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Fame Is A Distraction - How To Thrive In Moderate Success

Updated: Jun 4

Cheap at-home recording, global distribution, and social media seem to bring the alluring promise of stardom into reach for modern artists in a way that’s totally unprecidented.

But this dream pulls artists into their phones and out of their communities. It drains their creative energy (developing artists’ most essential resource), which is channeled into hitting algorithm just right. And when that doesn’t work, they pull out their wallets to throw money at ads, leading sometimes to more followers (often not) and seldom to real fans. By pursuing fame, artists squander the actual value of modern digital tools that can help them build their own lasting careers independently.

Fame has become synonymous with success for musicians but megastardom is a relatively new construct, one that is intrinsically tied to bygone age in which major record labels dominated every the music industry. In this outdated model, the career of a successful artist would fund, not only the label's employees and operating expenses, but the financial risk each label would take developing hundreds of other artists. In contrast, arists today have only to support their own lives, those of their collaborators, and their passion.

While artists now have the majority of the tools required to build thriving businesses around their music, most artists focus their mental energy on figuring out how to be famous in the future and do almost nothing to build their actual careers today. Here are some foundational areas of focus that I coach the musicians I work with through, during our weekly 1:1 sessions.

Build a quality product

I love lo-fi music and am not of the opinion that you need to go out and spend a ton of money recording an album (through, if you have the means, that’s a fun and rewarding thing to spend money on!) People listen to music because they get something out of it — a clear sense of belonging, somewhere to process specific feelings, etc. They see themselves represented in artists, or parts of themselves they felt less free to express. In order to inspire fandom, music must be generous in its conceptual clarity and undeniable in its execution. It should be easy to tell who and what a given artist’s music is for. Likewise, artists must be consistent, clear, and available to deliver on the message of their music, through their various visual assets, live shows, interviews, album art, t-shirts, etc. In order to develop this, artists must be willing to see themself as a work in progress, as someone whose best songs have yet to be written. Artists should be constantly developing their ideas, trying different things, and prioritizing experiences and settings that help them feel inspired and connected.

Establish demand for your music

Playing music is fun and easy. Of course you want to do it everyday for the rest of your life and get paid for it. But wanting people to like your music isn’t a good enough reason to invest in marketing it. Many bands will play a show and get a few friends to come out. Someone will tell them “good job” and they think — that’s it, I’m ready for a bigger audience! For virtually every single artist I see, more time needs to be spent in the product development phase (see previous). An artist's live shows should naturally inspire a small base of at least 50 true fans (not your friends and family) who show up consistently to your shows, buy shirts, etc. to validate that your project really has teeth before you move on to investing energy and money in exposure.

Build a qualified team

During my literal two decades in music, the single most common reason I’ve seen for a project failing is a key member of the band’s inability to participate as the project becomes more serious. Make sure the people you’re playing music with share your goals, or make a tidy exit agreement outlining how project members will be replaced if and when the required time/travel commitment increases. Oh yeah, and you can always round out your team by hiring a professional mentor like me to help you plan releases, dial in your brand, navigate the music industry, and more!

Write a business plan

Wait - don’t stop reading! This is a lot less painless than it sounds, and it will probably leave you feeling emboldened by the knowledge that being a professional musician is possible and within reach. It’ll also help you understand how far away you are from that goal and what’s required to close that gap. This doesn’t have to be fancy. You can do this in a notes app or a spreadsheet or a napkin.

Add up the following:

  1. Dollar amounts for the yearly operating expenses for your project (practice space, gear, etc.)

  2. Minimum required annual income for everyone in your project.

Now you have a real number you're shooting for! How many sold-out shows do you need to play per year in order to hit that? How many t-shirts do you need to sell? Stay with this exercise for as long as you can.* If you can't imagine making the full amount, start by thinking about making enough money from your music to replace half of your other income. The more time you're able to free up to dedicate to your music, the faster your project will grow.

Could you play four sold out shows a month and make this happen? How about 8? Obviously you can’t play that many in-town shows per month, but are there 12 nearby markets you can build your draw and rotate through in order to hit this goal? If you’d like to dive deeper into how to book shows strategically to increase your draw, check out this easy 9-page workbook I published. Reading it will forever change the way you book shows.

*NOTE: cost of living is stupid high - depending on the stage of life you’re in and where you live geographically, this number will fluctuate wildly. I believe cost of living is the actual biggest challenge to artists who are developing their careers. For this reason, I encourage young artists to live at home for as long as they can stand it and encourage others to find small, cheaper cities to live in.

My goal in writing is to help artists change how they think about approaching their careers. If you're looking for 1:1 help and have specific questiosn you need answered, please don't hesitate to reach out!

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