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Your Music Career is a Pentathlon: The Five Currencies of Success
By Bill Pere - 02/13/2013 - 03:35 PM EST

In the music business there are five primary currencies..  "Currency" here does not mean money.  It is anything that you can trade in specific amounts to obtain certain things or objectives.   If you go to Europe, you use Euros, and in Japan, you use Yen.  On e-Bay, the preferred form of payment is electronic transfer via  PayPal.    Frequent Flyer miles are valuable when booking a flight, but not when buying a car.    In a poor rural village, your basket of produce or bundle of firewood would be worth more than a non-edible gold coin.    In a survivalist camp, a roll of toilet paper or tube of toothpaste would be valued over paper dollars.  

Clearly, different things have value in different situations, and it is an essential business skill to know which currency to use, when to use it, and what it will buy you.

Having worked with more than 10,000 artists over more than three decades, it is clear that one of the main things impeding the forward progress of a career is not knowing what the five currencies are, when to use them, or even how much of each you have.    Many aspiring artists simply don't know what or where their five  "bank accounts" are,  what their balance is, or when and how to draw on them.

The craft and business sides of music require many roles  (a set of tasks) to get songs and artists from obscurity to a place of recognition, respect, and reward.   Each role requires specific skills and currencies.  A complete discussion of the roles is presented  in "Songcrafters Coloring Book". (See here for condensed diagram and article)

The five currencies for the purposes of this discussion are:
(a) Money
     -- cash or barterable goods

(b) Well-crafted songs 
     --  lyric/melody crafting ability
     -- Your body of work
     --  The copyrights you control

(c) People Skills
     -- temperament
     -- communication (written/verbal)
     -- social interaction
     -- schmoozing
     -- negotiation/persuasion/mediation
     -- lifestyle
     --  management/coaching

(d) Performance Talent
    -- vocalist (live and studio)
    -- musicianship (live and studio)
    -- stage presence
    -- creativity/vision
    -- arranging/production

(e) Visual presentation
    -- physical appearance
    -- stage presence
    -- fashion/style
    -- logo/image branding
    -- web presence

The relative importance of these depends on one's specific goals and situations, but ultimately, some amount of ALL FIVE is required for a career that provides recognition, respect and reward.   Each currency opens a different door, and you have to know which keys fit which locks, and how much a given key will cost. 

What about that all-important factor of "reputation"? The track record that one builds in using each of the currencies is essentially your "credit score", and THAT is what we know as "reputation".

One of the sad realities is that the music business is not a meritocracy, i.e. those with the most talent are not the most valued, recognized, or rewarded.  Talent is indeed a currency, but unfortunately, not the most valuable one.   Many of the artists I've worked with have the idealistic belief that because one has some talent, advancement should be automatic. They believe that if you go to the mall with enough money, there is no obstacle to getting the things you want.   What they miss is that the stores at the "Music Biz Mall" require different kinds of currency, so no matter how fat your wallet is, there are some stores where all the merchandise remains out of your reach.

The fact that talent is not the primary currency is made evident by two simple observations:
(1) -  I, and probably you as well,  know hundreds if not thousands of very talented performers and songwriters who are every bit as good (or better) than many of the biggest names out there, but they flail in obscurity for lack of the other currencies.   
(2) A good portion of stuff that is "out there" getting airplay and selling downloads is of average (or less) quality, when objectively measured parametrically.

The same can be said about the quality of a song (another of the five currencies).
In a meritocracy,¬ well-crafted songs would be successful and the songs with no evidence of writing skill or craft would fall to the bottom.   But this is not the case.
There are huge numbers of truly great songs just sitting on dusty shelves or buried on bargain-bin self-produced CDs that are never heard, while "songs" that could easily have been written by your neighbor's10-year kid (in collaboration with the family dog) are selling millions and getting all kinds of accolades and awards.   Many well-known songs that receive all kinds of attention are really quite lacking in songwriting craft. There are obviously other currencies at work.

There are many reasons that a song becomes a big hit other than the quality of the song itself.  These include:

(a) The popularity of the artist  -- If a popular artist puts out a mediocre song, it is still going to chart because the artist's fans will still support it.  This perpetuates an illusion that what is popular is also of good quality.  The separation of popularity from quality and craft is discussed thoroughly in the Four-Fader Model in Songcrafters' Coloring Book.

(b) Great Production --  Production/Arranging is certainly a creative art form requiring a special skill set, but it is NOT songwriting.   Great production is the essence of most pop songs, not actual skill at songwriting.  Visual glitz and sonic sparkle are substituted for lyric and melody.  This is not a matter of good/bad or right/wrong, but it simply requires an eyes-wide-open awareness that this is not the craft of songwriting.  It is good studiocraft and stagecraft, as opposed to good songcraft.

(c) Big $$$ Promotion – If a big record label wants a song to be a hit, then regardless of its quality, it is going to be a hit.  Relentless promotion, manufactured 'buzz',  and public saturation fueled by corporate dollars will usually get a song on the charts. 

(d) People Connections --  The old adage of "It's who you know" is never more true than in the music business.  Networking and making contacts greases many paths forward and creates opportunities that otherwise would never be offered.  Many hits exist solely because of personal contacts.

(e) Riding the wave of a trend or news event – If a song is written relating to some other event or trend that is getting a lot of media attention (9/11,  fashion trend,  politics, sports event, etc), it too can get a lot of attention, but it will likely be of a limited duration.

(f) Creative Marketing/Novelty  – An otherwise average song that is creatively marketed via YouTube or other social media can become widely known and inject itself into pop culture.

The important thing to understand about all of the above is that the currencies at work in each instance are ones OTHER than the currency of having good songs.  We'll come back to this key point later.   But consider – in each of the above instances, how much MORE successful would a song be if, in addition to any of the factors listed, it was ALSO a really well-crafted song.

Now let's look at some of the ways in which the five currencies function, and how they differ between the mainstream big-label world, and the Indie music world.

1 – Money:  This is somewhat obvious.  To get forward movement at any point along a career path, money is required.   Buying a new instrument, transportation, hiring an arranger, registering a copyright, having a website, paying a sound engineer, renting a venue, etc.     Spending money is straightforward and easy to do.

In the mainstream big-label world, money is the primary currency – after all, the big labels are corporations with a prime directive to make money, more so than to make music.   Their supply of funds is virtually unlimited and thus all the other currencies take a secondary, though not invisible, role.

The thing that trips up lots of Indie artists is trying to apply that mainstream corporate model of being "under contract" to their own Indie career.  In this day and age, if you are an Independent Artist, there is very little reason to want to be "under contract" unless you really find a deal that fits you perfectly.  When you are under contract, even to an artist-friendly Indie label, it may seem that you no longer have to draw on your own money to get things done because the label is doing it for you – However, no matter what label and what deal,  what they are really doing is spending YOUR money – it just happens to be your future money.  So you have to expect never to see any of it since a majority of acts never recoup the investment put into them.  And in some really bad deals, you can end up owing the label money.  Also, there is no readily available way for an artist to know what they are owed, so the label can essentially dress up their own expenses and income and tell the tell the artist anything they want.  

Of course this does not mean that all labels are "bad" – many are out there trying to do right by the artist, but just be aware that they are not really giving you anything.  You're still paying for it, just in a different way.  Most labels, whether mainstream or Indie, focus on cash as the primary currency, and thus you don’t get to fully leverage the other four "accounts" that you have. 

As an alternative to traditional labels, there are artist "development" or artist "incubator" companies which,  if they are doing their job, would be optimizing the flow of all five of your currency accounts.  This assumes they are aware that all these accounts exist, and that they have the knowledge and resources to maximize them. 

If you want to be affiliated with a label or artist development firm, it's up to you to understand the deal you're getting into (i.e. know how to understand a contract, or have one of the reputable songwriter associations review it for you – often at no cost)  and to decide if that deal is right for you.  There are many flavors to choose from.  Ask them how they plan to use all of the currencies and how they will directly benefit you.

As a DIY (do-it-yourself) Indie Artist, who is not under contract, i.e. proudly "unsigned by choice", you retain control of all cash flow, and you issue the contracts to have work done for you, when you want, how you want, by whom, and for how much.

This approach keeps you in control, but it requires positive currency flow.  Notice I say CURRENCY FLOW not cash flow.  As an Indie, you do not have the big-label luxury of dealing in unlimited cash.  You have to draw on multiple currencies to move ahead.

If your focus is entirely on the currency of cash, it's easy to fall onto the treadmill of having to do endless dead-end gigs to generate enough money to keep on doing endless dead-end gigs.   Even if you can successfully generate surplus cash to move forward, your speed of advancement and choice of paths expands greatly when the other currencies are also in play.

2 – Visual Presentation/Appearance:   This is a deceptive currency.  People rich in physical appearance often try to use this as a primary currency and end up being disappointed.    Appearance can open a door but if there is no talent, no people skills and no quality material to back it up, the door leads only to a small, unfurnished room (and beware if there is a couch…).    Appearance is best used with the understanding that it is not enough by itself to propel one to the top of the career ladder.  I meet many artists who are certainly pleasing to look at and who use that well on stage, but their material is devoid of substance, their talent is average, and/or their people skills may be lacking.  Any of those deficits will impede or kill a career.     Too often, an aspiring artist will expend a great deal of their limited time, energy, focus, and cash to try to increase the balance in their appearance account.   Sometimes it is worthwhile, but just as often it is not the best investment of limited resources. It is converting a stronger currency into a weaker one.  I typically turn down opportunities to help develop artists who rely too heavily on appearance at the expense of other currencies.

In stage performance, there are often great amounts of resource expended on lights and glitz and pyro and costumes and effects, all to present a stunning display of totally average (or less) material and/or talent.  Not a good investment -- and as the years creep by, artists wonder why they are not "getting anywhere".

What if one has an abundance of talent but is short-changed in their appearance?  If your primary goal is to be songwriter rather than a performer, then as long as you are writing top quality songs, and have reasonable people-skills, you are dealing in the right currencies.   Although appearance is a big help in negotiation and persuasion, top-quality songs will be the most valued means of exchange for you and can carry you far. 

As a performer, if you have great talent, but are not Aphrodite or Adonis, you can still have many opportunities, but they will be in more bounded regions of the music landscape.  Consider the cases of the very talented but not glamorous Paul Potts or Susan Boyle, both winners on "Britain's Got Talent".  The realms of classical, opera, or easy listening adult music are welcoming environments.   For styles like folk, jazz, or hard rock, talent and substance tempered with people skills trumps appearance.  Pop, country, hip-hop, Vegas, and glam-rock place more value on appearance.   It’s up to you to know the realistic value of the currency you have in that account, and how to spend it wisely.

As one of the most poignant examples of how talent and people-skills trump appearance outside of the music realm, consider the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the baseball major leagues.  His incredible talent silenced the critics, and his even-temperament in dealing with the harsh social environment he faced made him a revered legend and an inspiration to this day. 

Aside from physical appearance, there are all the other visual elements that go into presenting yourself. It's amazing how many people want to be taken seriously as artists, writers, producers, etc, yet have no credible website, no logo, no brand identity.    They have CD's with unreadable fonts and no clear communication about the name of the band/artist.  These things are key conveyors of credibility.  They give you gravitas and speak volumes about whether others should invest their time, attention, and money in you.  

And finally, though ephemeral and superficial like physical appearance, an artist can generate great buzz through their fashion choices (Lady Gaga's meat dress? Michael Jackson's white glove? KISS's makeup?)   This should not be relied upon as a primary currency, but can serve as a "value–added" supplement to your other currency accounts.  Do not use fashion to try to make up for deficits in the other currencies.   It is an add-on, not a substitute. 

3 – People Skills:  In my various conversations with top industry folks, I usually ask them "What are the top ten characteristics needed for success in music?"  At the top of that list by a wide margin is people-skills.   The music business is first and foremost a people-driven industry.  There are egos, sensitivities, feelings, insecurities, and quirks that cover a vast spectrum.   A detailed discussion of how people skills work in various parts of the music business is presented in great depth across several chapters of "Songcrafters' Coloring Book". Suffice it to say here, it is among the most valued of the five currencies. It opens many doors and keeps them open, allowing opportunities to come to you, rather than you always having to seek them out.   It is a slower-acting, more subtle currency, but it has greater reach and staying power than appearance, money, or talent.  If a producer, publisher, manager, or any decision-maker has a choice between several people to whom they could offer an opportunity, they are not necessarily going to choose the most talented person.  It will be the one they "like" best, they one they feel most comfortable working with, the one whom they know they can trust.   Understanding people and knowing how to spend your currency gives you an incredible edge in negotiations, presentations, collaborations, and getting people to say "yes!" to you.

Tapping this account is one of the ways you can help generate positive currency flow when your actual cash reserves are limited.   When a business owner (which you are as an Indie artist) asks for credit, or a loan, or sponsorship, or a favor, or an opportunity, the transaction does not hinge on cash currency – it is people-skill currency as you are asking someone to trust you and to believe in you, while you are offering your temperament, your communication skills, and your lifestyle as collateral.   When you have a skill to trade or goods to barter, you are relying on your people-skills to make that happen.   Crowd-funding ventures (Kickstarter, Rocket Hub, etc) have less to do with cash and everything to do with generating faith in YOU and the way you communicate your ideas.  

The successful writer/artist/producer understands this most fundamental people-based concept:  The songs, the music, the performance, and the experience you offer succeed when they are first and foremost about the listener, not about you.   Writers performers or producers who make their work center on their own self-expression rather than on communication and connection with listeners are misdirecting valuable currency.   The good steward of people-skill currency clearly grasps the difference between expression and communication.

4 – Performance Talent:  Talent is a bittersweet currency.  It "should" be highly valued and propel you far, but alas, its luster is dimmed by the allure of the other aforementioned currencies.  If you have talent in conjunction with one or more of the other currencies, it will serve you well.    But remember this simple reality:  In order to show people the talent you have, you must first get the opportunity to do so.   That's where the other currencies are most helpful.  They enable you to get people's attention, and then it is your talent that holds people's attention and makes them "believers". 

There are two caveats here:  (a) that you actually have sufficient talent to make people say "Wow!" and (b) that however much talent you do have, you have an accurate assessment of it.     The "Wow!" level of talent comes from a combination of natural ability, honed by around of 10,000 hours of practice.  The 10,000 hours theory was originally formulated by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University, looking at case studies in many different fields – sports, chess, music, business etc.  This is discussed in detail in Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book "Outliers".  

The point is this: don't expect people to be in awe of your talent if you have not put in a heck of a lot of work to develop and refine it -- and even after you have, make sure you have an accurate picture as to whether you are just average, competent, highly skilled, or world-class.      And if you truly have top-notch talent, it's going to take the other currencies to get you the opportunities you need to cash in on that talent.  

On the other hand, suppose you have only average talent and you know that, but you have an abundance in the other currencies, particularly people-skills,  If you look at the music landscape across the mainstream and Indie worlds, the top spots are filled with competent or average artists, who have no more talent than many unknown folks that you or I know.  There are some "Wow" folks to be sure, but not the majority.  Most of those average folks got where they are though the use of the other currencies.

Sadly, the bottom line is that talent, though one of the more difficult currencies to amass and greatly valued by those providing it, is in the eyes of the buyers, the least critical of all the currencies.  Yes, you need to be competent or at least adequate, but not great, in order to get ahead.

And that finally brings us back around to that key point mentioned earlier:

5 – Well-Crafted Songs:     Why is anything valuable?  It must be wanted by many, critical to meeting needs or goals, and in short supply.   In the music world, there is no shortage of songs.  Not even a shortage of average or reasonably good songs.  But GREAT songs?  Those that hit with the impact of a laser and etch themselves into the collective conscious of millions of people? Those that last across decades, being recorded by hundreds of artists in a wide spectrum of styles?  Those are as rare as the Hope diamond.  So if you have one – just one, think of what you can do.   And if you have a portfolio of them, few doors will remain in your way.

As an Indie artist, you probably do not have access to great sums of money. You do not have teams of people to support and promote you.  You do not have wide vistas of opportunity to choose from.  You may not have world-class talent or heart-throb looks,  but if you have great songs, you can vault to  the top of the value-pyramid. 

Of all the currencies in the music world, songs are by far the most critical and valuable currency – after all there would not be a music business without songs.  Like any other business, e.g., cars, computers, fast-food, there are well-made products and there are lower-grade products.  The stock of companies that produce quality goods rises, and the stock of those that produce inferior goods languishes.  

If you are a songwriter, don't just write songs;  Craft great songs!  Understand what it means for a song to be well-crafted so that it takes people's breath away.  Understand that it is an extremely difficult task to score that  "Perfect 10", but you can only achieve it if you try every time, and most times you will fall way short.  But if you amass a portfolio of songs that are 7's or 8's or 9's in a world where most of what is out there are just 5's and 6's filling chart spaces while waiting for the occasional great one to come along, you have highly valued currency.

If you are an artist with great talent and a drop-dead looks, and you can whip audiences into a frenzy singing mindless pop lyrics, think of what you can ascend to when you augment your assets with the sparkle and gravitas of top quality songs that linger long after the final chord fades.   When you're seeking songs to record and perform, don’t settle for average.  Find great songs from talented writers if you can't write them yourself.   Don’t fall into the trap of taking songs from your friends or colleagues just because they are the ones you "know"  That is simply substituting people-currency for quality-song currency, and it's not a good use of your "funds".    Train yourself to recognize a truly well crafted song.

If you are a producer with great talent for arrangements and beats, don't let that be all you offer.  Apply that talent to great songs, so that a great production of a great song can elevate you to a new place.

If you are an artist development coach, don’t groom a talented, good-looking, people-savvy performer only to leave them with a repertoire of ordinary cookie-cutter songs that don’t add significantly more value to what you have worked to develop.  Use your currencies wisely.

Independent artists have only one way to really compete with all the big money, big talent, big schmoozing, big glamour competition – and that is through well crafted songs that are clearly a cut above the cluttered baseline of  'average' that is popular for all of the reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the song.

No matter what your role or aspiration, this is what you need to know:  Big money is something you can’t hope to compete with.  Great vocalists and musicians and producers are out there in abundance.  Great looks are out there in abundance.  Great schmoozers are out there in abundance.  Abundance reduces value.   The ONE thing you can do to have rare and highly valued currency is to have great songs.  They are NOT out there in abundance, and they cannot be created by money.    They can only be created by you.

Look at singer-songwriter icons like Harry Chapin, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Carole King, Janis Ian, Susanne Vega, Jim Croce, Don McLean, Jimmy Webb, Johnny Cash, and so many more like them --  No glamorous looks, no great voices, no glitzy stage performance and no silver spoons – just well-written songs that have lasted for decades, crossing styles, artists, and generations.   And that portfolio of well-written songs attracted great talent and big money to support and propel them farther and faster.

One final point: You, like everyone,  have these five currency accounts.  What you might not have is a realistic idea of how much currency is in them.  Toward that end, never be afraid to seek out qualified, objective feedback on your songs, your people skills, your image, or your level of talent.   Don't be afraid to hear a constructive critique.  Objective feedback will enrich you and keep you from overdrafting a big check on a low balance.

Some artists seek out critique not to improve themselves, but to get affirmation and pats on the back.  That is a formula for disappointment.    Some artists mistake a positive audience response to the energy of their performance as a positive response to the quality of their material.  The result – a wrong notion about how much is in which account.  Rather than great songwriting buying you a fan, it was your great voice singing meaningless lyrics.  Some artists mistake a positive audience reaction to their appearance as an affirmation of their talent. The result – a wrong notion about how much is in which account.   Rather than your talent buying you a fan, it was your short skirt.
Not having the proper awareness of what currency you have, and when and how it is being used can take you down unintended paths that lead you farther from where you want to be.  Keep a keen awareness and accounting of the five currencies and what they are buying you, and you will always be moving forward along the path that you have laid out for yourself.  Spend wisely, invest wisely, and you will find that place of recognition, respect, and reward that awaits you.

© Copyright 2013 Bill Pere.  All Rights Reserved. 
This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the author.
Bill Pere is named one of the "Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry" by Music Connection Magazine.

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