Every summer, music festivals happen all across the country. Lots of these festivals have “song schools” in conjunction with them. Song schools draw a variety of participants — from those who desperately want to be performing artists and successful songwriters, to those who just want to hang out and play music with other people, and maybe learn a few new tricks on the guitar. The schools offer classes all day long for about a week.
A friend of mine just returned home from teaching at one and was telling me about it. He said that a well-known agent was teaching the music biz course. He said there was lots of discouragement throughout the school all week because this agent told the students that most likely they weren’t going to be able to make a living at music. His message was pretty simple: If you don’t have something special to offer, then there’s no hope for you. There’s no harm in throwing in the towel and making music your hobby. But get real about it. (This is why you saw no music business people in “The Secret” DVD.)
Interesting teaching technique, I guess. I laughed and said that the agent was probably just trying to make his flight home easier since every one of those students had their own CD and would probably give it to him at the end of the week. (I’ve flown with suitcases filled with CDs from students after teaching at song schools.)
Then we got into a discussion about this. I named several people who have “made it” in a non-commercial niche way, and I kept saying, “Ha! What about this person?” Each person I named makes a living doing what s/he loves to do, but aren’t the very best with regard to talent or “sell-ability.”
The upshot is this: I don’t agree with the agent.
Yes, I do agree that there are lots of people who aren’t all that great at songwriting who go to these song schools hoping to be “discovered” or “rescued.” But the issue, for me, is not that they aren’t great at songwriting. That can be worked on slowly. The issue is the second part of that. That they are wanting someone to give them permission, or discover them, or rescue them.
If I may be Yoda for a moment — That is why they fail.
If I have accomplished one thing on my path of modest success in music, it’s this: I got a clue. Getting a clue is a highly underrated side-bonus that comes from following your passion in life. I was just like these students. I wanted someone else to tell me I could do it. Preferably someone important who would then do it for me.
Ultimately, you do it for yourself. You’ll definitely get help along the way. But rather than tell you that you could make something your hobby, or that you should get a job, or that you should give up, I’d rather list a few things I’ve learned as a performer and recording artist, not in any particular order.
So, this is me standing behind that agent posting little cartoon bubbles above his head, as he yammers on about how awful and hard it is in the entertainment business today…
Find your own voice. Be authentic. I know there are so many people who you love, who you admire: Shawn Colvin, The Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews – the list is endless. (And you can fill it in with people from your own profession if you’re not a musician.) But to quote Arnold Patent, “If you genuinely have something to say, then there is someone who genuinely needs to hear it.” That’s true for songs, for blogs, for novels, for speakers, for paintings, for everything.
On any given night, I have no idea how anyone in the audience has heard of me. Maybe a few from radio. Maybe a few have brought friends. Slowly it adds up. It works organically because you are authentic and you have something to say. Not because you wished you could be like someone else and copied her the best you could.
David Wilcox was a big giant angel to me when I was first getting started. When I was still playing in bars, I asked him about what songs to play. I didn’t want to do cover tunes like everyone else. I wanted to play my own stuff and a few covers by lesser-known artists. David said to only do those songs I wanted to do. He said that the people who didn’t like me would leave the bar. But the ones who stayed would stay fans forever. It was terrifying to imagine people leaving. But he was right. The ones who stayed, really stayed.
The Law of Attraction
Lots of folks talk about the Law of Attraction these days. So, if you’re sitting in a class with an agent who is telling you that most likely you’re not good enough to “make it,” ask yourself, how did I attract this? Do you want to focus on this line of thinking? If not, be strong and get out of there. Work on the parts of you that keep pulling in people who tell you that you can’t live your passion or fulfill your dream. Why do you keep seeking their permission?
When I looked deeply at every “bad” situation in my career, I could almost always see how I created it, attracted it, and what I needed to learn from it. The Law of Attraction is a gift. Use it.
Work at your craft
Write songs, write blogs, write your novel, write whatever it is you want to write. Perform. Sing. Paint. Draw. Work at this stuff. It will make you better. It will make you happier. Looking outside of you for approval makes you unhappy. Writing and creating makes you happy. Deeply happy.
Stop waiting for permission, rescue or discovery.
Give yourself permission. Rescue yourself. Discover yourself. Enough said.
Leap and the net will appear
Yes, this is a line from my own song. But it’s actually an old Zen expression. It makes sense. Take a few chances. Get a little scared. Take some risks. We are such a scared people these days. Everyone wants security. Security is a myth. And your life will be a little more exciting if you get a little insecure.
Some of the best and biggest opportunities that I’ve gotten came from just being out there. Doors open when you take risks. They’re not always the doors you expected. Often they’re even better.
Work at the business
I have become good friends with several promoters, agents, and managers. What I have learned is this: these people are working every bit as hard as you are to make this work. When you see it from their side, you realize that they don’t have “the power.” No one has the power. No one is “the man.”
Only you have the power in your world. Get a little better at your craft. And get a little wiser with the business end of it. Lord knows there are great blogs aplenty on marketing. I recommend Seth Godin for a broad perspective of all marketing issues across the board. Art, music, food, health — it seems like every business is going through the same challenges now. The old music-biz approach of getting a demo recorded and pitching your stuff with a bio and press kit isn’t always going to work now. Open your business mind a little. You don’t need to become obsessed. But it’s a requirement that you get a little wiser.
I was taking a business workshop once, and for the whole first part you know what I felt like? You know how when a beetle or a June bug flies into your screen door and then lands on the deck on his back and then lays there with all 18 of his legs just paddling the air struggling to figure out how he’s gonna roll back over? That’s how I felt. That’s how I feel a lot.
But you can only do one thing at a time. (Well, I suppose you can pee while buying a book on Amazon and talking on your cell phone. But you’re probably a girl if you can do that.) And you can only start where you are. This stuff can be overwhelming. When you get overwhelmed, take a step back. Pet your dog, remember what’s really important in life, and start over again with dog drool on your hands.
Naysayers suck. But they’re there. Deal with it.
A songwriter in one of my classes said that she hadn’t written since she got a bad review in her local paper. She got trashed. (Don’t get me started on critics and how they seem to love to warn the world about the dangers of this new artist’s very first creation. Hello?)
But the truth is this: the decision to stop herself in her tracks was hers and hers alone. Grouchy people abound. Cynics, critics, assholes – they’re just people who are too scared to try it themselves. Or they’re feeling discouraged so they have to discourage everyone else.
What I know about this one particular agent who taught at that song school is that he’s had a rough time in the music world. He’s good, but he’s overwhelmed, busy, and tired of people asking for his advice. That’s not the person who’s going to tell you to go for it. Choose your mentors wisely. Or keep reading my blog.