Attitude or Altitude?

Flawed attitudes can keep musical careers from lifting off
Richard Niles

I recently read an article by Bill Anschell of All About Jazz that is ironically titled Careers in Jazz ( It managed the trick of being an unflinching assessment of a sacred cow and very funny. His point is that a career in jazz is a passport to penury. This is not news, but what interested me was his analysis of why “at best, 1 percent” of jazz musicians make a living. He says it is “simple economics: People who want to play jazz outnumber those who enjoy or even tolerate it, let alone pay to hear it.”

After many years of writing music and producing records for artists in a variety of styles, I’ve come to a different conclusion. I believe that any music (or art) made by an expert communicator has an excellent chance for public acceptance. The history of the arts bears out this truth.

What can stop any musician from being successful is having an outlook based on deeply held misperceptions. Below I offer a few examples of dubious attitudes I have encountered through the years. Holding any of them can lead to failure.


A survey of attitudes

“I want to play my own music which is high art. People will love it because it is artistically valid.”

“Art” is highly subjective. Even the work of history’s greats—from Shakespeare to Beethoven—has been challenged before it received widespread acceptance. On October 9, 1886, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as genius.” It is utterly illogical to prematurely assume that your opinion of art (yours or anyone else’s) is certifiable fact. Moreover, even if you are right, why should that ensure its success?


“I don’t care what the public thinks. They don’t understand what I’m doing.”

This elitist attitude is one of the quickest paths to starvation. It’s been said that no one ever lost money by under-estimating the intelligence of the public. But “the public” are the individuals whom you want to reach into their dusty jeans and pull out their hard-earned dollars to pay you to make music. Don’t underestimate them, your success depends on winning them over.


“I’m not an ‘entertainer’: I’m a serious artist.”

Let’s face it, you are an entertainer. People listen to music to be transported to a different world, away from the cares of life. Nonmusicians pay you to entertain them. The type of music may vary with individual taste from Aaron Copeland to Eminem, but there’s no difference between Anne-Sophie Mutter elegantly bowing a Stradivarius and a buck-and-wing man tap dancing in a minstrel show; it’s still about entertainment. 


“Don’t ask me what style my music is. My music is ‘beyond category’. I won’t limit myself to a particular style.”

The nonmusicians who love music have generally made up their minds about the kinds of music they enjoy. They use labels like pop, rock, and jazz to guide their purchases. If they use them, so should you. If you can’t define what you are as an artist, don’t expect the listener to do that job for you.

Many artists want to show versatility. That is a good quality for a studio musician, but for an artist it can be a death sentence. The public wants an artist with a strong, identifiable, unique personality. Listeners put on a recording because it gives them a particular feeling. They don’t want a variety of disparate feelings.

All of this requires that musicians go beyond study and practice and develop their concept. An artist needs to ask, “What is special about me, and how may I best develop and manifest that quality?” Johnny Mercer had it right: “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.” Analyzing successful artists throughout the history of music is instructive. Understand what their unique contribution was and examine their methodologies. Then you can apply those methodologies to your work.


“We have recorded our top songs with top musicians in top studios with top microphones and top engineers. So therefore we will be successful.”

Not necessarily. If the music isn’t right, spending lots of money will not ensure success. None of those “top” elements matters unless you as the artist have something valid and relevant to say. More important, it is only your opinion that all of the above are “top.” They may not be.


“Instead of hiring an experienced producer, I’ve spent money on excellent software, so my project will sound great!”

Here’s the big secret that no manufacturer will ever tell you: The public doesn’t care if your song is recorded on a cassette machine from the 1980s or in an $8 million facility. Unless your song is one they want to hear and your voice or saxophone has emotional resonance, listeners are unlikely to notice your pricey plug-ins.


“My record will be successful because it sounds just like (fill in the name of a successful artist).”

Actually, that could be a reason why it won’t be successful. If you’ve modeled yourself after the very talented Pink, remember that there is already one Pink. Why should the public want another? Every artist has been influenced by other musicians but finding your own voice involves going beyond mere imitation and bringing something more to the party.


“I’ve been successful in the studios and as a sideman for name artists, so I’ll be successful as a solo artist.”

Once again, unless you have something unique and relevant to offer, a successful solo career is not a given. It takes considerable talent to be a good sideman. Objectivity is also key. If you’re not really solo-artist material, be proud of what you do well and avoid years of disappointment.


“We’ve been doing this act for many years. It’s therefore valid and deserves to be recorded and recognized.”

Recordings made for you or your friends are called vanity recordings. An artist needs validation from outside his or her inner circle. Thoughts such as, “I’m brilliant and deserve success much more than that screaming anorexic with a stud through his lip that I saw on TV last night,” get you nowhere. Jealousy and negativity are toxic.

If you expect that people who don’t know you will be interested enough to part with hard-earned cash for your music, you have to give them good reason. You also might ask why—if you’ve been unsuccessful with this act for years—it is likely to become successful now.


“I don’t understand why Facebook and Twitter don’t work for me. I tweet and leave Facebook messages 10 times a day!”

Use social media to your advantage. Facebook, Twitter, and other media are essential tools for today’s artist. Send out messages that will engage rather than turn off your potential audience. Constantly asking people to “like” you is just as annoying on Facebook as it was in high school.


 “I am a true artist and my excessive life style feeds my creative expression.”

Although in 2012 it’s still possible to have success while being a party animal, it’s still not a good idea. Drugs, alcohol, and waking up at noon lying next to a Finnish goatherd can diminish the likelihood of long-term success. The lifestyle choices of such notable artists as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and others led to short careers. Artists in it for the long haul need to take care of themselves.


Recap and Conclusions

Now that we’ve covered misperceptions that can be harmful to a music career, here are some essential tips for an artist’s success in any style of music.


1. Have something to say. All the study and technique in the world is useless unless this “something” is specific, compelling, unique, and original in concept and execution. It also must be identifiable by the public (e.g. non musicians).


2. Communicate what you have to say in readily understandable language. In my first year after Berklee, I had the opportunity to play one of my songs for the great British songwriter Mike Hawker (“I Only Want To Be With You”). He asked, “What is your song about?” I began to answer but he stopped me. “Don’t bother,” he said. “The fact that I’m asking this question is proof that you’ve already failed.”


3. Know who your target audience is and how to communicate with it. I played another song for Hawker and he said, “What audience is this song intended for?” I sputtered for a bit and he broke in, “Don’t bother,” he said. “The fact that I’m asking this question is proof that you’ve already failed.” He said that a lot. Hawker is a good communicator and hence had many hits.


4. Be relevant to your target audience. Your themes and attitudes must resonate with your audience. Music is an essentially public art. To be successful, it must exist in and respond to the zeitgeist (spirit of the times). It must be written and performed in a way that communicates to the outside world as it is today. It must create a positive reaction from the listener, and an emotional response. In that sense, it’s not just me performing for you, the audience member, it is a collaboration between us. We don’t just play, we interplay. I need your reaction to this article for it to be worth writing. There must be an exchange of ideas and feelings—an artistic reciprocity. Agree with me, argue with me, love me, hate me. Otherwise I’m just a guy with a beard and glasses typing in his bedroom, drinking cold coffee.


5. Have a professional attitude toward your career. Have a strong work ethic, excellent time management skills, and an eye on the bottom line. Be in time and on time, and work overtime. Being competent in the business of music (including Internet marketing) is essential.


6. Strive to make fans like you enough to become interested in you. Show interest in people you meet. The best and quickest way to make others like you is to show that you like them. I don’t know any successful misanthropes.