There are a lot of ideas out there about how musicians should pursue their careers. Common advice and anecdotes have been repeated so often, especially online, that they’ve gained status as “rules” or “the way things should be done.”
When I first started my career, I viewed these “rules” as gospel truths because I was inexperienced and didn’t know any better. Because my circumstances didn’t fit into the mold of the typical music-career seeker, these “rules” didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Yet, I thought following them was the only way I could reach my goal.
This kind of “in the box” thinking kept me stuck for a very long time. It was only once I started breaking rules and thinking outside the typical music business box that I started to get traction.
So, here are five “rules” that I didn’t follow. It was only in breaking free of these constraints that I found success as a singing/songwriter, performer and recording artist.
Rule #1: Make music your full time job.
I still see this one popping up online in many forms. Industry gurus suggest that the only way to make it as a musician is to go “all in.” They glamorize the idea of quitting your job and pursuing music full time with no Plan B.
And yes, at some point this may be possible. But I don’t recommend it in the beginning, especially if you really need that job to pay your bills. Or, if you are like I was, you have other responsibilities that you can’t just walk away from. When I started my career in earnest, I was a mom of a 2-year-old. And although I had left my corporate career, I still had a part-time job because I needed to contribute to the family income until I could bring in steady revenue from music.
Because I was not stressed about money, I was able to take those free or low-paying gigs in the beginning that allowed me to be seen and heard in my area and garner some referrals. I was able to hone my skills and build my reputation as a performer to where I could start charging and eventually leave my part-time job.
Rule #2: If you’re a female over 30, then stick to songwriting.
I actually saw this written in a blog recently. What? I was shocked to see this archaic advice is still out there!
When I first started coaching musicians six years ago, I heard this all the time. Many ladies in my community told me they had been advised that their artist career was over after age 29. They were encouraged to work as songwriters behind the scenes because most female artists the industry focused on during that time were young and “video-friendly.”
When I started pursuing my solo career, I was a 32-year-old mom. If I wanted to perform, I had to refuse to believe this was a rule that applied to me. By this point, I had adapted my expectations for my career. I no longer wanted to be famous. I was more concerned with using my talent in a way that blessed others and was fulfilling for me.
Since I was approaching my career from a new angle, I luckily realized I could disregard this “rule.” In fact, I made it my mission to prove this statement wrong and fight ageism in music, especially for women.
+ New on Soundfly: Learn songwriting and vocal production from Grammy-winning pop artist, Kimbra, in her course: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production.
Rule #3: Always record your music in a professional studio.
This is a rule to be bent rather than broken, or at least it isn’t a rule that applies 100% of the time. Yes, you should definitely have professionally-recorded music. But you don’t need a studio recording before you get started performing. To get gigs, I created home studio recordings to give venues a sense of what I could do live — that was enough to get booked.
In the early days, I sold home-spun demos for $5 that I duplicated on my home computer. Concert-goers were excited to support me by purchasing these CDs and would often donate beyond the asking price.
After I created my first studio recording, I still produced CDs from home. By request of my audiences. I created an album of home-recorded cover songs I regularly performed live that I sold at gigs. This CD often out-sold my studio album at the merch table.
Rule #4: You have to have a band.
This is actually a belief that held me back for years. I constantly hear of artists in my community experiencing the same struggle. I didn’t believe I was engaging enough as a solo performer to get booked without a band. I thought venues were only booking bands or a “full sound.”
So I built a band of wonderful, giving musicians. It was a lot of work, but we learned the music, gelled and started performing together. It was awesome, I was proud of our show and wanted to take it on the road; but that’s when I encountered the roadblocks.
My band members all had day jobs, families. Apart from playing out on Friday and Saturday nights, they couldn’t commit to weekend overnights let alone extended touring. But instead of throwing in the towel and giving up my dream of touring, I decided to shift my thinking. Why couldn’t I book myself as a solo act? Why couldn’t a solo performer with a keyboard, great songs and engaging stories get bookings?
So that’s what I did. And to accomplish this, I broke one other rule; the next one.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “10 Myths About Songwriting, Busted.”
Rule #5: Performing in traditional concert venues is your only option.
I’m still surprised to find that many musicians think that traditional concert venues are their only option. They battle the stiff competition to secure a spot on the roster at local concert venues. They settle for performing at bars and restaurants where patrons are paying more attention to food, drink and table conversation than their music.
Because I was a mom and had to bring my daughter on tour with me, these traditional venues were never an option. And I’m so glad! Also, as a solo piano-based singer-songwriter, I wasn’t a good fit for them anyway.
So I started looking outside the box of traditional venues. I performed at community events, non-profit benefits, corporate groups, churches, mom’s groups and women’s events. Not only was it a great fit for my program and style of performing, but they loved that I brought my daughter along!
The other benefit to these outside-the-industry venues and events was that they had built-in audiences. I didn’t have to heavily promote the shows or worry that I hadn’t built a following in that area yet. I showed up to perform to a ready-made audience who was excited to get to know me and my music. I was able to create a connection with the audience and left with new fans in each location.
Time to break the “rules!”
Thinking that I needed to follow the common advice and music industry “rules” caused me to lose several years that I could have been moving forward. I had fabricated an idea of who I needed to be and what I needed to do to be successful based on these “rules.” But I didn’t fit into that mold which kept me stuck, not knowing how to move forward.
What I actually needed to do was shift my beliefs about what a music career should look like. I broke the traditional mold, and instead tailored my career to my circumstances and strengths. In doing that, I broke a lot of “rules” and that’s okay! In fact, it’s more than okay. Sometimes it’s essential.
I give you permission, BREAK THE RULES!
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