Tom Jackson’s music business advice

Occasionally I’m glad to have landed on someone’s mailing list. A couple of months ago I started getting emails from Tom Jackson Productions, containing excerpts from Jackson’s blog that were intriguing enough to have me go read the whole thing. Jackson kept sending and I kept reading, as well as spending a little time poking around his website.

Which is his intention, of course; Tom Jackson Productions is in the business of selling pricey (to me) instructional videos that show musicians how to get their act together. I am slightly outside of Jackson’s target market, enough so that I am not interested in buying any of his videos. But I’ve enjoyed his blog posts and watching the free video excerpts, and based on my own experience his advice is sound and should be valuable to those who are more aggressively pursuing a musical career.

Jackson’s latest blog post contains some observations and advice that can easily be generalized to most of life. He begins with this:

Just an hour ago, I taught a workshop for about 100 independent musicians. The panel after my class included a producer talking about his career as a musician. He was telling everyone how his band (which I won’t name) played 5 or 6 years and how they rocked the world. But they had to come off the road because they weren’t making enough money. Now I’ve seen the band, and guess what – they didn’t rock the world. They thought they did, but they didn’t. They spent most of their time, energy, and money in the studio, on equipment, on trying to get a record deal,… and not enough time, attention or money on what they should have. They had cool lights, big sound, and I think a couple of the guys even went to prestigious colleges to learn to play their instruments. But they were gone in 5 or 6 years.

I think this is a danger posed by just about any ambitious endeavor. There are a number of things that have to be done eventually, but we mistakenly (or self-indulgently) focus on the things that would be the most fun to do, at the expense of the ones that absolutely need to be done. I wrote about this problem here, and more generally in my Getting Things Done series of posts.

What should you invest in? Jackson refers to them as things that will “move the needle”:

Ariel Hyatt, a great publicist I know from NYC, speaks at a lot of the same conferences I speak at. She has a saying – that people need to invest in things that "move the needle." In other words, you should look at your career like a business investment. If you spend money on something, it should bring you a return. Eventually. Otherwise it’s not a good investment.

He goes on to say that he has made a list of seven such things. The first is essentially that an artist needs to be sure he has something to say:

I get hundreds of demos every year, and the biggest problem with the demos is not the playing, singing, or the production of the CD – it’s that the songs are not great. I can’t tell you how to write a song because that’s not my expertise, and I know just enough about it to "overstep my boundaries." (Read about that being one of my pet peeves on the FAQ "choosing songs for an album")

But a couple things I do know. One, the better the song, the more I have to work with when producing a live show. And two, a great song will have a better shot at emotionally connecting with an audience. So the key is coming up with great songs. But like my assistant says, that’s a heck of a hard thing to do! However, it doesn’t take a lot of money. It DOES takes a lot of time and energy, and (maybe in some cases) a little bit of money.

Some of the problems I see with people who write their own songs is that they write them alone. No co-writer. In most cases that’s a BIG mistake. In Proverbs it says "Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another." In Nashville (where I live), co-writing is the norm. I’ll bet I’ve worked with artists on 60 or 70 #1 songs over the years, and I can only think of one right now that someone wrote by themselves (that’s "Love Story" by Taylor Swift).

Our own guru, Pete Wernick, has repeatedly emphasized (to the world in general and to us personally) that songwriting is key. In fact, in typical Pete fashion he told me recently that he thought that our major shortcoming now is that we have no original material to perform, and he has “assigned” us the job of coming up with some.

The first few times he mentioned the idea I almost immediately dismissed it out of hand (in my mind, not to his face), thinking that songwriting is a mysterious and difficult creative process best left to specially gifted people. But now that it is an assignment I’ve had no choice but to spend some time looking into it, and it turns out that even though the best songs contain an irreducible element of magic, there is a lot about piecing a decent song together that can be learned and executed by normal people.

But should you bother with writing songs if you aren’t likely to come up with a great one? Yes, for a number of reasons. One is that it gives you an opportunity to connect with your audience using your own thoughts and experiences, rather than relaying those of someone else. Another is that it is almost guaranteed to be new to your audience. A third is that you are likely to play  and sing it with more conviction than a song someone else wrote. And, for what it’s worth, you don’t have to pay royalties on it.

Anyway, take a look at Tom Jackson’s blog. Even if you aren’t pursuing a musical career you will find clear thinking about confronting real-life problems, always a helpful thing.

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