very lucky.

People who rely on ‘luck’ to guide their music career (or life) often have high goals or expectations, but end up frustrated because they simply expect things to fall into their lap. Simply put, this is not how the music business (or the world) works. If you want to become successful in your music career, you must consistently take action to reach your goals. Successful musicians who do this do not expect to get lucky; they CREATE their own ‘luck!’

2. To become a successful musician or get signed with a music company, all you have to do is meet someone who works in the music business.

It’s likely that you have heard stories about the musician who became successful after he randomly met a big time record producer at a night club. As the story goes, the producer likes this musician’s music so much, that he signed him right there on the spot. Although this makes for a good story and may have happened in very rare cases to musicians in the past, the reality is that the music industry simply doesn’t work this way. People who work in the music industry treat music just like you would treat any other business. This means they are only interested in working with (meaning “investing upfront money and resources into”) musicians when they absolutely know that they will be making a LOT of money in the process with minimum risk.

The fact is, people in the music industry already ‘know’ thousands of musicians. In order to truly advance your music career with these music industry officials, you will need to focus on developing long term WIN-WIN relationships with them. To do this, you must continually work to make yourself a “total package” by enhancing your skills and knowledge in all aspects that the music industry finds valuable, including musical, personal and business skills. In addition to the personal value that comes from developing yourself in these areas, you will also set yourself apart from the vast majority of other musicians. This will make you an ‘obvious’ choice for people in the music industry when it comes time for them to decide on who they will be choosing to work with.

Ryan: Thanks for taking the time to share your insights on these topics Tom. I've found them to be very enlightening, and I’m sure others will too. To those reading this Tom Hess review of common music career advice, you should now have a better understanding of how important it is to be careful about taking the advice of people who are merely reciting conventional wisdom. To learn more about becoming highly successful in your music career, watch the video on Tom Hess’s music career mentoring page.

Tom: You are very welcome.


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