13 Things That Are More Important Than the Music…

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Great music naturally rises to the top, right?  Absolutely wrong: here are 13 things that must be in place for anyone to notice, much less care, about great music.

(1) Money.

Yes, rich kids have an advantage in this industry.  Because if you don’t have any cash, you probably won’t be able to afford the heavy startup costs and time required to get a band off the ground.  Make no mistake: touring costs a lot of money, especially in the early stages when no one is attending and day jobs are being sacrificed.

And there isn’t a label to pick up the tab anymore…

(2) A label or company that cares.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a label or an energy drink, if someone cares about your music and is spending money and resources to grow that music, you have a massive advantage over millions of other bands.  And most of the super-successful artists that started grassroots eventually linked with an established company to expand that base (look no further than Justin Bieber).  Mozart wouldn’t have survived without patrons; modern-day bands are exactly the same way.

(3) Work ethic.

In simpler times, lazy creative types could make it.  Now they work at Denny’s.  Because without a relentless work ethic, the chances of cutting through the intense noise floor are greatly reduced.

(4) Timing.

Great artists arrive at a specific time and place in music history; they make sense in the culture that surrounds them.  Nirvana wouldn’t have succeeded in 1981, a great album like Illmatic would be ignored in 2014.   Even if every single note and lyric was the same.

(5) Cultural association.

No music exists in a bubble, no matter how ‘great’ it is.  Because if the artist doesn’t mean something to the scene or social fabric of its audience, then they simply won’t connect.

(6) Support from other artists or a scene.

Sometimes, a successful artist emerges from an isolated basement studio.  But most of the time they don’t.  Bands are often brought to the fore by other bands that like them and tour with them; they break out from scenes and musical movements that already have followers and tastemakers on board.

(7) Ability to manage boring details.

This goes back to work ethic, but the band or artist that refuses to deal with the endless details related to touring, royalty accounting, recordings, metadata, and legal contracts does so at their own peril.  Club owners will hold onto money until you demand it; you need to know who SoundExchange is in order to collect the money they owe you.

And without a stream of money, your band starves.

(8) Age.

Moby made it in his 30s, but most artists make it in their teens or 20s or not at all.  And part of the reason is that people care about music a lot less by the time they’ve grown older and moved to the suburbs.

(9) Production.

Fans can’t articulate the difference, but crappy production can kill great music – and the audiences that grow around it.

(10) Chops.

Anyone can make something sound magical in the studio, but bands that don’t furiously practice and suck live rarely cut through — even if their music is ‘great’.

(11) Accessibility.

Complicated death metal is amazing, to a niche of followers.  But broader success comes from music that is accessible, especially to people that don’t really love music to begin with (which is most people).

(12)  Luck.

The music industry never stopped being a lottery.  Because for every amazingly-talented success story, there are thousands of other amazingly-talented artists that could have filled those shoes but didn’t have a happy accident.  One gets to live off of music, the others get to work at Denny’s and their music never reaches a broader audience.

(13) Innovation.

Some of the most successful artists today are in the game because of their innovation and business-savvy, not their music.  And if you don’t think that’s true, go ahead and name one song from OK Go or Amanda Palmer.


Image by Todd@Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

22 Responses

  1. Kyle Williams

    Number 3 definitely needs work with every musician.

    I also think artists don’t pay attention to 4 and 5. Number 5 especially when thinking about cities to live or areas to play.

  2. Minneapolis Musician

    Excellent post, Paul.

    Exactly true.

    Of course, it is almost impossible to accept when you are 18 and being a well-known music artist as ALL you want to do. Ever.

    So I prepare to see a bunch of positive thinkers replying to this by declaring that if they work hard enough, they WILL win the lottery. But it IS a lottery guys. By definition you are not in control of what number gets picked.

    It took me years to finally accept that all of these are true. I remember when many of them dawned on me and sank in with a sigh and a recognition that I was now understanding reality.

    I’ll always write and perform and record songs, because I love musical creation. But I am under no illusions.

    — Glenn Galen


  3. Anonymous

    good article overall, but, its not a lottery guys.

    a lottery i win i get the cheque, thats it.

    to win the music lottery, you have to sign all your rights away and give all your power away and likely spend a super hefty chunk of money just to get to that point and then work it, it ain’t a lottery by any means…

    • Mandoist

      I think you might want to re-read the sum of the points in the article?

      For the majority in the serious music biz, rising to the top can most certainly be equivalent to a “lottery” — but Paul by no means bases his entire summary on this one issue. To even qualify for this music lottery one must pretty much follow the outline as described.

      While commitment is not mentioned specifically, though perhaps a given here, it is a huge part of the Big Picture. Again, nearly all these things Paul addresses have to be attained in order to qualify for the ‘lottery’.

  4. George H.

    Amanda Palmer innovated? How? When?

    Exploitation of the working force is too old on this planet to call it “innovation”.

    Why is it that you Americans always call rich people from rich families “innovative”?

    Amanda Palmer would not be in the position she is today, without her family’s old money.

  5. Joe Blough

    There are holes in every step given here. So if you get older just give up? What’s making it? Who comes up with this BS? I do however agree about production and how one presents their music. I also believe in experience,and being around experienced people in this business helps

    • Mandoist

      It seems clear to me that, in this case, “making it” pertains to the elite group of top artists in the world…or very close to it.

      And age, unfortunately, is very much a major compnent. It always has been, and very obvious.

  6. Verify Your Humanity


    The people who will remain constant with you when the roller coaster goes up, and when it goes down.

    Shocked that you didn’t include. How many artist suicides need to occur before lists like this address the lifestyle that accompanies all of these other points?


  7. Zalmo

    I can resonate a bit with this. Cub Coda, a music writer (and member of Brownsville Station) wrote of Mickey Lee Lane’s last Swan Record’s release “Hey Sah-Lo-Nay”. “This is the best Rock and Roll song you’ve never heard”. And, for good reason. This song WAS a hit, but Mickey never saw any money from it, even though he was the artist and writer…and the company went bankrupt as the song was gaining momentum. Even so, the song sort of got around, through various bootlegs. In some places it was HUGH, and has been covered by a number of artists. But, Mickey had rounded the corner (over 21) some years before, and even his later hot release “Tutti Fruiti” which Richard Penniman’s biographer commented that this was the 2nd best version of the song (of course) couldn’t bring him closer to the fame he rightly deserved. He had talent, guts, chops and reserve but he didn’t have backing or money to shmear….

  8. Heiko Schmidt

    You really nailed it Paul 🙂 I will link this into our global music community newsletter “The Digest.”

  9. Brian Rawlings

    Mostly agree with you Paul. I think technology has given some artists the idea that, since it’s easy to get your music on iTunes or Spotify, the business is easier today. If fact it’s much much more difficult. That said, I have very very very rarely (in 30 plus years in the music biz) heard a piece of music that “should have” been a hit that didn’t get a shot. Only .001% of the music out there is really strong enough to stand out in a meaningful and lasting way. If it’s really “the shit” we’ll find it.

  10. SherylDiane

    All of the topics are true and specific but I would replace #1 as Marketing. You can do a lot of marketing without a lot of money but if you don’t promote well – your music “career” is a hobby. It also can’t be left to others to promote your music – you don’t get discovered (without as you put it) “timing.” Launching your music depends on a marketing strategy. So marketing is where I see overall failure by great musicians living in obscurity. The Beatles didn’t just wash ashore 😉 for instance, they had a strategist from the beginning, Brian Epstein. He made a huge difference. Most band leaders need to realize that’s their job until they can afford to delegate the task. With the exposure marketing brings then you step up to having some money to go forth and thrive as a performing artist. Or in guerilla terms: Word of Mouth starts it all.

  11. Johnny Pierre

    This article is filled with generalizations and a ridiculous outlook. If the person who wrote it is a musician, they oughta stop playing music right away. Energy and enthusiasm drive this train.

  12. Stuart Bogie

    I couldn’t agree less. There is an ounce of truth in each point but the conclusions sound like excuses not to make art. Nothing is more important than then the music as a spiritual and communal act. Nothing.

    As a side note, working at Denny’s can be grueling and if someone does that to support their art they deserve respect.

  13. lf

    There was a time not too long a go when being a skilled musician was a very viable middle class profession. I knew many people that bought homes and raised families on their income. Even working weekends was a good side business. Those days are mostly gone. The rest of the stuff that this blog is talking about is mostly nonsense. It amounts to playacting or buying a lottery ticket. The music (for lack of a better word) that is produced will be unimportant to future generations.

  14. Mark Schwendau

    Great piece to think on.

    I would add a number 14 on networking. If you don’t know people or have any connections, I believe you are screwed no matter how great your music is.

  15. Cookie Monster

    This list details some of the necessary components to be “successful” where “success”= full time artist / musician. Aging doesn’t mean “give up”, but you have to work way harder if you haven’t already made it. To be “full time” means accepting the non-artistic or business reality of the craft. You have to temper the artsy stuff with the tunes that hit chorus at 46 seconds. It’s a good list. It’s a harsh reality. War is harsh. It doesn’t mean there can’t be peace… and so on. Create your OWN good luck. I’m full time and no one knows my name.

  16. cook-a-holic

    I think every point made makes the whole. In other words, I’m not sure you can do one without the other. On the other hand…we all determine what success is and we all have different views of it.