Have you ever gone to the grocery store and bought a whole trunk full of food, and realized when you got home that you have nothing to actually eat? You bought good food, but you can’t make a complete meal out of any of it.
Being an independent musician can feel like that sometimes. There are lots of choices, lots of decisions to be made, but in the end, what makes up a successful career?
Some people want Ramen noodles for dinner. Some people want steak and potatoes. Others may want lasagna. People have different tastes, and musicians are going to have different ideas about what being a truly “successful” artist looks like.
You have to decide what defines success for you.
Who Are You?
To determine where you want to go with your music, you need to find out who you are. Take a step back from yourself for a moment. As an artist, it can be difficult to separate yourself from your music, but in order to make some decisions, we need to take a bird’s eye view and create an objective analysis. Ask yourself these three questions:
What is my genre?
I know, this is a terrible question. You hate pigeonholing yourself. I understand. But practically, you need to have some idea of the genre of music you play, and the sub-genre you fit into.
Some genre decisions are easy. You may know without a doubt that you are a country artist. But where exactly do you fit in country? Are you Texas country? Nashville pop? Bro-country? If you’re a rock artist, are you punk? Neo-grunge? You play folk? Does it lean more bluegrass or folk/rock?
There are hundreds of choices. You don’t have to stuff yourself into a tiny box. But having a good, descriptive genre can help you communicate with listeners, distributors, labels, venues….the list goes on and on. When you know yourself well, you can help other people get to know you. And you can make wise decisions about where you are headed.
Who is Successful in my genre?
There’s a good chance you’re already listening to artists whose music is similar to yours. Do some research on someone who you would consider successful in your genre. This might be someone like Carrie Underwood, Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Joywave, or Sara Bareilles. Knowing who is doing well in your genre can give you a good starting place as you try to determine your idea of success.
It will also help you be realistic about your aspirations. If there is a large audience for your genre of music, your definition of success might be broader than someone who has a more niche market. Country, pop and hip-hop artists at the top of their game regularly play arenas. A artist who makes meditation music probably won’t be playing in an arena, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful.
Having your dreams of a music career firmly planted in the solid ground of what’s actually possible will help you avoid major disappointments, and will give your career a foundation to stand on.
What do I want?
So you know who you are, you know what is possible, now what do you want?
This is going to look different for every person. We all have different dreams, goals, locations, resources, skills, and talents. Maybe your idea of success is as grand as playing sold out stadiums. Maybe it’s creating music full time and sharing your music regionally. Maybe it’s playing once a week at an open mic or being signed to a record label. All of these ideas of success are good goals to work towards.
Take a second to jot down what success looks like for you. It doesn’t have to be a long description, maybe it’s just a few key words. But go ahead, put it in writing.
Then put it somewhere you’re going to look at it. You might tape it to your mirror, or put it on the dashboard of your car. Remind yourself daily of what you want your career to look like.
Success in the music industry (or any industry) takes hard work, dedication, and action. When you know the direction you want to go in, you can begin to take the steps to get there.
Success in Stages
No success is overnight. If you look at the careers of many top level artists, you will see years of hard work behind current successes. If success is achieved too easily, it will disappear just as fast as it’s gained. You have to put in blood, sweat, and tears to reach career goals.
But what if your goal is miles ahead of where you are now? It might seem like an impossible task to get to where you want to be. To get to any level of success, it’s a good idea to have smaller goals leading up to the big one. This allows you to track your progress, and can keep you from getting discouraged.
Want to play in huge arenas? Start with shows in a coffee shop, or play some open mic nights. Once you feel comfortable there, and people are responding well, start trying to get shows at venues with a bigger capacity. Do you want to be a hit producer? Start analyzing songs and find out what makes them great, and ask a friend if you can arrange a song or two for them.
Small steps and manageable goals add up to create success.
Don’t Be Afraid to Evaluate
You also need to be able to look objectively at your idea of success and your goals. You need to know when they aren’t going to work. This is extremely difficult, but knowing when to back out of something that’s not working is just as important as moving forward when something goes well.
Sometimes, life just doesn’t work the way you want it to. You need to be able to step back—even when that’s the last thing we want to do—and objectively look at what’s going on. You may need to reevaluate your overarching career goals. You might just need to alter the way you are trying to achieve those goals.
I’m not saying you should give up.
What I am saying is that we live in the real world, not fantasy music land. Things aren’t always going to go exactly the way you want them to. Sometimes we are limited by circumstances beyond our control. That doesn’t mean you throw in the towel, it just means that you look for an alternate route. Detours are hardly ever pleasant, but a road is a road, and can still take you to your destination.
Being a successful musician is going to look different for everyone. Knowing your own personal idea of success is the first step in achieving your music industry goals.