ready to go past playing prescribed parts?

Why many musicians settle for less in their careers, & how to fix it

music marketing and sales with Christian Howes
The most straightforward way for musicians to get gigs or clients is to offer your services to the right people, appropriately and consistently, over time. The problem for so many free lance musicians is their reluctance with the idea of marketing or selling their services and products.

I talk with so many working musicians who either don’t know how to improve their career or don’t feel comfortable doing what it takes. If you are one of these people, what I’m about to share with you, pulled directly from my Music Biz Mastermind course, may strike a nerve.

Assuming you have something valuable to offer, the most straightforward way to get gigs or clients is to offer your services to the right people, appropriately and consistently, over time. A challenge for most many freelance musicians is their reluctance with the idea of selling their services and products.

My dad was a life insurance salesperson who was only paid via commissions when he sold a policy. This is no different than the situation of most musicians who only make money when they get a gig or client.

Sales is often stereotyped negatively… After hearing my dad’s story, you may see it much differently.

 My dad believed that life insurance enables a household provider to protect their family, and that buying a policy is an expression of selflessness.  Through selling life insurance, my dad believed that he was helping people. He was on a sacred mission, educating parents, sharing in their struggles, and giving them peace and security in knowing they had done the right thing for the people they loved.

He saw his job as a salesman to serve others, in alignment with his Christian faith, in accordance with his highest spiritual beliefs.

He also did it out of a sense of duty to provide for his family, including me and my three siblings.

I came to respect and honor him for it, and so did his clients, many of whom have reached out to thank him forty years later for saving them money and protecting their families. Once I saw my dad through this lens, I came to appreciate sales in a different light.

If you change the way you think about sales, you can change your income and your impact. In order to do this:

  1. Know what you’re working for and why you’re working for it.

     2. Believe in the value of your service.

     3. Be committed to achieve your goals, including the willingness to feel a little uncomfortable.

Call reluctance and the fear of self-promotion:  I am widely regarded as a very successful musician, but when I began by career twenty years ago I had just walked out of prison after serving four years on a drug-related charge. Spending my 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th birthdays in prison was humiliating, traumatic, and depressing.

Anxiety, loneliness, and anger culminated in a rock bottom moment during those four years. I was faced with what seemed like a choice between fighting with everything I had or giving in and giving up.

I became driven to put distance between me and that place. I wanted to get as far away from prison, and everything that went along with it.

That drive created momentum that carried me into my career, and I’ve been hustling ever since.

Despite the level of hustle I had when I got out in 1996,  I knew nothing about sales or business in general. One concern I had was how to avoid being seen as “pushy”. My mom and dad recommended a book related to call reluctance and the fear of self-promotion, in which the author explained that most of us misjudge how our sales pitch will be perceived. In other words, you may feel that other people are judging you when you offer your services, but in reality they are not. To overcome the fear of being perceived as too pushy, you need to tweak this perception. One way to do this is to think about how you feel about advocating for someone you care about.


 If your sibling, partner, friend, or parent had a dream and they were reluctant to fight for it, what would you tell them?  Would you encourage them to “go for it”? Would you advocate for them?  Why not do the same thing for yourself?

Another way to do this is by observing how others sell to you. For example:

– Two teenage girls knock on the front door of your house and ask you if you would like to buy girl scout cookies to support their girl scout club.

– Someone at McDonalds asks if you would like to “super size” your order.

– The cashier at the gas station, upon checking you out with your order of gas and a large coffee, asks “would you like anything else?”

 -Listening to the radio, you hear someone asking you to consider giving $ to support the “publicly funded” NPR station.

 -Watching a commercial in which a charity advertises starving children in third world countries and asks viewers to consider giving “just $10 per month”

 -You get an email or Facebook post announcing the release of an artist’s CD, asking you to come to their show.

-You get an email from another musician announcing their Kickstarter campaign, asking you to spread the word and consider contributing in order to get an advance copy of the CD.

-Watching commercials on TV for products during the Super Bowl.

-Walking into the local music store, a worker asks, “Can I help you find something you’re looking for?”

These are all examples of someone selling something to you.

How do they make you feel?

 I’m guessing that as long as people show respect for your time, they aren’t coming back after you’ve declined, and whatever they are pitching is relevant, you take it in stride. You might even feel flattered.

Now flip these things on their head, and imagine that  you’re making the pitch. Does it make you feel squeamish? If so, that’s normal. With practice, you can overcome it easily, and you will rarely, if ever, offend anyone as long as you keep some common sense guidelines in mind.

Most of us are afraid that we will be “taking” someone’s time, abusing their good will, or imposing on them or pressuring them in some way whenever we ask them for a gig, a referral, a recommendation, or advice. In reality, sales is a two-way transaction in which both the buyer and the seller “receive” something from a sales pitch. Once I realized this, it transformed how I felt about pitching to people.

When you give a proper sales pitch, (for example, by having respect for the person’s time, asking permission to pitch them, keeping your pitch to the point, pitching something which is relevant to a need they have, and following up with them according to their preferred mode of communication and their preferred timeline) you will often receive something from the buyer, i.e., their time, their consideration and maybe even a gig, a referral, or some helpful feedback/advice.

The prospective buyer may also receive something such as:

– A sense of importance and power

– A sense of being needed.

– An opportunity to be appreciated  (“I would be so grateful to you if you would consider my CD for inclusion into your rotation on your radio station”)

– A service or product that solves a problem or meets a need and has value for them.

(Ready to go out and do this? Check out my Music Biz Mastermind course.)


An experiment in making contact with strangers:

My little brother Lewis Howes is one of the most successful people I know, and he’s only 35 years old.

Ten years ago he was sleeping on my couch with literally zero income, and two years ago he published a book that rose to #2 on the NYT Bestsellers list.

He built his business selling with integrity, out of a desire to serve others.

When Lewis was 19, he told me he felt shy around girls, and he didn’t know how to talk to them. He made a promise to himself that summer that he would approach three girls who were complete strangers every day. Within the first three days, he became so comfortable that he would easily start talking to every girl he saw,  rarely ever getting rebuffed.

People are happy to be approached in a polite way, even by strangers. It’s amazing how big of a difference a three-day experiment made in by brother’s attitude.

Can you imagine what would happen if you started asking for work? Especially if you ask the right people in the right ways consistently over time.  You would likely double or triple your income, be positioned to choose the kinds of work you take more selectively, make a bigger impact through your music, and have more time and resources to enjoy life.

Before honing in on your sales process, it’s important first to overcome your reluctance to offer your service. Sales psychology in this sense is about your psychology, and getting clear about your “why” is absolutely essential.

Why do you get up and work in the morning?

What is your purpose?

Are you “worth it”? What are your dreams worth to you?

If you’re not able to fight for your own dreams, maybe you need to focus on something external.

Some people, like me, work hard in part out of a fear of worst case scenarios. It’s like having a gun to your head.  If you can think of worst case scenarios you want to avoid, if you can come up with a reason that’s like having a gun pointed at you, this may be all you need to get motivated enough to do something as Uncomfortable as offering your services to people who can benefit from them.

Some people, like my dad, push past that discomfort out of faith, out of duty, out of belief in a cause, or for any big reason external to themselves. If you can’t find it in you to fight for YOUR dream, because you buy into your value, and the fact that YOU deserve to have a better career and a better life, then focus on the external things that you are able to fight for, like your family,  your belief in music, your faith, your child’s education, or a desire to help your community. In the meantime, I suggest you also ask yourself what’s holding you back from valuing your own happiness.

Someone told me once that there are only two questions in life:

1) “What do you want”


2) “How bad do you want it”?

Here are examples of ways musicians talk themselves out of fighting for what they want:

  “Right now I’m focusing on improving my skills. Once I’m ready, I’ll start getting into the business stuff”

Trust me: You’ll never be “ready”.

And furthermore, you’ve got it backwards. It’s the “business” (i.e. real-world experiences such as bookings, productions, commissions, etc…) that leads to the making of art, not the other way around. Until you’ve played on a big stage, made a record, worked with established artists, booked a gig, or done whatever your “next step” is,  you will never develop the confidence to succeed at it regularly. It’s only after going through experiences such as these that we develop the confidence to do them again and continue moving forward.

So as long as you’re practicing scales in your bedroom, you’re not going to be psychologically prepared for whatever big test is out there, until you go through it. And you won’t go through the experience until you create the opportunity.

By selling, promoting, and marketing, you will create real world experiences which will, in turn, give you the necessary confidence and preparedness as an artist to play the right notes in the right ways on stage and in the studio where it counts.

  “I’m going to find an agent or manager that will do all the promotion for me”.

Almost nobody has managers and agents that do everything for them.

By all means, you will need to enlist help from many people, but this is a cop out if you’re just waiting for someone else to fly down and do all the work.

  “I just don’t have the right type of personality to sell….”

Cop out!

I appreciate that it’s intimidating to enter into a new discipline (i.e. sales and business). However, you can study, research, and implement these skills and concepts in a way that is authentic to you. No matter your personality type or values, you can promote your musicianship without compromising who you are.

 “Real artists don’t do that stuff. I’m going to succeed based on my merits. My success will happen organically, just from being on the scene, and my product will be good enough to sell itself.

Wake up! While it’s true that you’ll get calls based in part on your musicianship,  paying your rent will take ten times as long this way. Most of the artists that you think made it because they sounded good were probably selling like mad. And many of the artists who had some success in spite of appearing to do very little hustling are struggling to pay their rent into their forties and fifties because, after a few lucky breaks, they couldn’t maintain their success without business knowledge and discipline.

Musicians and teachers with full time jobs are exceptions. But they are in a different situation, working in a salaried position (and as we’ve seen with the demise of many orchestras and institutions, working for the man is not always the most secure career).

Now pick up the phone, write an email, and start fighting for yourself, your family, your cause, and/or your dream.

Try the DIY Course or join our private mentoring group here.

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