Creating A Map to Music Career Success
by Peter Spellman, Director, Music Business Solutions
(This article originally appeared in the”Musician’s Guide to Touring & Promotion”; June ’99 issue)

Scenario 1: A talented band wants a record deal but their gig schedule is erratic and members’ day jobs keep sucking their energies so there’s not much left for anything else. Scenario 2: A terrific songwriter keeps churning out tunes weekly but they just sit in her notebook while she dreams of someday recording them. Scenario 3: A singer and producer team up and record two cuts for release but then realize all the cash has gone to recording and manufacturing with none left for promotion and marketing. Scenario 4: A music school graduate with great promise sits in his insurance job cubicle and wonders, ” What went wrong?”

Sound familiar?

After fifteen years of working in artist development I’ve become painfully aware of a tremendous amount of musically-gifted talent being squandered. Some musicians progress in fits and starts–one step forward, two back; two steps forward, one back…and so on. Others are just spinning their wheels, stalled. Still others are going in circles. A few, perhaps the most tragic, are spinning their wheels and going in circles.

What accounts for all this misguided effort? It could be many things: a lack of talent, drug abuse, laziness, etc. But, more often than not, musicians tend to get nowhere because of the absence of a map. A map is a plan that points to your destination and lays out the best routes to get there. Maps give us the “bird’s eye view”, the lay of the land so to speak, so that our journey toward our destination is discernable and deliberate, rather than haphazard and blind. Singer-songwriter Kelly Pardekooper of Iowa city put it this way: “The bottom line for me is that until I had a plan written down in black and white, I was just swimming in the dark, I had no anchor for my boat, no Felix for my Oscar.”

Those planning to be doctors and investment bankers have a fairly clear path to their respective destinations: four years of college, followed by several more years of specialized study, and then onto a”job”. The requirements are clear; the maps come pre-packaged. Musicians, on the other hand, don’t usually have the luxury of a clearly-defined “job” waiting at the end of their preparation. The musician’s map will have hundreds of potential paths, and will be as unique as the life and talent it’s guiding.

A music career plan (map) is never written in stone. It should not be viewed as a “constitution-like document” says Michael Futreal of progressive folk-rock band The Offramps. “That’s useful for some but as an independent musician whose main hope is to remain flexible while making enough money to simply sustain my music production activities, anything so set-in-stone is sure to fail.” Futreal sees his plan as a provisional guideline serving as “an external memory for me in my scattered attempt to balance a day job, a family and music.”

If you’re seeking to raise money from banks or sponsors, you’ll most certainly need a written plan. “A lot of people are surprised to meet a musician who even HAS a plan at all, let alone a written, thought-out, researched document,” says Alex Houton, president of New Jersey-based indie Lurch Records. “Just having a written one scores points when you’re seeking financing.” These more formal business plans follow a general outline that’s not too hard to follow. See the Resource Box at the end this article for resources to help you draft your own plan.

A plan shows would-be investors that you’re dreaming with your feet on the ground. “Writing a business plan forces the would-be entrepreneur to fully address things like costs, risks, competition, market size, etc.”, notes Tina Prountzos, an investment banker by day and manager of the New York band Dark Moon at night. “Nobody wants to lend or invest money with an individual or group who hasn’t clearly shown exactly how money will be used and what risks and benefits associated with their venture are.”

So music career plans come in all shapes and sizes. They can be everything from goals scribbled on a napkin to forty pagebusiness plans, but they’ll only be effective if there are three ingredients present: long and short-range goals, the right information, and a written form.

“Success” is often defined as the progressive realization of a worthwhile goal. I like that. If you are doing the things that are moving you toward the attainment of your goal today, then you are “successful” even if you are not there yet. It’s the goal that starts the whole journey.

An illuminating study on goal setting sponsored by the Ford Foundation found that,

23% of the population has no idea what they want from life and as a result they don’t have much.
67% of the population has a general idea of what they want but they don’t have any plans for how to get it.
Only 10% of the population has specific, well-defined goals, but even then, 7 out of the 10 of those people reach their goals only half the time.
The top 3%, however, achieved their goals 89% of the time — an .890 batting average!
What accounts for the dramatic difference between that top 3% and the others? Are you ready?: the top 3% wrote down their goals. Are you laughing yet? It can’t be that simple! Or can it? Dreams and wishes are not goals until they are written as specific end results on paper. In some very real sense, writing them down materializes them. Goals have been desribed as “dreams with a deadline”. Written, specific goals provide direction and focus to our activities. They become a road map to follow. And the mind tends to follow what’s in front of it.

So what is your dream-goal? Is it to be the most-in-demand session player on the East coast? To be the next Goo Goo Dolls? To get your song cast with a multiplatinum-selling recording artist? To start a company that creates soundtracks for video games and commercials? Or is it to simply earn extra income playing music while holding down a succesful non-music day job?

Each one of these requires a specific map.

Are you even aware of your options? Music careers today are being re-written as traditionally separate industries converge and spawn new opportunities for those familiar with audio in its manifold expressions. For example, did you know that book publishers are establishing music divisions as they “re-purpose” their titles onto CD-ROMs and other multimedia formats? Think about where music is used today and an explosion of possible paths will present themselves.

Knowing your options and establishing clear goals is your first step. In the entrepreneurship courses I teach, one of the early assignments is for students to write their own obituaries. While on the surface morbid, it forces people to seriously consider what they want to be remembered for at the close of their earthly lives. Try it. All of the achievements and acomplishments revealed in this exercise are translatable into specific goals from which you can work backwards to the present.

And speaking of entrepreneurship, unlike the doctor and investment banker previously mentioned, musicians are self-contained business entities with all the responsibilities and obligations which are part of all business activity. Since most musical work falls into a “do-it-yourself” approach, it’s important to understand that the “it” you will be doing, for the most part, is business. Whether it’s booking a gig, negotiating a contract or organizing a promotion plan for your CD, the fact is you are exercising a variety of skills to grow a business, You Inc.

The trick is figuring out what you’re good at and then translating those skills into “profit-centers” or revenue streams. Most musicians I know wear a number of different “hats”. In any one week they may wear a performer’s hat, an educator’s hat, an agent’s hat, an arranger’s hat, and a songwriter’s hat. Sometimes all hats are worn in a single day! Each “hat” is a potential “stream” and activity center that can be strategically managed to expand your market audience. And each stream you choose to develop requires it own smaller plan within your larger Plan.

Of course the challenges of this loom large. Many reading this article went into music because you didn’t necessarily want to do business. Perhaps you watched your parents or relatives chafe under the constraints of business jobs, or maybe you cling to an anti-materialism that scorns and fears the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and that casts art and commerce as hopeless opposites. We can add to this the fact that few of us ever received real-world strategies for developing successful careers from our schools and homes.

But whatever the poison, it has had the effect of keeping many musicians ignorant of how to go about creating success for themselves in the world. This is often the reason for all that erratic progress, those fits and starts, in musicians’ lives. Even when the goals are clear, the best paths to those goals remain a mystery.

In addition, creating your own personal music career map sometimes means clearing out previous experiences that may may be holding you back. I call this clearing process “emotional bushwhacking.” All of us carry around excess baggage and psychic trash that burdens our journey. This stuff has the effect of weighing us down and blurring our sight. Someone once said we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. The world is mediated to us through a lens created over the years of our lives, through our family experience, our schooling, and the choices (both good and bad) we’ve made.

You’ll need all the resources and energy you can gather for your career journey. The key is understanding yourself enough to become aware of those things which tend to de-rail your efforts and short-circuit your progress. Perhaps the most honest indicator of our emotional fitness is our relationships. You’d do well to look at these closely. Why? Because the music business is one of the most relationship-driven businesses on the planet. Your ongoing success will be determined, largely, by the quality and quantity of the relationships you build over time. Clearing out the emotional weeds that choke our actions and attitudes is an extremely important ingredient of the journey to your goals.

It takes great courage to look these things square in the eye and many of us will need help sorting it all out. Fortunately, there are people who specialize in helping humans become emotionally fit. Seek a referral from friends or from your school for a counselor who specializes in personal development. Many have “sliding scales” and will adjust charges based on your ability to pay.

Once you’ve cleared a path, it’s then time to map out your journey. One-time ambassador Benjamin Disraeli said, “As a general rule, the most successful people in life are those who have the best information.” When a person sits down to create a map, myriad amounts of data are necessary. Every road, river, city, hill, canal and contour must be accounted for so the map truly serves those who will use it for navigation and travel. Besides providing a “bird’s-eye view”, a map indicates your destination (goal), shows the most direct path to it, and points out attractions (as well as distractions) along the way. In essence, a map shows you how to optimize your journey, with as little time, money and energy loss as possible.

Today, career- and business-planning information is hyperabundant and readily available, if you know where to look. The “small office, home office” (SOHO) trend has hatched an entire industry focused on entrepreneurs and what they need. Books, magazines, software, websites cable tv and radio shows designed for micro-businesses are popping up everywhere. See the Resource Box for a choice selection of these resources.

Another great informational resource to help with your planning is the Small Business Administration (SBA), a government-funded service whose main function is to help small businesses start and grow. The SBA has many programs nationwide, one of which is the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). These centers work out of colleges and universities, and offer free small business counseling and training, usually through another program called SCORE (The Service Corps of Retired Executives).

Though not experts on the music business, per se, they will provide everything you need to know about being a business in your particular state, including licensure, permits, taxes, insurance, and zoning regulations. Some will even provide training in computer programs and bookkeeping, as well as some much-needed hand-holding through the process of writing a formal business plan. For those serious about growing their business, this’ll be the best return on your taxes you’ll ever get. And you can now even get counseling via email. Contact info for SBDCs and SCORE can be found in the resource Resource Box.

Planning advice may also come from unusual places. Boston band Two Ton Shoe realized early on that they’d move their project along faster with an organized plan. To help the process, they posted announcements at the Harvard Business School saying they were looking for management consulting for launching their own record label. This resulted in them teaming up with a trio of HBS students who succeeded in getting class credit for developing an independent study project with the band as the focus. The students spent their spring semester working with the act to develop a comprehensive business plan, including a section on industry trends and local factors. “Needless to say, this was a big bonus for us, and free!”, says Two Ton Shoe guitarist Jake Shapiro. He continues, “Two years down the road we’ve maintained relationships with the HBS grads and it’s quite possible that we will form a management team with one or more of them as our label and band grow.”

As your plan comes into focus you’ll start to get a better idea of the real costs associated with your goals. “A written plan forces you to analyze the cost of production, promotion, and performance,” offers Kelly Pardekooper. “Once you use this method for a while you can start to see where your money is really working and where you’re throwing it away.” Pardekooper has also found the Internet to be a great resource for bouncing ideas off other musicians with similar goals.

As an information resource the Internet is unsurpassed but it does have a down side. “You can literally drown in information and possibilities if you use the Internet as a resource,” says Michael Futreal. “You’re always haunted by the notion that maybe you just haven’t found that one special resource that would open doors. As such, it’s easy to waste loads of time just attempting to find one more thing rather than following through on leads you already have in hand. The trick is, as always, to balance focus and vision–to see the forest as a bunch of trees, so to speak.”

Keeping a written record of all your ideas and findings is key. Don’t rely solely on your memory because important items are bound to slip away. Futreal uses an integrated software program called The Brain ( which acts as an Internet browser, a bookmark file, a printer, a folder, and scrap paper. “I’ll write on anything that has spare space…keeping extensive notes leads to the distillation of a more concrete plan along the lines of recurring themes. Eventually, the cream rises to the top, so to speak, and the ides and plans that survive make it into an associative database structure on my computer (a’Brain’).” Though a business plan will often be a fixed document, Futreal feels it’s worthwhile toying with the idea of a business plan as a “hyper-document”, a continually evolving blueprint you mold as you grow. “The added flexibility may add the extra bit of speed and adaptability your music business needs to survive in a complex world.”

WORKING YOUR PLAN Here are some actionable tips to help with the map-planning process:

Get a year-at-a-glance wall calendar and schedule your goals. This will help you visualize them as you see them every day. Remember, the mind tends to follow what’s in front of it.

Schedule uninterrupted time each day to do your planning. Force yourself to plan! Look at your long-range goals. Try to reflect these goals in some activity everyday. Plan for tomarrow, tonight. Your subconscious will help you organize while you sleep.

Sit quietly and mentally rehearse the steps in your plan. Use your imagination to visualize the steps being taken. You will sense where additional steps need to be added and will anticipate problems to prevent. Learn to trust your intuition and hunches.

Anticipate possible problems you could encounter in your project because of people, gear, or technical failures. Planning by re-action squanders energy; planning by pro-action maximizes it.

At the start of each day anticipate the sequence of activities that you will do to attain the objectives you are after. Then think about your entire week. How will important projects be sequenced?

Do your planning on paper to capture all of your ideas and ensure none of them gets lost. We can only work mentally with about seven pieces of information without losing something. Write your thoughts down and you will be able to use everything you think of during your planning process. Carrying an “idea” notebook can help. If you cannot identify the objectives and steps to take to a goal, it is probably “unrealistic” for you right now.

Career and business planning is not easy so don’t beat yourself up when there’re setbacks because there will be. And be sure to reward yourself every time you achieve a step in the plan. Nothing like a little positive reinforcement to keep the wheels greased.

Finally remember, the map is not the territory. A plan is only a provisional construct to help guide your steps. When you get close to the land there will inevitably be surprises and strange turns along the way. This is when flexibility and resilience are called for. Plans are made to be revised. Learn to dance with the unexpected.

Now more than ever musicians must have a plan to achieve the success they crave. The new economy is ripe for micobusinesses to spawn and grow. Set your goals, write them out, obtain the help and information you need, and then give your career or business idea the attention it deserves. Attention means focus. “Staying focused on what you want in the music business is not easy, but, it is a way to grow, not only professionally, but personally,” says Trish Thompson of the Atlanta band, Glass Candle Grenade. “When you see your plan in action and the progress you make, it is quite satisfying…and then it’s time to kick back and have a beer.” Ahh, now that’s satisfying.

The Courage to Create by Rollo May (W.W. Norton & Co., 1994). A classic work that helps point out the inner and outer forces that hinder our creativity, and how to break through to greater creative expression.

Staying Sane in the Arts by Eric Maisel (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1992). Explores the “puzzle” of the artistic personality, what artists can do to remain balanced, how artists can better understand the world of business and develop personal strategies to succeed, and why artists must complement their need for isolation with a healthy dose of community building. He includes a number of illuminating exercises to help artists work through these issues as well as a great list of resources for further exploration.

The Secrets of Self-Employment by Paul & Sarah Edwards (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1996). The thing I like so much about this book is its sheer practicality . From self-discovery exercises to everyday office management, they consistently deliver well-thought-out knowledge you can instantly put to use. Another great feature of this book is its exploration of the “psychology” of self-employment, the numerous “mental mind-shifts” required for making it on your own.

Networking in the Music Business by Dan Kimpel (Writer’s Digest Books, 1993). As the author says in his introduction, it’s a matter of “what you know, who you know and who knows you.” Once you’ve got the “what you know” nailed down, this book will help you improve your odds with “who you know” and “who knows you.” The chapter on assessing your goals and skills is alone worth the price of the book. Empowerment at its finest!

Career Opportunities in the Music Industry by Sally Field, 3rd ed. (Fact on File, 1995). A “music career” doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be an artist in the the standard rehearse-record-perform sense of the word. There are dozens of other avenues music lovers can pursue in the worlds of music which offer equally creative challenges. Shelly Field offers indispensable and realistic information on more than 80 music-related jobs ranging from A&R Coordinator to Staff Publicist. In between you’ll find career descriptions for Booking Agent, Music Publisher, Field Merchandiser, Orchestra Manager, Instrument Sales Representative, Session Musician and plenty more.


Berklee College of Music – Careers in Music A ‘directory’ of music career options I put together divided into careers related to music performance, composition, production, engineering, technology, education, therapy, and business. Los Angeles Music Network Subscription-based service that centralizes job openings in the music business nationwide.

Small BizNet An information toolbox with the answers you need for starting, running, and growing your small business; a service of the Edward Lowe Foundation. It’ll keep you busy for months! For guidelines on writing a formal business plan to attract investors, see “Writing a Music Business Plan that Works” by Peter Spellman. See also the business plan template available at “The Moneyhunter” home page.

Support Organizations

Service Corps of Retires Executives (SCORE): A nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneur education and the formation, growth and success of small business nationwide.

Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs): A complete online directory of SBDCs nationwide. SBDCs offer free one-stop assistance to small businesses by providing a wide variety of information and guidance in central and easily accessible branch locations.