“Putting all of your eggs in one career basket isn’t a smart bet for either your livelihood or your happiness.”
–The Musician’s Way, p. 300
Countless young musicians aspire to become professional performers, but few understand the music industry well enough to make informed choices about how to grow their careers.
To help musicians make wiser decisions, here are 7 common music career myths along with a debunking of each.
7 Music Career Myths
1. Technical Facility Ensures Success
Professionals have to be technically proficient instrumentalists or singers, but it’s what we say artistically with our technical ability that makes our musical work valuable.
Successful independent musicians acquire technique along with expanding their expressive powers, concert programming knowledge, stage presence, collaborative abilities, fan bases, and so forth.
2. Once You Land a Record Deal, You’re Set
Among the musicians who sign deals with record companies, only a tiny percentage earn much income from sales.
Published recordings can help performers gain exposure and book concerts, but only if record companies and the musicians promote their work. Often, record deals in and of themselves hardly boost musicians’ careers at all. (Update: see Supply and Demand for Classical Musicians)
3. Managers Take Care of Everything
Except for a few superstars, professional musicians who have managers devote abundant energy to marketing themselves and building their audiences. Only elite performers who garner jumbo concert fees can retain managers who handle the bulk of their professional affairs.
In reality, musicians typically can’t attract interest from management firms until they accrue large followings and earn sizable fees on their own, which means that all independent performers need entrepreneurial skills.
“Among the musicians who sign deals with record companies, only a tiny percentage earn much income from sales.”
4. Winning Competitions is Crucial to Getting Ahead
Only the most prestigious contests, such as the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, have the potential to propel winners to significance. Still, there’s little chance that any one performer will triumph at such international events.
With less-renowned contests, winning seldom brings much in the way of long-term career benefits unless the winners take the initiative to leverage the exposure they receive to book their own concerts and build relationships with listeners and concert presenters. Yes, entrepreneurship again.
Instead of entering one competition after another, most young artists can better spur their careers by performing innovative programs for diverse audiences – growing their fan bases in the process – and entering a few well-chosen competitions.
“Musicians typically can’t attract interest from management firms until they accrue large followings and earn sizable fees on their own.”
5. Career Development Education Isn’t Appropriate for Undergraduates
It takes years for performers to amass distinctive repertoires, form compelling artistic personalities, cultivate stage presence, pinpoint career interests, and understand how the music industry functions.
When students don’t incrementally craft artistic visions and gain career know-how, by the time they become musically advanced enough to work professionally, they typically lack the wherewithal to launch out on their own.
They may subsist by gigging for modest fees under the direction of other musicians – e.g., for contractors or bandleaders – but they won’t be equipped to thrive as independent artists without re-educating themselves.
Hence, ongoing career development education is an essential component of every serious performer’s training.
6. Earning a Doctorate Qualifies Musicians to Teach in Higher Education
To be competitive for higher ed teaching positions, candidates require much more than degrees. In fact, earning a doctorate constitutes only a small albeit crucial component of a complex qualification package.
Would-be faculty additionally need successful track records as artists, innovators, educators, leaders, recruiters of students, tech users and more, as I spell out in my article, Applying for Faculty Positions.
Typical doctoral curricula leave graduates unprepared to win or excel at higher ed teaching jobs because they don’t integrate the elements necessary for doctoral candidates to understand nor build inclusive qualifications.
“Ongoing career development education is an essential component of every serious performer’s training.”
7. Curricula Prepare Graduates for Today’s Professional Careers
Whether we examine graduate or undergraduate music programs, many of their curricula for performance majors don’t oblige students to take any up-to-date career development, entrepreneurship or community engagement courses. Those that do often supply minimal education.
For the most part, applied music curricula haven’t changed much for generations and are structured to train students to become either touring virtuosi handled by managers or full-time orchestral or opera performers – careers that won’t come to pass excepts for a tiny minority of graduates.
Fortunately, there are some shining exceptions, schools that offer curricula providing new-century artistic, academic, and professional preparation.
Ambitious students would do well to make sure that they attend those sorts of schools and pass up the backward ones.
3 High-Demand Career Tracks for Musicians
8 Ways to Build Sustainable Music Careers
Do Musicians Often Resemble Underpants Gnomes?
Music Education and Entrepreneurship
Music: The Practical Career?
© 2013 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Stokkete, licensed from Shutterstock.com
Great post – I especially agree with the section on landing a record deal. When I was at music college that seemed like the holy grail, but in practice most of the money goes on promotion and studio time, tours etc.
Excellent post. It’s even tougher for us accordion players who reside in remote areas to make a living professionally. Sometimes we have to play for the sheer joy of laying. Thanks for your great post. Thanks for allowing me to omment
Really great article, Gerald. Anyone who claims, as some do, that career development isn’t appropriate for students should be fired from their teaching jobs. Thankfully, I had teachers who didn’t believe that and put me in a position to succeed in the marketplace. For that, I am forever grateful.
As my students will attest to, I end up speaking a lot more about business related things than even music related things in my studio classes. It is simply imperative and it’s great to have all of these points in one blog post.
Thanks, Andrew – I appreciate your feedback and hope you’ll stop by often.
As I see it, institutions that aim to educate performers and composers should ensure that students learn how today’s music cultures and economies operate, and then students should have opportunities throughout their educations to do creative projects that apply their musical, social, and economic skills.
#4 is a biggie.
There are so many contests out there and people always believe that they have to enter them in order to succeed. No you don’t
Your article is spot on! It’s sad to see so many talented musicians become slaves to these myths. Myths #2 & #3 are something I encounter from people on a daily basis.
Myth #6 was so honest. Thank you for this.
Thanks, Mike – I greatly appreciate your support. I encourage MW readers to explore Mike’s articles on his site – he offers valuable insights into how rising musicians can succeed.
Interesting ! Thanks for that post.
And when you feel yourself fortunately ready to share your musical pleasure, to increase your apparitions on stage, how can you do to meet the good persons to help, to support your career ? May be, you could give me the secret ? Sorry for my poor english
Hi Muriel – Thanks for the question. The essential thing that musicians need to do to attract support from fans, presenters, colleagues, managers and others is to create distinctive art that’s true to their artistic visions and meaningful to audiences. You’ll find more info about that in the related posts above as well as in my articles “Competitive Advantages” https://www.musiciansway.com/blog/2012/02/competitive-advantages/ and “Let’s Get Relevant” https://www.musiciansway.com/blog/2011/06/lets-get-relevant/