How to build a creative ecosystem as a musician


Illustration: Franco Égalité

Your talent, skills, willingness to constantly learn and experiment, and ability to collaborate are what will set you apart from other creators.

But how do you get noticed in the first place? The person who has (or will) present your first real opportunity to get your music heard likely came through an existing connection, or a string of connections. These cinematic composers got their start through a variety of chance encounters at events, university opportunities, family connections, and online communities.

There are stories of record labels — big and small — signing acts who cold-submitted their demos, as heard on the Subliminal Inevitable Show and Other Record Labels podcasts. And though a record deal will distribute your music to a larger audience, it doesn’t always mean sustainable success. It’s usually just a start – a launching point for connecting with the music industry in a deeper way… sometimes.

Recording musicians almost always need other work to survive, at least in the U.S. In addition to releasing their own work, they often work in touring bands, or as engineers, producers, photographers, etc., or for record labels, distributors, venues, and studios. Many teach music lessons or repair instruments. Perhaps most have “outside jobs” to support their music career.

In this article, we’ll focus on those who make their living solely within the realm of music. Below, we share how career musicians foster a music industry ecosystem – not Billboard-topping pop artists on a major label, but rather those who produce great work and live a nice, modest life.

At the core of most success stories is a network

I recently came across an old Anthony Bourdain interview. I was prompted by a tweet with an edited clip focused on his big break. In it, he talks about how The New Yorker accepted his story, which led to a $50K book deal, and that book changed his life.

It turns out, Bourdain’s mom, Gladys, worked for The New York Times. Gladys got her coworker / friend, Esther Fein — who also worked for The Times — to pass her son’s article on to her husband, David Remnick, a brand-new editor at The New Yorker who published it. A story of fortunate family ties, as told in Glady’s NYT obituary, this is one example to highlight how chances are so often the result of personal connections.

A lot of the time, being in the right place at the right time is an opportunity afforded to the privileged. But, the right place and the right time can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. None of us really know what corner opportunity will pop its head around.

Anthony Bourdain wasn’t a musician, but the publishing and music industries operate in very similar ways – largely unequally and archaically. I believe — thanks to greater transparency into how these systems work — they are improving. However, I think opportunities will always arise the fastest by being connected with people both inside and outside of the industry. You never know who you’ll meet and who they’re connected to.

The key, though, is to treat people as the humans they are, not stepping stones. I’d never condone being nice to someone only because they might introduce you to someone. People, especially those who’ve been in the industry for a while, are smart and they know human behavior. They’ll see right through that. Rather, we’ll focus on how to naturally build an ecosystem that fosters connection and shared opportunities.

The three pillars of being a good community member

Be kind, make friends, and say yes to things. Those are the timeless, foundational pillars of advice for building a “network” in any creative industry.

For most career musicians, having a community or ecosystem is about so much more than income-generating opportunities. Although looming bills might weigh heavy on the minds of many musicians I know, monetary compensation is usually the last thing they’re thinking about when agreeing to creative collaborations.

Try treating every opportunity as the best thing to happen to you no matter the financial gain. Not only will it feel good to contribute your best work to their project, but you could also tap into a skill or idea you didn’t know you had. Plus, the smallest act can lead to a massive opportunity, even if it’s years later.

How to build a creative ecosystem

Your musical ecosystem will play a big role in sparking inspiration, fostering creativity, and pulling projects together. With that, here are some tips for building your community of creatives.

1. Contribute to other people’s projects

For a recording artist, playing on another artist’s record can open up a whole new world of creative expression and career opportunities.

What a session musician does

“Session musician” and “recording artist” can be somewhat interchangeable terms. A session musician is someone who plays on another artist or act’s project. Sometimes, this means joining them in the studio for an hour, day, week, or weeks, depending on the budget. Other times it means recording a part in their own studio or home and sharing it remotely. A lot of musicians who release their own work also play with other acts.

There are some polymath musicians who can play anything in any style. These folks will sometimes build a career around that skill, contributing to all sorts of projects, which make up the bulk of their income. Other times, a musician will be asked to join a session to add their signature style or flair to a recording. They were sought out for a specific sound or approach.

Lindsey Verrill of Little Mazarn said, “I play the bass, the cello, and the banjo sometimes. I also sing – all the things that I do live. Usually, when asked to join a session, someone has liked what I’ve done in the past and wanted to put some of that spice in their tacos as well. These opportunities typically come from friends, past collaborators, people who’ve heard and liked the music I’ve worked on before, or a studio that I’ve worked at before – the engineer will hire me again for other things.”

Norman Westberg is a solo artist, the guitarist for Swans, and a contributor to many other acts. He said, “Being a session musician is a real job. You have to be able to say yes and be there for opportunities.”

The benefits of being a session musician

Norman likes both joining in on another artist’s session and adding guitar parts remotely because it allows him to play within a new set of parameters that aren’t his own – parameters that wouldn’t have crossed his mind, as everyone’s creative process is different. Naturally, that exercise expands and influences his solo work.

Norman also shared that he got his record deal with Room40 when one of his friends from a band he has played with shared his solo stuff with the label head. As someone who’s uncomfortable selling himself, that type of connection was invaluable. It also goes to show that your music can speak for itself.

Lindsey says that if you went back and listened to every band she’s ever been in or contributed to, you’d find a piece of those in her more current work. She takes inspiration and even tactics from each experience.

Session gigs are also typically paid. There’s no standard for these; it all depends on the budget of the project, the career level of the musician, who’s paying for the record or score (if there’s an advance involved), and so on.

Lindsey shared, “It’s like anything in the arts. Sometimes, people who have a lot of means will pay you ten times the amount that other people will. I generally just say yes to things I believe in and take what is offered. I actually think that’s what the pros do.”

She continued, “I have a big squishy heart and I’ve met some amazing young people or have stumbled upon projects that are too idiosyncratic to say no to. The projects that make you think, how does this even exist? There are lots of reasons to do something for free, but this work is still my job. It all kind of balances out.”

Similar to joining in on a recording session is playing someone’s one-off live show (remember those?). You might not get paid much for it (although, you might), but that demonstration of support can open so many doors.

What to expect when joining a session

Lindsey emphasized the intimacy of recording with others, at least in her experience. She reflected, “You lock yourself in a room with people and you pour your hearts out together. That’s the only kind of recording I want to do. I always find the best, most inspired takes are the fresh ones.”

In terms of logistics and what to expect, it depends on the person’s process. Some artists enjoy the spontaneity of joining a session without expectations or guidelines. But if you’re the type of person who likes to know what you’re walking into, ask whoever is in charge what they think the day will look like. Studios are expensive, so they likely have a plan in place to make the most of every minute, whether or not they want to.

Lindsey added, “Some people record stuff over many months or years and add things together one at a time, or, add things as they can afford them, one at a time. For me, I might say, ‘Okay, I have $1,200 for studio time and the studio is $300 a day.’ So, the album can take no more than four days, and that is how long the album will take. Anything that can’t happen in those four days is not going on the album. And that’s how the last two albums were made.”

Norman shared that he’ll usually provide options for his parts, whether in person or when working remotely. He’ll give them exactly what they asked for (if they were specific) and also what he felt like doing or what he thought would work best if it differs. It’s important to remember that a lot of the time, when you’re asked to contribute, someone wants what you have to offer. Don’t hold back on offering your ideas, as long as you respect their studio time.

Lindsey has a lot of remote session work currently. She says that because of the pandemic, it’s easy for people to casually send something. “I have a lot of that kind of work going on right now – an overwhelming amount,” she shared. “People are creating at home. It’s so casual. When you set a date and have to go to the studio, you have to set up the microphones and make the levels right – and then upload the files. I’m appreciating what engineers have done for me in the past.”

2. Make friends online (safely and respectfully)

A lot of us are doing everything remotely in this pandemic. People are finding new ways to connect with one another every day. In my early days of living in New York back in 2013, most of my friendships started on Twitter and evolved into real-life connections.

Even today, I forget that I’ve never met some of the people I communicate with the most. I haven’t even heard many of their voices. I might save the long phone calls for my lifelong friends and family, but I chat with internet friends much more frequently. Why? Because we orbit the same universe. We talk about music, cooperative economies, crafts, or whatever other stuff I’m interested in. The internet allows us to “find our people” – even better if you have several types of people, interests, groups, or what have you. They’re all there online for you to connect with, no matter where you live and what resources are available (as long as you have internet).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve connected two or more internet friends to work on something together or just become buds. Or, how many times one of my own internet acquaintances led to a neat project.

If you’re new to making friends online, I suggest not forcing it too much and starting where you’re comfortable. If you like someone’s music, don’t hesitate to tell them. If there’s a producer you respect, give them a follow. I’m not condoning becoming the reply guy (please don’t). Rather, communicate authentically, and when you feel called, ask how you can help someone.

In addition to Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, people also connect with each other on forums like Reddit or private ones. I’m a member of a writing group based in Queens, NY (I’m in Austin, TX) with an online community and Zoom events. I’ve found a whole new community that inspires, supports, and motivates me.

3. Volunteer or get involved in relevant organizations

I moved to a new city two weeks before the country shut down thanks to coronavirus. Not ideal. I’m fortunate to have a handful of close friends here who’ve been my lifeline. But, I’m used to being out and about in my community, feeling like I know my neighbors – and that is not the case. Almost a year into this, I’ve finally begun to do something about it.

I’ve recently started volunteering with a local community radio station, lending my writing skills to their blog when I have the time. I’ve also joined the advisory board of an organization that offers mental health care to musicians and music industry workers. These relationships are new but even joining the meetings makes me feel more connected to my community and has introduced me to potential interviewees and topics to write about. I’m not a musician, but if I were, it’d also be opening so many doors in that area.

Find an organization or mutual aid group, something you care about, that you can join. Maybe it has to do with music, and maybe it doesn’t. Again, you never know who you’ll meet, where. If you’re a DJ (or aspiring to be one), try getting a spot on an internet or community radio show. This is an excellent way to connect with fellow artists, music lovers, and potential fans.

4. Do it together

If you’ve been involved in DIY music venues, promo organizations, or any DIY community, you know ‘yourself’ just means without commercial help. Of course, you can make and distribute music on your own, but when it comes to performing and putting on a show or spreading the word about your music, you need the help of others. DIY or grassroots communities are an excellent way to tap into an ecosystem of people working toward a common goal. They’re in it for the music and will help each other out in more than one way.

Though live music isn’t a thing right now, people are still organizing live-streamed shows and Instagram lives, and planning for the future. Look up your local indie or co-op record labels, venues, or artists and ask them what they’re planning and see how you can get involved.

5. Start small and invite others

If you’re more of a one-to-one or one-to-few type of person, I get it. I too am an introvert. Maybe you’d like to simply gather people to play with at some point. This could be as simple as reaching out to one person you can collaborate with remotely to start. Set up a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly “meeting.” Or, maybe you even meet outside, in-person (masked, of course). Or, perhaps you invite a couple of local musicians to a group chat where you casually share experiences, complain, share successes, works in progress – whatever.

Building an ecosystem starts small, often with one connection. Start wherever you feel comfortable, keep an open mind when others want to join, and go from there.

Have you been involved in communities, music or otherwise? If so, how did they get started? Let us know in the comments below.

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March 1, 2021

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.