6 things that are holding back your music career

Illustration: Dylan C. Lathrop

Do you ever feel like you’re not making progress with your music career?

The decision to move from making music as a hobby to doing it for a living can be a scary one. It’s a confusing path to follow—one that you’ll likely have to carve out on your own because no one seems to know (or be willing to share) what the best course of action is. There will inevitably come a point when you feel like you’re not moving anywhere at all—you’re just standing around, trying to think of what the next step in your music career should be.

Then, there’s those of us in between hobbyists and full-time musicians— maybe you call it a hobby for the safety net of it, but are secretly trying to figure out how to make it.

Wherever you are in your journey, there are things you might be doing that are preventing you from moving forward. Not all of these will resonate with everyone, but they’re the most common mistakes musicians make that hold them back. If you recognize yourself in any of the scenarios below, let this be the push that you need to make a change and start making real progress.

1. You’re waiting to be “discovered”

A few decades ago, the music industry was quite inaccessible; not only was it expensive to record and release music, but you really had to know someone who knew someone if you wanted to make any moves in your career. Back then, it made sense that your main goal would be to get discovered by someone who’s already made it in the industry, so they could help you get your foot in the door.

The music industry landscape could not be more different today. Recording and releasing music is more accessible than ever before—all you really need is a laptop and an internet connection. Artists are taking advantage of this, bypassing labels and releasing music independently. Not to mention, they’re taking audience building into their own hands, as well. With a bit of effort on social media and some marketing skills, artists are creating fans all over the world, regardless of where they live.

In this day and age, you can’t afford to wait for someone to “discover” you. Although it’s great to have mentors and supportive people surrounding you, no one is going to care more about your music career than you. So take matters into your own hands—you already have everything you need to succeed.

Plus, if someone in the industry does happen to stumble upon your work, they’ll be much more interested in helping you if you already have a proven track record. If you spend all your time waiting, how will they know whether or not you’re a promising artist?

2. You’re not releasing music

Maybe the first point doesn’t apply to you—you’re ready to do it all yourself. But while you’re not waiting to be discovered, you may be waiting for something. Are you waiting for a certain number of social media followers? Are you waiting to record the perfect song?

Whatever it may be, waiting to release music can be the biggest thing holding back your career. While it’s true that you shouldn’t release music that’s not ready, there’s a limit to this. Too many people struggle with perfectionism or the fear that no one will listen to their song, so they sit on their music for years and waste valuable time and learning opportunities.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: when you make a song that feels like your current best, release it. The keyword here is your current best. This doesn’t mean the song is perfect, as good as or better than other songs, up to your standards, or in line with what you think you can or should be able to create. Your current best simply means it’s the best song you can come up with at this time.

When you release your current best work into the world, you learn about the process, you get valuable feedback, you make mistakes, and learn from them. With each new release, you get better and better. The bar for your current best gets set higher and higher. Don’t deny yourself this crucial opportunity to grow and develop as an artist—let the world hear your songs!

3. You’re not spending money

Just because you’re an independent musician, it doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself. In fact, you shouldn’t. Making music requires many different skills, and while you’re probably pretty sufficient at lots of things, you’re not a master at everything (not to mention, you don’t have the time to do it all).

In order to maximize the quality and quantity of your music, focus on what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. Outsource everything else. You may be a great producer, but if your idea of creating cover art involves your iPhone and Microsoft PowerPoint, you’ll be much better off hiring a photographer and a graphic designer.

Being an independent musician means running your own business—you have to constantly think about where you can invest your money in order to maximize your profits. This might mean hiring a team to help you fill the gaps in your skillset, hiring a PR agency, paying for social media ads, or covering any other music-related expense.

You may be thinking, “But I make music for a living, I don’t have much money to spend!” Well, in this particular moment, relying on music to be your only source of income might just be another thing holding back your career. Get comfortable with the idea that being a musician is expensive, especially when you’re first starting out. Then, find a way to make the money you need, whether it’s by getting a job, offering services to other musicians, or teaching. Many established musicians have a part-time job—we all do what we have to do.

4. You’re not learning

Maybe you’ve already released a few songs—you’ve got a proven process and you’ve seen some success. This doesn’t mean you should stick to this formula for the rest of your career.

When it comes to making music, there’s always room to learn and grow. Seek out opportunities to shadow someone more experienced, collaborate with more established artists, attend conferences and workshops, take courses, and watch online tutorials. There may be techniques or tools you’ve never even heard of before that will take your music to the next level. And don’t forget to actively listen to other people’s music so you can learn from the songs you love.

As much as you can, ask other people for feedback. Whether it’s someone in the industry or just a close friend, make sure you have people in your circle who’ll give you their honest opinion and offer practical advice for improvement.

Lastly, don’t ever stop learning about the business side of music. The music industry is constantly evolving, which means that if you don’t keep up, you’ll soon fall behind. There are always new digital tools to use, new avenues to explore, and new marketing strategies to try. The same promotion plan you used for your single in 2019 might not work in 2021, so take the time to educate yourself and learn to quickly adapt to the new demands of the industry.

5. You don’t manage your time

Poor time management means one of two things: you’re either not spending enough time working on your music or you’re spending so much time on it that you’re headed towards burning out. Neither of those are good for your music career.

If you’re finding that you’re not really moving forward with your music, take an honest look at how you’re spending your time. You may spend lots of time practicing your instrument or producing, but are you actively working towards specific goals? Do you have a plan in place? Are you prioritizing the right activities?

You may even have days when you feel uninspired or feel resistance in the form of procrastination. While a few of those days are okay every once in a while, they can quickly become a habit without you even noticing. To avoid this, try tracking your time for a week and see whether the way you spend your time reflects the kind of musician you aspire to be.

On the other end of the spectrum is spending too much time working. Musicians are entrepreneurs—we don’t have a 9 – 5 schedule to clock in and out of (heck, many of us work on music in addition to the 9 – 5!) so it can be hard to know when to stop working. While it’s great to be moving towards your goals, constantly working just isn’t sustainable.

Well before you start feeling the signs of burnout coming on, take a look at your schedule and make sure you’re making time for the activities that help you feel your best. This looks different for everyone, but the goal is to pace yourself in a way that helps you maintain balance across all aspects of your life.

6. You get discouraged easily

This is perhaps the biggest reason why music careers wilt away before they’ve had a chance to bloom. The truth of the matter is, you’ve got to be ready to stay in it for the long game, regardless of the highs and lows you experience in the short run.

It may take years to develop a sound, find a team, build an audience, and start making a living from music. Everyone’s journey and timeline looks uniquely different, so it’s no use comparing your own progress with someone else’s.

The other thing is, everyone’s idea of success is different. While one musician is striving to tour the world and sell out stadiums, your goal may be to play local shows and make a comfortable living. Figure out what success looks like for you and what you need to do to get there, and then start slowly chipping away at the plan. It may take a while, but if you enjoy the journey, it won’t matter how long it takes.

Can you relate to any of these music career roadblocks? Are there other things holding you or someone you know back? Let us know in the comments!

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June 29, 2021


SAYANA is a contemporary R&B singer-songwriter based in Toronto, Canada. She’s currently releasing a new song every month for a year. Check out her latest release, “Nobody Needs to Know” anywhere where you listen to music.