How many successful businesses put out a product without first asking questions like:
Is there a need for the product? Does the product have a potential audience? Who is that audience? What are the different ways one can use this product? What makes our product unique?
Yet, many musicians invest a great deal of time releasing a “product” without asking those types of questions.
In this blog, I hope I get you to thinking about your music and practice routine more like a business, these considerations may enable you to do this longer. We live in an era where creativity is not enough; practicality is a necessity as well.
I will show you some basic questions that all musicians should ask themselves before spending hours on a practice routine or spending thousands of dollars on another CD.
Let’s look at a practice routine like any business should, asking the same questions a business would:
Suppose you are working on four different skillsets:
1)Learning how to play in a complex time signature such 17/8
2)Learning the latest song by an obscure artist
3)Learning standard repertoire in your genre of choice
4)Improving your timing via a metronome
5)Transcribing things from recordings by ear
Ask yourself the following-How often will I need these skills on a job? Will these skills lead to more gigs? Will these skills lead to more students? How will what I’m doing impact my success? Can I use these skills in multiple areas/genres? Does this stuff have an audience or an employer?
Let’s reanalyze these skill sets individually:
1)Playing in 17/8 could be fun and challenging but the number of times you’ll need that skill is very low. Most students will never have a desire or need to play in that time signature and most audience members would prefer to hear something simpler. However, if you are highly skilled and have other marketable skills in place then it’s perhaps a noble thing to work on.
2 &3)An obscure new song might be fun, but if you don’t know the standard repertoire of a genre it will most likely not be the best use of your time. After decades of playing, my ability to play the Standard Repertoire has gotten me way more jobs than the ability to play something obscure.
4)Keeping good rhythm is something important in all genres and musical situations. A VERY marketable, desirable skill.
5)Anything that trains your ear is good because it crosses genres. For example, if you can hear the I, IV, and V in a country song, then you can most likely hear it in a blues song. Good ears are a highly marketable skill.
Please keep in mind that Context is important; things that are good for a highly advanced musician aren’t as good for the beginning professional looking for more work and jobs.
For example, if you go to jams and don’t know any of the songs, then you probably should learn standards before obscure tunes. If you can’t play decent backup, then a time signature like 17/8 is largely a waste of time where making a living as a musician is concerned. There’s an order to things; having marketable/practical things in place before progressing on to very specialized things is a better use of your practice time.
I can truthfully say I spent a lot of time working on things I never ended up using on any job or even in my writing. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of time because I learned something, but I do believe in some cases my time would have been better spent on something else.
In summary, you are trying to make your musical Resume stronger in a way that leads to jobs, contacts, and anything that keeps you doing this longer.
Why is music different than any other career?
People trying to get a job usually pick skills to work on that will help them get that job, not ones that are impractical. For example, If you are trying to get a new computer job, then spending hours a day working on some obscure dead computer programming language probably isn’t a good idea. Yet, that is the equivalent of what many musicians do in their practice routines. They never consider if there is a market out there. They don’t consider how they can or cannot put the skills they practice so much to use.
I must say, I don’t believe that your entire practice routine has to be about marketability and business-sense. I spend a great deal of my time practicing things I simply want to play with no regard if anyone else will like them. A world where we don’t chase creativity for pure creativity sakes is a world where music suffers greatly. However, where many musicians go wrong is that’s ALL they do. In order to do this for a living remember the equation:
Creativity + Practicality = You getting to do this longer
A peek into my own career and my many shoes.
1)Wedding Musician-I have a repertoire of solo guitar material (wedding music, popular, jazz, and latin). When I’m hired over and over to play that repertoire, it tells me, “Hey that was a good investment of your time!” That investment allows me to keep doing what I love for a living. A few years into marketing myself as a wedding musician, I also began learning to sing some popular music. Now I must be honest, singing is not something I enjoy nearly as much as playing; I have to work harder at it because I don’t spend much time at all practicing it. However, it’s led to more gigs and it’s not as painful as having to find something else to do. If I had to ask myself whether the investment in the solo guitar material was worth my time, I would say Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.
2)Writing Original Music-I’ve always enjoyed writing, sometimes I wished I had concentrated more on writing from an earlier time. Writing original songs is also a beneficial use of my time; some people have heard one of my originals and told me, “That’s what made me want to take lessons from you.” I’ve sold the written music to some of my original pieces (after all, in the sea of free music online there is only ONE place you can find my original sheet music). Many times my original pieces are those things where I play less “marketable” materials; complex rhythms/time signatures/harmonies. However, I aim to play them in such a way where someone doesn’t need a music degree to understand them. Another thing-some of my original music is on internet radio; this is a good promotion tool. Original Music is always a good thing because you don’t have to pay royalties or fees on anything you do with it. If you are successful with it, then you can earn royalties (I’m still waiting on that first check myself!)
3)I play Banjo in a Bluegrass Band-I must say that most of the things I play in this band are very traditional; studying the standards and basic bluegrass vocabulary allowed me to get the job. My ability to play something weird/complicated didn’t get me the job. My job in the band is to fit in and make the band sound good, so I “dial down” my playing sometimes to fit in. I have to know good accompaniment and backup skills.
4)I play solo Banjo gigs-I’m not sure how but I actually do get a good bit of gigs where someone wants me to come play banjo by myself. This is either for a dinner or it can be strolling through a business event. On these gigs, I normally play things that are pretty/melodic songs, bluegrass, and perhaps an original here and there. I don’t ever recall playing anything in 11/8 or something with 20 chord changes. I also play banjo at many weddings by myself throughout the year, some people want a non-traditional ceremony or cocktail hour.
5)Teaching-Teaching is something I learned largely via experience, but I had good teachers that certainly influenced me. I’m lucky in that I LOVE to teach; all musicians don’t like to teach so this isn’t an option for them. I love seeing people say, “man I NEVER thought I’d be able to do this, I’m getting better.” I’ve learned a lot teaching, some of the things I knew how to do I couldn’t at first explain to anyone else. Having to explain it increased my own learning and knowledge a hundred fold. Relating to the above-learning how to teach is obviously a good skill to have when it comes to finding a “job” as a musician. With the ability to teach online, anywhere in the world, there is a very large market of students. There are always people that want to learn how to play an instrument, the difficulty is sometimes finding them.
6)Products (TABS/Books/etc)-This is something I’ve only gotten into the last six months. Even though there are so many people giving away free stuff, I still make sells each month on the little amount of products I have available. When I put something up and people buy it, that tells me to continue making things; there is a need/want for it. I wished I had taken time outside of my practice time to make little products each week to sell. If you have any sort of KNOWLEDGE there is most likely someone out there that needs or wants that knowledge and will gladly pay you for it. Examples include Ebooks/TABS/Videos/Music/, some people even sell T-shirts, Caps (can’t say I ever see myself going there! hahaha). I encourage you GREATLY to do this, with all of the new technology it’s not nearly as difficult to make “stuff” these days, although it takes up a lot of time.
As you read through all of this, maybe it was apparent but if it’s not I will let you in on my secret: If I ONLY depended on playing the banjo for a living I would starve to death. If I only played my instrument exactly the way I wanted to all of the time, playing only the songs I wished, I would, in fact, have to do something besides music full-time. If I had no desire to adapt or think about “what is working”, “what is not working?”, “is this good for my resume?” then this blog wouldn’t exist. Remember the creativity + practicality equation.
I hope you notice that most of the things I use to make a living aren’t very complicated/obscure skills. I will even go so far as to say these are things I could teach anyone serious about being a musician within a few years, that is, if they practiced hard. You don’t need virtuoso abilities. What you need is pliability, versatility, a good business-sense, and professionalism. Even then, it’s not easy
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