By Laila Biali
About five years ago, I had a memorable conversation with a top-‐tier manager in New York City. One of my peers had approached him on my behalf to see if he might consider adding me to his roster. I knew this opportunity could be a game changer for my life and my career, and so my heart plunged when I heard the words (paraphrasing here), “I would probably love your stuff, but unless you’re Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift we can’t take you on. It’s too high a risk for us to develop new talent.”
Around that time, I was on the radar of a few big wigs—managers and agents for some of the music world’s largest acts—and I could see that most of them were standing on the precipice of a huge cliff, fearing that the “weight” (i.e. investment of time and resources) involved in launching new artists might very well send them teetering over the edge. We were in a bear market, and most folks were focused on not losing what they already had. Even some of the established artists I was working with, whose careers I had reckoned weren’t tethered to the music business’s shrinking balloon, were dropped by their labels or relegated to budgetary margins and in need of their own life support.
But there was (and is) a silver lining. For decades, there were only a few pathways to success in the music business, and artists had to be able to charm and win over the gatekeepers—label executives, critics and journalists, artist reps, tastemakers and radio hosts—in order to gain any momentum. The support of these people is still critical, but they are no longer gatekeepers. And over the past few years, social networking and technology have democratized things, allowing anyone access to just about anyone else via the worldwide web. YouTube has become a virtual busking ground and cyber performance space while laptop-run, home-‐based studios have enabled artists to put out albums without the need for a five‐figure budget.
Now we face new challenges, like oversaturation (the proliferation of so many artists that it’s difficult to distinguish oneself amidst the din of competing voices) and a “fast-food” music culture in which listeners aren’t often inclined to give an artist more than a few seconds of airtime before moving onto something else.
So how do we survive and thrive in this new economy? One word: Grit.
If you’re a Ted Talks fan like me, you’ve probably noticed that grit has become a buzzword in education forums. Experts are saying that the students graduating and rising to the top of their fields these days are not just those with the most talent and smarts, but rather those with grit. Grittiness, or strength of character as evidenced by courage and resolve, is what enables students to make it. More than ever, this is also true of artists. We need to be courageous and resolute in order to succeed because we are now the primary forces steering and propelling our careers forward. We have more freedom, and also much more responsibility. So know who you are, where it is you want to go and how you need to get there; but remember that, while smarts, talent and opportunity will carry you some of the way, what will propel you through thick and thin and keep you pushing onwards to the big finish is, more than anything else, your grit.
[Editor’s Note: Laila plays the last show in her residency at SubCulture in NYC tonight! Catch her at 7:30PM.]
Award-winning Canadian Jazz pianist, vocalist and songwriter Laila Biali has toured with Suzanne Vega, Chris Botti and Paula Cole and recorded with and supported Sting. She takes the best of pop, rock and soul, informs it with her knowledge of Jazz and weaves it into her musical arrangements. Her latest studio recording Tracing Light received a JUNO nomination for “2011 Best Vocal Jazz Album of the Year” and her most recent release Live in Concert, recorded live in February 2012 in front of a gracious audience at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, Canada, captures the spirit of live performance so essential to Jazz. Laila is also a member of the all female New York based neo-‐ Classical crossover quartet Rose & the Nightingale whose members tour with Grammy award-‐winner Esperanza Spalding. Her accolades include “SOCAN Composer of the Year” and “Keyboardist of the Year” at Canada’s National Jazz Awards. She currently splits her time between New York City and Toronto.