“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon seem inevitable.” So said Christopher Reeve, the handsome iconic actor famed for playing Superman back in the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s an inspirational and empowering observation. Similar wisdom and soundbites often circulate as memes on social media, especially in an age awash in positive thinking. It’s amazing how much people CAN achieve, especially if they aim high, believe in themselves, pursue their goals effectively, persevere, and (let’s be honest) get a bit of luck along the way too. The music business shows this loud and clear. However, it’s important to realise that most ‘overnight successes’ are anything but – there’s usually a tonne of work that’s got on under the surface before the breakthrough.
TV talent shows like The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent often foster the narrative of getting discovered, having talent recognised overnight, and achieving instant fame, but if you look into the backgrounds of contestants applying for such shows, most who make it to the finals have had at least 2 years of experience pursuing a music career in some way. What’s more, the winners get propelled into the limelight by the shows’ infrastructure, exposure and business acumen. Some do build lasting careers, but not all.
Many successes in the business actively try to conceal the groundwork of their early years; others are more open (even proud) about paying their dues, but let’s face it, there’s an ego-stroking lure to being seen as an act whose raw talent launched them into stratospheric stardom in one single bound. Although you might well have read overnight success stories, most don’t have instant wins. A lot has to go into building success: work, perseverance, resilience in the face of setbacks and failures. Not to mention the fundamentals: songwriting, practice & rehearsal, networking, booking, auditioning, uploading, finding the right pros to work with or doing the work yourself, PR, publicity and marketing, building a fan base, and following, uploading, streaming and sharing material. And more besides!
In this blog, we’ll be discussing the importance of ambition, goals, expectations and egos for bands and artists, and as ever, we’ll be talking to an insider expert to get their professional take on the matter; in this case, Lisa McKeown: an expert in artist management development, music publishing, along with her other business interests and ventures.
WB: Hi, Lisa. Thanks for talking with us. Can you explain a little bit about what you do and who you work with?
Lisa: “I’m a Director of Ninelives UK & Ninelives Publishing based in London. I also work with Siren Artist Management based in Los Angeles. “I manage GUN, consult for many UK artists, and run mentor sessions.”
WB: Thanks. The topic we’re looking at is managing expectations. How important is it for a band to have realistic goals?
Lisa: “It is absolutely fundamental to the success of a band to be realistic. The starting point is quick easy wins. Always aim high, but understand the process and set targets to achieve it. Surround yourselves with people that get you and your music and who have your best interest at heart. That can also manage your expectations.”
WB: Ok. So, when a band have just started out, how do you go about reining in goals that are unrealistic?
Lisa: “Managing a band’s expectations is all about being completely frank and transparent. Setting targets and aiming high is all well and good if their 'game' is strong, but (for example) if a band is continually not doing the numbers on ticket sales, then you need to adjust the product.“Momentum is king: Once you have it, you must roll with it, as it can last minutes or decades. “For me, I am all about the strategy doc. I assess, discuss and formulate a plan, then implement as a team: everyone has their role in achieving the goals. In terms of reining in unrealistic goals: I always explain the Stepping Stone Strategy. There are many gateways you must reach and pass through before you move on to the next level. Planet Rock is a great example of this. For many rock bands, if you want mainstream radio, you need to break through here first; similarly, with press - you can't expect to nail a cover feature, or any feature, if you can't sell out your local pub.”
WB: Can you give us some examples of how unrealistic goals have ultimately led to the band breaking up or not succeeding?
Lisa: “The most common unrealistic goal I've experienced is emerging bands with an underdeveloped fan base expecting to be able to give up the day job and tour the USA. This is a generalisation, but 100% the case!
“The reality check comes when, 3 years on, the money and ticket sales are still not coming in. If the music is not resonating after 3 years, the only option is to try something new, ditch the ego and get the help you need to make it work. Producer, co-writer, a cover, development of any kind is learning, right? Where would Aerosmith be today without the help they received? “My question to any band is: why would you NOT want to learn and develop as a band, if that will bring you the success you crave and work so hard for? Every time I discuss this with bands, the ego rears its head like a tornado! All the bands I have managed or consulted have potential; the only difference is the ones that succeed just don't give up; they evolve like any successful entrepreneur does. “The vital idea - that this is a business, and you need to find your market - is massively misunderstood: you are selling your brand and product; if it’s isn't selling, you either go under or evolve the product.”
WB: Do you have any experiences of patience paying off?
Lisa: “It’s a never-ending roller coaster of great highs and great lows. I've had bands on arena tours, mainstream festivals and European tours, and bands playing to a big venue with a handful of people. “It takes time to build up a band or re-invent one. For me, there is a 3 year rule: if you haven't made a significant growth in 3 years, you need to look at why, but never stop trying.”
WB: What would you say are common mistakes bands make in the early days in regards to their goals?
Lisa: “A lack of understanding about the pecking order; also how internal politics works within the music industry for live shows, support tours and festivals. And 100%: that a buy onto anything below an arena show is not worth it – that’s a mistake.”
WB: Through your role as a manager/consultant I’m sure you have seen a large range of talented people make their start in this industry and also seen your fair share of bands give up when they realise the work needed to succeed. Can you talk us though how important patience is in your experience and working towards the long gain?
Lisa: “My advice here is keep doing what you are doing if you are compelled to do so. Working within the music industry for the majority of people isn't a choice - it’s a way of life. Love what you do and practice it daily. Focus less on what you haven't achieved and more about making what can create shine.
“Bands that break through that are authentic and not manufactured. All have a transit van story of their time on the road, and the crisps sarnies they lived on. Many of them look back on these times as the highlight of their journeys, as it was all about being creative and on the road. So, in short: enjoy the ride!”
WB: It can sometimes feel for a band as if the cards are stacked against them. What would your advice be for a band to try and keep spirits up, to build and maintain momentum, and keep on going?.
Lisa: “The cards ARE stacked against them. They are basically competing in a lottery for success. I recommend setting goals that can be achieved; reflecting and being grateful for successes achieved; also taking a good hard look at the songwriting & production. “This may sound a bit mystical and hippy, but from my own experience, I also highly recommend meditation and practising gratitude. If you are blessed to be skilled enough to play an instrument, write music, sing etc. You already have a creative incredible skill that a percentage of the world never get to experience: Take a look at that from time to time!”
WB: If a band has ticked all those boxes and are genuinely talented, how long would you estimate it really takes to break a band?
Lisa: “With a good team, 3 years just to break through.”
WB: How can an ego affect working relationships?
Lisa: “Ego is a fickle one, I don't tolerate egos well so generally nip that in the bud, but the key here is how ego impacts the dynamic of a band internally. “Once the ego of one or more of a band rears its head, at the cost to others, the magic seems to disappear and the authenticity of the music created seems to get left behind. “Egos have a lot to answer for. I’ve been pretty lucky with the majority of the musicians I’ve worked with, but we all have our moments.”
True! Thanks for talking with us, Lisa.
Ambition, will, drive and self-belief all do have power, value, and parts to play in success. So does talent! Also charisma! And we all know that there are some mighty powerful egos in the music business. However, realism also matters. Look at the world through rose-tinted glasses and you’ll get hit head-on by big red London buses, because you end up ignoring or denying real problems and challenges.
What’s more, having dreams and goals that are way too high, too soon (being little more than wishful thinking and hopefully rubbing a bit of brass bric-a-brac that you hope is an Aladdin’s Lamp) can lead to disappointment, frustration, and friction. That can end up sabotaging actual progress towards solid success. Instant exposure, a huge fan base, fame, acclaim, adulation and riches don’t magically appear overnight. Aim high, believe in yourselves, your vision, material, but keep it real!
Manage your expectations, both for your early years in the business and for your career path and cycle. Keep them grounded. Be mindful of the timescales involved in building rep and presence, fan base, sales, and getting greater exposure and reach. Lisa’s three year timescale is a good yardstick. Pay attention to what’s working and what isn’t and make changes accordingly.
If you’re over-ambitious and over-optimistic, wanting too much too soon, you’ll probably find your head being swelled by early victories and small successes, but then become disillusioned or deterred when you hit setbacks, experience any kind of failures or hit dry patches. That’s when more grounded expectations, realism and resilience pay off, as in that old fable of the Tortoise and the Hare.