Advice to a Young Musician

1. Don’t believe the people who say you are good. Listen to the people who tell you where you are failing. You have to learn to be extremely hard on yourself in order to continually improve, or else you’ll just end up playing in your room. Everyone wants to be a musician, but only the ones who are self-critical, work the hardest, and stay with it the longest will succeed.

2. Songs are more important than anything else. There are thousands of great songs out there in the world. Why would people want to buy your songs if they aren’t as good as what’s already out there? You need to strive to write songs that say something interesting, something moving, something memorable, in a way that no one else has said it before.  In order to get good songs you have to be hard on yourself. One of my favorite songwriters, Mary Gauthier, says she puts about 40 hours into every song she writes.

3. For a long time, you will have to do everything yourself. Make your own records, bring them to record stores, book your own gigs, play for free, do your own promotions (create a website, make posters, buy adds, bug radio stations, create mailing lists). Nobody will help you until they see something going on already. Only then will they want a piece of the action. You have to get the ball rolling yourself and convince them there’s some action.

4. It’s very hard to get things going on your own. Find a group of musicians who are at your level, doing similar music, facing similar challenges. Work together, help each other get better, write together, share gigs. You might have to move out of the security of your hometown to find a group that you can be a part of. I’ve found “comrades in arms” by moving to a big music town, going to a lot of shows, performing at open mics, even playing on street corners.

5.  Big record companies are more trouble than they are worth a lot of times (they might even be extinct in a few years). Small, local independent record labels are doing better than the majors lately, and you are much more likely to get their attention. Big record labels almost never sign someone unless they’ve made indie records and already have a significant audience (thousands of fans).  But you won’t need them anyway, because the future of music is in digital downloading.

6.  Despite all that I’ve said, you must find your own way. Every successful musician has “re-invented the wheel” to get to where he or she is. The business part of the music business is always changing. And when it changes, smart, alert, creative people will see an opening where they can gain a foothold.

7.  In sum, work on your craft, let people know what you are doing, be patient.

8.  Oh, yeah. Most important: find a girlfriend (or boyfriend) who has a good job and is willing to support you for several years.

Good luck,
Slaid Cleaves