Updated: Mar 17, 2020
I recently spent a week in Nashville, TN, where I had the opportunity to attend the CD Baby DIY Musician Conference and experience a significant amount of the Nashville music scene. It's truly hard for me to explain the vibe of the city, because I'm still trying to comprehend it a week after the fact.
Nashville is truly a musicians dream. I felt like I was a kid at Disneyland, with so many sights and sounds demanding my attention each step of the way. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel discouraged by the level of talent initially. You could walk into any venue on any street and see incredible talent that could outplay you in every way. Eventually though, my perspective changed, and I instead found myself being deeply motivated and inspired by the musicians I encountered in this thriving city. There are 5 specific lessons that I took away from being in Nashville. Though they are things I am still learning and figuring out, I think they are important and necessary things to consider if you are planning on taking your music career seriously.
1) Accept That Everybody is Better Than You
Okay well not "everybody" is, but if you adopt this mentality earlier on, you're going to have a much easier time making the most of your opportunities. NOBODY likes people with big ego's. It's a massive turn-off, and so if you're walking around like you're the best guitar-slinger in town, you're in for a rough surprise. The talent in Nashville is incredible. I saw some of the most insane guitarists I have ever seen playing in some of the smallest "hole-in-the-wall" venues. This is the norm. If you approach a city (and frankly, your whole career) as if everybody is better than you, you will learn so much more, and people will be WAY more willing to help you grow, and trust me, in this industry you'll need all the help you can get. Sit down, be humble, and you'll make more friends, and learn a heck of a lot more.
2) Get Outside of That Damn Comfort Zone
I am naturally quite introverted. I find it exhausting to be around large groups of people for extended periods of time, and so for me, "networking" really feels like WORK. But it's arguably the most important part of your job as a creative. In this line of work, you will go nowhere on your own. You need to build connections, and the best way to do that is face-to-face. What this means then, is getting out of your comfort zone, and talking to people. If you're at an open mic, make sure you compliment everyone who performed before you leave. Grab their business card, follow them on social media, make sure that your goal is to make a good impression on everybody you meet. That way, the next time you're in town, you can link up with the people you met and plan a co-write, or maybe they'll even offer you a free place to stay (which is invaluable). Your goal is to get your name out there to as many people as possible, so if you're hiding in your comfort zone, you're losing that chance to all of the people who are a little more brave than you are. So suck it up, read a book on how to strike up a conversation if you have to, and get out of that damn comfort zone. You will not regret it.
3) Ask Questions
This is huge. Something I've learned over the last few years is that I have more questions in my head than I do answers. Something I've also learned is that I know people who have the answers to those questions... so why not do something about that? One of the biggest things I took advantage of in Nashville, specifically at the music conference I attended, was asking questions to the people who knew the answers. At the conference, I had access to experts from Youtube and Spotify, I also had access to an individual who taught live performance to Shawn Mendes and Taylor Swift. These people were there to answer questions and I sure as hell took advantage of that. Even if you're not at a music conference, you can still do this. Go to a show and ask the booker how to get a show there, talk to the bands, talk to the bartender! Everybody knows something that you don't and there is nothing wrong with asking questions (unless of course you overwhelm them). As long as you are thoughtful of the individual's space, I guarantee you that they would feel flattered to answer your questions. Plus, it makes it look like you take your job seriously.
4) Do Your Research
This is something that I have unfortunately seen many musicians fail miserably at, and it's very embarrassing for them. If you have somebody on your radar that you are wanting to meet, make sure you do your research on them first. This applies not only in face-to-face interactions, but also when you are reaching out through emails. I had the chance to have lunch with an individual who managed Taylor Swift, and I knew about him prior to the conference because I am an avid listener of his podcast. When it came time for me to meet with him, I already had a solid understanding of who he was and what he did, and how he got there. This impressed him, and made our conversation flow much more easily. He was also much more willing to answer my questions because I wasn't just asking him the same questions he had already addressed in his podcast. It truly means a lot to individuals (specifically music industry "high-ups") when you have done your homework on them at least to some extent. Now I'm not saying you need to know their date of birth and Social Insurance Number, but at least have a "Google search" level of understanding of who they are and what they have to offer.
5) Be a Person, Not a Salesperson
I see musicians far too often thrusting their CD's into the hands of industry rep's before they even dialogue with them at all. This is incredibly unprofessional, and a guaranteed way to get your album thrown in the trash. Industry rep's are people too, and the last thing they need is another CD from another self-absorbed musician to add to their pile. What I suggest is making your focus to build a relationship with the people you meet before you even mention that you are a musician. In the best case scenario, they will ask YOU if you're a musician and where they can listen to you. In the worst case scenario, you can ask them for a business card and ask if they would be okay with you sending them some music. If you make a good enough impression as a human being, they'll do all the work for you. You just need to relax, and have understanding for the fact that they probably have people objectifying them as "fame machines" on a regular basis. If you want to give them a CD, write a nice little note inside of it for them to make it personal, instead of just handing them a shrink-wrapped waste of time. Be a person, not a salesperson.
In this industry, I'm realizing that it takes a lot more than just being a great musician to make it. In fact, it should be no surprise that some of the most famous musicians in the industry are often not nearly as talented as some of the musicians you'd see walking along a street somewhere in a place like Nashville. It's more about who you are, how you portray yourself, and how well you can network. Of course its important to be great at what you do, but if you're spending more time practicing guitar than you are at networking opportunities in your city, then you've got your priorities in the wrong place.