The Unconservatory  

Letter to a Young Musician:
On Artistic Ability, Entertainment, and the Music Industry

To our young readers: Check this out! The following letter is our response to a teenager who is seeking a career in the music and entertainment industry. We hope that it will help those of you who are on the hunt for fame, fortune and artistic skills.

Dear Webmaster,

I think I am writing the right person. I am almost thirteen and I am very interested in the music business. Don't think I am trying to fool you. I along with others consider my self a good singer. I would very much like to become professional one day and would like to start getting there as soon as possible. If you could give my some tips on how to start my path to stardom that would help me out a lot. Please write me back.

Thank You,

It is wonderful that at your age you already have such a clear idea of what you want to do with your life. While it does not seem that long ago, we would like to tell you a few things about music and the music business that we wish we had known when we were teenagers. While your email to us was only a paragraph, it generated quite a bit of interest! We are posting your email and our response on our web site with the hope that it will help others who are asking the same questions. We think that you will get the most out of our reply by reading it and discussing it with your parents. Here goes...

You say that you would like to become a professional singer one day. In order to move towards your goal we think there are three points that you should consider: artistic ability, ability to entertain, and knowledge of the music business. You may be surprised that we do not mention talent. This is because natural talent is a good starting place, but without a lot of hard work it will get you nowhere.

Before we explain the three points that we mentioned above, we would like to say something about "stardom." Your goal of becoming a professional musician is a very good goal that we are sure you can achieve, but your goal of becoming a star is one that is likely to lead to disappointment.

Please do not misunderstand us. We do not want to discourage you; we just want to tell you something about the music industry. If you think carefully about all of the musicians you have seen or heard perform we think you will notice that there are many stars who have very little musical talent and that there are also many very talented musicians who are not stars.

Of course, there are also stars who have musical talent, but what is interesting is the number of stars who have very little musical talent. Why do you think this is the case? In our experience it is because there is an element of luck involved in becoming a star! In other words, some people get lucky and others do not.

This element of luck has to do with little accidents such as being at the right place at the right time, meeting by chance someone who can help you advance your career, writing or performing a song that becomes very popular for no good reason, getting media attention (television, radio, newspapers) because of something you did, and so on. What we would like to suggest to you is that instead of focusing on becoming a star, you focus your goals on becoming the best possible musician and entertainer that you can.

Now we would like to explain those three points that we mentioned above. First, artistic ability. By artistic ability we mean the skills you develop to perform at a very high level on your instrument, or in your case, with your voice. A good vocalist, for example, needs to develop tone control, the ability to sing complex passages not just simple melodies, the ability to sing in tune, the ability to harmonize well with others, the ability to sing in languages other than English, the ability to improvise, and other vocal skills. Good vocalists usually also have the ability to play an instrument such as the piano.

Artistic ability also includes your knowledge of music in general, including your ability to read and write music, and your understanding of different musical styles. There are many ways to learn these skills and knowledge. You can learn them from a music teacher, from listening to recordings and watching live performances, and by reading textbooks. Of the three points that we mentioned, artistic ability is by far the most important. You can start developing your skills right now. If you study and practice music every day, then you will have no problem attaining your goal of becoming a professional musician.

The second point we mentioned above was the ability to entertain. This is also a skill, but it is different from the musical skills that we just described. The ability to entertain includes skills such as the ability to stand in front of an audience and perform without getting too nervous, the ability to choose an appropriate outfit for your performance, the ability to speak to and interact with an audience, and the ability to plan a good concert or performance.

Many professional musicians also combine other skills such as comedy routines with their performances. All of these entertainment skills can be learned. You are not too young to start learning what makes an audience laugh, cry, or shout. You will notice that the importance of this ability to entertain varies somewhat depending on the type of music a musician performs.

Classical musicians, for example, focus most of their energies on impressing an audience with their musical skill, but the best ones are also very careful with the clothes that they wear and their stage manner. Our suggestion to you is to put most of your energy into developing your musical abilities, but you can also start to think about and learn entertainment skills.

The third point that we mentioned above was knowledge of the music industry. Your letter indicates that you are aware that to become a professional musician you need to learn something about the music business. This is very true and it is a point that many young musicians do not realize. In order to become a successful professional musician you will need to learn things about marketing, contracts, copyrights, working with agents, pricing your services, negotiation, and so on. At your age, however, you should not bother with learning any of this. You can easily gain all of this knowledge when you need it.

If you do get lucky and are discovered by someone who wants to make you into a star, you should immediately ask your parents to consult with a good lawyer - with good professional references - who specializes in the entertainment business and start reading up on the music business. This is an extremely important point: You need to know that, while there are many fine record companies, managers and other people in the music business who are honorable and wish to help you, there are people out there who would take advantage of your dreams for their own selfish, personal - and sometimes dishonest - goals.

At this point in your life, however, you should only concern yourself with becoming the best possible musician you can and learning as much about music as you can. You should find a good teacher. You should practice every day. You should attend live performances whenever you can. You should study music theory. You should perform in front of an audience whenever you have a chance and with a variety of ensembles. Most importantly, you should devote yourself to your goal of becoming a professional musician and work hard at developing your talent.

We look forward to seeing you perform on a big stage under bright lights someday!

Musically yours,

Ken Blacklock
violinist, composer, educator

Kirk Whipple
pianist, composer, educator

Marilyn Morales
pianist, composer, educator

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Updated: July 25, 2004 (KB)

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