Be Good (or Get Good)
Oh, if I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard musicians and songwriters complain that so-and-so on the radio is not very good, or dismiss a whole genre as factory-cranked-out fluff. But the truth of the matter is that the people who are successful in music are so for a reason. They are good. Sure, maybe there’ve been a few exceptions over the decades, but for the most part, the people who’ve “made it” are just darn good at their craft, even if it’s a type of “good” that’s not in your wheelhouse. Nonetheless, they did not fall into success by accident. I can safely say that no one does.
Good at What?
Being “good” is the most fundamental requirement for success in music. However, the tricky part is that you have to use or develop your skills in a way that people respond to. For example, maybe you’re a great accordion player, or you play a killer pan flute. Those skills are simply not in demand in the current music industry, so the fruits of those passions may be limited to targeted live shows or lessons on YouTube (which are both valid and respectable undertakings).
So, there’s a practical element to finding success in music: there must be a space, or a place for your work in the bigger picture. Once you know what’s marketable and where, then you can go about honing those skills.
Music is like any other field, and the people who are working professionals usually have a specialty. They don’t try to do everything. For example, if you fancy yourself mainly an instrumentalist, you could be a professional musician for hire. The need for “good” is obvious here. Another path for instrumentalists and producers is film and television composing. If you turn on the TV, you’ll hear a whole lot of instrumental music in the background. There are people who’ve built a good living from doing a large volume of instrumental tracks that fit the needs of television and film producers. Other paths include being a professional singer, many of which are hired for events, demo recordings, and cover bands. A few lucky vocalists end up on competitive TV shows like “The Voice.” Yet another path is being a songwriter or beatmaker and often collaborating, then pitching your work in hopes of getting cuts by known artists. My personal path is that of the “artist”-- writing, releasing and performing my own brand of original music.
Are You Sure I Have to Be Really Good?
Yes. You see, there are many viable roads to take in music. But accomplishment in any form in the music industry is firmly built on having solid skills. Some might say, “Well, of course you have to be good. Why are you telling us this?” Sadly, I find that it needs to be said. There are too many aspiring music folks I’ve seen who are driven by things OTHER than the love of their craft and the hard won expertise that comes with that. For example, success in music doesn’t come from looking cool on Instagram, or from knowing the right people. Topping the charts doesn’t come from the desire to be in the spotlight, an image, a charismatic personality, a healthy bank account, or living in a music town. The basis of achievement in music is excelling at your craft, and having passion for it. All of the other stuff is secondary. I don’t care what anybody says. You just have to be really good at what you do. After all, music is one of the most competitive fields on the planet. You absolutely must have something substantial, compelling and unique to offer.
Getting Good, Getting Better, or Expanding Your Skill Set
Every small town, every big city, every region has people who are known as “the best” in that place. One of the more painful things I’ve seen is when someone who’s a big fish in a small pond tries to compete on a national or international level, and then they get rejected and kicked around in the professional industry. As a result, they might feel absolutely crushed. It’s a hard lesson to learn. In music, unless your goal is local gigs, you’re competing with literally the whole world. So, you HAVE to be positively stellar at what you do. You have to keep pushing yourself, keep growing, keep working and expanding your skills. You have to stand out.
How do you get better? Build your expertise on a solid foundation. Take lessons, get educated, keep getting experience, and practice, practice, practice. Join online and local communities that support your passion. Explore what inspires you. Then, go practice some more. Research people who are where you aspire to be, and look into how they got where they are. How did they gain their prowess? No one is an overnight success.
Building impeccable skills in music can come from many avenues: a degree in music, lessons, reading books, absorbing hours of YouTube videos or online education programs, and of course, practice. A natural education comes from life experience and taking in what’s out there. It can inspire your own creative direction when you see other musicians you like or don’t like. Then, you have your work cut out for you, and you know where to focus your energy. Your own direction can become crystallized, and then you know what specific areas you need or want to build your skills in.
For example, if you’re a hip-hop producer, you’re probably inspired by what you hear on the radio, and you can strive to get your own work up to those standards. Regardless, dedication is key.
Feedback: A Double-Edged Sword
A crucial step in becoming accomplished at your craft is getting feedback. Yes, it can be quite painful to get honest feedback. For example, you think your work is amazing and sounds like a number one hit; however, hit songs are popular because they resonate with the masses. So, you need to see how your work hits other people. I rarely write and produce a song without getting feedback from people I trust. Often, I don’t like what I hear and I struggle with it. But at the end of the day, and after I’ve gotten some emotional distance, I can see that maybe they have a point – sometimes.
You definitely don’t have to take all the advice you get – it’s your call --but if you get similar feedback from more than one person, then it’s worth taking seriously.
Places to get quality feedback include teachers and instructors, who are usually comfortable giving constructive criticism, online groups, paid critiques, and your personal circle. You should be leery of people who think everything you do is perfect as is, though, because the professional world will not be so supportive. Getting in-depth, precise evaluation of your work is something that sometimes, only skilled professionals are able to deliver. For example, your mom might love your work, but she’s your mom, you know? However, a professional can offer insightful analysis from years of experience in the industry.
Also, keep in mind that well-intentioned comments that might be difficult to hear are not rejection, and they’re not failure. They’re just someone’s opinion that’s meant to help you get better.
Time Is Your Friend
Have you heard of the 10,000 Hour Rule? This is a concept described by author Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers that quantifies the “practice makes perfect” idea. Gladwell says that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to rise to the skill level of being world class. He uses examples of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, professional athletes, and The Beatles to support this idea.
I, however, think that the 10,000 Hour Rule is oversimplified, and there are varying factors that come into play to create success, many of which I’ll cover in future Music 101 columns. What’s undeniable, though, is that if you want to be really good at what you do, you have to put in the time.
Day after day, year after year. There are no shortcuts to true greatness; it is earned through conscious and consistent effort.
They say that success is where preparation meets opportunity. If you aspire to reach higher than where you are now, then time is a gift. Right now, in this moment, is your time to prepare. Keep practicing, learning and growing. Push yourself, and give yourself credit along the way for your tenacity. Then, one day, when the moment is suddenly upon you, you will blow them all away.
Singer-songwriter Angela Predhomme’s music has been heard by millions through television, film, radio and streaming. Her soulful songs have been featured in the popular Hallmark movie “Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane,” Lifetime’s hit show “Dance Moms,” commercials for ING Bank and Fiat, and more.