Are you holding your music back?

I talk to a lot of artists at gigs, at conferences, and online.

Many are hard-working, clear-eyed, and creative.

But whenever I hear an artist rationalize why they haven’t achieved a certain level of success, it often seems like they’re getting in their own way due to some outdated beliefs or faulty priorities.

And this has nothing to do with the quality of their music. Sometimes people with amazing songs aren’t reaching the audiences they could because they’re holding too tightly to ideas that no longer serve them.

Does this only apply to artists older than [Insert age: 25, 45, 75…]?

Shockingly, no. Though you’d assume younger artists are more equipped to embrace new tools, trends, and mindsets, they’re often just as likely to suffer from stale modes of thinking. Not sure how that happens, but this year, here are five things we should all let go of!

1. Waiting to get signed to a label

Here’s how labels actually work now: No traditional A&R discovery and no artist development. 

They’re not going to find you at a bar playing to 20 people, love your song, and sign you.

And if they DO find you and love that one song, it’ll be because you already got millions of views on TikTok. And lucky you, they’ll give you a one-song deal. Wow, one whole song!

If you get signed and your first album isn’t a hit, they’re not going to keep you around for another 5 albums like you’re early-1970’s Bruce Springsteen.

Stop waiting for a label to enter the scene as a long-term partner in your success. Labels now wait for YOU to prove you have massive market viability, then they’ll sign you to a deal you probably don’t need (because, ummm… you proved you have massive market viability on your own), and you’ll work harder than ever before to pay them back for the privilege.

Don’t wait for a label to validate your artistry. Make a direct connection with fans today.

2. The idea that yesterday’s music industry would’ve worked better for you

Oh, you thought there was a “Golden Age?”

That everything was better in the 1960s? Or the 1990s? Or whatever?

The truth for 99% of artists is that it was much more expensive to record music “back in the day,” and it was much harder to get those tracks to listeners. And unless you were one of the extremely lucky few who get signed, you would have almost no meaningful (sustained) access to industry outlets like radio, press, and music stores.

Sure, the affordability and ease of recording, distribution, and listening today means you have a different kind of problem: Competing against the glut of music for limited attention. But at least the starting point today assumes you’re involved in the expressive process of releasing music — along with the benefits of “free” reach through social and algorithmic discovery.

Don’t get lost in what might’ve been. Make the most of how easy it is to create music right now.

3. Hiring predatory PR, playlist, and radio promotion help

Of course there are reputable publicists and promoters. And they’ll tell you that PR and promotion are not golden tickets. Those pros will work hard for results on your behalf, but they won’t guarantee success.

Then there’s the promoter, publicist, manager, agent, agency, or consultant who WILL guarantee something. And if they guarantee results, they’re usually scamming you to some degree.

These predatory “experts” dupe artists who’ve got big dreams, artists who think “if I just get some vanity metrics…”

But the truth about even successful press and promo is that it usually doesn’t build a sustainable stepping stone. You get some nice reviews, you get some radio plays, you get on some playlists — and then, what? Did that create “traction?” Did it sell concert tickets, move albums, drive streams long-term? Sadly, the answer is usually no.

Now imagine you’re working with a predatory agency or promoter; it’s probably costing you a fortune for zero results. Or outright counterproductive results, driving fake and passive plays that harm your music’s present and future algorithmic performance.

If you find yourself working with someone who won’t set realistic expectations upfront, you should expect the worst.

And the experts that truly CAN help you move to the next level of your career, just remember you usually need to go out and find them, not the other way around.

4. Your hatred of social media

Somehow in 2023 there are still musicians who won’t embrace social. This includes some younger artists.

And I don’t mean you need to embrace EVERYTHING about social. But you have to understand it’s a crucial tool for reaching audiences.

It’s the new radio, press, discovery, touring, branding, fan club, and A&R — all wrapped into one.

To put it simply: If you won’t go where the people are, don’t be pissed that no one notices you. 

Perhaps you hate social because you used it wrong in the past and got burned? That’s okay. The same sting might be just the lesson you need to start making social work for you, instead of the other way around. 

5. Literally holding your music back until “official release date”

When I first started working at CD Baby, I sometimes spoke to artists who wouldn’t listen to their own music at home unless they had headphones on, terrified the neighbors would hear the brilliant song and steal it.

Now, obviously that’s an extreme example, but we can probably all relate to some form of that paranoia. It’s why we share an unlisted Soundcloud link before the official release and tell the person “Please don’t share this.”

Perhaps our reservations aren’t about theft, but more to do with conserving energy and mystery in order to release the music “right.”

Either way, I think our caution is unwarranted.

Firstly, while our songs can become a priceless point of connection, music itself isn’t rare. In fact, A.I. is starting to compose massive catalogs of songs for all kinds of purposes. To say nothing of the millions of recording artists putting music out every month.

So I don’t think there’s the same dangers of willful infringement in an era where music creation is both easy and accelerating. But also, the moment your song is recorded, you control the copyright. Of course there are additional benefits to registering that copyright, but don’t hold your music back because “someone might steal it.”

Lastly though, we have to completely rethink a “release.”

As Cassie Petrey of Crowd Surf recommends:

“Your REAL release date is the minute you share a clip on TikTok. The release of the full recording should be thought of as more of a remix in the imagination of your audience.”

So put your music out, as a clip, a teaser, a demo, a prompt, a challenge, a hook, a feeling…

That’s your official release, using engagement, anticipation, and storytelling to get people interested in the full track that follows.

Bonus gripe: Complaining about auto-tune, boring pop music, etc.

For some reason our brains default to thinking the music of our youth is the best stuff and everything else is junk.

But beware our brain’s default mode! There’s no quicker way to go stodgy than to make blanket critiques about modern music.

Too much this. Not enough that. It’s all…

No, it’s not “it’s all…”

There is incredible, mind-blowing music being made today. Find some and stay inspired. Your own music will thank you.

Did I forget something? Have you had to move past a habit or mindset that held you back? Let me know in the comments.