Image is everything in the music business.
And I’m not just talking about artists. It’s important for everyone — artists, songwriters, musicians, composers, lyricists, producers, etc.
Before a publisher, record label, music supervisor, blogger, playlist curator, or anyone else hears your music, they’ve already formed an opinion about you from reading your email, seeing your CD cover and website, and from speaking with you on the phone or in person. Yet 99% of aspiring musicians and songwriters spend all of their time and energy on composing, writing, & recording their music and next to nothing on how they present their music and themselves.
While I agree that talent and a great song are imperative to your success, I also know that first you must get someone to listen to that great song. And to get someone to listen means you must first get them interested in you.
And to do that, you must be the 1% that knows how to be a professional!
How do you do that?
There aren’t any hidden secrets to acting like a professional musician. Most of the professional conduct rules are common sense and require only a small amount of effort on your part. But this extra effort is not optional; it is essential to your success!
Below I’ve listed 20 attributes — in the form of affirmations — that I consider to be the basics of the Professional Musician’s Code of Conduct.
Read them. Memorize them. Practice them religiously.
Following these “rules” will instantly separate you from the throngs of amateur wannabes:
1. I present myself in a positive light and display a professional image with everything that I do.
This means, no ranting on Facebook or drunken Instagram photos. Assume that the industry VIP you are trying to impress is reading your posts. Are you projecting the image of someone they would want to work with?
2. I respect people’s time by being organized, pleasant, and concise.
Let’s face it, EVERYONE is busy these days. And music industry pros are even busier than the average person. So, before you send an email or call someone on the phone, make sure you know exactly what you’re going to say. What is it that you want exactly? Be direct. And concise.
If you’re calling on the phone, ask “is this a good time?” If it’s not a good time, ask “when would be a good time for me to call back?” And then, call back at that exact time.
Little courtesies like this let them know that you’re thinking about them. And they will definitely appreciate it!
3. Despite anyone else’s disposition, I am likable, friendly, courteous, polite and easy to work with at all times! I treat everyone–regardless of title–professionally.
People want to work with people they LIKE. And generally speaking, that means they like people who are nice and easy to get along with. So be that kind of person…to everyone you come into contact with! Because the person answering the phones today can be the publisher you’re trying to impress next week. (Seriously. This actually happened.)
Also, the music biz is like a small town. Everyone talks. So, if you are rude or difficult to work with, others in the biz will hear about it. That’s the type of reputation that is hard to overcome.
4. I treat my music and/or songwriting as a career, even if I’m only doing it part-time for now. I am not in this for a one-time “quick hit.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re not able to spend 40+ hours/week on your music career at the moment. No one is going to ask you to clock in.
What matters is that you are in it for the long run. You’re not treating it like a get-rich-quick scheme, expecting to make a lot of money and then leave.
People in the industry want to work with people who are going to be around a while. So, regardless of how much time you have to spend on music, act as if you’re doing it full time.
5. I take my music and/or songwriting seriously and treat it as a successful business operation.
Oooohhh…there’s the “B” word. Business.
If you want to make music just for fun, in your living room. Great! Do it! Enjoy!
If you want to make a living with your music, then you’ve got to treat it like a business. Open a business checking account. Charge money for your services, gigs, licenses, etc. Track expenses. Think about making a profit, not just making money. (Yes, there’s a difference.)
And don’t buy into the “struggling musician” mentality. You can be artistic / creative / authentic AND financially successful at the same time!
6. I constantly hone not only my music and/or songwriting skills but also my business skills – such as communication, negotiation, marketing, and sales skills.
Most creatives LOVE to work on their music and songwriting skills. And the world is full of extremely talented musicians, artists, producers, and songwriters that no one has ever heard of.
That’s because business skills often don’t come naturally to creatives. But these non-sexy skills are the things that can make the biggest difference in your career.
So, take a class, listen to podcasts, read a book, and practice your business skills with the same amount of attention as you give to your creative skills.
7. I invest in my own career by making recordings, attending workshops, going to Nashville / L.A. / New York (or other music centers), and buying books, audio, software, etc. to help me advance and grow.
The music business is constantly changing. You need to change and grow with it.
You also need to be seen by others in the industry so that they know who you are and that you are serious.
You don’t need to spend your life savings or attend every conference there is. But you will have to spend some money. If you don’t invest in your own career, then why should anyone else? Professionals invest in themselves.
8. My oral and written communication skills are impeccable! I treat each and every conversation, e-mail, and letter in a business-like manner.
I wish I didn’t even have to discuss this any more. But I still see these mistakes all the time…
PLEASE DO NOT TYPE YOUR EMAILS AND LETTERS IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. IT LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE SCREAMING AT SOMEONE.
likewise, please don’t use all lowercase letters. it is harder to read and makes you look like a fourth grader or that you simply don’t care.
& fcol plz don’t use txt abbr in ur emails! It’s not cute or cool. It’s annoying.
Emails should be treated like electronic business letters and follow a business letter format: Start with a salutation, use the person’s name, end with a signature, etc. If you’re not familiar with business communications, then that’s an area that you can work on. (See #7 above.)
9. I understand all of the various parts of the music business, even if I am not working in all areas right now. I know how they interrelate so that I can speak intelligently about them.
Do you know what a PRO is and when or why you would need one? (Hint: PRO does not mean “professional.” It is an acronym that stands for Performing Rights Organization.)
Do you understand the difference between a publisher and a record label and what their roles are?
Do you know what a publicist does? a promoter? a program director? a music supervisor?
Yikes! There are a LOT of terms and roles to know. While you don’t have to know everything about each one, you need to have a basic working knowledge of how the various entities and players work together. There are plenty of books and music organizations who can help you with this. So, make sure you educate yourself.
10. I stay informed of current music industry affairs through the internet and various trade publications. I am familiar with the major players in a variety of areas.
Even if you are entirely independent, it’s good to stay in touch with what’s happening in the music industry so you are aware of major trends and legislation that will affect you.
If you want to play in the big leagues, then you definitely need to know what’s going on and form your own opinions. You’ll need to be able to talk about current events and to recognize names and companies when they are mentioned to you.
There’s no excuse any more for being out of touch. You can subscribe to blogs, RSS feeds, and podcasts. Or simply visit music industry websites such as Billboard, Hollywood Reporter, MusicDish e-Journal, Alternative Music Press, Hypebot, etc.
11. I constantly hone my craft through practice, writing, exercises, workshops, books, etc.
Of course, you don’t want to forget about why you got into music in the first place. So, while it’s good to focus on several business aspects, you still want to leave time to create music and work on improving your creative skills.
12. I am persistent in my efforts, yet careful not to be pushy or pesky.
This one is critical. Put a big star by it.
There’s a very fine line between being persistent and being a pain in the ass. And it’s up to you to know where that line is so you don’t cross it. If you do cross it, it will be hard to recover from.
Being persistent is calling or emailing a venue, publisher, manager, music supervisor, Spotify curator, etc. (i.e. someone you haven’t heard back from) once a week, using the same pleasant tone each and every time, even if it’s the 14th time you’ve tried to contact them.
Being a pest is sending an email and then calling later that same day because you didn’t hear back yet.
Being a royal pain is then calling or emailing every day, each time getting a little more aggressive and/or terse in your message.
I’m being a little extreme on purpose to make my point. But do you see the difference?
Can you contact someone more than once/week? Sure! If you do it in a pleasantly persistent way.
13. I make myself easily accessible through e-mail, mobile phone, text and/or voice mail.
If someone DOES want to contact you about your music, then for goodness sake make sure they can get ahold of you…easily!
Give them multiple options so they can choose their preferred mode of communication. But make sure they are options that you actually check and use.
And make sure ALL of your contact information is on everything you give them. e.g. in your email signature (EVERY time!), on your CD or thumb drive, on your business card, on your website, on your press kit or EPK, etc.
14. I am confident of my abilities, yet remain humble in my approach with people. I let my music and my songs speak for themselves.
In my experience, the amount of self-bravado is inversely proportional to the talent of the person and/or the greatness of the song. In other words, the more someone goes on and on about how fabulous they are or how their song is just perfect for [insert name of famous artist here], the more they actually suck and the song isn’t even close to what said artist would be looking for.
Great songwriters, musicians, producers, and artists don’t need to brag because great talent and great songs speak for themselves.
15. I am passionate and enthusiastic, yet careful not to appear overly eager or desperate.
This is another one of those fine lines that you don’t want to cross. Being TOO eager makes you look like an amateur and can be a real turnoff to people.
At the same time, you don’t want to stifle your enthusiasm. Your passion can be contagious, especially to people who’ve been in the music business a long time and may have forgotten theirs.
Be aware of this difference and strive to find a nice balance somewhere in the middle.
16. I am flexible and open to suggestions for improvement, new ideas, and feedback.
Being “open to suggestions” doesn’t mean you agree with them all. It doesn’t even mean you’re going to use the suggestion. But arguing with someone in the industry who is trying to help you by giving you feedback will not win you points. Not to mention, you may be missing some valuable advice!
Professionals are constantly looking to improve. So, they’ll gladly put their egos aside and listen to different ideas, opposing opinions, feedback and suggestions. They’ll take it all in and objectively evaluate what they do and don’t agree with, and what they can and can’t use. By doing this, they become better at what they do.
The most successful people that I know personally in the music business all do this… Every. Single. One.
Developing a flexible attitude (if you don’t have one already) will help you with co-writing and collaborating, critiques, publisher & label feedback, working with a producer, getting along with your band, and much more.
17. I listen more than I talk.
Read that one again. It’s that important.
It’s also a key negotiating tactic. But I suggest you use this for more than that.
Try it for a week. Or more. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll get other people to say if you keep your mouth closed…and remember to LISTEN.
18. I always use my common sense!
Common sense is defined as “your natural ability to make good judgments and to behave in a practical and sensible way.”
Sometimes you already know the answer. Give yourself some credit. And use your brain.
19. I don’t make “contacts.” I build lasting relationships that are mutually beneficial.
The key to this one is the “mutually beneficial” part.
Don’t constantly think about what you’ll get from a relationship or what other people can do for you. Think about what you can give or do for them!
20. I am tremendously appreciative of all who help me in pursuing my dream. While I always express my appreciation verbally, I also show my appreciation through thank-you notes and other small tokens (where appropriate).
One of the biggest and best things you can do for your career is to show your gratitude constantly.
And one of the easiest and most effective ways to do that is to send hand-written thank you notes!
Let me emphasize that again: HAND-WRITTEN thank you notes.
Yes, I know email is easier and quicker. That’s the point. Hand-writing a note and sending it through the mail takes effort. So, when someone receives a card in the mail, they take notice!
Do yourself a huge favor. Go to the store right now and buy yourself a package of thank you note cards. That way, you’ll have them on hand.
Use them FREELY. Thank people for their time, for their sharing, for their feedback, for whatever! I’ve even suggested to people to send a thank you note when you are turned down by someone (like a publisher or a venue). Imagine the impression you are making by sending a thank you note after being rejected!
I have been touting this piece of advice for years now. And know several people who have credited this ONE action for much of their success!
As far as “small tokens” are concerned…I’m not talking about expensive items or anything that could be perceived as a manipulation or bribe. I’m talking about things that will let them know you were paying attention to them. For example, if you notice they collect elephant trinkets, you could send them a note with an elephant on it…or perhaps find a small elephant trinket to add to their collection. If you know they’re a Steelers fan, send them a sticker or decal.
You could also send them an item that is personal or unique to you. I knew a songwriter who was from Chicago and always sent a coupon with his thank you note that was “good for one free Chicago-style pizza on me the next time you’re in Chicago!”
I don’t know if anyone ever took him up on the deal. But that’s not the point. It’s not about the item. It’s about making it human and connecting on a personal level.
But if this is a new concept to you, don’t worry about the small tokens right now. You can just start by sending a hand-written thank you note. Nothing else has to be included. You will be amazed at the positive impact this will make on your career!
About the Author
is a singer/songwriter, artist development coach and co-founder of Azalea Music where she teaches and mentors musicians, singer/songwriters and indie artists how to activate their "inner music mogul" so they can change the world through music! She specializes in working with the not-quite-mainstream and those "second-timers" coming back to music after a long hiatus. She's even been known to work with actors, writers, storytellers, and other creatives because the principles of pursuing a creative life are often the same regardless of the medium. She believes that the world needs to hear you and your music...whatever it is...because we would all be less without it.