Why there’s no such thing as a big break in music (and what you should be thinking instead)

Published by nedmortimer on

Back in October 2017, I attended the BBC Introducing ‘Amplify’ conference – an insightful event packed with talks, workshops and panel discussions about all aspects of the music industry.

One of my only gripes with the event was the way that, in every single talk or session I attended, there would invariably be a moment in the Q&A when a musician in the crowd would stand up and ask a question along these lines:

“My name is ___ and I play ___ style of music. If I come up and bring you a copy of my EP, will you listen to it?

The music industry expert on the stage, backed into a corner, would then awkwardly reply “absolutely, of course” and the musician would walk up with their EP and present it to them ceremoniously.

After the Q&A was finished, a parade of other music hopefuls would then bring their own CDs up on stage and leave them with the music expert, resulting in a big pile of CDs, the original questioner’s EP being buried near the bottom of the pile. By the end, It felt almost as tenuous as the people that I used to watch frisbeeing their demo CDs onto the stage at a Foo Fighters gig.

(I’ve always had a wonderful image in my head of Dave Grohl sitting down in an armchair after a show listening to all these random CDs collected off the stage…) 

Now, I am 100% all for musicians being bold, sharing their music with powerful people within the industry and generally exploiting every networking opportunity. Good things come from the relationships you build with those people that can advance your music career and you can’t build them without reaching out in the first place.

What I found annoying about these moments at Amplify, which happened in literally every session I attended, was how contrived and rehearsed they always looked. There was nothing organic about it; not even an incisive comment about the topic the industry expert was discussing before the “can I bring my EP” question. It was almost like someone had used it as an example in a music university lecture and everyone had taken that as an instruction to stand up and do it, without reacting to the situation.

It got me thinking about a topic that I think is under-discussed – the relationship between the musician and the idea of a “big break”. 

We are often given examples of musicians getting their “big break”; the chance meeting or freak incident that launched their career and took them from relative obscurity to international stardom overnight.

Bloc Party famously got their “big break” at a Franz Ferdinand concert in 2003 when Kele Okereke gave a copy of ‘She’s Hearing Voices’ to Alex Kapranos and Steve Lamacq (the latter subsequently played it on Radio 1).

For Yael Naim – you’ll probably know her better as the writer of ‘New Soul’ which was featured on this Apple advert a while ago – the TV placement was her “big break”, the thing that took her music to a much wider audience. 

There are many other stories like this, but what the stories miss is what goes before and afterwards – the countless Bloc Party gigs before their radio play, the hours and hours that went into making ‘She’s Hearing Voices’ or ‘New Soul’ the killer songs that they are, the numerous attempts at networking that culminated in those first big relationships.

There is something romantic about these stories – you’re not going to find a Hollywood film about a musician that is just a showreel of their concerts getting slightly bigger and bigger until they get signed – but they do tend to mask a lot of the work behind the scenes.

Like life, a music career is not a sprint – it’s a marathon.

I wanted to lay out three specific reasons why I think “big break” logic – assuming that every successful artist gets a big break and takes it – is not only unhelpful but also unhealthy.

Reason #1 – it dis-incentivises effort elsewhere

By assuming that Lady Luck is going to come along and build your career for you, you are less likely to work as hard on all the things that are within your control.

Of course, luck plays a big part in your career, but only insofar as you make your own luck. You can do this in various ways, including:

  • Putting those extra hours into making your songs and recordings as irresistible as possible
  • Making the effort to take a real interest in what other people are doing, before you start telling them about your own music (Read our article on the Dos and Don’ts of networking)
  • Promoting your shows properly so that a random A&R person coming to your show will be impressed with the buzz around your music

Reason #2 – you can worry about ‘missing your big break’

There is already so much to find stressful about being an independent musician without throwing regret onto the table. It’s easy to look at the odds, hugely stacked against you becoming a successful artist, and assume that it’s a game of luck largely out of your control. Putting the extra pressure on yourself on the occasional moments that ARE within your control, is not going to improve your mental wellbeing. 

Just because you had the chance to wow an A&R rep at one of your shows and it didn’t go to plan, that doesn’t mean you’re now on the big pile of musicians who ‘missed their big break’.

Just dust yourself off, work out how you can improve and then go out and create more opportunities like this one. How? By constantly networking, constantly improving your music and constantly growing your crowd. 

Reason #3 – it creates the impression that the hard part is done

If you ARE lucky enough (aka hard working enough) to have a moment like this that springboards your career – perhaps getting you signed to a good label – it would be a HUGE mistake to think that the difficult part was over.

This is only the beginning. You have to stay signed, keep writing better and better music, work relentlessly to promote that music, and so on.

The more you do in music, the more you realise there is still to do.

This should be exciting; if your personal challenge was to get signed, you can now set yourself a new challenge and keep building yourself, doing the thing you always wanted to do!

But “big break” thinking might insufficiently prepare musicians for this moment, seeing the big break as the end rather than the beginning.

If there is one takeaway from this article (I admit it’s less practical than some of our others), it can be summed up in this quote by renowned motivational coach, Tony Robbins:

In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.

Standing up at a Q&A and promoting yourself to a music panel is one tiny part of the work, and is never going to be enough in itself to launch and sustain a successful and happy music career.

Thanks for reading and as ever, please leave a comment below! 


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