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5 Experts: “How to Start a Career in Music”

By Steve Lipman, former Director of Admissions at Berklee College of Music

Any student who is seriously studying music wonders whether they’ll succeed after graduation.

According to five experts who have thrived in a changing industry and creative environment, being pragmatic and open-minded about opportunities and the people you meet is crucial to make it in the business of music.

Their wide experience has landed them in studios, classrooms, and the stage with some of the biggest names in music the world over. So, if anybody has some good advice loaded with historical context, it’s these guys. Plus, all the students I advise on how to get into music school will hear most – if not all – of the information in this article.

The music industry has changed drastically throughout the 20th and 21st century, not in small part thanks to the emergence of modern pop music and rock n’ roll – something we’ll cover later in this article.

Plus, the growth of technology and more advanced communication methods makes keeping on top of current trends and using them to your benefit part of the game. As long as you grow and adapt to changing times and tastes, you’ll enjoy success musically, financially, and personally.

So relax, it is possible to make it in music. We’ll explore what a career looks like for musicians at length, and what to watch out for along the way.

The Times They’ve “Been” A’Changin’

Some of the best and brightest of players and performers find there’s not a lot of studio work to be had. Especially for jazz players, studios were a great way to make money and play in many different styles.

In a bygone era, pop music recordings were once the arena of big personalities. Performers like Herb Alpert and many jazz greats worked with session musicians who were essentially players-for-hire. These guys were tapped for all kinds of music since the recording industry’s humblest beginnings, and there was no shortage of work.

Music history shows us how and why that changed. Justin DiCioccio – creator, former chair, and associate dean of the Manhattan School of Music’s Jazz Department – gives us some insight into what happened.

“The music scene changed in the 1960’s when rock became the pop music of the day, and rock bands came [to the studio] self contained,” DiCioccio said. “Many studio musicians went to playing the shows, Broadway, and that kind of thing.”

Basically, DiCioccio says, when a self-contained rock group went into the studio, they didn’t have a need for studio musicians. The members of the band would perform the various parts of the recording themselves.

As this type of format took over the recording industry, DiCioccio continues, “The studio musicians went to the Broadway shows, and the Broadway players went to the club dates, and the club musicians were out.”

NOTE: “Club dates” in this context means wedding gigs and other occasions someone might hire a live band. This terminology is part of the “New York Lingo” in terms of gigging musicians.

“It started with the advent of rock and bands being self contained, as opposed to the old days where you had the singers and the big bands,” DiCioccio said. “Singers played standard tunes, and there were many singers that had hits, and of course the bands they played with were generally big bands and orchestras.”

Yet the slowing down of session work didn’t end there.

“Then, that trickled down into the whole television industry, the demise of the studio big band,” DiCioccio said. “There were no more variety shows where you needed a house band, and if there were variety shows, they were self-contained acts.”

Musicians who have played even with the likes of Miles Davis and Elvin Jones – like saxophonist David Liebman – have felt the squeeze in the amount of work available for budding and established musicians for years.

“In every city in the world, there’s probably [a handful of musicians] who get all the work,” Liebman said. “Whether that’s at a club at $50 a night, or a studio gig at $300 a pop.”

Today, technology’s impact brings this “self-contained” concept even further.

“There’s very little studio work because everyone sits inside their bedroom with machinery that is as good as any orchestra,” Liebman said.

But it isn’t all bad news. Now, networking and building long-lasting connections is almost as important as playing music itself.

Personality is Everything

Have you ever had to work with someone you just didn’t like? No matter how good they are, their personality will always get in the way.

With musicians, the same applies. At least according to Bob Sinicrope, a double bassist who’s played with the likes of the Boston Pops, Billy Eckstine, and even Bill Clinton.

“There are people with more talent than you who are not successful, and there are people who are less talented who are more successful,” Sinicrope said. “You may not have the greatest talent, but someone might want to have you in [their] band, or associate with you in some other way, because you’re reliable and a good person to be around. Those are things a lot of students don’t realize.”

Along with his impressive playing and recording career, Sinicrope founded the Milton Academy Jazz Department and was until recently president of the Jazz Education Network (JEN).

Personality, according to Sinicrope, is essential to launching a career in music.

Think about it. Many of the musicians you’ll know after school are insanely talented, and many have similar capabilities in terms of skills and practice. Even the greatest of musicians can find it hard to find work when personal problems and clashing personalities get in the way.

“I think a lot of musicians don’t take that into account. Look at Charlie Parker – he was a musical genius but he couldn’t hold a job,” Sinicrope said. “There’s a lot of non-musical factors that are important if you want to develop a career.”

Simply put, Sinicrope says a full-time career in music, just like playing music in a band, is a group activity. If you aren’t liked by the group, or don’t get along with the members, you’re out.

“When there used to be a lot of big bands, Buddy Rich would come out to Berklee and ask for recommendations,” Sinicrope said.

While it’s fair to say that these recommendations didn’t go to the absolute worst players, Sinicrope said those who were known to work well in group settings often got the gigs.

It’s about becoming a better networker that led David Sears, a renowned musician and record producer who has worked with the likes of Quincy Jones, the Foo Fighters, and The Temptations to have worked in music all his professional life.

“I’ve had a successful career and done a lot of cool things – never had to go get a job outside of music to pay my bills and raise my family, but it could have been a lot more successful knowing all the things that I know about now, such as networking,” Sears said.

Sears’ educational career, which led him to open a music magnet school in Los Angeles and today serve as the Executive Education Director for the GRAMMY Foundation Museum, offers some serious insight from where his students ended up.

Having worked with students who have found themselves working with the likes of Green Day, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder, Sears says this is additionally crucial to fostering a career in music:

“The fear of failure – it’s a very serious issue,” Sears said. “It’s particularly, in my experience, prevalent among males of color, sometimes so bad they won’t even try at all.”

That’s because often music is a risky business. The promise of superstardom is not guaranteed, which makes many people turn away – no matter how talented they are.

This is also why musicians are notoriously hard working. The need to develop and expand your horizons is part of being a successful musician.

Sears said revealing the fear of failure to his students has always been a part of his approach. He typically tries to make this point using the example of a track team too afraid to compete.

“These guys had a great deal of success, but their problem was when they didn’t take first place, they were devastated. They could have gone to the state meet, but rather than run in the finals, of the four guys two of them got into trouble and were suspended,” Sears said.

“When I looked at that and talked to the coach, we came to the same conclusion. These kids were so afraid of not getting first place, they would rather not compete to avoid the embarrassment of losing.”

Everybody can understand that failure is a part of success. But, according to Steve Fekete – current guitarist of the rock band America – it’s part of the recipe.

“Don’t let failure discourage you. In fact, failure is a state of mind and a stepping stone towards success,” Fekete said.

In chorus with everyone else in this article, it really comes down to who you know.

“The greatest benefit [to attending music school] however, was building relationships with fellow students which helped launch my career once I moved to Los Angeles,” Fekete said.

The New Musician

So that’s it, right? Be nice to the people you know – especially those who can potentially get you work – and you’ll be fine.

Wrong. Have you ever noticed that many musicians often teach, or do something else connected to music?

As opportunities for playing and recording were becoming increasingly slim, DiCioccio found he had to figure out a way to fill his time between gigs.

“About 30 years ago, I realized that it’s challenging. I wanted to perform only jazz at that point, and I realized it was difficult to do because the studios were drying up, the recording sessions were drying up,” DiCioccio said. “I realized that the future is what I like to call ‘the complete artist-musician of the 21st century’ – it’s the one who is a performer, a composer, and pedagogue.”

Today, many musicians find themselves pursuing their passion for teaching alongside their compositional and performance pursuits. In fact, many musicians will tell you they love teaching – whether in a classroom or workshop setting, or one-on-one – to fill their life even more with music. DiCioccio believes most all musicians should be considering this approach.

“100 percent of successful jazz musicians today do some kind of playing, and then in addition you do some kind of writing and some form of teaching,” DiCioccio said.

Many musicians find themselves playing, writing, and teaching in various levels depending on where the work is. A large proportion of lesson books are written by practicing musicians – and these books are published as other sources of income exactly because players can not often find enough performance work to fill their time.

“Everybody does some kind of teaching. Wayne Shorter – this is what he does,” DiCioccio said. “It could be at an institution, a college or conservatory, or a one-on-one, or outreach programs, clinics, workshops, giving back to the community, and everyone that is successful in jazz, this is the lifestyle they lead.”

Great Minds Think Alike

Being a multi-faceted music professional is crucial in today’s industry. But, being a great player today is more than being able to solo like Steve Vai or Pat Martino.

Pushing yourself to learn skills outside your concentration sets you up to be more valuable in more situations. A great guitar player that can also sing may get a gig in a vocal group, and a drummer who can also produce a record may find more consistent work helping to formulate the vision of a band’s recording.

Plus, the player who feels comfortable in jazz, rock, samba, and classical styles (any style more than one really) will find their skills fit the criteria of more projects over the one that chooses only a single genre to excel in.

I think Steve Fekete put it best:

“Try to develop a variety of skills so that you have other areas of expertise to sustain you financially when you find yourself in a dry spell. Play different instruments and musical styles, learn to sing.”

Also, let’s not forget why we are pursuing music in the first place. As someone who can be useful for many different types of gigs, the amount of personal and musical enrichment that comes with being a busy musician is often why people stay in the business all their lives.

Constantly learning, constantly being open to new experiences, and treating your gigs as a responsibility is, above all, one of the most important lessons all musicians learn throughout their careers.

Sears, Liebman, Sinicrope, Fekete, and DiCioccio have played in a wide variety of musical outfits because the additional skills and styles they practiced kept them busy.

Which leads me to music schools. When you embark on your educational journey, you should choose the right school that will give you all the tools you need to always be moving forward.

This happens by playing with many different people, and in many different styles. It means potentially taking composition courses, courses in production and education, or learning about the business side of the music industry with music business classes.

The digital world requires even more of players and other music professionals to build an audience. Being social media savvy, learning about selling your music, and how to promote your music are all skills crucial to the 21st-century musician.

The Right School, For Your Future

If you’re reading this post, you’re most likely thinking about attending music school.

There’s a huge selection across the country, but not all are created equal. Additionally, not all are right for you.

Setting yourself up for success is crucial to solidifying a fruitful career in the music business. That’s why I launched Inside Music Schools.

With over 40 years in the music school admissions business, I intimately understand the relationship between students and the schools they get accepted to. Working for you, I can help you avoid making the same mistakes literally thousands of students make when applying to music school.

If you want to get into the right school for you, contact me today. A free, no-obligation phone call will determine how my services can help you, so call today.

Contact Steve

Head of admissions and faculty member at Berklee College of Music for 40 years, Steve Lipman and our team at Inside Music Schools speak music as their primary language. We approach each client contact with open eyes, ears, and minds. As the country’s premiere music school consultant, he advised students from the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Turkey, U.K., Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Israel, and Italy.