It’s become the ultimate music awards show cliché: a twenty-three year old pop star telling aspiring musicians in the crowd to “never give up on your dreams”, as if Joe Rockstar’s three or four year climb to stardom offered irrefutable proof of the inevitability of hard work leading to success.
Of course, such advice overlooks the simple statistical fact that the career dreams of most musicians and songwriters do not in fact come true. The reality is: many people play dead-end gigs night after night to make ends meet, sure that one day their labors will lead to a record deal or a publishing agreement, or a big breakthrough moment—and it simply doesn’t happen. Most people who get the major record label deal put out one failed album and disappear. Most songwriters with publishing deals don’t write a hit. That’s not negativity. It’s just the numbers, and it always has been. In many cases, people might have been better off to give up their music career and focus their efforts somewhere more suitable for them.
And yet, those of us in the industry who come in contact with the success stories know that one of the most common defining factors among the people who find not momentary, but long-term career success in the music business is indeed a grinding, relentless, near-obsessive determination that simply refuses to accept defeat. Successful artists, songwriters, and producers do not give up. Neither do successful managers, A&R people, or label owners. It is the one common trait between a wildly diverse population of creative types and music weasels.
So how does a young musician or songwriter reconcile the need for determination in the face of overwhelming odds with the equally necessary need to face reality? It’s a question that has been in the back of my mind since the day I started in the music industry. I haven’t had a day since without it spinning around my psyche. In all honesty, I hope I never do.
That’s because the two qualities, determination and realism, are only helpful when they’re closely intertwined. Without a balance of both qualities, you can be assured of either rushing headfirst off a cliff, or throwing in the towel without realizing you’re only inches from the goal. It’s true that you should never give up. But doing the same damn thing over and over is not going to work either. You need determination all right. But you need to be realistic about what “determination” actually means:
Determination is an endless capacity for reinvention.
I thought of this yesterday, when I saw a particular new act break into the Top Ten of the Hot 100 for the first time. We’ll leave the name of the band out of it, to allow for more candor in recounting the story.
I first met the lead singer and chief songwriter of this band when he was still a teenager—he played and sang in my office, with unshakable confidence and undisguised ambition. He was clearly talented, but not yet ready to sign a publishing agreement. I didn’t sign him, and no one else in the business did either. Several years later however, he had grown both as a person and as a musician—and he did get that publishing contract, which subsequently led to him forming a band, toughening up his sound, and starting to record some demos.
Fast forward another 12-24 months, and those demos began to attract interest from managers. Soon the young band was being represented by two major industry veterans, who were able to secure a major label record deal for their clients. Now this project was off to the races—only about four years after that initial office performance in my office.
Once the band had finished recording their debut album, the label sponsored another showcase, this time at a major venue in NYC, and I had a chance to see the band a second time. While the depth of talent in both the songwriting and performance were obvious, the show didn’t sell me on the group. I felt they were a little too derivative and not terribly convincing, and definitely not packing a breakthrough first single. When the single came out several months later and quickly disappeared, I felt confident I’d made the right call.
Given the current propensity for record companies to drop an act at the first failed release, I was surprised to see the band get a second chance with a follow-up single. Most of this I attributed to their high-powered management team, who had clearly pulled some favors and issued some threats to give their act one more opportunity to grasp the brass ring. Still, even that power-base wasn’t enough, as the second single did even less than the first, garnering almost no radio action and little label support. Right around that time, I was given another opportunity to get involved with the band on a publishing level—and once again, I passed. When the president of the label and the Sr. VP of A&R, who signed the act, both left the record company, the demise of this particular band, after five or six years of local gigs, recording, showcasing and touring, seemed inevitable.
So imagine my surprise when several weeks ago the group’s new single, a third attempt at breaking through to radio, suddenly leapt onto the Hot 100. I was even more surprised when I heard the record. The band had radically shifted their sound and visual image toward a younger demographic. It worked immediately, and continues to build into one of the major success stories of the year. The band’s success is not only a testament to their talent, but also to their determination, and the determination of the business team around them. They never, ever gave up.
But they did adapt. In fact, their determination did not result in a refusal to change—their determination was expressed through their constant willingness to change. I’ve seen it through personal experience with artists and songwriters ranging from The Script to the Jonas Brothers to Stargate to Billy Mann. The kind of determination that wins in the music industry is the kind that never stops looking for a new angle, a new approach, or a new audience. Playing the same songs in the same city to an ever-dwindling number of the same people year after year is not determination. It’s futility. If you look at the careers of show business icons like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Madonna, Tom Jones or U2, they are filled with an endless capacity for reinvention, and a conviction that there is always another way to get to the top.
Every artist or songwriter meets obstacles along their career path. Many of them vow never to give up—and don’t. Unfortunately, most of them fail, because they simply repeat the same mistakes again and again. The ones that succeed are like the best competitors of any kind—they simply refuse to lose, and will try everything until they find what works. Here’s four tips to keep in mind:
1. Keep an eye on the scoreboard
Anytime you’re on the playing field, you better know the score of the game, because you play differently when you’re behind and when you’re ahead. The most deadly danger is to tell yourself that you’re winning when you’re not. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re making progress–gaining fans, building a network of contacts, refining your sound—when you’re simply standing still. Set measurable goals. Monitor your results. And be honest. If it’s going nowhere, admit it. Just because you’re behind, it doesn’t mean you’ll lose the game. But it does mean that you better be prepared to change something.
2. Change the team
Almost every great band has a member who never quite made it the distance (right, Pete Best?). If one member of the team, whether it’s a musician, a manager, a publisher or a record executive, is holding everyone back, then there has to be a change. Sometimes even the best people get stale, especially after a run of success. Look at how Madonna has switched producers or how songwriters like Billy Steinberg or Max Martin have found new collaborators. It’s never easy to do. But you have to find the chemistry that will make magic.
3. Change the field
Music is fashion, and like all pop culture, it’s constantly changing. Production sounds come and go, whole genres of music transform themselves, audiences grow older or are replaced by a new generation of listeners. Whether it’s Elvis going to Vegas, Darius Rucker going from Hootie to country star, or Rod Stewart transforming from rocker to crooner, you have to be willing to meet your audience where they are. Sometimes that means changing styles, genres, or geographical territories. Go where the grass is greener.
4. Change the strategy
Coaches put their game plan on a chalkboard, not a stone tablet. That’s because it’s inevitably going to change, based on how things are shaping up on the field. I recently signed a songwriter who had her first big cut in Nashville this week. She started as a pop singer, moved to Nashville as a country artist, got a few breaks as a songwriter and finally went with that. It doesn’t mean she’s given up her hopes of being an artist. It just means that she took her breaks where they came, and changed the plan as necessary. It’s only about winning.
5. Change the game
Kara DioGuardi went from songwriter to media personality to A&R person. Justin Timberlake went from artist to actor. Will Smith was a rapper once upon a time. Bono went from rock star to international political crusader. Sometimes the best thing to do with your musical talents is to blend them with your other skills, and use them to add a different dimension to a whole new field of work. Whether it’s in the entertainment or media business, education, music therapy, politics or technology, there are other places to bring your talents to the world, outside of the narrow definitions of the music industry.
In the end, the only mistakes I’ve ever seen that are career-ending are cynicism and bitterness. As soon as those elements set in, all is irretrievably lost. For most of us, no one suggested that we should get into the music business. In fact, most of our friends and family probably did all they could to warn us off it. We made the choice, and we continue to pursue the dream only as long as we choose to. There’s no room for bitterness in that.
I had three different chances to sign that band that I mentioned earlier—the one with the current Top Ten hit. I blew it every time. But tomorrow, I’ll pick up the phone and call the manager, who knows exactly how many chances I had to make an offer, and who is well aware of exactly why I’m calling now. I’ll tell him, in all sincerity, how happy I am for the band’s success, and what a testament it is to their determination. Then I’ll ask if the band has closed a publishing deal yet. Because real music business weasels never, ever give up.
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