One Step to Start a Music Career: SMART Goals


Success in anything boils down to one thing: how to set goals and be driven to achieve them.

We advocate the SMART goal system:

S – Specific

This whole acronym is about setting very specific goals.

Your brain will motivate you to achieve your goals much better when you can visualize the end result more clearly.

“I want to DJ big clubs” or “I want to write a hit song” are difficult goals to achieve. It leads to the overwhelming feeling of “where do I even start?”

Start by setting as specific a goal as you can think of. Try this:

“I want to DJ the Sullivan Room in NYC with a progressive house set, opening for a more established DJ from NYC, with a new effects rig that really gets people to notice me.” You can almost see it happening in your head right now!

There’s a common misconception that if you visualize success it will come to you. Success doesn’t come to you, it is pursued. By visualizing success, you’re motivating yourself to pursue it.

Specific goals give you direction. Who books the Sullivan Room? Do I know any bands that have booked there before? Who can I open for? Who’s their booking agent? What effects rig should I buy? How am I going to afford it?

Congratulations, you’re now overwhelmed with work to do, instead of the feeling of not knowing what to do.

The truth is that many musicians hide behind their music, hide behind the fear that they don’t know what to do. It’s an excuse they tell themselves for not succeeding. If that feels like you, all you need to do is set a few specific goals and start doing the work! Each little success builds to the next.

M – Measurable

How will you know what success is or if you’ve achieved it unless your progress can be measured?

We measure success most often in money and personal fulfillment.

Money is easy to measure, and for better or worse, will be a common part of your goals. In the example above, many of the tasks are going to revolve around how much you can earn at your gig. “I’m going to ask for a $500 guarantee and accept no less than $300” sets in motion a whole other set of micro-goals:

How do I convey the value of my music and fan base to the booker and promoter? How can I self-promote to add value? How do I make a one-sheet to look professional? Who will take a professional-grade photo of me for free?

Money is helpful in goal setting, personal fulfillment is harder to define. This is where role models come in handy. Who are the people that have already accomplished similar goals? What did they do? How did they do it? When they were in my position, what was their next move?

A – Actionable

Can you act on achieving this goal, like today?

Reading this text is an action you’re taking toward reaching the goal of playing more music for more people for more of your life. If you don’t know what actions you can take today to reach your far-off musical goals, start with Google. Anyone can use Google right now to find ideas for actions to achieve their goals. Someone else has achieved some or all of the goals you have set, so set out to learn from them, emulate them, find out their story, meet them, hang pictures of them on your vision board… whatever. It’s easy.

The hard part, again, is doing the work. And that’s what an actionable goal is all about. Do you have the time, team, skills and experience necessary to act on the goal in the present? Or, do you need to set goals related to freeing up time, finding a team, learning the skills or acquiring the experience?

R – Realistic

Musicians have a really hard time separating dreams from fantasy.

Dreams are goals that aren’t SMART. They’re things you dream of doing in the future, but you don’t know specifically how they will play out, how to measure your distance from them, exactly what you need to do to achieve them, if they’re even possible and when they will come true.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is pure myth, things that simply aren’t true. There are a lot of myths in musician culture:

Myth: You need to register with the Copyright Office to copyright your music.
Reality: Copyright protection is automatic upon writing down or recording your song. Registration with the Copyright Office grants additional legal protections.

Myth: It’s OK to sample a recording as long as the sample is really short and/or really transformed.
Reality: It is considered copyright infringement in the U.S. to sample any recording, period. This court case in 2005 outlawed sampling without permission.

These myths have nothing to do with setting realistic goals, but (a) they illustrate that realism requires knowledge of reality and; (b) we relish every opportunity to dispel the myths above.

It’s cool to have dreams of becoming a rock star. It makes a pretty crappy goal if you’re sitting in your parents’ basement. This much is obvious, yet musicians constantly believe the biggest myth of all:

Myth: If you write great music, you will get discovered and have success.
Reality: Most musicians with great music can’t sustain a career. Success is short-lived. Musicians are constantly exploited. Perpetuation of the “great music” myth is responsible for a culture of musicians who are willfully ignorant about how to sustain their musical lives. Musicians with long-term success are hard workers, both on their music and their business.

With reality understood, how do we reconcile dreams with goals to set them realistically?

The key is to set goals at the right difficulty level. You want your goal to be just out of reach.

Setting goals that are too easy is the same as setting unrealistic goals. Achieving easy goals keeps many musicians complacent until “real life” creeps in and starts stealing time away from music because money needs to be made.

If you think of 1 as everything going wrong, total failure and 10 as everything going right, total success, you should realistically expect to come in around 7 on average.

Set your goal as 10, but realize that outcome has more to do with luck that skill. A 10 is when you work hard and also happen to be at the exact right place at the right time.

Similarly, don’t feel bad about a 5 if you were beset with challenges. A 5 is still success if it feels fate conspired against you at every turn.

This strategy can be summed up as “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

We all strive for perfection (particularly us creative people), and given the precisely right set of conditions, we can achieve it. That’s why runaway success feels so magical.

We are, of course, not perfect, and learning from our flaws is what makes us better people. An important part of setting realistic goals is factoring human fallibility (yours and others’) and luck into the equation.

T – Time-Bound

Time is the most precious limited resource we have. You can only spend so much time working on music and your musician business. Clearly define how much time you have to work on your composing, performing, recording and business. Allocate time routinely. There is plenty of work that won’t inspire you, and times when you’re not inspired to work. Routinely sitting down (or standing up) to work at a set time every day or week no matter what is a necessary part or progress.

While binding your goal to a routine is the most effective way to succeed, it’s not necessary. What is necessary is to set a deadline. Deadlines are critical for internal motivation, and motivating others to help you achieve your goals.

And remember, when you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do, get help. Find a volunteer or fan that’s eager to join forces. Build a team. Oh snap, that’s another SMART goal you have to set…

photo (CC-BY-SA) Ralf Schulze