You’ve been playing music for a while, been in and out of a few bands at high school and then uni. Eventually, you meet some musicians who are worth sticking with for a long, long time, players who bring out the best in you and are serious about making music into a career. You form a band together and start to gig. Everyone invites their friends, and those friends bring their friends – and if you’re any good, those friends-of-friends will bring yet more friends that nobody in the band has ever met. And so it begins – your reach broadens.
Here’s another version. You have a videographer shoot some footage of you playing live, some staged syncing to music and just some random bits of clowning around – then you take all that footage and turn it into a music video. You post it to YouTube, hoping people will start to watch it. You get a few thousand views at first, but there are some days where the views jump considerably.
Curious about these jumps, you look at the analytics, and find that someone in Eastern Europe has been watching your video over and over. What’s more, they’ve been leaving weird, untranslatable messages on the video’s view page. And so it continues.
Maybe the best of all: You work hard at connecting with people in your local scene, who can help your career along the path it needs. They’re not just club owners, but publicists, managers, techs, disc jockeys, music store owners, guitar teachers, people who write for music magazines (ahem!), and a whole network of other people who have a stake in the music business. You know many of these people personally, and you communicate with them directly.
Eventually, they may start sharing key information about you with people who are connected at higher and higher levels; and as more and more of these people start to watch you, opportunities may start to present themselves that you never imagined. And so it takes you to a higher level, perhaps.
What is ‘it’? ‘It’ is the process of people whom you’ve never met starting to know about you. Those people might be part of your growing audience at performances, or followers on the internet, or even possibly people who work in the business who are looking for new acts to promote, manage, recommend, and connect to their world.
You may be reaching out to people like this constantly, chatting with them on social media, meeting them at your gigs, or even schmoozing them up at music seminars – but there’s no possible way you can personally get to know all of them, no matter how much free time you have. Eventually, in order for your career to move forward, something has to be out there taking the place of your personal connection, that substitutes for a relationship with more and more people, and that does the work for you. And that’s the quality of your music.
The way I see it, successful acts in this country have two choices for building that momentum. They can either be part of an established scene, or they can have their own distinct sound and direction. The first way seems the easiest to beginning bands, because they’ve got a built-in community of listeners, and they can join that scene as fellow fans of that musical style. But in the end, they’re just another band of that style, and if that style loses momentum, then there’s nothing more their band can do unless it builds its own diehard following.
To do that, there has to be something different about the band, a mixture of unique qualities of musical influences, personalities, stories in the songwriting and intuition. And that’s actually the second choice above – having your own distinct sound and direction. But bands like that build their followings from the ground up, and the more original the sound, the harder it is to get that following started. If they belong to a scene, it’s a more random collection of bands that have pickier listeners – but those listeners can be pretty hardcore about bands they really like, much more so than in a generalised scene where both bands and listeners come and go casually.
The single factor that gets all those people that you’ll never know to follow your music and spread it around to more and more listeners and allies, is your saying something with your music that people connect with and need. For a lot of those people, it’s merely a soundtrack to their daily life, a beat that can play in the background as they drive. Or it’s something that hits them right where they live emotionally. Or maybe they can just dance to it. Or maybe all this and more.
You can choose to exploit whatever it is that connects you to them, and just write for the popularity. But if you don’t honestly feel what you’re writing, then consider that you’re being dishonest in front of a very large group of people. Or you can just continue writing and performing what you truly love, and just risk that you’ve gone as far as you can go. There are no guarantees here, and no single road to success.
In my case, the more successful I’ve become with my career, the more anonymous I’ve become. Nobody stops the show and says, “I’d like to thank my arranger, Thomas Goss, for scoring all those orchestral charts!” (Actually that did happen once with Che Fu, one of the nicest, most perceptive cats in the business.)
If I have a public side, then it’s educational – like the articles I’ve written here in NZM, or my social media empire where I give 20K composers advice and tips online.
Even though I interact with people all over the world on a daily basis, I can see that there are thousands more that I’ll never know, as they keep joining every day on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. It’s great hearing back from them from time to time – and it’s been great hearing back from my NZM readers as well. I might never know you – but I know that I’ve given you what you need when you write a comment about how you upped your game rehearsing, or avoided being ripped off, or tried a new kind of venue and had a great time.
Thanks so much for reading this column for the past few years, and I hope that your music reaches more and more people that you’ll never know – except as a massive audience at a concert someday.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky.