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BLOG: Finding Success in the Music Business – Part 1

By April 1, 2015February 15th, 2016Blog, News

I am regularly asked the same basic question.

“What does it take to find success in the music business?”

Sometimes it is framed differently. “What are you looking for in a songwriter?” some ask. “What do I need to do to get someone to call me back?” is another. Music is painfully close to the hearts of people like you and me. It’s not just a hobby or an interest. It’s not even primarily about the skill we have cultivated through practice and hard work. It’s a part of how we see ourselves as people. Music is inexorably linked with our sense of purpose, identity, and mission. Rejection cuts us deeply – whether it is clearly expressed, or implied passively through a lack of response. Believe me, I get it. I’ve been an independent artist most of my life. Heck, I still am!

I’ve been doing my best to answer that question graciously and honestly since I got my first music business job as a teenager. Over the last few years, though, I have increasingly realized that the problem isn’t in the evolving answers but in the questions themselves. In my sessions at Immerse I’ll explore this in greater detail, but I’d like to get the conversation started right now by telling you a few things craft coffee has been teaching me about success in any creative endeavor.

No, I’m not talking about some psychic parlor trick where I contrive meaning from a pile of coffee grounds. I’m talking about some critical concepts that are being tested and proven every hour of every day in independent coffee shops and home kitchens around the world. Years ago, when my music business career was on the ropes, a counselor helped me realize that I needed a hobby or two. When you get to do what you love for a living – in my case creating, enjoying, and talking about music – it’s important to have other places to turn for creative release. In my case that has been a deepening passion for hand crafting things that I can serve my friends. I’ve become a bit obsessive about coffee in the process. In fact, I roast my own coffee beans at home, grind them in a professional grade, ceramic burr grinder, and brew it in either my specialty drip machine, a Chemex, my Aeropress, or another device – depending on the type of coffee. I’m also a regular patron of any of the five independent coffee shops in my East Nashville neighborhood. I’ve developed a fairly sophisticated palate when it comes to java, but my son Jordan is even more obsessive. He’s a barista here in town and is crafting a career in the specialty coffee realm.

I’m not sure if the craft coffee revolution – which is tied closely to the rise in interest related to the small batch, the local, the hand made and the artisanal – has made it to your town yet, but it will. In the mean time, here are a few ways my passion for the perfect cup has informed the way I approach my own music and the songs being written by my roster of Gospel songwriters.

1. Know the Difference Between Value and Cost

Why is it that some coffee is so much more expensive than others? Sometimes it’s because the seller is testing the market to see how much they can charge before demand wanes. Sometimes it is for nonsensical reasons; like kopi luwak coffee, which is actually collected from the excrement of certain Indonesian cats. Yes, you can pay up to $1000 per kilogram for coffee that is culled from cat poop. I wish I couldn’t relate this to music so easily, but I’ve definitely heard some demos that seem similarly sourced.

But when it comes to true specialty coffee the price usually reflects more careful or organic farming techniques, better treatment of workers, and smaller batches. Instead of losing the unique flavors of a particular farm’s beans – the “terroir” of it – by lumping it all into a massive pile and selling it as a commodity, specialty farmers are putting more effort and care into recognizing the best of their crop and caring for it intentionally. Frankly, I’m willing to pay a bit more for coffee that I know is not contributing to environmental or human degradation. Additionally, the coffee that is grown by smaller and more thoughtful farmers is simply better! You’ll notice unique “notes” in the flavor if you train yourself. There is a lot more to the true “value” of a thing that simple supply / demand formulas can reflect.

Is your music special? Is it authentic? Is it crafted with great care, effort, and expertise? Or is it just “good enough?” Millions of people don’t particularly care if their coffee is sustainable or single origin or particularly well roasted or brewed. They’re simply going to use it as a sugar, cream, and caffeine delivery vehicle. It’s the same with music. Don’t let the masses pollute your creative soul. Don’t dumb your craft down to the lowest cultural denominator. Don’t sell yourself, or your audience, short. Don’t mistake high costs for high value, but also don’t be afraid to invest more in the things that make your work transcendent. Dig for the deeper, the truer, the more beautiful. And for heaven’s sake stay away from cat poop. Your audience may be smaller as a result, but they will be much more appreciative. They’ll recognize the value in your work.


John J. Thompson is a 25-year music industry veteran, author, songwriter, artist, producer and teacher who currently serves as Creative Director at Capitol CMG Publishing and leads a small group ministry out of his Nashville home. He spends his days serving a roster of Gospel songwriters that includes Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Fred Hammond, Aaron Lindsey, Anita Wilson, Tasha Cobbs and many others, and regularly provides Music Supervision services to faith-based films such as 2013’s Grace Unplugged and 2014’s 23 Blast. His abiding passions for authentic, spiritually alive art, transformative community, innovative business practices, artisanal living, and home roasted coffee are explored in a forthcoming book entitled Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; Crafting a Hand Made Faith in a Mass Market World (Zondervan / Harper Collins April 2015) and can be found throughout his professional, creative and ministry-oriented career. Twitter: @JohnJThompson

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