Brutally Honest Advice for Aspiring Artists

After working closely with artists for more than a decade-and-a-half at Gaither Music Company, I cannot even venture a guess at the number of emails, calls, letters and demos we receive from artists who are looking for a break. If we took the time to work with each artist individually, we wouldn’t have time to run the company. But one thing unites them all: their genuine love for music and a sincere desire to know what they can do to set their musical dreams in motion.

I’ve been there when new batches of letters and CDs came in, I’ve heard the feedback and I help answer letters when we get overloaded. The following is some honest, unfiltered advice based on years of seeing aspiring artists come and go.

1.  You are not your voice.  (This is important, so I put it first in case you get mad and stop reading.) If you feel like you’re just going to DIE if someone whom you consider important doesn’t validate you as an artist, you are not ready to be in the music industry. You’ve got to KNOW that your human value is not determined by the size of your audience or the applause of people. If you cannot separate your soul’s worth from what you do, both success and failure could either destroy you, or make a monster out of you.

2.  Most every artist who sings on a “big stage” started out on a small one. If you are a rare, undiscovered talent, people will be so excited to have you sing at local events, churches and concerts! Communities need great artists, and that is the best possible place to gain valuable experience, learn what does and doesn’t work for you, find your target audience, and start finding your niche. (FYI…those who didn’t pay their dues can be difficult to work with. You don’t want to be THAT artist.)

3. Telling the world you’ve never had a lesson doesn’t help your credibility. Few people (okay, we’ve never met one) are such “natural born talents” that they cannot gain important help from coaches, musical training and skill-building. Do everything possible to work out your natural talent with solid skills and training. If vocal coaches say you can’t sing, believe them and move on. Learn technique. Earning credibility with professionals means becoming a professional.

4. Sounding exactly like another successful artist doesn’t necessarily assure you a chart-busting path in music. (Although it could make you a great background singer or Vegas act, if that sounds fun.) If you want your own platform, focus on becoming an artist the world doesn’t already have. I can’t think of many who launched long-standing career of their own by being “almost as good” or “exactly like” another artist. Eventually, sound-alikes are always compared to the original. That’s a tough place to live for a lot of reasons.

5. Most demos, if they are heard at all, MIGHT be played for 15 or 20 seconds. Often one line of music (the first) is all it takes for a professional to know whether  an artist really has chops. It helps to know this when you create a demo. And it will not help to write, “Please listen to the entire CD,” on your demo.

6.  Lots of people sing.  And lots of people sing GREAT! This doesn’t automatically mean that stardom is your destiny. It doesn’t mean it isn’t your destiny either. But be open to how your talent can best serve the world, rather than matching it to a preconceived idea of what success looks like. King David was a musician, but his influence went WAY beyond his music! Your life and your music have ripple effects you can’t even imagine. “Stardom” might be thinking too small, if you can believe that! There might be something even better waiting for you.

7. A moment in the spotlight is just that – a moment. It’s the fun part. During the other 20+ hours in a day, what artists do is not nearly as fabulous as one might think. (Believe me. I witness a lot of the grunt work first-hand.) It can be a lonely, exhausting and discouraging road.  I know all enthusiastic artists out there are thinking, “Whatever… I love cold showers, criticism, the smell of diesel fuel, and hauling boxes of product in and out of venues!” That’s fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

8. The spotlight is a double-edged sword. The same attention that gleans applause also attracts criticism. Few people ever really expect the hurtful comments that come with being in the public eye, but it can be brutal. This is where the skill mentioned in #1 of this list comes in VERY handy.

9. Network with local singers and musicians, team up whenever possible. Some artists find other artists a threat. Those people are missing out on a wonderful community of support and encouragement. Networking with other local artists (and being great to work with) is really helpful to gaining exposure to new opportunities. Cliches like “iron sharpens iron” and “there is strength in numbers” can apply profoundly in becoming part of your local music scene. Attending conferences or networking online is helpful for many artists, too.

10. Every artist’s path is unique. Hearing another person’s story of success can be motivating, but your story is your own. Be fully present and engaged with what’s in front of you today and don’t live in the future, waiting for something that may or may not ever come.  Wishing your life away is much more tragic than finding fulfillment doing what you love today…right where you are!

There is obviously no one-size-fits-all manual for artists, so I’d love to hear from anyone out there who has other advice or thoughts to add here.

18 thoughts on “Brutally Honest Advice for Aspiring Artists

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  1. honest and helpful. while i think number 1 is important, i think you also have to stake a certain part of yourself to your abilities. if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. and “right” is putting your heart and soul into it. with your heart and soul invested, you’re naturally going to be tied to the ability.

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    1. Absolutely! Music is SO personal, and I think it is essential to put 100% of your heart into your music. Then, at the end of the day, you go home and know that if you hadn’t made that music life would still be worth living and you’re still a valuable human being. Making music is the icing on your life’s cake… but not the entire cake. 🙂

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  2. Wonderful post! Helps put things into perspective for people wanting to get into the “biz”. Also, this should be mandatory reading for every person who auditions for American Idol….

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  3. Very true…. all of it….i always get a some kind of sadness when people try to force their way into the bizz….by sending numerous emails/demos and whatever means they have at hand to well know established artists. I have done it too…but not to get a break but for some honest and professional critique….and i got some and tried to work it.
    Great article Emily!

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  4. Great writing as usual, Emily. Got to tell you, though, if I was trying to get in the “biz’ – you’d’ve scared me to DEATH! Thank God I[m not – haha! I’m just happy singing with the videos. (tho singing with the GVB on one song would be fun lol).
    My last comment is this – #1 is best of all… and everyone needs to take that to heart, no matter if they’re a singer, a dancer, a painter… or anything other than an artist. Or anything else in life. One of life’s hardest lessons for me was that yes, I’m disabled, but I’m not my disability. During the course of time, I not only learned I’m not my disability, or a talent, I’m me and that’s all I need to be.

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  5. That was hands down the most useful, well thought out and beautifully expressed advice I’ve ever read.

    Also? EVERY WORD OF IT IS TRUE!

    Aspiring artists? Print this out and put it on your refrigerator!

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  6. Love it, Emily you have a gift with words that is for sure. This was the same sound advice I was given 30 years ago. I consider myself a successful musician, not because of a spotlight shining on me but because I am able to use what God has blessed me with to bless others. Put another way I have grown where the Lord has seen fit to plant me and I continue to grow and learn. God bless you and to all those that read this post. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

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  7. Thank the Lord for people who tell it like it is…I am not in the industry, but truly appreciate the work it takes for those who make it. Knowing that they started from the bottom and worked they way up is, to me, a truly dedicated professional, whose one desire is to glorify the Lord with his God given talent.

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