Again and again, I have heard this sage advice when asking producers, label executives, and publishers about artist development. Take your time. The first and most important thing to do is to get the music right: love your music, immerse yourself in it, and live it.
As an artist/writer, your coin of the realm is your songs, and they need to be great, polished, and professional. The worst thing you can do is go to market too soon. Without careful preparation, practice, understanding, listening to others, testing your material, developing its quality, and crafting and articulating a unique story to tell, you will probably enter the marketplace too early and will most likely fail. Start out slowly. Practice. A lot.
Another critical component of artist development is live performance. Any venue will do to get started. Play the smallest clubs to get used to performing and being in front of an audience. Everybody gets better over time, and live performance in front of a crowd does many positive things for your career. When you play live, you develop sets of songs that you play and expand your repertoire. Don’t be afraid to play other people’s material mixed in with your own. Covers create a sense of familiarity that you can use to build your audience. You are also learning by playing the songs of other great artists.
Performing live helps you build your confidence and song quality, lets you interact with an audience, and experience their reactions to your songs. Also, when you play live, you can test out different material and approaches to your songs. You can experiment and find out new things about the song, tempo, bridge, chorus, lyric, etc. You can see which songs are the most popular, what should be the rhythm of your set, where the audience loses its attention, and how best to open and close a show.
Live performance and touring is a major cornerstone to any artist’s career and is one of the best ways to develop an audience. Over time, your audience will grow with you as you refine your art. Superstars Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and countless others all played small clubs for very minimal dollars at first, refining their approach, music, and brands to small audiences that grew over time. Just look at the size of their audiences now.
Many successful executives have told me that good music finds an audience and is very difficult to keep under wraps. If you want to have a long career in the music business, take a good look at yourself, who are you, and the package that you bring to the table. Do you have the songs, do you have the talent, do you have the charisma, and are you really ready to go to market? Develop, refine, write, practice, play live, listen, and collaborate.
Listen to Others
Great artists and writers take the time to develop, but they also listen to people around them who they can trust to give them feedback and keep them honest about what they are trying to do and how well they are accomplishing it. This is role of the A&R person, record producer, publisher, and artist manager. You simply cannot believe your own press and expect to be successful. You also cannot rely on your mother or family to be objective about what you are doing. You need to get honest opinions from a lot of different people who will tell you the truth. Listen carefully to them as a sounding board for your career and ask hard questions like the following: Do you like my songs? How do I look on stage? What do I need to do to improve? What advice can you give me?
Your fans are the ultimate source of feedback. Set up a blog or some other means of creating two-way communication. Encourage people to tell you what they think. Hand out postcards at your gigs, collect your fans email and cell phone numbers, and ask them what they think of your set, your songs, your performance, etc. Don’t be afraid of what you might hear, and use the feedback to learn, refine, and further develop your brand and music.
Having a band is a great way to collaborate, and hopefully you will find other musicians to play and write with at various points in your career. Another hallmark of great artists and writers is that they work with different musicians to write songs, perform together, cover each other’s songs, and most importantly learn from one another. Collaboration and the exchange of ideas are the life-blood of creative artistry.
Collaboration does not mean that you are joined at the hip with another artist forever. You can move in and out of collaborative partnerships when you need something new to spark the creative juices or just get you going in another direction. Working with other talented musicians can be a challenge. Quincy Jones has great advice for when you walk into the studio to work with other artists. He says, “Check your ego at the door.” Find people you can work with, who you enjoy being around, and who make you feel good.
There are many examples of great songwriting collaborations, including Holland, Holland & Dozier, Lennon and McCartney, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The list is long. Don’t be afraid to cowrite with other people or to record other songwriter’s material. This can help you reach a broader audience, develop your talents in new directions, and potentially open up your brand by association with other great artists.
One of the most successful songwriters of the last 30 years is Don Henley of the Eagles. He talks about identifying your strengths and weaknesses through collaboration with great writers like Jackson Brown and Glen Frey, and being willing to put someone else’s songs on your record if they are better than your own. Seems to have worked for him.
Many of the most successful songs of all time have come out of collaborative partnerships that were organized on a formal level at some of the songwriting factories of the past, including the Brill Building, Motown, and Philadelphia International. Collaboration helps you to stand on the shoulders of others and to peer over a horizon that you might not be able to see on your own.