One of the most common pieces of advice that musicians receive about advancing their career is the advice to find a good mentor – someone you look up to who can guide you along the path of building a successful music career.
While this sounds great in theory, finding someone who's actually willing to invest in you over a long period of time can be a real challenge, especially if you’re not that well-connected in the music industry to begin with.
Perhaps, then, it’s time we took a look at what mentorship actually looks like, especially in a creative and dynamic field like the music industry.
Know the difference between teachers and mentors
Many of us have had great music teachers, and some of those teaching relationships may have developed into mentor-style relationships, but it’s important to note that teaching and mentorship aren’t necessarily the same thing.
As Paula Marantz Cohen writes in The American Scholar, "A teacher has greater knowledge than a student; a mentor has greater perspective."
To apply that to the music world, a teacher can help you develop the skills you need to become a better singer or better drummer, but they won’t necessarily help you move forward in your career, or inspire you to improve creatively. A mentor will work to advise you and help you grow by drawing off his or her own experiences, skills, and connections.
Take a formal approach
For those in search of guidance, the most straightforward path is to take part in a formalized mentorship program either through a professional organization or by hiring someone as a paid consultant.
However, while this approach can work well in the more business-oriented side of the music world, finding a mentor as an artist through a mentorship program can be more of a challenge. That’s not to say that the formal approach won’t work for musicians, but in many cases, musicians have to think more creatively in order establish the types of relationships that will truly benefit their career.
Learn from the best
When Bob Dylan first moved to New York City, he told his audiences he had "been travelin' around the country, followin' in Woody Guthrie's footsteps." Dylan later met Guthrie, his childhood idol, and played him a song he had written called “Song to Woody.” Guthrie gave the song his blessing, and the two became friends until Guthrie’s death in 1967.
For many of us, this is what we think of when we think about mentorship in the music industry – an established career veteran giving guidance to an up-and-coming protegé. And there’s good reason to think this way; many other successful musicians, from Quincy Jones to Willie Nelson have found career success through this type of mentorship.
The problem for many of us, however, is that these friendships can be difficult to find. We don’t all have friends in high places, and if you’re not already connected with an established influencer like this, making that initial connection can be a real challenge.
In order to find a mentor, it can be helpful to think not just about what you can gain, but also about what you can offer. Mentorship is a two-way street, so think about what a more experienced artist might get out of working with you.
Woody Guthrie, being the legend he was, probably had plenty of kids approach him or even write songs for him, but he could tell that there was something special about Dylan when the two met. What do you have that would make someone like Woody Guthrie want to work with you?
Explore unexpected relationships
Mentorship tends to be described as a top-down method, but this approach can obscure our vision when it comes to some of the people who could have the most impact in our lives. While many of us in the music industry will never have the opportunity to work with our childhood heroes, we will hopefully all have the experience of working with people who inspire us, even if these people aren’t any older than us or more advanced in their careers .
These could be people like fellow musicians, other music industry professionals, or even visual artists or poets who inspire you to move forward in your own artistic journey. While we may not naturally think of some of these people as mentors, we may actually be able to learn more from them than we would from someone who is more advanced in their career; there’s something about going through a journey together that can be truly inspiring for everyone involved.
Because the music industry is based on creativity, sometimes you need to be creative in the way you navigate your career as well. Mentorship won’t always come in the most obvious form, so make sure you’re not blind to the people in your life who could have the most impact.
Remember, too, that mentorship isn’t just about learning skills – it’s about inspiration, challenge, and learning to be the best artist you can be, and sometimes, this inspiration can come from unexpected places.
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.