Although reaching an elite level of artistry takes years of hard work and dedication, the market is nonetheless saturated with an impressive number of highly qualified artists on every instrument. Today, the musicians who distinguish themselves are the ones who, in addition to maintaining a high level of artistry, have outstanding interpersonal skills and business habits. While the basics of professionalism go without saying (e.g. show up on time and be prepared), it is worth addressing a few of the business-side habits that will set you apart from the competition.
1. Be Involved
I have never been a proponent of the term “networking,” per se. It’s a nebulous, all-encompassing word that can take on any variety of meanings depending on your perspective. To some, “networking” simply means seeking out opportunities to be in the same room as others in your field; others perceive it as behaving like a used car salesman with an over-rehearsed elevator speech about what makes your product so unique.
Instead, I like to think about “involvement.” Frequent places and events where your type of work goes on. Interact with others who do what you do, especially if they are at a more advanced place in their career than you are. Think about engaging actively rather than existing passively; if you cross paths with someone in your field whose work you respect, there is nothing wrong with being friendly and introducing yourself. There is a good chance you will be crossing paths with them again, and it will be nice to see familiar faces going forward. If you genuinely make an effort to get involved, you will find yourself forging real friendships with your professional colleagues before you know it.
It should go without saying, but always conduct yourself professionally and courteously, even toward colleagues you perceive as having little to contribute to your career development. Every musician you encounter will have something to offer and something you can learn from them; plus, you never know who might surprise you by sending a gig your way or putting in a good word with a contractor. Make an effort to meet as many colleagues in your market as possible, and be kind to all of them. Your reputation for being a friendly person will go a long way.
2. Carry Business Cards, Make Connections, and Follow Up
Always have business cards on hand. They should be tame but not boring, informative but not overwhelming, and provide the recipient with a unique way to remember their interaction with you. I choose to include my picture on my business cards. That way, somebody I meet on a gig need only glance at the card in order to remember who I am, even if the extent of our interaction is a handshake and a fifteen-second conversation after the show. These encounters form the basis for growing your professional network and give potential employers the opportunity to put a face to a name – you never want to appear unprepared.
On a related note, if you have a particularly good conversation with someone you meet on a gig, follow up with them by email. Even if it’s just to say that you enjoyed meeting and playing with them, a follow-up email is a nice gesture that will keep you on their radar.
3. Set Business Goals
Whether you hope to give a certain number of performances in a given year, command a certain dollar amount per performance, record a CD, or increase your teaching studio to a certain number of students, writing down concrete goals will increase your chances of reaching them. Nothing happens overnight, but setting goals can give direction to efforts that might individually seem inconsequential. Creating timelines for reaching your goals can provide motivation and give you a meaningful way to quantify and track your progress as you forge ahead.
4. Maintain a Current, Professional, Online Presence
Your website is the public’s window into your work and your career. It should be the most comprehensive, centralized resource for making your media, biography, schedule, and contact information available to those who might be looking for it. As artists, we are trained to pay attention to even the smallest details; if someone browsing your website sees that your list of “upcoming events” hasn’t been updated since 2011, they will understandably question your attention to detail, and maybe even your dedication to your career. Take pride in your website. If you keep it current and informative, visitors will appreciate it. Consider adding a blog or other regular update mechanism; if content is updated regularly, visitors will have a reason to return to your site again and again.
5. Seek Advice When Necessary
Nobody ever said running a business was going to be easy, and yet that is essentially what you will be expected to do, all while maintaining the highest level of artistry. Whether you’re unsure of how to copyright a new song, avoid infringing on the copyright of another, navigate a contractual relationship with a venue or publisher, collect royalties, or take advantage of the tax consequences of depreciating your instrument and deducting business expenses, there are resources available to assist you. Whether you need the guidance of a professional or simply the advice of another musician who has already faced the issues you’re dealing with, there is no harm in seeking help when you need it. Consider it a part of your continuing education. Not only will soliciting this sort of advice help you navigate your own career, but you may also find yourself in the position of being a resource for others in the future.
The Bottom Line
The above lists are not exhaustive. There is always more you can be doing to enhance your career and reputation, both with and without your instrument, and building a successful career takes time and consistency. These days, being an exceptional performer is a given; the artists who are truly able to distinguish themselves are entrepreneurial thinkers with robust professional networks and a commitment to the good habits necessary to develop both their art and their business. If you begin to consciously allocate time and effort to implementing those habits, you will be laying the groundwork for a successful career as a musician who is valued and respected by presenters, colleagues, audiences, and the community at large.
Frank Gulino is a composer, bass trombonist, and entertainment attorney living in the Washington, DC, area. As a composer, his works have been commissioned, recorded, and performed by some of the world’s foremost brass soloists, chamber groups, and symphony musicians at venues such as the Kennedy Center, the U.S. Capitol, and conservatories and universities around the world. As an attorney, Frank practices in the Entertainment and Music Industry Law group at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP.