How To Manage Expectations And Enjoy Your Music More.
You make music. You love to make music. If you can stop right there you’ll be really happy.
But if you also love seeing other people enjoy the music you make and want that music to live beyond your notebooks and practice room and have a life, then you have to be prepared for the reality of putting yourself out there.
As a musician, part of you always feels like, “I make music because I love it, it fuels me, it brings me joy and I don’t do it for anyone but me.” And then there is a part of you that says, “I made this music that I believe in and I want people to hear it, connect to it, cherish it and play it over and over, request it from their radio stations, share it on social media, add it to their playlists and be excited about coming to our shows.”
Oh boy. Now you have set yourself up for a rollercoaster of emotion. Buckle up. I do wish someone would have given me a list of how to manage my expectations. And even knowing what I do now, I still struggle.
Here are some bubbles I had to burst the hard way:
You will release your music and there will be a big build up and then the release … and it will feel like a flop because it has no reach (save that handful of kind friends on your Facebook.) But, it’s not a flop. It’s probably not even uninteresting or basic. It could actually be good. It just has no reach.
You will pour your heart and soul into your music and album and someone will say it sounds “nice.” Ouch. Not everyone will connect or be moved. Take to heart the ones that are.
People, even close friends, you thought would listen to your music never will. Lower your expectations of people. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about you… well, actually it does, but not in the personal way you are taking it.
Don’t expect to get on the radio without making relationships. This whole business is about networking, talking to people and shaking hands. In this digital world, face time still matters. Get out there.
You should definitely still print CDs. People buy them! They may not know what to do with it when they get home, but they like having a tangible item. Plus, you get to make really cool album art.
You should definitely still send CDs to radio stations. Emails with downloads/links get lost or ignored and responses are slim to none. If you can, go take a physical CD and get some face time.
Your album won’t be streamed much if you are not on someone else’s playlist that has followers. You can try to submit your songs to popular playlists … or I should say you can pay for chances to submit, but if your music is already released, it’s not likely to get picked up.
You can’t submit your music to a Spotify-curated playlist if your music is already out (really wish I had known this). You’re old news if you are not pre-news, and they all want the first scoop.
If you don't do promotion/PR/blog submissions before your release, fuhgettaboutit. You’re stale bread the minute it is out.
If you shy away from self-promotion, for whatever decent reason, then make music for fun and don’t be upset that no one is playing your jams. No one is going to promote you if you won’t. Don’t be a nut about it, but be confident, strategic and create interesting content. Don’t be embarrassed that you have to be your biggest fan sometimes. It’s part of the game.
This is a game. If you want to be taken seriously, learn how to play it. Read, read some more, research, brainstorm, make spreadsheets, plan, strategize. Commit. Or don’t and be content with being undiscovered.
Social Media numbers matter. Your number of followers are strongly considered when booking gigs, festivals, blogs, playlists, etc. You think it will grow organically. It won’t. You have to work the system.
Work the system. First, figure out the system, then work the hell out of it. And then call me and tell me what to do because I don’t get it.
You have to pay for play. You have to pay for promotion, ads, more ads, sponsored content, boosted posts, etc. If you don’t pay, you will be buried. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It’s a full-time job. Hire someone if you can afford it because unless you know what you are doing, you are just throwing money at some math that you do not understand.
But really, hire someone. If I had the money, I would do this in a heartbeat. The amount of time and money needed to grow a social presence is a lot. It’s a real job.
Figure out where you want to focus your energy. Is it in the studio or playing live? These are often two different efforts. You have to strategize about them differently and if you want both, they need to work together under your overall Brand. You don’t need your live show to sound like your album, but your album can’t have a completely different experience than your live show. There has to be cohesion.
Gimmicks work. If you don’t look and sound like what is trending (which is really the ultimate gimmick, right?), then figure out a unique selling point and maximize it. Oh, you thought this was about making music from your soul for people who will truly appreciate it. That’s sweet. No, be the shiny object. People will pick it up. People want to be part of something and the minute a momentum starts forming, no matter what’s motivating it, others will follow.
They don’t really care if the music is good or not. You do have to sound tight. You do have to practice. A shit-show isn’t cute. But, the music doesn’t have to be complex, deep or interesting. The people want to be entertained. Put on something shiny, work on your dance moves, offer treats, roll around on the ground, look like you’re having a seizure while you play your instrument, invest in lights, maybe a smoke machine, give free stuff away. Or just be SUPER cool (good luck with that). Live music is not usually about the music, it’s about the experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, just know what you are getting into.
It costs musicians money to play gigs. Most people don't want to pay to see live music because most people don’t understand why they pay covers to see live music. (And I mean SEE because it’s all about the experience. They can hear your album at home.) You pay a cover because in most cases the MUSICIAN IS PAYING for the venue... unless it's a bar and that comes with its own set of compromises. (Just pay the cover, man. It’s usually less than a fancy coffee or a movie.) But if they pay, you have to give them a good show. It’s only fair.
If you have a profession or career that is not your music, your music is your side hustle and you need to be okay with that. To be working professionally in the industry, well to even get noticed, you have to fully commit. You have to tour. You have to play show after show. You have to build a fan base the hard way, through money and time. You have to build your Brand. You have to curate and grow your social presence. Are you tired yet? I am…
HUSTLE is the only way. There is no half-hustle. It has to be full on hustle and even with that, you may not make a dent. You need to know your answer to: “How bad do you want it?” and “What are you willing to sacrifice?”. And get content with the answer.
If you don't have goals and direction, then just play for fun and don't get upset that it feels like you’re going nowhere because you probably are.
If you don’t believe in yourself, they won’t.
If you don’t enjoy your music, they won’t.
If you love everything you’re doing and think it’s the greatest thing since Radiohead, they won’t.
Talent doesn’t matter. This one hurts, but it’s just not enough. That’s not to say that it doesn’t help. It’s just that either: Everyone is talented in some right so it’s not special. OR It’s not about talent, it’s about the show. OR The general listener doesn’t have discernment and as long as they are part of the tribe that’s forming, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the reason, if you think your talent will rise above all of the factors that go into getting noticed, it won’t.
Someone else IS getting more attention than you with less work and crappier music. Get over it.
Someone else is getting more attention than you because they are better and working harder than you are. Get motivated and learn from them.
Practice. And practice. And practice some more. There’s really no end to this…
Don’t give up. Or do, but don’t get mad about it if you do.
In the end, it's your choice to feel gypped or build up resentment for not feeling popular, successful or heard. You probably were gypped along the way, but so was everybody else. And success is what you define it to be, so maybe it’s time to redefine it for yourself. I find myself constantly sculpting this; taking away the excess and building back up the reality with measured hope. You still have to have hope or you will give up.
If you want to make music and being discovered matters to you, then there is a lot more involved than just making good music. The key is asking yourself what do you really want out of your musical journey. I'm still trying to figure this out myself.
Have additional advice or alternate experiences? Let's hear it. We will all benefit from your thoughts!