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.”

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.

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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: twitter.com/gah650

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