From child-stars to Susan Boyle, talented musicians or Lana Del Ray, the music industry is a mixed bag of outlandish people who have but one thing in common; they have succeeded where many more have failed. Some have “the goods” while others have a famous parent, and even more have us wondering, how on earth did they do it?
|Bob and Jakob Dylan|
One of the most common ways of succeeding, in any industry, is through nepotism. Stars like Willow Smith, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Osbourne, Enrique Iglesias, Colbie Caillat, Lisa Marie Presley, Jakob Dylan, Liza Minnelli, Norah Jones, Hank Williams Jr., (and my favorites) Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa can easily lead you to believe that the game is rigged, which of course it is. Fame begets fame. (The public’s power lies in it’s ability to break stars, not make them.) But don’t worry too much about your rock royalty pedigree. Remember that behind every Jakob Dylan there is a Robert Zimmerman who traveled great distances from obscurity into the limelight.
For many, it takes years of enduring terrible jobs to pay the bills while figuring out how to make ends meat through music. Take Kurt Cobain, who worked sweeping floors for Lemons Janitorial Service or Mick Jagger who was a porter in a mental hospital. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell worked wrist deep in slimy guts as a fish handler. These jobs sowed the seeds for great success stories, but I’m afraid there isn’t much more we can learn from them. Carrying luggage, sweeping floors, gutting fish, etc., may pay the bills, but they aren’t going to bring an aspiring artist any closer to “point b”. Daylle Deanna Schwartz, author of I Don’t Need A Record Label! writes, “making money from an aspect of music is better than a day job that’s not related to it. Why sell insurance when you can teach guitar lessons?” The idea is that jobs in music, big or small, allow you to practice aspects of your craft and often lead to other jobs in music. That philosophy certainly worked for Tom Morello who came up with the riff for “Killing in the name of” right smack in the middle of giving a lesson. That song went on to be a huge hit for Rage Against The Machine, and was ranked #24 by Rolling Stone on their list of greatest guitar songs.
So how does any of this apply to you, the independent musician? Your dad isn’t a rock star and you’re not ranked by Rolling Stone. But that’s no reason to be discouraged. The road to success is like the autobahn; a Ford Focus may not be able to keep up with a Ferrari but both will get you to Berlin. But lets take it a bit further. How can you tell if you are even on the right road?
As formulaic as much of pop music is, there is still no formula for becoming a popular musician. Nevertheless, and stay with me through what will initially sound strange, try to use this upcoming tax season to help you figure out where you stand professionally as a musician. This year as you are filing your W-2s and 1099s (and of course reporting all of the cash you earned ;) take a look at the ratio between income earned from music and income earned from... not-music. If you are not making a significant percentage from music, ideally enough to survive, this should signal that you need to make some changes if a professional career in music is the goal. You are underutilizing your skills as an artist, which are varied beyond the aforementioned giving of lessons, you are most likely missing out on opportunities, and you should aim to improve that ratio by next April 15th. Comparing this ratio from year to year is a great way to measure growth, and a way to perhaps make doing taxes a little more bearable. If you want to go the extra mile, calculate the ratio of income earned from your own music vs. everything else you do with music. But either way, if you are earning enough from music to survive, congratulations, you are a professional musician just like anyone else mentioned in this article. You may not be winning Grammys or buying new cars (or new clothes for that matter), but you are succeeding, however modestly, where many more have not.
So what lessons can be drawn from these stars and their journeys to glory? For one, don’t try to emulate a previous artist’s journey. I’m sure Lemons Janitorial Service would be happy to hire you, but that isn’t going to make you Kurt Cobain. “Before they were famous” stories are inspiring and it’s fun to know that some of the biggest stars had worse jobs than you do when they were in your place, but calculated small gains (i.e. improving your ratio) is a surer way to progress than waiting for a meteoric rise. For two, remember that no matter how rigged the game may seem, the Generals beat the Globetrotters once in 1971! Any other insights you gained are strictly unintentional, so feel free to share them in the comments section below!
Now it’s time to improve this post’s ratio between lessons and celebrities! Enjoy this adorable footage of child-star-cum-pop-icons as they first stepped into the spotlight. If this doesn’t help you figure out how to move down your desired path, perhaps it will inspire you to become an overbearing parent/manager!