As musicians, I believe we all exist in varying levels of our own narcissistic paradise. We are, by nature, some of the most self-absorbed people on the planet, and must be in order to achieve many highly desired benchmarks of commercial musical success. Yes, we all care about making "music for the people," but let's face it – we've got to look out for "number one" in order to get to the top of our cutthroat industry. And anyone who wants to be romantically involved with us better buckle up, because our hearts have already been taken by our first love a long, long time ago. Music is our heart. Music is our life. And for some of the lucky few, it is also our livelihood.
The musician life makes you do crazy things, like uproot yourself to live in a tour bus (or even in a car) for months on end, spill your innermost thoughts and emotions to crowds of strangers night after night, not see your loved ones for extended periods of time while on the show and press circuit, and sign your freedom away to a big corporation for the slim chance of hitting the big time. And we're all sick, because on some level, all of those things are what we dream of, aspire to, and live to experience. Yes, it's true that we want our music to touch and help people, but because our conscience is clouded too heavily by ego and the unwavering desire to be great, we're often blinded of one simple fact:
The world is full of talented people!
No matter how much we practice, or how many times we've been told how awesome we are by our moms, the facts are the facts. There are a lot of damn talented people out there! And unfortunately, talent in and of itself just isn't enough. We all know tons of gifted artists who have never had their talents see the light of day commercially. The professional musician landscape just doesn't make room for everyone who feels they deserve to be on the front lines. The sooner we can accept that we are one of many, the sooner we can get to the bottom of how we can, indeed, rise above.
Talent alone doesn't pay the bills
The next time you think your amazing voice should be enough for you to get a one-way ticket to the land of fame and fortune, just remember that your landlord doesn't accept rent payments in the form of epic gospel riffs. The first thing you need to do is be honest with yourself about what you know and what you don’t know. Once you've accepted that you're just not as good at, say, contract negotiation, as you are at rivaling Mariah in your whistle register, you've made the first major step toward taking your talent and career to the next level. It's imperative that you're serious about your business if your business is music! Some of the most well-known artists in the world have gotten to where they are today with a stellar business team behind them and just enough talent to stay afloat. These are the facts, people. A solid business plan is absolutely necessary if you ever want to share your gifts with the masses and generate a cash flow that enables you to maintain the lifestyle that you need to continue to do so.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard
As a graduate of a very prestigious music school, I've witnessed my fair share of talented human beings. They were everywhere, 24/7. Trust me when I tell you that there is nothing more humbling than being surrounded by some of the most talented people in the world every single day. But there was one thing I learned very quickly: It's not the most talented kids who make it. It's not the ones with the biggest dreams. And surprisingly enough, it's not even the ones whose daddies have the biggest pockets. It's the ones who put in the work! The ones who were first up and last to go to sleep. The ones who chose to be out networking at the open mic night instead of going to that kegger down the hall. The ones who spent their last crumbled dollar from their waitressing shift to finish out that home studio setup so they could release their EP on schedule. The ones who bartered with the smart kids down the street at MIT to get help making a website and learning about SEO. The ones who skipped the bar to put out their weekly YouTube video so they could keep the attention of their subscribers.
Those types of decisions add up over time and make a big difference. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you're not using it wisely, time will slip away. The weeks of procrastination turn into years, and before you know it, your life is consumed with real world obligations just to make ends meet. And then what's left of your incomparable guitar shredding skills? You never want to live that nightmare of waking up one day, middle-aged, wondering what went wrong. Why didn’t anyone discover you?
Because no businessperson in their right mind wants to get in bed with an insanely talented, lazy SOB!
Business relationships are like marriages in every sense. There are long nights and early mornings, there's negotiation, give and take, ups and downs. But you cannot expect your manager, publicist, or anyone else in the music business to do all the work paving the road for you so you can just walk on it. I'm sure you can think of a ton of young stars today who walk down a red carpet, and when they're asked what they're wearing, all you think is… scented entitlement. Lazy people are the worst, but there's simply nothing worse to me than a talented lazy person. I have the "pleasure" of dealing with plenty of these types on a regular basis. The rage that possesses my body when an artist comes in expecting me to hand them a career with no intention of truly working hard for it is quite inexplicable. Anyone who's a "gatekeeper" is going to want to see what work you've done yourself first so they know how far along you've been able to get on your own, how badly you want this, and where they can fit in to help you. You must be ready to show the world that you're willing to put your music in motion professionally.
Welcome to the new music industry
It's arguably the most exciting time to be a creator right now. The old model has been crumbling before our eyes for the last decade, and there are infinite new avenues to get your music to the public. The internet and social media have undoubtedly created a new landscape for music sharing and discovery like never before. There is no excuse to not have your content readily accessible to fans (or soon-to-be fans). Remember, people can't like you if they don’t know you exist. And if they don't know you exist, they can't be part of the paying fan market that allows you to continue to create quality content freely. We all know well that this is an expensive industry. Recording time, photo shoots, videographers, session musicians, and entertainment lawyers do not come cheap! Yet, we're also in a time where many scumbags still feel that they should not have to pay for musical talent (I don’t remember the last time American Express accepted payment in the form of "exposure.") Anyway, the point is, don't waste another minute. You're competing with a world of talented people for the same chance at greatness. You can't just write good songs; you have to write great songs. You can't just take a meeting with your dream record label; you need to go into that meeting knowing exactly what you want to negotiate, what you're willing to give away, and what you're prepared to walk away from.
I believe success is determined by freedom, whatever that is to you. For some people, it's financial. For others, it's the chance to see the world. For me, it's the ability to wake up every morning and be able to do something that I love, so I never have to work a day in my life. Talent is only the tip of the iceberg, my friends. You owe it to yourself to be the very best, hardworking, well-rounded musician you can be so your talent can be enjoyed and appreciated by all who are ready to witness it.
Christine Occhino is the founder and artistic director of The Pop Music Academy and has experience working at Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment, in addition to working as a performing artist for over a decade. She has a bachelor's degree in music business & management with a concentration in entrepreneurship and vocal performance from Berklee College of Music, where she was a vocal scholarship recipient and former editor-in-chief of The Berklee Groove.