Becoming massively successful in your field is never as easy as just doing x, y, and z. There are no fail-safe formulas for success. Luck, timing, connections, and things outside of our control play a big role.
1) A good part of luck, timing, and connections actually aren’t outside of our control. They’re just outside of our comfort zone.
2) If we notice that all the top players in our field are doing x, y, and z, and we’re not doing those things, we may be excluding ourselves from top-tier success by choice.
Sometimes there are valid reasons for not competing or performing at the “top-level” in any given field. We may prefer the lifestyle that goes along with amateur or “dabbler” participation. For example, you might enjoy bodybuilding, but have no interest in consuming the regimen of performance-enhancing chemicals that is a prerequisite for top-tier competition. In my own life, I chose not to pursue a career as a touring nightclub DJ because that lifestyle didn’t appeal to me (see The Reward Is The Job).
Just as often, we may think we have good reasons for not experiencing a higher level of success, but in fact those “reasons” are just bullshit excuses.
How do we tell the difference?
Honest Life Inventory (with self-compassion)
I don’t believe in the approach of looking at yourself in the mirror and berating yourself like a drill sergeant. “Get off your ass, loser! Work harder!”
We all have two sides of ourselves — let’s call them Min and Max. Min is happy with the status quo, is a little lazy, and prefers comfort to discomfort. Max is energetic, motivated, future-focused, and a little power-hungry.
One typical motivation approach is to just have Max yell at Min, or even try to destroy Min.
The problem is, Min isn’t going away. We need Min. Otherwise, we couldn’t enjoy the fruits of our labor. We couldn’t enjoy a day at the beach, relaxing with friends or family, doing nothing in particular.
On the other hand, we don’t want to just hand over the reins to Min entirely. Min will make up all kinds of excuses for not working harder, for staying comfortable, and for avoiding change. Without Max’s dynamism and energy, we’ll never accomplish anything or being able to live a truly satisfying, remarkable life.
What we want is an honest conversation between Min and Max, without judgement or antipathy. We can accomplish this by opening our eyes to the realities of our life, without berating or punishing ourselves. We had reasons for making our past choices that made sense at the time. The question is, can we do better?
Life Area Inventory — An Example
Spesh and I founded Loöq Records in 1998. Loöq is an electronic music label with a primarily dance music focus. We had our 100th release earlier this year. We’ve signed artists from a dozen different countries and licensed music to nationally broadcast TV shows, popular videogames, and independent films.
We’ve done decently well, but of course we could do better in many areas. For starters, I’ll give us a report card (Spesh might have different opinions — these are my totally subjective off-the-cuff evaluations). For simplicity I’ll just use two grades: “Doing Well” and “Needs Improvement.”
Loöq Records Management Report Card
Contracts and Accounting: Doing Well
Treat Artists Fairly: Doing Well
Release Planning and Delivery: Doing Well
Approaching/Attracting High Profile Artists: Needs Improvement (getting better)
Finding/Exposing New Talent: Doing Well
A&R Process: Doing Well
Cost Control/Profitability: Doing Well
Overall Music Sales: Needs Improvement
Licensing: Needs Improvement
Mastering: Doing Well (recently improved)
Artwork: Doing Well
Marketing/Public Profile: Needs Improvement
Have Fun Doing It All: Doing Well
I’m happy with how many aspects of the label are going. For example, I personally designed a royalty reporting system that accurately and clearly shows artists detailed sales and licensing information for each reporting period. Another example where we’re doing well is A&R; Spesh has a real knack for communicating with artists in such a way that they’re motivated to take their music to the next level, without feeling defensive or criticized.
What about areas where we need improvement? Do we have valid reasons for not performing better in these areas, or have we just been making excuses?
Approaching/Attracting High Profile Artists
The music industry is full of big egos. The thing is, so is every industry. It’s a rare person who doesn’t care about their professional reputation, and have at least some fear of rejection.
Up until recently our approach to attracting artists has been mostly passive — we’ve waited for people to come to us. This wasn’t a thought-out strategy — just a combination of 1) taking the easy route — not actively working to make new connections and build new artist relationships, 2) not wanting to deal with big egos/high maintenance artists, and 3) a fear of rejection in regards to approaching higher profile artists to release or remix music on Loöq — especially in regards to not having a big enough budget to be taken seriously. Recently we questioned some of our assumptions and started reaching out to artists with more established careers.
Excuse/reason for not doing better: Approaching high profile artists is difficult and time consuming, and if we do approach them we might get shot down. Also, we can’t afford them.
Valid reason or weak excuse? Weak excuse. As an experiment, I decided to try to get in touch with French superproducer David Guetta‘s camp. Considering that Guetta has recently worked with Kid Cudi, Rihanna, The Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg, and other pop superstars, even getting a response from Guetta would be a considered a long-shot for a tiny independent dance music label run by two guys out of their home offices.
Surprisingly, it only took me ten minutes of internet research and a single email exchange to get contact information for the agent who handles remix requests for Guetta. While I can’t yet tell you to expect a David Guetta remix on Loöq, the exercise made me realize that the primary barrier to making this connection existed only in my head.
While Guetta is a pop superstar, there are dozens of artists that we respect greatly that are in no way famous outside of the dance music world. These are the people we’ve been approaching lately, with much more success that we expected. There’s so little money going around in the music industry these days, most artists are happy to work for modest terms (as long as they feel they’re being treated fairly). Once in awhile we get turned down, but more often artists are happy to work with us. I think it helps that we have a solid reputation among artists — when we we get paid we always pay artists their fair share.
I think it was mostly our egos that were holding us back in this area, not the egos of other artists. While we fully expect to sometimes get shot down, ignored, or fail to reach agreement on terms, it turns out this doesn’t sting too badly — especially when you feel good about your current roster and releases.
This is an area that I handle personally much of the time, and I’ve been actively trying to up my skills (and gear) within the last year or so. In addition to upgrading my software suite (I use T-Racks 3) and monitors (JBL LSR4328P’s, tuned to my room), I’ve been reading, watching tutorials, experimenting with different techniques, and trying to implement tips and tricks I’ve learned from observing masters like George Horn (from Fantasy Studios).
Excuse/reason for not doing better: Top-selling dance music tracks (Beatport Top 10, for example) are 90% hyper-compressed, mastered so loud that the music sounds like crap and has very little dynamic range. I don’t want to make our music sound like crap.
Valid reason or weak excuse? In this case, a little of both. Hyper-compression helps sales (consumers will prefer a louder track on first listen), but makes a track sound worse on a club system or on the radio (in each case the track will be compressed even more). However it is possible to master a track extremely loud and still make it sound good. Plasmapool is a good example — they master their releases incredibly loud but they don’t sound crunchy or clipped.
There’s a good argument for avoiding hyper-compression on tracks that you hope will get many repeated listens — say tracks on an album release. Hyper-compression induces ear fatigue (just like talking on the phone does, or listening to low-quality mp3 formats). Overaggressive mastering reduces the chance a particular track will be listened to over and over again.
Dance music singles, however, come and go quickly. Regardless of mastering, most are only going to get a dozen plays by any particular DJ before they’re replaced by something new. For dance singles, why not go loud?
I gave us a Needs Improvement in this area, even though we probably do better than most independent labels our size. The licensing strategy of most music labels consists of waiting for licensing requests to come in. This doesn’t work very well, especially for getting your music into TV and film. The music supervisors who make these decisions are inundated with submissions, so unless you have a really famous track in your catalog, you’ll need to go to them if you want a chance at your music getting licensed.
I send every Loöq Records release to a number of music supervisors, and we get maybe half-a-dozen deals a year via this scattershot method. I’ve known for awhile I could do better in this area, but up until recently I’ve made excuses for not going the extra mile.
Excuse/reason for not doing better: There’s no upper limit to the amount of time I could spend researching shows and submitting music to music supervisors. Also, it’s difficult to find out who the music supervisors are, how to get in touch with them, and what projects they’re working on.
Valid reason or weak excuse? More excuses. The obstacles I listed are all real, but they’re easily surmounted with a little work and creativity. For example, IMDB is a great resource to find which music supervisors are working on which TV show and in-production films. Once you get a name, Google often turns up a company with contact page (on the internet, if it takes more than 5 minutes to find someone, they don’t want to be found).
My scattershot method (send each release to every music supervisor I know) doesn’t take very long, but it also has a low success rate. Targeted submissions would be much better. Sometimes a music supervisor will ask for submissions with a particular sound, and that often results in a match. But how to find out which projects are in production? Once I realized that this was an important problem that needed solving, it only took about twenty minutes of research on the internet to find a solution.
The hardest obstacle in the music licensing area is time, or lack thereof. Or, to be completely honest, time and enthusiasm. I can’t say that I enjoy the process of networking and submitting music enough to get completely absorbed in it for hours every day. I don’t mind rejection (and/or being ignored) — I don’t take either one personally because I understand how many hundreds of music submissions every single music supervisor is dealing with. Still — it’s sometimes difficult work, and it’s one of maybe a dozen Loöq Records activities I could be doing on any given day.
Solution — get some help. I recently discovered that a friend of mine (who is also in the dance music industry) was interested in working on a freelance basis in the music licensing area. Last week I met with her, shared some of my contacts and resources, and signed a simple representation contract.
There Are Only So Many Excuses
When we give up in a particular life area, handing the reins over to Min and resigning ourselves to the status quo, we become less alive — less engaged in life and less excited by it. It takes difficult introspective work to analyze an area of your life and define what your obstacles (and excuses) are, but it’s worth it. Usually our excuses will fall into one of the following categories:
I don’t know how.
It’s too difficult.
It’s too late for me.
I don’t have the right natural gifts or talents.
It’s too risky.
I don’t have enough time.
I don’t have enough money.
I don’t have the right connections.
I could go through each area and make counterarguments, but I don’t need to. You probably already know them. The top-tier of success in every field is riddled with people who started with no talent, no capital, no connections, etc. Many of them still don’t have these things but found a way to succeed nonetheless.
Here’s what I think it boils down to — most of the time we choose the status quo over more success because:
1) we don’t actually want aspects of the lifestyle that come with higher success
or (more often)
2) we don’t want to experience the mild discomfort that comes with taking an honest look at our situation and taking actions that may radically improve our lives.
If you choose to do a life inventory in a particular area and feel comfortable sharing the results, feel free to post them below.
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