How To Succeed In Music
(The Lefsetz Letter, ©May 22, 2011)
Why do you want to be a successful musician?
There are a lot easier ways to get rich than playing music. You're better off writing an app, or finishing college and entering the banking sector. If you're playing music to get rich, you're a chump. Or else you have no other advantages, no other skills. And the odds of success if this is true are incredibly long. It's like being poor and uneducated and desiring to be a professional athlete.
Used to be, music was a good route to fame. But now it's not incredibly difficult to get on a reality TV series and many people featured on TMZ or Radar have no talent at all. Paris Hilton perfected this paradigm and the Kardashian sisters have refined it. If your only desire is to be known by everybody else, it's a full time job leaving little time for practicing and there are easier outlets to media than playing music.
Society is rife with talented people who have not been successful in their chosen fields. Because success is about more than talent. It's about hard work and perseverance.
D. Creative outlet
You've got so many ideas inside that you need to express. You've got a belief that other members of the public will resonate. That they'll feel the same way or look to you for instruction. This is a good reason to become a musician. But this outlook is worthless without musical skill and hard work and perseverance.
E. A desire to prove something
Maybe to your parents or schoolmates, that you're not a loser. This has got little to do with music, but tons to do with motivation. And motivation is key to making it.
This is where those with vocal talent and good looks go to seek fame. Possibly a little money, but fame primarily. It's anathema to artists, a gold mine to those who don't know what artistry is. If you go on television many will know your name, it's the easiest way to reach a lot of people quickly. If you win, or come close to it, businessmen will put money behind your career and try to profit off of it, which will hopefully make you more famous, but may not make you a hell of a lot more rich. Television breeds instant ubiquity. And almost nothing which is instantly ubiquitous lasts. Which is why that guy Screech from "Saved By The Bell" is broke and we had a rush of TV stars holding up 7-11's.
TV makes music look small. To truly succeed long term, music must look big. Dave Matthews Band and U2 lose their charisma on television, but they appear giant in person. It's one thing to utilize television as the cherry on top, to take an already established career to bigger heights. But if you start on television, your career will probably be brief. Just like all those acts who made it via MTV videos. We're used to an endless smorgasbord on television. We remember the names, but we don't want to see them.
B. Major record label deal
This is first and foremost about money. For the label. But they spend to make it and what's thrown off, if they're successful, is fame and money. So if you're interested in those two, a major label is not a bad way to go. But despite the spending of money, you might still go unrecognized. And like every boss, the major label demands control. True artists are uncontrollable. So a major label is a bad fit.
If you're a true artist, it's the only way to go. But success, if it comes, will be slow. Fame will be limited. Money will be short. It's about building, persevering.
There's nothing wrong with raising money from your fans. But don't expect once you're through with your project anybody but fans will care. Don't see patronage as a way to build to the next level, but to survive on the one you're at.
You can't survive on selling music, you can't make any real money, unless people already know who you are. And this means you've got to give it away for free. Whether that be appearing on a TV show or streaming your music on your Website or offering free MP3 downloads. The issue is obscurity. Before you attack monetary issues, worry about getting noticed. Today your calling card is your music. An innovative video is done seemingly every day. We're implored to check something out ad infinitum. Unless you've got virality, unless people can check you out for free, you're doomed.
4. Who makes it
A. Those who desire it most. It's just that simple. Major labels want someone who works. Anybody who's going to invest in you wants to believe you're going to work around the clock. And if there are no investors, if you're doing it yourself, you must work around the clock.
B. Those pushed by the system. TV can make stars overnight. Major labels can get beat-infused acts on Top Forty radio, which a large number of people listen to. Neither of these paradigms has much to do with music.
C. Those with great music. Great music is different from what's out there already. It can percolate for years before it hits the tipping point. It might never hit the tipping point. It hits the tipping point primarily because its fans spread the word. TV contests are only about voices. Major labels are only about Top Forty music. They're not about true artistic greatness, certainly if it doesn't sound just like everything else.
A. Too many people who are not about music are clogging up the system, making it more difficult for artists to be noticed.
B. Major media, although dying, reaches more people than anything else, and is interested in artistry last. Major media is interested in train-wreck value, hopefully sold by a trusted source, i.e. the major label, the TV network, those with mainstream track records.
C. There is no filter for artistry.
6. Avenues for artistic success
A. Television, major labels and major media come last. It's all about building a fan base, which initially no one may recognize the size of but you. But if you've truly got a fan base, promoters will want to work with you, because they're all about selling tickets and booze, and if you can get bodies in the building, they're interested. AEG and Live Nation are interested last. Because they're about the money. Since you're about artistry, those who will help you will probably be living for the music too, the club booker making bupkes, the person in a lousy job who lives to spread your music. Enable these people.
B. Since you're an artist, you're probably a lousy salesman. Focus on the music more than dunning potential fans. If you Tweet, make it about your personality, your viewpoint, not about selling. Hook people on who you are, not the fact that you're frustrated you're broke and want to make it.
7. The way it was
A. Used to be major labels were interested in signing artists, believing people would resonate with the music if they were exposed to it. Radio was open to this artistry, as was print media. And the public trusted both. Now the major label is interested in money and money only. And if you don't believe this is true, you haven't checked out Lyor Cohen or Irving Azoff's salaries, running companies that lose money making millions for themselves. They could invest this money in breaking artists, but why sacrifice? The moguls of yore might have been crooks, but they were passionate music people. And they promoted what they were passionate about. But today's music executives want to be rich and famous too. Otherwise, explain to me why Jimmy Iovine gets so much airtime on "American Idol". Yes, the executives are as bad as the wannabe acts, artistry comes last. And the public tunes out. TV shows are not about music, but competition, no different from sports, with winners and losers. Whereas artistry is never about competition, other than losers trying to illustrate to the rest of the world that they are winners.
8. The future
In order for artistry to triumph, our whole nation must change. Inner values as opposed to bank accounts must be seen as number one. But they're not. Money not only changes everything, it trumps everything. You can't criticize someone who is rich, you can only be pissed off that you're not rich too. If you criticize someone's art, the agent, manager and label will respond by saying LOOK AT HOW MUCH MONEY THEY'RE MAKING! Bon Jovi hasn't written a decent song in decades, he's the biggest touring act, don't you think that's a problem? Lady GaGa is a big star, but her music doesn't sound much different from everybody else's music. She's selling the trappings, and shock value.
This history of modern music was written by outsiders with something to prove. And once they were successful and realized fame and money still didn't solve their problems, once they were anointed by the masses, they just couldn't do that thing that got us all heated up in the first place. Which is why Bruce Springsteen hasn't done anything of note in decades. Experience and talent count, but not as much as drive, with a desire to prove.
So if you're entering the music game, honestly appraise where you're coming from, who you are. If you're truly all about the music, if you're truly an artist, chances are you're gonna starve for a really long time, if not forever. You may not give up, but the fact that you've worked forever still does not mean you're great. Greatness comes from the damaged testing limits because they just don't give a crap. So I'm gonna be homeless and have no teeth and die at a young age? If you want creature comforts, if you want a safety net, you're probably not going to make it, even though you practice all day long. Because we're interested in something elusive, from the outside, a perspective that might be in our hearts but that we are unwilling to live. Can you risk playing original music instead of covers? Can you risk sounding like nothing else? And can you be so interesting, so good that people start following you anyway?
Used to be there was a whole system, a whole apparatus there to help you.
Now, you're on your own
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