10 Lessons From The Music Industry On How To Rise Up In The Gig Economy

Certified Career Coach and Certified Business Coach  

Midway through my decade as a producer, songwriter, engineer, performer, and artist and repertoire executive for London Records during the height of the British wave, I was an analog guy struggling to escape the undertow of receding vinyl LPs, 24-track tape machines, cassettes and 8-tracks as CDs and digital recording were quickly revolutionizing the recording business. But, as I reflect back on the 70s a half-century later, and the fact that according to Intuit, 43% of Americans are projected to be working in the gig economy by next year, the success lessons I learned from music while “gigging” are timelessly relevant to the emerging future of independent gig work.

Here are 10 of those lessons:

1. Authenticity is everything. The common bond between both music and the gig economy is pursuing your purpose so that nothing else competes for or compromises your calling. The Moody Blues were the Sistine Chapel of rock music because their merging of classical and popular music was genuine. In the gig economy, you can’t pretend to be something you’re not and compose a hit song the likes of “Nights in White Satin.”

2. Build out your portfolio. In the gig economy, your portfolio of work is your calling card and should be continuously refined. While there are one-hit wonders, like the perennial Halloween “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, artists like ZZ Top demonstrated the value of continuously building an enduring catalog of music.

3. Traditional education is the flat-liner of competence. In the gig economy, you need to be responsible for identifying and learning the skills required to be better than anyone else at what you do. When I quit college to work for London Records, I couldn’t hang my college diploma on the wall, but my business card read “Director of Recording Studio Operations” for one of the biggest record companies on the planet. And it was because I forced myself to learn what I needed by doing the work itself.

4. Take a ‘jazz’ approach, not a classical one. The business landscape continuously changes, and you need to always be ahead of it. So, don’t expect to read from the same sheet music that all the other musicians are. Learn to improvise. Embrace and enjoy the spontaneity of putting structure aside to try out new ideas. Focus on being creative by removing the rules and letting your imagination soar.

5. Give your customers what they are looking for. Successful musical artists use their instincts to know what audiences want to hear and deliver “the goods.” Working in the gig economy requires the same savvy about what your clients want and bringing it to the table. See the world through your clients’ eyes.

6. The gig economy is about identifying, building on and adding to your transferable skills. “What am I really good at and love doing that I can make money from without working for someone else?” Musicians focus on their transferable songwriting and musicianship skills in the studio, where they record their musical magic for others to hear. When the album is done, they’re already moving on, writing new songs and experimenting musically. Always be fine-tuning what you think is your best work. When you’ve put your latest product out to the public, don’t let the permanence of it stall your growth. Always be creating.

7. Know your niche. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Do one thing, and do it better than anyone else. The most successful giggers are niche masters. They doggedly dedicate themselves to targeting their ideal client and exceeding expectations, even if it takes a while to establish their core business. British blues rock band Savoy Brown led by guitarist Kim Simmonds was one of the bands that London Records stuck with through the lean times until they started selling records. It took four or five albums until they built a loyal following and started to sell, but they still tour today.

8. Embrace technology and use it to your clients’ advantage. But never let technology rule. The finished work you deliver to your clients should be their “Wow!” How you got them there should be your “secret sauce” that makes them a recurring client. When I engineered Al Green’s first “live” performance at Catch a Rising Star, his vocal and guitar sounds were outrageously warm and clear. The technology I used was secondary to the result.

9. Wear all the hats. As I began producing records, my guiding principle was to bring out the best in the artist. However, I also had the balancing act of managing the recording budget and being sure that the final vinyl was a commercial success. Being successful in the gig economy requires you to market, sell, service, invoice, collect, report, budget, forecast and more. Master your business and know it inside and out.

10. Ask for advice. While gigging is often characterized by solitary work, keep your ears open to the wisdom of others. The digital age has enabled indie artists to record their own music, relying solely on their own experience and subjectivity, whereas collaborating with an outside producer might have brought new perspectives and ideas. Be wary of the self-limiting “I can do it on my own” DIY mindset. Don’t close yourself off from those with more experience who can add value to your journey. It’s still yours, only better.

Now, go after your passion and be a rock star in the gig economy.

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