After you’ve spent about 30 to 45 seconds involved in making and distributing music, you start to recognize something important: The music “business” (whatever that means) is not a pure meritocracy. There is no consistent correlation between quality and popularity of music. While no one is guaranteed to get any breaks, it would appear that a music act has a greater chance of getting their breaks if they have a personal connection to someone who can give them a broader platform – a record label owner, or a talent buyer or booking agent at a primo club. If you’re out grinding in the clubs, you may notice that there are really good bands that have a very difficult (and slow) time building up an audience made up of almost entirely of people they met through gigging, and that there are bands that can draw large crowds made up of people who are already in their large social circles, even if the band has just started playing out.
It can be frustrating to think about how some bands seem to be doing great thanks in large part to something other than the music itself.
And for a lot of musicians (and music fans), that frustration can gradually turn to fatalism. In time, you may find yourself griping, “It’s all about who you know, anyway, so unless you’re well-connected, you’re doomed from the start.”
That’s not entirely true.
I’d say there’s probably a rhetorical parallel between the more naive assumption “If your music is good, you’ll go somewhere” and the later assumption “Your music doesn’t have an effect on your ability to go somewhere.” They’re both reductive and oversimplistic, and tbh they’re both naive. So maybe don’t let your (understandable) frustration lead you straight into hard cynicism.
But the crux is… yeah, it really is about who you know. Maybe not entirely. But who you know can, and often is, an absolute game-changer in your music-making career. Just like anything. Just like day jobs. And that’s always been the case. Resisting it or trying to disprove it doesn’t help. To reject the whole situation is to throw in the towel at a point when you can easily continue playing the game.
If getting your breaks in music depends on who you know, then it’s probably a good idea to try knowing some people. You’re not doomed – you have some agency here, and maybe a lot of agency. It’s not brown-nosing, unless you do it in a brown-nosing way. It’s not social climbing, unless you do it in a climbing way. It’s just meeting and getting to know people who are into the stuff you’re into.
I wrote about some of this stuff already, in an earlier post about Cryptonet Theory. Cryptonet Theory is sort of a joke “theory” that basically states: Advanced and fascinating people have always had ways throughout history of finding each other. “We become recognized for our work in part through the merits of our work, and in part through being elevated by our networks,” I wrote. And that premise is backed up by scholarly research.
I think I understand why so many people, especially when they’re in their teens and early/mid 20s, want to believe the arts world runs on merit. I think I understand why anything else might look like “cheating.” Here in the US, most of us grew up taking standardized tests, graded blindly. In school, you’re accepted as the best in class if and when you have the highest marks. In sports, you’re considered the best athlete when you have the best stats. A lot of people then go on to apply to college – an ostensibly merit-based and anonymized process (whether or not you can afford it if you’re accepted). If you’re rejected for some clearly dumb, arbitrary reason, that’s grounds for scandal. Then you go on to graduate and apply for entry-level jobs, and if you meet the stated qualifications, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll eventually land one.
Over the years, I have definitely and repeatedly come across people who believe record labels operate the same way. There’s this pervasive belief that if you’re a musician, you’re supposed to send your music to a bunch of labels, and if you’re good, one of them will sign you. That belief is wrong. Unsolicited demos tend to fall into the abyss, where they are heard by no one. Even if it appears a label or a venue or a festival has an open call for submissions, you should probably assume the open call is not a high priority for them. When they’re already surrounded by recognizable entities, how much incentive does anyone really have to dive into the unknown?
I don’t want to veer into the Judgment Zone, but I have a hard time understanding why an able-bodied person who cares about their music “career” (whatever form it takes) would decide meeting more people is beyond their capacity. I think it’s kind of an insult to anyone who is truly isolated or who faces real physical or psychological challenges in getting out of the house. In my personal opinion, it’s a freaking blessing to be able to meet people. (And yeah, that also means it’s a freaking blessing to have an internet connection. Reddit has some good stuff if you want to meet people of like mind.) I have a hard time imagining having this opportunity to meet other people and have a deeper, richer, more interesting, and yeah — a side effect, but – more successful life, and then taking a pass on it. Anyway. Enough personal venting.
I’ve been in a lot of bands, and the band that went the longest time without gaining any tangible traction was the one where the singer’s personality was absolutely the band’s greatest liability. He as well would go on about how he felt like he was getting lapped by bands who had more friends. It’s a bit rich to gripe about how not enough people like you if you refuse to put any effort into being likable.
Look, there’s no 100% dependable path to anything, including getting your breaks in music. So many wild cards. And because there’s so much uncertainty in it, it’s a very good idea to seize control of your situation wherever you can. No one’s social circle is pre-ordained. Your social circle isn’t contingent on how much money you have. If getting to know more people is within your control, you should do it. Be helpful. Share your gifts and knowledge. Stay in touch with people. You never know who you’re going to meet, or where in life the people you meet will go.
Meet some people. It’s fun, and it can pay off in surprising ways.
More from This Series
Introducing: Bad Advice Musicians Hear (The Series) / You Need to Play Everywhere
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 2: Start Your Own Music Scene
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 3: Can a PR Rep Fast-Track You to Fame?
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 4: Is Music PR a Waste of Money?
Bad Advice Musicians Hear, Part 5: Does “Getting Signed” Change Everything?