If you have been reading my articles in Christian Musician Magazine the past few issues, you already know I like to hit the truth head on and deal with it. Here’s how I think; “Why waste time dancing around an issue when it can be solved immediately by tackling the truth?” In dealing with many indie artists for the past 11 years, I find the same recurring issues denying artists success. I’m covering my top 10 list here, although there are many more issues that stop artists cold. Keep in mind, I’ve been called to encourage, so I encourage you to read these and apply the information to your music, your ministry and your life. Here are my top 10.
10- Be Serious- Indie artists must take themselves seriously if they expect anyone else to take them seriously. Artists are only deceiving themselves believing they are cool acting like 11 year olds. Case in point, on our recent “Will Play for Change” tour (www.willplayforchange.com), we had an artist who’s band members were making fun of other artists, making fun of the event, acting like imbeciles and not respecting other artists property. I sat the leader down and told him his bandmates would cause him to lose a performance opp if they didn’t get it together. Fortunately, he talked to his mates and their show went on. During the performance however, I missed seeing one of the members throw a chair which narrowly missed hitting a $5000 drum kit which was owned by another band. I can tell you this, I will not recommend this artist to any promoter, label, manager ever again.
Here’s the bottom line. You can’t act like an amateur and expect to be accepted as a professional. Remember, people are always watching you and formulating their opinion based on what they see at that moment. People don’t know your life story, they don’t care about the struggles only you know about, they simply absorb whatever liquid you are spewing forth at that moment. Better make sure whatever you are emanating tastes good.
There is a reason signed artists are signed, for the most part, they do not treat their music as a hobby, they are serious about every aspect of their music, their career and in general, their life.
Another issue is the business side. There is a saying, “If you don’t take care of your business, your business will take care of you.” Do what you say you are going to do, let your “yes be yes” and your “no be no.”
9- Reviews- Obtain and pay for reviews from professionals. I can’t begin to tell you how many artists contact me requesting to give them a review of their music and never mention compensation for my time. It’s just common professional courtesy to pay someone for their time and expertise. If you want a professional review, offer to pay someone up front for their time and expertise. Don’t think just because you are a Christian musician that the world owes you and you should get everything for free.
Reviews from your friends and family do not count. They are supposed to love you. And, when you receive a professional review, don’t make excuses for the deficiencies they have pointed out, or attribute their less than glowing opinions to “they don’t get my art.” Take the feedback you receive, deal with it, and work at improving your craft. Nothing drives me more crazy than an artist who requests my opinion, I take the time to give it, and then the artist telling me why my opinion is in error. Hello.. what’s up with that? Next time, hire yourself or your mom and dad and you’ll get your moneys worth.
8- Flexibility- As an indie artist, you may find yourself playing a small church venue one night and a large outdoor festival the next. You cannot do the same performance for both scenarios, especially if you are a loud band. A loud rock band in a small room is torture to listen to. I had a band on our tour who considered themselves to be “intelligent.” According to them, their lyrics had deep meanings. The problem was no one could make heads or tails what they were singing about because their guitar player had to have his Marshall amp on 11 to get “that tone,” and the drummer hit the drums so hard and so fast that all you could hear were snare drum rolls and cymbals. I suggested to the lead singer that he say a sentence about each song so the audience would know what they were singing about and you would have thought I was pulling out his teeth one by one. Smart artists adjust their performances based on the promoter, venue or sponsor’s needs. The last thing an artist should be is inflexible. If you do not adapt to your surroundings you will find your basement surrounding you.
7- Mission- As an indie, you must know and project your mission. People in general are not familiar with who you are or what you are all about. It has to be more than just the music.. it even has to be more than faith in Christ. Get a mission statement and advertise it in all of your materials. Have a tag line you associate with your name. Like..”Indieheaven, bringing artists to the world.” This way, people know your name and know what makes you special.
Also, I have learned few people will take your mission as seriously as you will. Thats just reality. As an artist, you are living your mission. For an outsider who knows nothing about you, it is your responsibility to project your mission clearly. Don’t assume people know who you are and what you do. Reduce it to the ridiculous.
6- Mediocrity- Indies must not accept mediocrity at any level. Most artists I come in contact with accept 80%.. and they think that is good enough. Do not settle. Hear me again… DO NOT SETTLE for mediocrity. The last 20% is where an artist captures and retains their audience. I’m sure you have heard the saying, “No pain, no gain.” There is a reason why those who seek to tone their body exercise until it hurts. The pain builds muscle mass.
Why is it that many indie artists believe their mediocre materials are the bomb-diggity? Because they never seek opinions from professionals and they think they know it all. In your press kits, online presence, recordings, branding; in everything, pursue excellence. Here’s the hard truth; To be outstanding, indies must be better than label artists because as an indie you are already perceived by people as inferior. Indies have a tough time attracting and retaining consumers because they think they have it all together, when in reality, they do not. Someone has fed them a lie that they are happening. It could be a compassionate family member, or a friend.. or an enemy called pride. Most likely, it is the latter.
5- Communication- I cannot figure out why many musicians are so bad at relating to the people they encounter in the mission field. Many musicians have such poor people skills, they can barely hold a conversation with themselves. I see artists in concert situations not reaching out to attendees and potential fans. This is your mission field, so why huddle in a corner like a bunch of lepers? Ya’ll got some kind of disease or something? I’ve seen possible fans/consumers at a band merch table looking at products while band members ignore them chatting about their girlfriends, gear they are lusting after or a record label who is interested in their friends band. Imagine if you went into a store and wanted to buy something but couldn’t find a cashier? What would you do?
Also, I have run into many artists who think music is the end, when in reality it is a means to an end. People are the end my indie friends. When I question artists why they never share anything from stage, their reply usually is, “I let my music do the talking for me.” What if people can’t hear what you are saying in your songs because you sing with a mouthful of cotton, cram as many notes into a single measure as humanly possible, or have your amps cranked up to 11?
Another issue is email correspondence. I recently heard from a band who were interested in being a part of my “Will Play for Change” tour. Their first email to me was the following; “we want to play on your tour”….period.. end of email.. no “to whom it may concern,” or..”hi, hello, dear”…nothing; I promptly discarded their email. To me, it didn’t matter if they were the best band in the world. I didn’t have the time to dig to find out who they were. It turns out they were a Christian punk band. Generally, those kinds of bands are the worst offenders because they have poor attitudes and poor work ethic. You can put Christ into a punk, but you can’t take the punk out of a Christian. I highly encourage young musicians to learn people skills, take a course in public speaking, and learn to like themselves.
Speaking of email, I have found that rapid response is the key to success. Whoever gets back first wins. Don’t sit on emails for 3 weeks, or disregard them altogether. At least have the courtesy of returning correspondence and above all else, do not use an auto responder. This is unprofessional and tells the sender you are not interested in personally responding to their correspondence. Make sure you put a subject header on all emails that actually is the subject of the correspondence.
4- Improvement- Ever heard of the acronym, “C.A.N.I.?” It stands for “Constant and Never Ending Improvement.” Smart artists know there’s always room to improve every aspect of their music, ministry, and life. To think you know it all is the kiss of death and is rooted in pride. The more you know, the more you grow. Get out of your comfort zones and press into learning the skills you need to fulfill your mission. Make it a goal to set goals and reach them. Read books that teach about success. My favorite book is called, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Jim shares information from the top 5 fortune 500 companies who grew at a rapid rate over a sustained period of time. The most important lesson of that book is something I employ each day in my life. That is, create momentum. Momentum is something that takes time to create, but once it is created, it takes on a life of its own. If you are creating momentum, you are creating success. God loves momentum, look in the Bible. Every time the Lord demonstrated his miracles, He first requested a human to get the ball rolling. Water into wine/fetch the jugs, Walking on water/Get outta the boat Peter, Feeding the multitudes/gather the fish and loaves, Raising Lazarus/Roll the stone away. Most certainly, the Lord could have done it all without human intervention, but He wanted to see if they were obedient. The Lord is looking for obedience.
3- Reality- God has called me to be an encourager, and I encourage indie artists to get real. Most indie artists need to get a grip on this one. When you mix the perceived calling of God, add a dash of talent and a heaping helping of pride, you have the ingredients for a bonfire of delusion and visions of grandeur. Artists must get to the truth of who they are and what they offer the world. Artists also must ground their expectations in reality.
Many indies play “Musical Lottery,” meaning, they believe a song or a CD is going to make them known. Most times, this brings nothing but frustrations and a very short career. If it were as easy as making a CD in your basement, don’t you think there would be more hit records out there? What happens to most artists is they live in the future. They do not live in the “now” because in their mind they are just one hit song away, or one performance away from making “it.”
“It” takes more than just music to be successful. A strong work ethic is the foundation to success. Honesty and truth are also vitally important because the truth will set you free. It amazes me when an artist tells me they sound like so and so artist in their promo. I check them out and I think, “who in their right mind told this artist they sounded like so and so?” That’s the kind of reality I am talking about here. Be honest, be truthful and be real. God honors reality.
2- Attitude- Indies must realize they are not at a level where people will widely accept and demand their artistry. I have found that artists who serve others will go farther than those who are only looking out for their interests. Indies need to kill the “What’s in it for me” attitude and adopt a “How can I best serve you” mindset. If they do this, they will see doors open because this is a principle which God will reward.
Case in point; when I wrote this article I was at a youth camp in FL. The man who runs the camp was remarking how the band I am helping at this year’s camp is so different from last years. Why, I asked him? He said, “last year, the band who played the camp asked me for do not disturb signs for their doors. They did not want the kids to bug them.” This years band is different in that they want to be with the kids and want to serve them. We will have them back again next year and compensate them much more than we planned because they care. Case closed.. See what servanthood does for an artist? It throws open the doors of opportunity.
Service is the key to success. Artists who want to be served will not be around for long. Artists with bad attitudes need to find something else to do with their spare time, or simply pursue the mainstream music world where this is normal behaviour. Pattern yourself after Christ and serve those who come into your path. You cannot go wrong with this heart-itude.
1- Relationship- This goes for God and humans. Remember, seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and ALL these things shall be added unto you. It doesn’t say seek out a record label, a manager, a booking agent and your troubles will be over. Put God first in your life and He will open many doors. You get that messed up and get ready for a long trip making lattes in the starbucks desert.
Do not forsake relationships with other independent artists like you. As I wrote earlier, I recently completed a 3 week tour with 17 concerts around the USA. I connected artists on my Indieheaven site together for the music part. How did I know who to schedule for these events? Relationships. I booked artists I knew, I liked and I respected for their attitudes. I hit home runs with all but one artist on the tour and that was more his bandmates problem than his. Next tour, I will be sure to carefully evaluate artists whom I want to participate.
Indie artists hear me on this. If indies would simply serve one another, share performance opportunities with one another, not hoard but give and serve, God will make their paths clear and their trip to musical heaven much less frustrating. God will confound, confuse and otherwise not release his blessing and provision unless a servant’s heart is evident.
I hope what I have shared encourages you. Yes, I am a wee bit cynical, but it’s all in love. I am passionate about independent artists and their success. My hope is that all will succeed. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and your success will come one step at a time. Do not try and skip steps to whatever you believe is success. What is success after all? Define what that is to you and then learn what success is in God’s eyes. Set goals and attain them. Don’t whine and complain about what you don’t have, be thankful in the portion you have for this day. Above all else, work hard and don’t settle for mediocrity. Don’t live in the future nor in the pasture. The pasture is full of cow patties called dissapointment. Live in the NOW. Now is where life is.
If you apply these 10 principles to your music and your life, everything else will simply fall into place.
Until next time, may your field of dreams be lined with work down first and faith down third.