Let's face it, sometimes thinking about what you want to do next month is hard, not to mention what you might do next year or in five years. But the graveyard of the music business is chock full of cadavers (representing bands and musicians) who couldn't think beyond the next six to twelve months of their careers. The odds of doing anything significant in the music business are long from the start, but artists who can't think beyond the short term have it thousands of times harder. Let's look at the differences between thinking only of today versus thinking about tomorrow, and why it is in your best interests to plan, fantasize, scheme, dream, contrive, plot and imagine what you'll be doing in the music business five to ten years from now.
The best way to illustrate these concepts is by looking at some actual examples of short and long term thinking.
SHORT TERM: I want to release my first CD this year.
LONG TERM: This year, I want to release the first of eight CDs I plan to record over the next ten years.
SHORT TERM: I want to sell most or all of my initial CD pressing before I even consider doing another album.
LONG TERM: I want to distribute my first album by any means necessary, because the fans introduced to the first record are more likely to buy (or recommend to others) the second record, which in turn will feed a larger fan base into the third record, etc.
SHORT TERM: I need to sell a significant number of CDs from my new web site in the next year in order to justify the time and money spent on it.
LONG TERM: The benefits of having a web site will be small in the first several years, but as more and more fans learn that they can count on my site being there and staying current, the payoff in four to five years will be significant.
SHORT TERM: How will I get distribution for my CD?
LONG TERM: I recognize that traditional distribution won't touch a one-artist, one-release label's product. What creative ways can I find to distribute my record until such time as my label expands to the point that distributors will be able to help me?
SHORT TERM: The kind of music I want to record is not in style now. Maybe I should record some trendier material to get airplay.
LONG TERM: Music styles tend to rise and fall in popularity over time. If I record compositions that take advantage of my strengths and the music reflects what is in my heart, over time my integrity and perseverance will be rewarded.
SHORT TERM: I'll postpone recording until I can either buy the best quality recording equipment or afford the best-equipped studio in the city.
LONG TERM: Postponing recording due to a focus on the equipment means I won't get the additional benefits of: learning about sound, improving my production skills, and using the gear I have in the most creative way possible. There's a good chance I'll stop writing too, if I don't have a recording project in the works. I'd better go ahead and get started with what I have.
SHORT TERM: I'll wait until a record label of some kind gives me a break -- and a recording budget I can work with.
LONG TERM: I'll go ahead and plan to release four or five CDs on my own, since I'll increase the possibility that a label can see my potential. I know that if nothing else, I'll have examples of my work available in finished form and gain a whole new audience who can't possibly experience me live. I'll probably have a great time and get really good at making records.
SHORT TERM: I know too many musicians who have released a CD and then couldn't do anything with it.
LONG TERM: Musicians who have released five or six CDs almost always have found their own niche or audience in the music industry. Their perseverance has been documented by their periodic releases and they command a certain respect from the music business for that alone. Those guys are my role models.
SHORT TERM: I don't have enough money to record, press, promote, publicize, distribute, advertise and sell one CD, let alone five or six.
LONG TERM: If I make every decision based upon money, I'll never get started. If I plan to be doing this for the next ten to fifteen years, I have to trust that when the time comes, the money will be there.
I think you get the idea. You can see from the above examples how thinking in the present tends to automatically limit what you can accomplish. A good example from outside the music world is buying a car or home. If you looked in your wallet or bank account you'd find it impossible to imagine how you could own such expensive things. After all, you had about the same amount of money last month, and you'll probably have about the same amount of money next month. Yet, when you are told how you can own something expensive by paying a little every month so that you'll own that car in four years or that house in thirty years, you begin to see that it's less important how much is in your wallet today.
Building a career in the music business is much different from buying a house because the goal cannot be accomplished by following someone's advice, or by reading a book, or by emulating a superstar, or by following the 'tried-and-true' advice that 'everybody knows you must follow'. You've got to apply creative thinking to just about every problem you encounter and every decision you're faced with. You need time (a lot of time!) to try dozens of approaches because most of your ideas won't work. If you set artificial deadlines of one or two years to 'make it' or arbitrary sales goals of 1000 or 2000 CDs, you are putting way too much pressure on yourself to fit to a schedule of success. Success may come, but it may not come on schedule or when you expect it to happen (or even in the way you expect). If you give up too soon, guess what? You are making absolutely sure your goals can never be met.
Likewise if you over-emphasize your first or second attempt at making a record, you are shortening your vision to a couple of years. To short term thinkers, once the first CD has been recorded and duplicated -- they've tried it. If it doesn't sell well, then the heck with it. But can you be sure it was your best effort? It probably was at the time but, Can you really be sure that you cannot do better if you try again? Is it really impossible for you to improve a little, or even a lot? When you think of all the variables in recording your music and you think about all the life experience that goes into your compositions and your performances, istn't it almost guaranteed that you'll do better if you give yourself another opportunity? And if that is true with the second CD, wouldn't it follow that it would be true also for the third and fourth and fifth CD? Can you imagine how much better your fifth CD should be compared with your first CD?
Right now is the time you should be mentally preparing yourself for the long haul.
Right now is when you should be less concerned about what happens in the next month, and more concerned with doing things that will increase your chances of long term success.
Right now is when you should be planning that next CD, and even the one after that (you don't have to make financial plans; fantasize about it -- imagine yourself showing four or five of your CDs to everyone you meet, while talking even yet about your next project).
Right now is when you should dedicate yourself to the idea of constant improvement and a constructive stubbornness. Everything you've done today and everything you're working on can be improved, from your recording skills to your technique to your press kit to your web site to your physical appearance to your knowledge of the business to your contacts...and on and on.
Don't let yourself fall into the short term thinker's trap of waiting for things to happen. Don't wait for a review. Don't wait around for label to get back to you. Don't wait for a new guitar. Don't wait for sales to 'kick in'. Do something, anything, but keep yourself and your career moving forward. If it's important to you, then you will come up with ways to keep pushing forward and you'll fight to eventually realize those long term dreams and aspirations of yours.
If you have the guts, decide right now that you won't give up, and I'll see you in ten...
Dan McAvinchey is a guitarist and composer living in Raleigh, NC.
He believes every musician or composer has the power to write, record and release their own music.
His 1997 CD release on Guitar Nine was entitled "Guitar Haus".
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