My Advice On Self-Promotion For Musicians

As someone whose job it is to regularly work with the next generation of great musicians to help them build a thriving, sustainable career, I am constantly thinking about ways to help emerging artists thrive.

One way to channel the work is to think about my own time as a young, aspiring, professional bassoonist.

In those days, I cared about three things: 1.) Do I have a good reed, 2.) Have I prepared my rep for my next engagement and, 3.) Where’s the beer. (…not always in that order)

Breaking news, I did not care about self-promotion.

I didn’t have to.

At that time in the early 2000s, gatekeepers held all the power. If I wanted to be successful in the field that I cared so much about, I had to do one thing…be better at bassoon than my peers.

As a bassoonist, I also knew at the very start of my career that my time wouldn’t be spent standing on the front of the stage as a soloist, or as a touring chamber musician, so I tuned out for many of the career development discussions about ways to court an agent or how to develop an interesting tour schedule.

Instead, I knew that my work outside the development of my craft was more about building relationships than some kind of marketing or PR formula to help me find success. (I still work with close friends who I shared the stage with over 20 years ago)

Although I put in the work and found quite a bit of success as a professional musician in the process, I always felt that true success was limited (or limiting) to a few great artists on a few instruments. Our (traditional) industry simply did not (and does not now) have the capacity to support the number of highly trained, highly qualified soloists and chamber musicians ready to put their art out into the world.

So many people I know view that as a challenge. I view it as an opportunity.

Today, I look at the landscape of our field and I see the pathway to becoming a soloist or chamber musician is still very present as a career path, however, that path is increasingly a smaller and smaller slice of a performing artist’s portfolio of work.

Even with that, I still start every conversation with an aspiring young musician by saying that I have never been so optimistic about our field.

In the year 2023 performing artists are likely going to have to be experts in something in addition to their art to propel their careers forward.

I use the Rule of 10% (a rule I made up) to help artists explore additional career pathways (IE, recording technology, citizen artistry, teaching, entrepreneurship, social media, etc.).

Instead of insisting on a blanket set of skills and specific career pathways all performing artists must have, this rule suggests that for any given path, only about 10% of performing artists will be deeply interested in the subject matter offered.

That means that my job as a practitioner is to identify a multitude of opportunities that help artists develop additional skills on an individualized basis so that they are inspired to invest time in the things that are of interest to them while still centering the art that they care so deeply about.

For all the baggage that social media carries, I do see building an online presence as one way to level the playing field for aspiring young artists.

The problem is that most advice I see for how to build community is horrible.

Here are some things I convey when I meet with emerging artists about social media:

  1. Before you do a thing on the internet or in real life, you have got to get clear on WHY you are in this field in the first place. Find your north star and stick with it. The rest is just noise.

  2. Any self-promotion, engagement online or social media posting should be an extension of who you are as a human being. If you love performing Brahms in real life, post about Brahms online. If you love performing covers of Lizzy McAlpine in real life, post covers of Lizzy McAlpine online. Just like playing rep that doesn’t speak to you because you think your agent, the venue, or your audience wants it, inauthentic posting online will get you nowhere.

  3. Finding your voice online takes time. This is much like finding your voice when speaking from the stage. Most emerging artists in a live performance setting default to naming the composer and the date of the composition instead of saying WHY they are performing the piece. This allows them to hide behind facts instead of giving their audience a glimpse of who they are as a human. Similarly, most posts online are a highly filtered and refined version of the person posting because they fear showing who they are as a human will somehow harm their “personal brand.” The most successful artists I know have figured out how to tell beautiful stories about themselves AND their art to their in-person and online communities.

  4. Building an in-person or online community is necessary to be successful in our field and there are ways to do this without selling out. (Just look at Steven’s beautiful post that went out to over 17k of his followers on Facebook for proof) I always think about building community as a natural amplification of what we do on the concert stage. Find your platform, study how it works, and build a community based on what makes sense for you.

  5. Gatekeepers are less important than ever. Listen and be respectful, but also know that you have all the power to build the career that you want without validation from outside sources.

  6. The mechanics (how to) of building community often cloud why a person should care about this in the first place. This is especially when there is so much noise on the various social media platforms promoting “the way” to find success as an artist. The type of online presence that should be built is the type that feels the best to you without compromising your values. Yes, that includes not posting at all.

For those of you reading, I hope that this will help you continue to center WHY you are in this field before you make any steps to build your online or in real-life community.

More Stuff From Me!

→ Enroll in Extending Techniquesa course designed for performing artists who want or need help developing non-performance skills needed for a career in the arts. Note: For a limited time, we are offering half off our beta version of this course. When you register, enter the code ExtendingTechBeta to activate the savings.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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