Independent Musicians: Three Obstacles to Success

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The odds are against you as an independent musician, but that’s maybe not so bad. Obstacles make the finish line mean something. So sayeth wise fathers the world over. And there is no question that a full course of obstacles exists on the path to making a living as a musician. If you’re trying to build something like a modest career in music, it then becomes useful to define your obstacles ahead of time. The following should be of some use. At the very least, it will serve to foster empathy for the musicians behind those endless “Like” requests for bands you’ve neither seen nor heard (side note: Spray and pray promotional tactics smack of low value. Avoid them). Here are three big obstacles every musician must learn to negotiate:

1.) Failure to Make Time 

I have come to loathe anything that stands between me and my guitar. When the DSM-6 comes out, I anticipate the inclusion of this upsetting condition. I drink my morning coffee and hiss at people wearing suits I could never afford. Sadly, the “real world (quotations courtesy of John Mayer)” does not tend to see us as artistic visionaries. No, we are cogs in a system that requires rent money, car payments, and weekly grocery trips just to function. Any charity, breaks, or attention we receive as artists should not be taken for granted. 

You will likely spend much of your time doing things that further your musical aspirations in no tangible way. In order to find the time to hone your craft, you’re going to need to make sacrifices. The good news is that aside from your dedicated practice time, you can also get creative here, which is something I’m assuming you’re quite good at. 

I taught guitar for a couple years. Sure, I wasn’t promoting my own writing in those moments, but since everyone needs money, why not get a side job running scales and thinking about music while you’re staving off the landlord? A few times a year I play cover songs at The John Glenn International Airport. Same deal. There’s plenty of time in the day if you strategize and find workarounds. Those are just some ways that have proven helpful for me. You’ll come up with ones that work for you too. 

2.) Poor Communication 

Learn how to write a proper email. If this sounds silly, good. You can probably write an email. If you’re a brooding malcontent, that’s fine. I wouldn’t disparage that or tell you to compromise your style. In reality, no good booking agent wants to do that either. What that booking agent does want, what everyone considering investing in you wants, is to know that you take your work seriously. Show the venue that they’re dealing with a self-aware professional and the doors are much more likely to open. 

I once showed up at a band audition with my wah pedal, agreed upon Beatles solo, and improvising boots ready to go. Before we got to any of that though, the main guy auditioning me took a moment to say how much he appreciated reading a thoughtful response to his ad after all the, ‘hey man saw yer ad… I shred for REAL so let’s do this!’ emails. It’s simple stuff, but it goes a long way.

3.) Dissatisfaction with the All-Glorious Here and Now

Can you tell I’ve studied Zen Buddhism? It’s important to set measurable goals and celebrate your successes. If you’re constantly looking at videos of Muse playing Wembley under flashing lights you’re setting yourself up to only see the gaping distance between Matt Bellamy’s divinely orchestrated arpeggios and your own. I’m not saying to shoot lower. Maybe that can be you someday. I don’t know one way or another. However, if that is to be you and your music on that stage, chances are you’ll be looking at a few steps before you get there. So instead of staring all the way down that long, icy road day in and day out, consider switching up your perspective from time to time.

Congratulate yourself on nailing that vocal run for the first time at last night’s open mic. Could you have done that a year ago? If the answer is no, then you have your proof of forward motion. It’s wise to let yourself get excited when you’ve earned it. As an old acting professor at The University of Cincinnati told me to do immediately following an audition I had, “Go get some ice cream!” After you’ve binged on some black raspberry chip from Graeter’s (and don’t… don’t you even fucking start about Dairy Queen is better) once you’ve had your Graeter’s, it’s time to toss that contentment aside, put your head down, and figure out the next step. You’re probably about to trip on your next obstacle.   

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