5 Things Music College Didn't Teach Me

Music college is a hive of activity.

You buzz around the corridors in an endless cycle of practising and lessons; playing chamber and orchestral music; preparing for solo recitals; learning music theory and music history, aural skills and sight-singing; rehearsing, performing…

A delightful musical bubble.

And then...

POP

You’ve graduated.

You may know how to write four-part harmony, dictate chord progressions and play Bartók string quartets, but you don’t have any practical business skills or concepts to apply to your art.

Here are a few things to keep in mind whether you’re newly released from your studies or have been out there, playing for a while, but feel that things could be going better.

1. you are running a business

Yes, you are in control. You’re the boss. You may be the founder and sole employee in the one-person show that is you, but you’re still running a business. And with any business, come the key factors that sustain you and help you grow.

Let’s get something straight...
You’re not an investment banker. You’re not a CEO of a multinational company. You went to music college. You are an artist, right? You want to do what you love, play music and enjoy life.

So far so good, but in order to continue doing what you love and not wind up busking (with a cat on your shoulders), you need to find a way to earn a living from it.

Don't worry. We’re in this together. I’m going to take you through some lessons I’ve learned from the London tech and digital marketing scene to help you on your way.

Like any product-based business or service, it’s essential to start by offering something people actually want. Whether it’s your playing you’re selling, your teaching or something else altogether, let’s assume you put the hours in, the quality is there and it’s a product/service that has an audience… somewhere.

So, with that in mind…

2. know your audience

As performers, we often have a rather strange relationship with our audience. They are that nameless mass in front of us that gives us a boost of adrenaline and makes us both nervous and excited. As we settle into our performance though and focus on the task at hand, we learn to quietly ignore this crowd of people until that little acknowledgement of their existence at the end of the concert. The classical music audience tends to be very well-behaved, quiet and polite, so it is easy enough to let them fade into the background.

How many of us actually think about who they are though, beyond how they affect our performance?

If, as musicians, we never make the effort to know our audience, seek them out and actively engage with them, how can we expect them to care about or even understand what we do?

3. it’s not about you

As a performer, it’s easy to be somewhat self-absorbed. After all, you have high standards. You are highly trained, highly skilled and have needed to develop a level of self-awareness, introspection and self-criticism in order to hold yourself to these high standards.

It is tempting to exist in a little practice/performance bubble and not give much thought to the outside world.

In order to have broader appeal and really engage people though, it's important to remember a golden rule of 'content marketing':

This is a concept we can absolutely apply to the music industry.

Let’s get one thing straight first.

Marketing isn’t a dirty word.

I think a lot of people have strange ideas about marketing. I, too, completely dismissed marketing for many years, assumed it was something that wasn’t for me, thought it was probably somehow dishonest and manipulative or, at the very least, tedious. It is, of course, all of these things if you think of marketing as being just about you. No one cares! And why should they?

Things get infinitely more interesting, even exciting, when you consider the bigger picture.

  • Who is my target audience?
  • Where do they hang out? (online and offline)
  • How can I make contact with them there?
  • Why would they be interested in what I have to offer?

So...

  • Pause and think again when you next plan a concert programme and wonder how you’re going to get an audience.
  • Pause and think again when you next update the About Page of your website or are asked to submit a blurb about yourself for a concert programme.

How can you reframe what’s great about you and make it something that’s great for your audience?

4. it’s alright to fail

We’ve established we’re running a business, right? So, it makes sense to borrow the entrepreneurial concept of “fail fast, succeed sooner” for our projects and goals.

Let’s make something clear though. “Failing fast” does not mean giving up on your long-term goals and dreams if they don’t work out right away. Instead, it’s more about being adaptable in the way you achieve these long-term goals.

Failing fast isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It’s an approach to running a company or developing a product that embraces lots of little experiments with the idea that some [of these] will work and grow and others will fail and die.
David Brown, Techstars

The Build–Measure–Learn loop is a method for applying this “fail fast” concept to your business.

This process ensures that you:

  • Don’t lose sight of what it is you are trying to achieve (Build)
  • Are aware of what’s going well and what isn’t (Measure)
  • Are in touch with your customer’s needs (Learn)
Build–Measure–Learn Loop

Your target audience is at the heart of this process, so it can be useful to do some initial research and add a “Learn” to the beginning of your first Build–Measure–Learn loop. Then you can test out your initial assumptions and get some feedback from your audience before you really get things rolling. Then Build–Measure–Learn to continually improve what you’re offering them.

5. you can learn new skills

But wait… does that mean I’m not good enough to be a performer?

This may be the instinctive first response for anyone who has been studying something (like music) so intensively and for so long.

It reminds me of a story told to me by a couple musician friends. During their time at music college, a forward-thinking teacher asked what else they were interested in doing aside from performing. My friends were offended by this question at the time (which I totally get), but in retrospect see it wasn’t a slight to their playing abilities – more a comment on the reality of being a professional musician. A little wake-up call.

It’s a pity there aren’t more questions like this asked at music college. Surely, whatever it is you study (in the Arts or otherwise), a solid grounding in modern business and marketing concepts should be compulsory. We shouldn’t allow our subject of interest to trap us in a time warp. We can’t assume that a potentially “niche” audience is the same as no audience. After all, it doesn’t really matter how many followers you have. What matters is how engaged they are with what you are doing and what you do to inspire their loyalty over time.

It’s almost always cheaper to retain your current customers than it is to constantly acquire new customers. That's why it's so important to build customer loyalty and exceed expectations with every sale you make.
Richard Lazazzera, entrepreneur

Don’t limit yourself by making assumptions and not testing them out. I am convinced that if you have a product/service that people want, actively engage with your audience and don’t lose sight of what it is you’re trying to do, you can realise your dreams.

Build → Measure → Learn your way to success.

Determination and perseverance will get you there in the end.

So, what’s your story?

  • Did you go to music college? Are you still pursuing a career in music?
  • Are you a music lover and want an inside look at the world of music?
  • How do you feel about marketing?
  • Have you started building your personal (or your ensemble) brand? Would you like to?

Make a comment below and let’s start a conversation!

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