My band, The Savage Hearts, is headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, to play a series of showcases at the International Bluegrass Music Association Ramble and Business Conference. The following is a series of observations I have had in a 30-some year career in the music industry. There is no wrong way to move through a life of creativity but there are certainly short cuts and lessons that seem to mysteriously repeat over and over until they are thoroughly learned. Here are 10 of mine.
10 LESSONS LEARNED IN A LIFE OF MUSIC
1) Be reciprocal in your dealings with people. Your life and your music career will be defined by the quality of relationships you have. It is of much more value to give than to receive and it will never inhibit your career, rather, it will show that you are a somewhat rare person of integrity and maturity.
2) In all things musical and beyond, listening is ten times more valuable than playing (or talking). Self-promotion is the lowest form of advertising. It communicates desperation. People who achieve remarkable success “take their place” in the industry, they don’t will it to happen by convincing the true professionals of something that is apparent or not.
3) Crazy has a certain smell to it and has a lot of fun but rarely gets better paid gigs. Downtime is so rarely that. Although relationships can be formed in the late night jam circles and happy hours that characterize conferences and festivals, it is the person who maintains a strong presence of mind in situations that many other folks do not who is often able to move forward.
4) Musical ability is athletic. Talent can be as harmful as it is helpful. Great musicians work to get better. If they don’t practice, then they play so many shows that the time adds up anyway. Many of the most mediocre musicians I have known in my life made a career out of hard work and tenacity. On the other hand, some of the most brilliant players I’ve known became their own worst enemies over time because their restless thinking kept them from working.
5) You will want to know how to market yourself, develop a sense of graphic layout, write basic promotional materials and be familiar with technology. You are running your own small business. Like car maintenance and home repair, it is expensive to pay other people to do what you could pick up over time with a sense of curiosity and willingness to ask for help.
6) This is might be difficult emotionally and at times, lonely. The time away from your friends and family, the financial unpredictability and the fact that you are going to spend as much time or more building your career as any well paid professional will needs to be leveraged by your belief that what you offer your audience and the music industry is worth it. Internalize that you are led, in your core, to pursue this life. And create vast networks of friends and mentors in it.
7) You need to have health insurance. Pregnancy, broken limbs, car accidents and a host of other possibilities that people don’t think about it require it. I have played dozens of benefits for musician friends who didn’t prepare for this and it took them longer to recover. I broke my bow hand once in a three month stint without insurance. As much as I hate to ask you to pay for something you’re not using, wellness is your first priority because YOU are the business you are investing so much in.
8) Commit unwaveringly to the long haul and you will experience an alignment of purpose in many transactions. There are things that can create a loss of direction in an already somewhat experimental artist’s life. Avoid them if you can, learn from them if you can’t. The reality is, it generally takes years and years of career development to offer something unique to the already very sophisticated world of making music. When you use your art form as a compass, it makes the decisions surrounding this a little easier. I try to tap into this every day. And not from a place of ego, but from a place of curiosity. How can I learn a little, teach a little, serve a little and get incrementally better every day? Generally by listening more and talking less!
9) God…oh sheesh! Here we go…I have teenagers, bear with me please. It took me 40 years to even begin to understand God. I’ll keep this brief for you who are in the first chapter or don’t think in metaphors. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience first of all. My finest moments on stage have been in communion with the God of my understanding and in the transmission of love from my heart to the heart of my audience. Love is the answer. That is all.
10) You are really, really special. And also, you are not special- in a liberating way. You are special in that your perspective, your body, your ideas and your musicality has never been seen in this configuration before on the planet. That’s pretty much a miracle if you ask me. However- most truths are indeed paradoxical by nature by the way- you are going to make the same walk down the same road that hundreds of thousands of really special people have already made. Ask them how they did it. Get help, give help and stay open. It’s a life well worth leading.
And most of all…VIVA LA MUSICA!