How To Succeed in Music

(By Being Charming)

Robert Willey

Market Forces in the Arts

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It is difficult to make a living in a glamour business like the music industry because just about the time you get tired and start wanting to get paid decently for your efforts there is a whole new batch of younger competitors who are arriving and willing to work cheaply, or even for free, just to break in.

Many amateur musicians make the logical mistake of seeing what stars do on TV, and then thinking that if they can play as well they should therefore eventually be able to go as far, ending up rich and famous.  The problem is that talent alone is not enough, there are "the breaks", connections, personality, and many other factors that go into it.  Just because someone with your talent has become successful is no guarantee that you will, too.  With media a few super talents can entertain millions, and there just aren't enough musical emergencies to drive up the prices on the local level. 

Musicians will never be needed as urgently as medical professionals.  For example, if your arm has been severed and barely hanging on you will pay everything you have and promise the rest to get it repaired.  This situation doesn't arrive in the field of music--no one seems to pay heed to Novalis' suggestion that "Every disease is a musical problem. It's cure, a musical solution. The more rapid and complete the solution, the greater the musical talent of the doctor."  While doctors spend their nights and weekends on call, no composer has yet been awakened from a sleep in the middle of the night by a distraught father begging for a new tune to rescue a sick child--"Please, doc, you gotta help her!  She needs some augmented!  You can have my vacation home!"

I heard a suggestion once for when you're considering getting job training: "Don't prepare for a job for which there are no want ads in the newspaper."  Of course, society is evolving so quickly now that the jobs that many students may end up taking may not exist when they begin their studies in some fields. I don't think this is the case with music, except perhaps in the area of music technology.  There aren't ads in the newspaper for musicians because there aren't many jobs for musicians.  There are jobs for software engineers with music backgrounds.  There are some jobs for music teachers.

If you are considering a future as a concert pianist (as I did in my adolescence) you may have heard the expression "There's always room at the top."

However, I'm afraid that the real story is that there is ONLY room at the top. The "top" in the second diagram (marked in red) is perhaps still too big in proportion to the rest of the triangle.  When people tell me that it must be wonderful to be so good at playing the piano I thank them, but sometimes think that it is a curse in a way.  You can be very good and feel that you would be turning your back on a gift if you don't didn't it.  It's not enough, however, to just be very good.  In many careers being very good is perfectly adequate.  It is not enough, though, if you want to be a pianist.  There just aren't that many people who play the piano who are going to earn their livelihood exclusively by practicing, concertizing, and making recordings.  It seems to me that there are therefore two options for being exclusively a pianist, assuming you are not already one of the very-very-very best at the pinnacle of the pyramid.

1.   Be financially independent already. This may be through some happy combination of inheritance and your own labor.
2.   Become financially independent. This may come about through some combination of association with other people and your own labor. Assuming that your own labor would occupy so much of your time that you would not be able to devote enough attention to develop your performance skills, you are left with the first possibility: get the support of a wealthy individual or group. This leads to the proposition of marrying a rich person, which may be more likely to come about should you be or become extremely charming, hence the qualification in the title of this article.


The Need for Charm Training in Music Schools

If we can agree that a charming person is more likely to attract a rich sponsor, it seems that a course of instruction to increase one's social appeal would be useful professional preparation and should be developed at conservatories and universities offering performance degrees. In the music business, like in many others, it is important to be competent in your work, but it is not just what you know, it is also who you know (and how well you know them?), and contacts become very important for professional success. Charm training will become a valuable asset and provide a competitive edge for graduates as they make their way through life.

As examples, I propose the following topics to be included in undergraduate study.  These are preliminary suggestions which could no doubt be refined and grouped more effectively when the time comes to work this out in committee.  These are just some of the broad outlines:

As degree requirements are already so packed that there is not usually room to add new courses, some of this information could be included in already-existing courses.  Applied lessons provide opportunities to require students to pay attention to appearance.  Communication courses could pick up some of the other topics.  Students will have to acquire this awareness on their own until administrators and curriculum committees can be convinced of the importance of formal training.

Personal Growth

Some of these ideas may appear ridiculous (and in fact started out as a joke), but perhaps they are funny because there is some truth in there somewhere, however twisted it may be.  Instead of concentrating on the superficial aspects of the charming "personality" outlined above, students will be better served in the long run to develop character.   I suggest reading Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Successful People to my students, and listening to their elders.

2002 Robert Willey

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