6 Ways to Improve Your Career as an Artist in the Music Industry

I was walking down the aisle of our local grocery store focused heavily on the items on the shelves on either side while my wife strolled a few paces behind looking at our shopping list. My cell phone rang a familiar ring tone of a close industry friend. "Patrick, I need you to call this number when we hang up. Are you sitting down?", he asked. I replied, "No. I'm in the grocery store." He continued to share that Spencer would have a shot at being in a feature film if we could work out the logistics on short notice. Of course my jaw dropped as I tried to pantomime what I was hearing to my wife who was perplexed why I was stalling our evening excursion to talk on the phone. I held my phone out so she should see who was on the line and she waited for me to hang up so I could explain why I had a look of shock on my face. "I have to call the director of a film that starts shooting this coming weekend in Baton Rouge because they requested Spencer to have a cameo and perform one of the singles off his album. I have to call them now."

My wife had an equal stunned look on her face as she watched me dial. "Aren't you going to tell Spencer first?" I shook my head and simply replied, "Um, no."

There it was. A two minute phone call and a 7-day notice to arrange a 15-hour drive to Baton Rouge to appear in a film. We didn't even know the potential pay for such a thing, but learned it wasn't bad for a day's work. But the opportunity, exposure and networking this would create for Spencer was all worth the time and investment to do it.

The longer I am in the ocean called the music industry, the more I'm learning about the moving tides, the sharks, undercurrents, and the opportunities to catch a wave versus the stagnant areas of a lagoon or oxbow. I've watched artists get pulled under, swimming too fast and too far away from shore only to not have the energy or ability to make it back. I've seen those who are content to build castles by the water's edge or splash around in the knee-deep tide pools near shore. I've also witnessed the giant luxury liners in deep waters who represent the major stars in the industry who have enough money to have a full crew navigate them through the choppy waves to connect with many shorelines throughout their career. As far as metaphors go, sorry to be so funny, but the music industry is simply a sink or swim reality. You have to keep moving either under your own power or using some device or vessel to assist you if you want to remain in the water.

The phone call was nothing I was mapping out or planning to pursue for Spencer. But when the call came, we had to be ready to adjust our current plans to ride a wave that may carry him somewhere beyond his current area of the ocean. Subconsciously, an artist should be prepared to do this. That leads to my first tip to improving your career as an artist.


1) Practice Being A Contortionist
The difficulty of many artist's lives is the most valuable resource you have, which is time. Many artists are chained to a regular job or some other life circumstance that makes it difficult to respond when opportunity presents itself. Being extremely flexible (contorting) is not meaning to never commit to anything in hopes of something better, but it's more about knowing your goals so clearly that when the right opportunity presents itself, you are able to rearrange your life to accommodate. The more you network and meet people along your journey, the more likely one or more of them will call on you someday to participate in an opportunity they refer or have for you. Be prepared to respond to a sudden wave that presents itself.

2) Become A Mind Reader
If you are fully aware of your target fan base, you'll be more able to focus your energies to meeting their wants and needs. Even though the artistic and creative side of music sometimes causes an artist to remain inward focused, the reality is that without your fan base, you are creating for an audience of one. Take time to connect with your fans through social media, live events, or arrange meet and greets when you can. Unfortunately, knowing who listens to your music isn't the only goal of knowing your audience. The word KNOWING requires interaction, and that is where your personality and the human side of you can trigger a deeper connection. Taylor Swift is infamous because of how hard she has worked and continues to make personal connections with her fans. That process takes time and in the end it will build a stronger loyalty for your music and artistry.

3) Define Your Makeup
I'm not talking eye shadow here. I had a conversation with a 20 year music industry A&R veteran who shared a great piece of wisdom. He explained that an artist is both creative and entrepreneurial in their makeup. Some are more of an artist than entrepreneur and visa versa. So if you had to make a pie chart of your split, what would that look like? For example, if you find yourself enjoying creating music but also enjoy babysitting your cash flows, then you may have a 50/50 split. Some are 80 percent artist, only 20 percent entrepreneur. The essence of defining this has everything to do with how you spend your time most effectively. If you are more artistic driven, then you will need a team of support around you to handle the business on your behalf. This will mean you are likely going to rely on others to make sure your cash flows are happening. But the trade off is that while you are immersed in your world of creating, you're paying others out of your income flow to handle the business. If you're more like a 60/40 split, then that means you'll have to allocate more time to watching the business side of your career and less time in the studio creating. It's a very simple formula, but once you've been doing your career a while, it is likely an epiphany that could really help you. A great example is if you find yourself more driven as a creative artist split, then you'll likely want to cozy up to a record label to handle everything else. This seems obvious, but many artists that do this end up regretting the bank balance down the line because the label's is significantly more than their own. But when you take on the indie artist route so you can keep more of your pot of gold, then you also are the one having to finance everything. So either side has it's benefits and unfortunate negatives.

4) Develop Your Role As A Politician
As much as you may not like politics, it's real and not going anywhere. Every business that has any financial upside has politics. It's naive to take on the attitude that you can avoid it, because either your own team or the people involved in a new opportunity are going to have a myriad of personalities to navigate. I've learned the hard way that the words I use in phone conversations, emails, or even texting can help or seriously hinder a relationship. How you interact with industry people, including fellow artists and managers, can seriously impact the path to reaching your goals. It's a people-centric industry where relationships dictate everything. Knowing how to adjust your expectations and communication role to appeal to the audience you're in front of (whether on stage or off) can seriously affect your future if you don't practice flowing with the current that you're around. There's a time to go upstream in your career, but that's usually after you're well-established and have enough relationships to cash-in on your chosen position.

5) Become A Sprinter
There seems to always be a season of a music journey where the ground beneath you starts to shake and shift. It's in those times you need to quickly move to solid ground to avoid losing what you've built. Usually this involves carefully defining those monuments and stable things around you that aren't necessarily going anywhere. For Spencer, it has been his faith in God, his family and a few industry peers who have been through the same journey or on the journey with him. Having the ability to quickly rely on those stable places when your career or life are being jolted by circumstances, is essential. A lot of artists become jaded and isolate themselves or burn bridges so much that when troubled times happen, they have nowhere to run. Sometimes the stable people they thought they had, end up not being so stable. Or sometimes they relied too heavily on others to handle their career and when those people are no longer involved, they don't know what to do. Perhaps the one stable person is you. You are absolutely able to control your own choices even when circumstances may seem that you have no choice. Every choice just has a consequence you have to live with, good or bad. Running quickly to a stable place can often times avoid disaster because you steered clear of certain doom.

6) Beware Of Getting Hooked
While I'm in the midst of a trivial "ocean" metaphor, why not discuss fishing. Most artists, at one time or another, are tempted by amazing lures that many industry related people throw in the water nearby. Some industry types use very attractive bait to gain your attention and it's very easy to get excited about what is dangling in front of you. First off, the bait has a hook. It always does. As I've experienced, you'll get tempted by bait hundreds of times when you're starting out. Sometimes it's logical to take a bite and see what happens. However, the majority of the time you'll get reeled in... be taken into a place completely out of your environment... and, sadly, get examined for a while and then thrown back in the water. Just like a fisherman, you go to the water with a bucket full of bait and keep fishing until you find the big catch you're looking for. These industry people are fishing 24/7 and will catch and throw back many artists before they decide to keep a few. As a potential fish, just keep in mind that you should be particular about shiny objects trolling your water and equally be aware that if you decide to put yourself in a new and larger body of water, the bait gets more sophisticated.

While there's never an immediate knowing of how a decision can impact your career, the longer you're in the business, the more you learn about how to navigate choices toward hopeful results.

Spencer showed up on the movie set and within 24 hours of hearing the director declare a wrap on the scene and day of filming, Spencer was lying in his bed back at home. The picture of a music career is more of a puzzle being assembled where the shape and quantity of pieces lying in your view over time aren't always understood at first glance, but as they are assembled, it becomes more obvious how they all interconnect.