Strengthen Your Core

By George Howard
(Follow George on Twitter)

It’s the dawn of a new year, and so there’s lots of talk about getting into shape; resolutions to get fit and trim.  In the midst of this chatter, one often hears of the virtues of “strengthening your core.”  Having taken a few yoga classes in my day, the core — as I understand it — is your abdominal muscles, and is essential to overall strength; if you have a strong core, you can overcome most physical obstacles, a weak core, not so much.

While I’m probably the least qualified person in the world to give fitness advice, I do feel there’s a beneficial analogy to be drawn by comparing your physical core with what I’ll call the Strategic Core of your music endeavor.

Anyone who’s taken an undergrad business class or beyond is familiar with the overused “mission, vision, values” trope that is supposed to be at the center of all ventures.  While this is not wrong, it’s also full of words that have become hollow.  It’s sort of like telling someone to be “entrepreneurial,” or to “market better.”  Again, not necessarily wrong, but — at this point, at least — non value adding.

I’d suggest therefore stepping away from these words that signify very little, and instead think about your Core.  By this, I mean your purpose.  If that’s still too vague, consider the things that define you; the things that you would fight for; the things that get you out of bed in the morning.

We all must have a clear understanding of what our Core/Purpose is if we want to avoid flailing.

It goes deeper than that, however.  Understanding what your Core is allows you to focus.

One of the most common answers I hear from artists when I ask whom their music appeals to is “Everyone.”


What I want to say to them is, “Really? Your music will appeal to my five year-old son, who pretty much only listens to the Batman theme (the Adam West version of Batman), and also to my Mormon Mother-in-Law who, as best as I can tell, doesn’t listen to music at all?”  What I say instead is that you must focus. By targeting everyone you will end up reaching no one.

This doesn’t mean that music can’t appeal to a lot of people. It does mean that before you can appeal to a lot of people, you have to begin by appealing to the right few people.

The right few people are those who share your Core values.

Of course, in order for you to know who shares your core values, you need to know what your Core values are.  Determining this isn’t as easy as just stating what you’re passionate about.  Rather, as Jim Collins presents in Good to Great the Core (or as he calls it, “A Hedgehog”) is the nexus of three things: 1. What you’re passionate about; 2. What you can do better than anyone else; 3. Your economic driver.

I highly recommend you read this entire book, but to summarize: You must find the balance between these three elements.  Picture a three-legged stool, with each of the above criteria being a leg.  If you pull any of the legs out, the stool topples over.  You may be deeply passionate about something, but unless you can be the best and make enough money to keep doing it, it can’t be your core.  Similarly, you may be able to make a ton of money doing something, and you may even be the best at it, but — over time — unless you’re also passionate about it, you will fail.  Don’t believe me? I know a LOT of rich, but miserable people in the financial and legal worlds.

Developing and defining this Core doesn’t happen overnight.  It takes soul searching, and it also takes trial and error.  A few articles ago I implored you to embrace the Deming-Cycle mentality of “Ready, Fire, Aim,” so that you could begin gathering feedback from the marketplace, so that you could refine.  Consistent with this is the importance of evolving your Core by putting your work into the market.

When you do this, you’ll more quickly be able to assess if your Core values are aligning with those who are hearing your work.  It’s fairly obvious when alignment between the creator of work and the listener exists or doesn’t.

When it does, you will experience quick leaps on your trajectory of success.  When it doesn’t, you will feel like you are, at best, treading water, and at worst going backwards.

Too often people assume that their artistic output isn’t any good, because they are getting a bad response.  Often it’s a matter of the artist exposing her work to the wrong audience; to an audience who does not share the same Core values.  Simply, this type of audience is not pre-disposed to appreciate this specific artistic output.  You see this a lot with opening bands.  Somehow or another they’ve found themselves performing before a headliner, and have been excited to be in front of a big crowd, only to have the crowd be indifferent (or worse) to them.  It doesn’t mean the opening band’s music is bad, it just means there’s no value alignment between the fans and the band.  On the other (very rare) hand, sometimes the opening band blows away the headliner, and people leave talking about them rather than the headlining band they came to see.  This happens because of Core values being aligned.

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s all about the music.

In other words, given my opening-band hypothetical above, don’t assume that a crowd likes or dislikes a band based on the fact that the music is or isn’t “good.”  As we all know, what’s “good” music to one person is unlistenable to another.  No, it comes down to whether or not the Core values — as articulated by not just the music, but also how the artist presents themselves on stage, etc. — between artist and audience align.

So, your assignment for the New Year is to begin (if you haven’t already) thinking about what your Core values are.  Put it into perspective by using Collins’ Hedgehog matrix, but make sure it comes back to the things that you would fight for; the things that get you out of bed; the things that you feel you have to contribute.

Once you do this, begin considering where others are who share these Core values.  Think in terms of offline and online locations.  These are your people; people predisposed to embrace your artistic output.  Importantly, these are people who will also share what they discover (you, if you put it in front of them) with their friends (i.e. the people who they share their Core values with).

This is how artists develop loyal fan bases.  Think about the great, enduring artists.  I believe that you’ll find that all of them have very clear and well-articulated Core Values, and that when they perform, these Core Values are present en masse amongst those who come to see them.

So, get that Core in shape for 2012.  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below what your Core values are. Do a few downward-facing dogs while you’re at it too.


George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at:

  • Chris_Produces

    This hitting the nail right on the head

  • ArtBertikMusic

    Wow, what a refreshing perspective.  My CORE values are to spread the message of freeing one’s mind and having fun with whacky, humorous, and venturous art.  Somewhat like being in Alice In Wonderland.  Escapism.  I’ll leave the politics to the musician-activists.

  • This is insightful, and similar advice is often given to startup entrepreneurs. Many tech startups have great ideas but don’t spend enough time thinking about who they plan to sell to and how they will make money from their product.

    I disagree with point 2 though, “What you can do better than anyone else.” Just like how your music doesn’t have to appeal to everyone, you don’t have to be better than every other artist at any particular thing. You just have to be good enough for a large enough number of people. I think the Beatles are the greatest pop artists of all time. I think they are superior to Oasis in every quantifiable way. And yet I still enjoy and listen to Oasis. Then again, perhaps the thing Oasis really nailed was “Sounding like the Beatles and releasing albums during the 1990’s.” Anyway, it’s a quibble. Maybe change it to “What you can do so well that it will win fans,” but with better wording.

    • well said, Alex. I was simply quoting Collins with respect to “better than anyone else.” Essentially, you have to have a competitive advantage within your market.


    • Hal Brooks

      There is so much “talent” out there.  One needs to be inimitable.  When your Core audience knows that what you offer is unique, and real, they respond favorably.  The singing voices of Bob Dylan and Neil Young come to mind.  Great blog George!

  • Iza237

    A very good read. I myself have reached that part of my life to see what exactly thrives my soul and what strengths I deliver. My place in music must be exactly that. It is a new year, a new view….

  • DanceCassidy

    Another way to put it, be yourself. It’s what we heard while growing up, but few rarely have the courage to do.

    • I like that, Dance!

      What I was trying to get at, however, is the nuance involved with – as you say – “being yourself,” while also building a sustainable career. this is where Collins’ Hedgehog concept comes in.


  • B.A

    thanks george for the imfo veryvery helpful for me right now managing 2 artis an rinning a lable $$ thanks keep blogging i support u B.A Rinagade Music Group CEO

  • Yeah man, good stuff. Sounds simple, but it was actually just what I needed to hear. Music is going well, but focus NEVER fails boosting your outcome. You got me following on Twitter 😉

  • David East

    I am a prolific songwriter – up to 800 songs written in the last 5 years. I am a theme songwriter themes range from Gospel , Tourism , Sports , Motivational , Educational, Childrens , Songs about life , Musicals focusing on fundraising for humanitarian needs. My problem is that I don’t know what to focus on first iro of promoting/marketing or in what order of priority – any help/advice out there? David East   : 

  • Brian Shell

    Yet another excellent article George!  It’s funny because as I write this, it’s 5:28am, and I awoke at 4:30am because of the passion to make a few edits to an ebook I just finished that were nagging me to get up and get out of the way… as well as put some finishing touches on 20 songs I just recorded in the past month that I hope to release soon.  I think Gene Wilder said it excellently in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “So little to do, so much time.  Wait a sec.  Strike that.  Reverse it.”

    It’s all about having that reason to get up in the morning… and I applaud you at TuneCore for helping to provide that reason… because you provide the ability to distribute our passions (aka: music) for us artists to make an honest living from doing what we love.

    As a radio exec here in Detroit told me: “Success doesn’t bring happiness.  Happiness brings success.  If you’re happy with what you do, you’ll be a success no matter what.”

    And it’s funny too because people can call such passion crazy.  They can tell you: “I think it’s time you drew a line in the sand and came back to reality.”

    I literally heard that last quote in LA in 1996 when a close friend took me backstage to meet King Crimson.  At the time, he was making six-figures, and I’d just quit my job as a successful engineer in LA to write my first screenplay.  Now, he’s unemployed, and I’ve now published my 20th book.  In other words, if you stop believing you can become a success doing what you love, your dream dies with you… right then, right there… as it’s only a conductor who can keep a train from coming down the tracks. 

    Like you mention George, you know of a lot of miserable people in the legal and economic fields.  They may be good at what they do, but do they love it?

    That was my conundrum in 1995 when I left my engineering career to write and get great at music.  I was a math and science whiz, but I didn’t love it as a 60-hour-per-week job.

    Yet here in 2012, when I force myself to wake up at 4:30am (even though my alarm is set for 5:30am) to work on my books and songs, I sit with a contented smile… and thank you all for providing a service that helps keep that Hope alive and well.

    Brian Shell

    • Brian,

      thank you for this! As I got up around the same time as you in order to get on another plane – all with a smile on my face – i understand where you’re coming from.

      this post makes my day.


      • Brian Shell

        Glad to have put that smile on your face the other day George… as the Golden Rule does apply… because it wouldn’t have happened had you not written yet another excellent article giving musicians like me the Belief that our music *will* make a difference… and provide one of a multitude of reasons to get out of bed each morning.

        BTW, when I was a satellite antenna engineer at Hughes (next to LAX) from 1992-1995, I remember visiting the Rhino Records store in Westwood/Century City and seeing lots of Rykodisc CDs… that was about the time Ndugu Chancler took me under his wing and taught me a thing or two about percussion… and Life.  He was the one who told me, upon leaving my engineering career: “It’s only a conductor who can keep a train from coming down the tracks.”


  • where can i find the this book at. very interesting

  • Great article.  Thanks for the tip on the Collins book.  I have been reading the Stephen R. Covey books lately, also based on finding ones core principles and taking action based on those – in ones career and otherwise.  Covey makes an interesting distinction between “values” and “principles” – principles being timeless self evident maxims such as respect, honesty & integrity while “values” are simply those things we place the most importance on as evidenced by our actions.  In a celebrity crazed society, the value structure is likely to be skewed away from timeless principles and more toward “quick-fix” as Covey calls short sighted gains and indulgences, trying to fit in etc. 

    Very insightful, George.  I’m sorry you weren’t teaching up at Berklee when I was a student there.  I would have loved your class.

  • Sarah Birks

    Interesting article…core values…not interested in becoming famous…I call it the gilded cage…get it and then you are imprisoned by it. So I’m destined to become famous after I’m dead I’m afraid! Hey…what does it matter…live it…enjoy the journey…we are all ships that pass in the night…you might love my music….I might love yours!….!hey I think these might be my ‘core values!’ See you in music heaven! Luv Sarah

  • Sudhakar Narra

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  • Bd@g

    Thank you for the awesome advice im saving this article.  I totally agree, I am a lifestyle entrepreneur.  Working on making a difference and this just motivates me even more….