The Scary “S” Word: Redefining Success as a Musician

The Scary “S” Word: Redefining Success as a Musician
17 Mar 2016

I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful. – Marilyn Monroe

I’m fortunate to have had, early on in my life, a close-up view of this industry’s most important element: talent. Spending my childhood with my dad at Trident Studios and seeing influential artists such as The Beatles, Queen and David Bowie pass through the doors set a strong precedent for my life in music and my understanding of what it takes to succeed. Now, as a founder of Trackd and artist manager myself (see: The Suburban Dirts), I’ve experienced my fair share of ups and downs in this business.

Too often, our first instinct when measuring “success” is by the amount of money that’s in your bank account. One year Joe Shmo is making 30K annually, and the next year he gets a raise to 45k. Now he’s more successful, right? However, in music you’ll notice that unlike most other professional fields, “success” is a far more intangible and complicated concept to measure.

As with anything worth doing, huge risks must be taken. Sometimes that means that you might take a financial hit. But with an ethos of, first and foremost, cultivating real talent, success can be redefined.


If you’re a musician, we want to offer an alternative model that relieves some of the pressures of “success” for a less discouraging and realistic concept – “growth.”

There’s no beating around the bush. In 2016, it has never been more challenging to create a financially sustainable career in music. So, if you’re sitting at home with your guitar thinking your instrument is a road to riches, you might want to think twice. If however, you truly are not searching for the fastest route to make money, then it is very possible you can succeed through calculated and strategic growth in the unpredictable business of making music. And live a happy and fulfilled life while you’re at it.


Now don’t get me wrong – I am not saying to never be inspired and hopeful that your success will lead you somewhere fruitful. Ambition for greatness is always a key element to getting what you want. But, there are both creative and economic triumphs along the way – and you’ll most likely notice that one will trump the other, especially at the outset of your career.

Always be a dreamer and a visionary in your field. It’s only when we neglect the love, drive and artistry for making music in order to focus on making money that the craft gets lost in the process.


Be happy when you get to play in a new city, or when after months of working on a track it finally gets released into the world. Enjoy the process of translating your music into music videos, or hearing your song featured on a playlist from a local tastemaker. Celebrate the wins, continue to grow gradually, and don’t rely on the outside world to validate the process. Don’t put that kind of pressure on your art – enjoy creating for the sake of creation.


When you find moments of success in your career it’s even more important to not lose sight of what success means to you.

Say you find yourself, year after year, getting in the van, slugging it out around the country, playing Tuesday nights at bizarre bars/nightclubs/coffee shops in small towns only to return home feeling unfulfilled. You put out singles, albums, music videos and yet you feel firsthand the frustrations of low album sales and streaming rates, and the very real impact it has on you trying to make a career of your art.

Clive Davis said, “Label deals should do things you can’t do yourself.”

As success finds you, it is important to always keep your own values in tact. Say after years of work and by the grace of God, you are offered a label deal, or you land a great manager, or secure a booking agent – be incredibly careful of the next steps. On one hand, you no longer have to put out Facebook posts asking if anyone has any leads on a show for a Wednesday in Shreveport, Louisiana– your agent will take care of that. When you receive a contract for a song licensing, fear not, your manager will take care of that. You are told a million things about focusing 100% on your craft, your creative vision, and you should sit back and make songs while the movers of the industry and your new found team will take care of the “business” – the boring stuff. We would argue and encourage that this is the crucial time where musicians need to actively participate in the formation of their career and create a realistic plan for strategic and gradual growth. This is where it’s more important than ever to keep yourself in check, if you will.

There is, however, a difference between working with your team and fighting them on every proposal and offer. Be mindful of the areas you can contribute versus the areas your manager or agent can. Trust your team and give them the space to do great work for you. Just as a guitar player and drummer have different areas of experience and expertise, so do artists and their business representatives. Create a dialogue built on the strengths of each team member.

For every emerging, developing and career musician out there, it’s important to create an active dialogue with your band and your business team about the realistic growth options ahead of you. Do not assume that getting a manager, agent, or label deal is the same as getting a job. At this point, think long and hard before you quit your day job assuming money is going to roll in immediately from your manager or agent’s tireless efforts. Keep in mind your own definition of success to ensure you don’t find yourself in a regretful situation in a couple of years.


Now, this isn’t meant to be a bleak tale. It’s meant to be a realistic overview of how you can measure and find growth and in turn happiness in your career.

Continue to make music, tour ruthlessly, promote your personal brand, and serve tea (or whatever your day job is). Find peace and happiness in the process. Find patience and joy in creation.


YOUR brand is YOUR business, and if you decide to make music your business try focusing on developing music that has both a creative and commercial functionality. Be open to disappointment and rejection. Be open to opportunities for endorsement and sponsorships, licensing and syncs. You are both the creative director and CEO of your company – your music. Be open to consultation and advice from your team, if proven to have a track record for success. This is not to suggest that there is not a sense of urgency. Your business needs to come with a certain degree of both patience and urgency in order to realize and achieve financial growth in music making. Make modest goals, and fight to ensure you exceed them every time.

As a take home, we suggest avoiding the notion of “success” because it denotes that there is an end goal to making music. No matter how big or small of an act you are, there is no end. Music making, financial growth, public attention and notoriety are a process of development and growth not a destination point. Love what you do and work on your music alongside the business of your music, always keeping in mind where you came from and why you began in the first place. Always expect variable change, the ups and downs of the market, and continue to redefine and reimagine your band alongside your brand.

Best of luck in finding success on your terms and making great music while you’re at it.

This article was republished with permission.

Find the original article, written by Russell Sheffield, on Music Think Tank.



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