So, you’re ready to become an incredible music artist success, yah?
I applaud you in your journey! But one thing. Well, actually - 5 things (forthcoming).
A lot of times, artists, songwriters, etc. ask me “What are you looking for?” or “What’s going to be the next big thing?” The answer for me - is the same every time.
The next big thing (at least for me) will always be a hit song.
What I’m looking for in an artist - will always be the “5 Pillars of Success” (which actually used to only be “3 Pillars” but in the last 10 years I’ve added 2 more vital ones).
Wanna know what those are?
A few of these might be obvious. One of them - might actually open some emotional wounds, so proceed with caution (no, really, I’m not kidding).
And also for some context …
These 5 Pillars apply to any genre and any decade.
They’re also specific at least for myself, in helping me define and put a conscious (or unconscious) framework around the new talent I’m looking for. What ultimately works for yourself might be completely different.
For those that have reached incredible success and created great art, I’ve always seen the “Magic Five” pillars in every case. This is especially with the superstars of the world - no matter if you are an artist, producer or top liner.
So what are The 5 Pillars?
Let’s get started.
This means a sound and identity that can ONLY belong to you.
This means when someone hears your voice or the way you make beats, or your style of writing, that it can only belong to you.
In other words …
You need an identity and a sound to your music that no one else has. (HINT: This is a good time for it to all be about - YOU).
It’s a misconception I see happen all the time. You should really not just “follow the crowd” and what’s “hot on the charts.”
It’s in my opinion, a common rookie mistake.
The thinking often is “Oh - this is what’s happening - I need to be “x” (i.e. what’s hot right now at this moment) for people to like me and have success.”
You need a sound and identity that’s yours and yours alone. That’s where you create your niche and your first core 1,000 fans can turn into 10,000 and then 1 Million.
As an example:
Lil Nas X, ABBA, Michael Jackson, Drake, Joanna Newsom, Metallica, Timbaland, Kenny G, Skrillex, Kanye West, Bee Gees, Miles Davis, Nine Inch Nails …
It doesn’t matter what the genre … they ALL have a sound and style and signature voice that defines them and them alone.
OK … got it.
Well, what’s the solution?
The solution here is also a bit counter intuitive.
A lot of the work you’ll do in this area is getting over what Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance.” (And yes you MUST buy this book RIGHT NOW. It’s the most important bible and mindset to possess in your artist tool kit).
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
What Steven says is that we all have what he has coined “the resistance.”
The resistance is what keeps us from standing out in the crowd, doing important work and doing something different.
Maybe it’s because our DNA evolved that way over 100,000 + years.
If you kept “within the crowd” you were safe and played your role within your prehistoric tribe.
On the other hand, the person who had an awesome but questionable idea, going against the grain, might have had themselves branded a heretic, kicked out of the tribe and left to die alone in the woods.
Hey, It happens. :)
And on that note…
We’re really still operating on what I would call Brain Operating System 1.0.
Our brain hasn’t evolved that much. (We still often have a prehistoric brain mindset). But on that note, I really believe the new mantra to gain success today, is based on one of my favorite Seth Godin quotes, which is basically this:
There’s a great presentation here of what Seth Godin also refers to as The Resistance … or in the case of the presentation - getting out of the way of our own “lizard brain.”
In other words…
Finding that sonic identity is really about listening to yourself and quieting the “lizard brain” and “the resistance” that’s going to speak up and try to prevent you from being exactly who you should be.
Finding your sonic identity is believing and recognizing who you are and who you’re meant to be and what you innately believe to be true in yourself.
And what is that?
It’s likely a sound, a direction or a message or style, etc. that probably isn’t popular right now. That’s what you should run to. And the more this sound isn’t like anyone else … the better.
It’s recognizing and chasing that inner calling and “sonic identity” of who you know you are versus accommodating a different path, and what seems to be popular “right now.”
It could be that your music and your art actually changes the trend and people start following your sound.
When I notice and hear (and see) that someone has artistically found the true reflection of themselves musically … that’s when I pay attention (both as a fan and as a publisher/label).
It doesn’t matter if you’re Arcade Fire or Kanye West or Britney Spears or Julio Iglesias. Without songs … or rather SONGS (with a Capital “S”) you’re just probably going to flounder in the water … or in the case below, sink to the bottom of the ocean (or proverbial Release Radar of Spotify).
Let’s hope that’s not going to be you.
There’s no question to me that songs are “the” vehicles that propel your career and spread your voice through words and melody.
But you need more than just great SONGS.
You need a HIT.
Actually, I mean HITS … plural … or what I would call a “perennial song.”
As an example, Britney Spears “... One More Time” is a HIT.
French indie chill dio, Air’s “La Femme D’Argent” is a perennial song. “La Femme D’Argent” was never on the charts, and even though it’s 20 years old … I still hear it all the time out and about.
Yes … it’s SONGS.
One magical song that breaks your career (and hopefully more after that).
HINT: This doesn’t happen overnight.
You may get lucky on your first few attempts or more likely, you’ll need to write 100 songs for this career-making song to effortless flow out of you in 15 minutes.
Now, if you objectively don’t see yourself as a great writer … no problem.
Find someone who IS an EXPERT at writing songs, someone who lives and breathes making great pieces of music and ask them if you can record their music or more likely, cowrite with them.
John Lennon needed his Paul McCartney and vice versa.
You can also reinterpret songs that have been previously released and make them your own!
Recording a “cover version” is totally legit and legal and does not require (all rights reserved) permission from that artist or writer or music publisher.
However, if you are recording a song for the 1st time and your version will be the 1st release of the song ever ... you DO need the permission from the writers of the song.
So make sure to get it (as well as all other important documents and agreements) in writing.
Simply stated …
Having the right song(s) is the jet fuel to any career.
Consequently, it’s also when that jet fuel dries up - it’s when those “superstar” airplanes usually fall out of the sky.
I’m sure you can think of more than a handful of artists who just can’t get arrested anymore. It’s not because they got some wrinkles and a hip replacement.
To quote my friend John Kalodner ...
Bottom line - great songs are the fuel for your career, especially long term. “Perennial Seller” songs (and by the way, that’s another book I deeply recommend, “Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday) is what you’re going to need, hands down, for your career to pop.
Ryan Holiday, Perennial Seller
For sure I’m not saying here you need to look like Beyonce or Justin Beiber or Jon Bon Jovi at the height of his best hair days in 1987. But make no doubt, these people are STARS.
And to that regard, I wouldn’t say that Post Malone is a fashion icon … but wait a minute,
I think maybe he is?
Certainly, Post Malone is a star in his own right and there’s no question he has not just a sonic identity, but also a visual identity. If I walk by him on the street … I know that’s Post Malone. Can the same be said for you?
Ahhhhhh. Hmmmm??? You mean we need to “stand out” and be different than everyone else to make it - visually, sonically, all the way around?
And sure, Adele at the height of her career was certainly not a Ford model. But Adele’s overall vibe, character, personality and her voice and songs (uh, duh!), make her a freakin superstar!
There is that “extra something” special about all these people and charisma that is a wow factor. Mostly - they know exactly who they are and embrace it.
Their visual and sonic identity is a direct reflection of who they are …
And when you get that - magic happens and the universe conspires with you and opens its doors.
Now of course, it might be hard for you to objectively quantify if you’re a star or not.
So if you’re not born with flawless rock and pop star looks …
Because this has nothing to do with the DNA you were given or how much you “weigh in.”
Only you can find the signature look that is a signature visual identity for you.
Think Slash from Guns N’ Roses with his iconic black top hat and low slung Gibson Les Paul guitar.
Or Annie Lennox with her signature short-cropped red hair in the 80s.
Or Lizzo embracing exactly who she is.
And now, I give you this challenge:
Think of your Top 3 iconic artists.
It’s highly likely they all have the 3 Pillars:
1) Sonic Identity,
2) Hit Songs AND …
3) Visual Identity.
Let’s take a look at a few examples: Madonna, Lil Nas X, Prince, U2, Billie Elish, Lady Gaga, Post Malone, and hell, Slipknot are the definition of “visual identity” x10.
Even Bruce Springsteen, with his white T-shirt, blue Levi’s jeans and wood grained Fender Telecaster, as simple as this look is, has created his own signature Americana visual identity!
So, to hopefully further prove my point, let’s look at some current stars and also some Icons.
You’ll recognize that all these artists have “the 3 Pillars”: Sonic Identity, Hits / Perennial Songs, and a Visual Identity.
So, how do you know if you’ve created a visual identity?
I look at it this way.
And it might sound super cheesy but it’s 100% true.
Are you ready?
Ask yourself this question:
Can someone dress up like you for Halloween?!
Honest to God - it’s the question that helps qualify all of this. And here’s where I came up with that idea.
I remember signing and working with LMFAO back in the day (Yes, that’s actually roll out of bed that way). At their height, the LMFAO costume at Halloween was one of the top selling costumes of the year!
You could buy a costumed package - fully equipped with an afro wig, animal print spandex, and faux diamond encrusted giant glasses.
Now sure - you might say well - they were a one hit wonder (even though they had like - 6 hits).
But can you dress up like David Bowie or James Brown for Halloween?
They are icons (along with more of those listed above).
We visually identify and connect with them. ‘Nuff said.
This is a new one I’ve added to my “3 Pillars” list about 10 years ago. Consequently, today … I absolutely look for this quality in any signing I’m considering. And I’ll tell you how I came to this realization.
I was watching Black Swan starring Natalie Portman. In the movie, Natalie is portraying an incredible ballerina who just goes to the most unimaginable lengths to make it in her career.
Throughout the film, I’m thinking, “Hmm … who is this? Jeez - This reminds me of someone I know. Damn … who IS this person?!” I couldn’t put my finger on it … until towards the end I realized …
”Of course … this caricature or “mold” of this person is absolutely every successful artist, writer, producer, executive, etc., that I know and work with in the music business.”
You see, it’s not just good enough to be passionate. For better or worse, to make to the top of any business, you likely need to be obsessed.
In other words, are you passionate and obsessed about making your dreams come true and your art, to work 10-14 hour days (almost every day) for 10-15 years?
It’s those Type “A” people (including myself) who you’re competing with.
Now you might think someone like Taylor Swift has it on easy street. But counter to what you might think, the biggest stars put in the longest and hardest hours.
It’s without exception, that everyone I work with personally, puts in 10 hour + days at least 6 days a week. And really - it’s usually more than that.
So, if you want to compete and have your star rise … you need to be in the “obsession club.”
And if you’re not - that’s totally fine. However, it’s important and crucial to realize, exactly who you are and thus, manage your expectations. If you’re not obsessed, you can totally do music and also have success along the way - but it might not mean you’ll have the career you’re imagining.
How do you know you’re obsessed? If making music is the first thing on your mind when you wake up, and the last thing you when you go to sleep...and all other hours in between, then I think you have your answer.
Just like Vanessa Williams, I’ve saved the best for last. (And also, I’ve saved a reference that probably none of you just got). But that’s OK. I wanted to lighten up - just a little, before we go heavy.
Mindset … is probably the most cerebral, emotional and the most elusive concepts of the “5 Pillars of Success.”
Mindset is something you can’t hear or see (and counterintuitively, others might see in you first, before you even recognize it yourself).
The right mindset will take you all the way to the top of the mountain. The wrong mindset will be an evil demon that will derail you every time. Think of Gandalf on that bridge with his staff screaming: “You Shall Not Pass!!!” That my friend, is your subconscious internal programming.
All things being equal between two artists...with one having an equal amount of talent as the other artist (or even less!), mindset is why some may turn out to be incredibly successful while others just can’t seem to crack it - ever, or worse, end up self-sabotaging themselves every time.
You’d be shocked how often this happens.
And I’ve also now realized in the past, how I’ve even done it to myself.
On that note, the following is a key concept and brilliant quote I picked up from one of my coaches, Ryan Soave:
Think about that. Do you really think and believe you deserve success?
OK … that’s pretty deep. Well what does that mean?
Hell … Of course, I deserve that hit record and amazing career, and a beautiful house, and the Ferrari!
But do you really, really, REALLY in your gut and more importantly deep in your subconscious internal programming believe that?
Do you really have that correct self-image and self-value? Or did your parents, or a teacher, or caregiver tell you growing up that you weren’t good enough and would never amount to anything?
Sensitive trigger warning coming …
We all have baggage. Period. We all have accumulated programming in our psyche that is either - serving us - or not.
In some cases, we might believe consciously that we deserve success. But subconsciously we might have an internal voice and self-guiding mechanism that says something completely different.
(HEYY! WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA! Were you just thinking about leaving and “x’ing” out of this page? That could be your subconscious trying to “protect” you. So let me pull you back here. Still here? Good.)
We might have conflicting internal programming or negative self talk like: “you’re not good enough,” “you don’t deserve good things,” “you’re a loser,” “that person probably doesn’t want to take a meeting or co-write with you,” “people will laugh and hate my next release,” etc.
Now, if you told me 10 years ago I had some unconscious negative programming that wasn’t serving me in my personal life and career … I would have said, “Get the hell out of town, Buck Rogers.”
But in my own internal personal growth today, I’ve recognized these things exist big time (negative unconscious programming). And just like a whale that swims through the ocean for decades that picks up barnacles … we have to work on ourselves to stay “barnacle free” as much as we can.
We need to try to be conscious of what’s no longer serving us and slowing us down.
Consequently, I try to work on myself on a daily (and long term) basis to make sure I keep my internal programming straight and on track. And trust me. It’s hard work. And it’s important work.
You see, having conflicting internal programming can result in things like self-sabotage, non-confidence, and also not being able to break out of your continual orbit of “grind.”
Do the words “grind orbit” resonate with you?
Yes, that’s what I call it. Do you ever feel like you’re in this perpetual grind that just repeats and repeats and never ends? This can also be compounded if you also have to work a full time or part-time job while trying to make it as a songwriter and artist.
It the never ending struggle. What’s worse, is, we may start to make that “grind” our identity.
I just know too many artists and songwriters … that, just when things are starting to happen, or maybe a new release is on deck, and things are about to take off … and here it comes (!!) … they’re right on the cusp of breaking out of that massive gravitational pull out of what I call “grind orbit” – and then …
Something happens and their booster rockets fail. And believe it or not … often they do it to themselves, unwittingly.
Why does that happen?
What are some of those detours that take place or self-sabotaging moments?
It can be sabotage in the form of anything from: “I don’t like this music anymore I spent the last year on … I’m scrapping the album,” to the band breaking up a week before the release, to subconsciously messing up a key co-write or relationship or meeting which was going to be their “ticket” out of the “grind orbit.”
Or it could be they’ve made their identity of grinding so strong, that their ego must keep them in that “grind loop.” Because, hey, working your ass off and being a broke musician is both romantic and heroic right?
It could be - even as simple as having an opportunity to introduce yourself to someone who could change your career - and your life, yet maybe the “negative self talk” came up with thoughts of “they probably don’t want to talk to you,” “they’ll think you’re a weirdo.”
When in case, you could have flipped that negative self talk to “they are so lucky I’m going to introduce myself to them.” And you might be right! YOU - might be the one changing their career for the better - but instead you denied them that privilege.
The same thing goes with releasing new music to your fans.
Is some of this starting to make sense?
I’ve seen and been a part of each one of those above examples. And 100% for sure … they’ll continue to happen.
Here’s another little side note. There’s a famous story of a band called the Brian Jonestown Massacre, playing at the height of their biggest gig – about to get a huge record-setting record deal. The entire music industry is at this show. And what happens?
The band breaks up and implodes … ON. Stage. True story.
Self-sabotaging can also show up in smaller actions. For example – an artist not believing their good enough to reach out to that most important person that will change their life. To more intense self-sabotaging like substance issues and not being able to manage their emotional individual states, leading to substance abuse.
Conversely, many of the key positive mindsets I’ve incorporated, I received from reading Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and also Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning. It’s crucial to believe “through and through” … that you deserve the success you’re grinding and swing for.
And here’s a little last bonus that’s amazing. A small epiphany. It comes from that same Napoleon Hill’s book - that was written in - 1937. Nearly 100 years ago, give or take.
A huge concept is: BE > DO > HAVE.
First, you have to BE.
Then you DO.
Then you HAVE.
And trust me, it’s not just reading a book that’s going to make a change overnight. This is a lifelong pursuit. Reading some cool books will help, but often the deep work is really about getting over your own inner demons.
In many cases, including my own, it may require the help of therapists, coaches, and other ongoing “deep work” seminars.
One program I highly recommend is Gratitude Training. In fact, it’s something everyone should do.
This program might look pretty safe and tame...but it’s one of the Top 3 hardest (and most rewarding) things I’ve ever done. (The other most difficult and rewarding thing I ever did was completing the 2nd level of the course, “Gratitude Training 2.0”).
Writing maybe 1,000 words on “mindset” - in no way does the importance of the subject justice. There are entire careers, books, etc., dedicated to the subject.
It’s the elusive 5th pillar - that I highly recommend to start working on - now.
Not only will you improve your chances of the most incredible successes, you’ll also change your own personal life and relationships for the better, and thus, ultimately make the world a better place.
Some of us are already on a great path and might just need some “course correction” to get to our destination. For others, we might need a whole new compass and GPS system.
And look - I know this being a songwriter. Songwriters and artists and creative people in general - look, we’re really complex (and maybe a bit messed up too!).
To get in that real slipstream of success (especially long term success), in my opinion, we all need to get on the same page internally with our mindset. Otherwise, we can often be swimming upstream, against our own questionable internal programming.
Remember, to have and attract success … you need to believe through and through that you deserve to have it in the first place.
Let’s break out of the “grind orbit” together!
And as mentioned, some recommended reading on this subject:
Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (Please note this was written in a different time - 1937, and social climate. The year it was published was closely right after the great depression - which is eerily similar to today).
Hal Elrod, Miracle Morning
So, as a quick summary … (snaps fingers) - problems solved!
(Right - LOL). I wish it was that easy.
But I commend you on making the journey. It’s a long road. No, a really long road to get to where you want to go.
But trust me, those that stay on the path and embrace the 5 Pillars … they usually always get to their destination.
So if you're struggling to figure out how to get people to listen to your music, or wondering how to get a record deal, consider the 5 Pillars and whether you're truly embracing each one.
Each one of those pillars is crucial on their own. But when combined - and when all are completely resonating together … you’ll find the 5 pillars to be an UNSTOPPABLE ARTISTIC FORCE for your career to take off!
Lastly, one other thought.
“Whether you think you can - or you think you can’t - You’re right either way.”
Do great, important, risky and dangerous art, my friends (spoken like the Dos Equis guy).
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