By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

Artists are an iconoclastic bunch.  They tend to see the world in a unique manner, and often feel that their idiosyncratic world-view is sacred.  This can lead to great art.  We need artists to help us see things we otherwise wouldn’t.  The downside of this point of view is that as artists adhere to a rigid perspective of self-reliance, they often exclude any other voices.  In short, it’s the artist’s way or the highway.

While artists will (to a degree) look to other musicians whom they admire for musical inspiration, they too infrequently look to others when it comes to plotting their career trajectory.

This is a mistake.  We all need Sherpas, guides.  It doesn’t mean that we can, or should, try to follow exactly the path of those who came before us, but it does mean that when a learning curve that’s been flattened by the boots of those who came before you presents itself, you should avail yourself of it.

The problem, of course, is that there’s so much noise.  The group think/conventional wisdom can be overwhelming when you’re trying to discern fact from fiction and anecdotes from something more empirical.  Trying to determine to whom you should look to/listen to for guidance is challenging when everyone appears to be an expert.

To help filter some of the noise, I suggest the following:

As I discussed in my most recent article,  you must work diligently to understand, establish, and make visible your core values.  This includes everything from understanding what you feel your musical (if not life) purpose is, how you will articulate this, and how you will use this understanding to sustain yourself during the inevitable tough times.  Significantly, understanding your core values allows you to target potential fans/evangelists (or, a new term that I like a lot, “igniters”) whose values align with yours.  These igniters are the ones who will immediately respond to what you do, and, importantly, share your work with their friends.  This is really the very best form of marketing: it works, it doesn’t cost money, and it can lead to building a sustained career that is far less affected by trends and market vagaries than careers built on things other than value alignment.

Understanding your core values creates a filtering process that will not only eliminate noise with respect to the potential fans you should be targeting, but also help in terms of where to look for guidance from artists who are a step or so beyond your current situation.

A few important details.  First, while it’s likely that those artists you look to as examples for a career trajectory will align with your musical sensibility, it’s not crucial that they do.  For instance, while I’ve never been a big jam band fan musically, I have for ages admired their values, and the way they go about developing sustainable careers.  I feel that many artists — irrespective of whether or not they like “jam band” music — could learn a ton from the way these artists operate (their commitment to performing live; the ways in which they collaborate with other artists in the genre; the ways in which they nurture “community” with their fans).  Similarly, many non-hip-hop artists could take a lesson from some of the marketing innovations that occur in this genre; I think, specifically, of the mix tape efforts, and the way in which more established hip-hop artists often introduce emerging artists via guest spots on their records.

Equally important to making certain that the artists you look to share your core values (even if they don’t share your musical tastes), is that you must look to artists who are in close relative proximity to you with respect to your career arc. While it may be somewhat helpful for an artist who is just starting out to look at a superstar in order to study a career trajectory, it is far more instructive to look to artists who are a step or two ahead of where you are.  If, for instance, you are an artist who has developed a decent fan base in your home town, but hasn’t yet performed outside of this home town, don’t look to the band who tours 300 dates a year for guidance, but rather look to the band that is getting out of town two or three times a month.  How are they doing it? What strategies are working for them that you can adopt to suit your needs?

Of course, this doesn’t only apply to playing live, but also to all efforts of brand building.  What, for instance, are artists who share your values and who are a step or two ahead of you doing in terms of social media?

I would add that while you can do this from afar, voyeuristically studying an artist, I would strongly encourage you to reach out and talk to other artists.  As I said in my intro, artists sometimes are reluctant to share their “secret sauce,” but not always, and maybe not even as much as we think — maybe we just haven’t been asking enough.

We desperately need more knowledge-share amongst those who are in the trenches doing this thing we love every day (hence, the TuneCore blog), and any opportunity to engage in conversations with people with shared values should be embraced.  Doing so will not only help you with your career strategy, but also with maintaining the necessary empathy required to succeed today.

So, go find that Sherpa!

Update 1/30/12: Watch George Howard discuss this article, and stay tuned for more live webchats.


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:

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