9 non-musical ways musicians damage their careers


Anyone who attempts to make a living in the arts is quickly liberated from the illusion that talent alone leads to success. Music is a fickle business—an industry where talent and ability are just the starting points to getting work. Many times, the difference between someone who is a successful musician and one who struggles to gain recognition isn’t ability, it’s who they are as people and professionals.

It’s never been easy to be a musician, especially since the pandemic turned the music industry upside down. We don’t yet know which live venues are coming back, or when. Many musicians are still figuring out how to position themselves on social media platforms and streaming services. Yet even with the chaos of this past year, there’s one truth that remains unchanged: we’ve got to make it easy for people to work with us. Basic? Yes, but I repeatedly encounter musicians who, for one reason or another, haven’t learned this truth. Want to best position yourself for success in music? Don’t do these 9 things.

Have no web presence

What’s the first thing most of us do when we encounter someone new? Most likely, we put the name into a search engine and see what comes up. No matter how well musicians play, if they’re not online, they’re invisible. A website is a must. A social media presence is a must. A YouTube channel is a must. These are a musician's calling cards, their introduction to people who don’t know them. Savvy musicians think about the age of their average gatekeeper (concert promoter, interviewer, etc.), research which platforms are they likely to access, and make sure that they're visible in these places. 

Have an old, out-of-date site

Websites that were clearly designed twenty years ago, out-of-date information on static pages, inattention to detail, lack of basic writing skills--these things sabotage many fine musicians. These missing details are the online equivalent of dressing sloppily for an interview or an audition. Not a web designer? Employ one, or use one of many fine site-building options available. And remember that websites are not "set it and forget it." Keep your site fresh with regular updates. 

Neglect to ask for the sale

My first job after I finished my undergraduate degree was in corporate sales. The hardest part of that job wasn’t calling on strangers, it was the moment when I had to ask for the sale. Why? Because someone might say no. As uncomfortable as it may be, the only way to get paid is to ask. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, many times the answer is no. But we deserve to be paid for our work, and it’s our jobs as professionals to make certain that this happens. 

Make it difficult to pay you

Whether asking for direct payment or donations, business-minded musicians offer fans multiple payment options, and make these options easy to find on their websites. When they set their fees, they don’t cheat themselves by setting them too low. Don't sell yourself short--if you do, others will too. Remember that in a market-driven economy, perception of worth is frequently tied to rate of pay. 

Neglect to educate themselves about the music industry

There's a dangerous myth that musicians have believed for generations: that it's someone else's job to handle the business side of their careers. What I had to learn when I launched my music career is that (to paraphrase my mentor Jill Timmons), no one would ever care as much about my career as I did. Business education is an ongoing job because every time a new technology or platform emerges, the old rules change. Savvy musicians know that the adage "adapt or die" is a warning, not a suggestion. Basic business books are a good place to start, but the best research is found in the examples of other, more successful musicians and on up-to-the-minute blogs such as DIY Musician

Be a jerk

One thing I’ve noticed in some musicians who can’t seem to get their careers started is an unfortunate tendency to be sycophants to people they want to impress, and jerks to those whom they consider to be beneath them. Don’t be a jerk. Smart musicians treat everyone the same, and treat everyone with respect. They know that the “nobody” they dismiss today may be a “somebody” in the future. Everyone is a potential customer, and everyone deserves courtesy and respect. More than once I’ve declined to hire musicians a second time because of how they treated other people. 

Be egotistical

The most successful people I know are also the most humble. Rather than spewing their accomplishments and intellectual superiority on everyone around them, they’re wise enough to know what they don’t know, and secure enough in themselves to not have to broadcast what they do. I’m of the opinion that people who brag about themselves all the time, or who play that tasteless game of one-upmanship, possess inferior intellects (in addition to being a boring conversationalists). 

Break your promises

Successful musicians show up when promised, follow through on their obligations, and unless there’s an unassailable reason why they must break their word, they do what they agreed to do, and do it to the highest professional standard. Musicians who gain a reputation for being flaky and unreliable are musicians who soon find themselves without work. 

Expect everything, give nothing

We all know at least one artiste who begs favors from everyone yet never seems to offer anything in return. Musicians who want people to do things for them must learn to return these favors. At the very least, they must say “thank you.” I don’t know why some musicians don’t understand this, but I’ve seen this disconnect multiple times. When I encounter a musician who acts like this, I eventually stop promoting of their music. Generosity invites generosity, and musicians with a giving spirit are musicians who will always have people willing to do things for them.   

In the end, if we wish to be taken seriously as professionals, we must act professionally. I've certainly failed at many of these things myself; professionalism is a journey, not an impossible standard. It's up to us to bring the same level of commitment to our businesses as we bring to our art, and, above all, we must be people who (in every sense of the phrase) "play well with others."