Music business wisdom from 5th century B.C.
March 23, 2015
Jim Bullet

I was recently absorbed by the teachings of one of the greatest war strategists in history, a Chinese general Sun Tzu. You may be thinking, “is this website not about music?”. And you would be right. Although, I am a big advocate of basing my knowledge and insight on as many different resources as I can (and I think you should too!). Even if the works in question do not refer strictly to your field, oftentimes you may discover fresh mindsets that can be quite rewarding in your work. 

And frankly, what do you have to lose? In the worst case scenario you will only broaden your knowledge and deepen your understanding of this wonderful world we live in!

But then, you may find that by studying foreign disciplines and applying their point of view to yours, you develop a refreshingly new perspective within your own domain.

I find that especially philosophy books like this one - and you may argue whether war strategies should or should not be classified as philosophy - are easily translatable to any area of life you may want to apply them to. That’s how we arrive at MUSIC!

In The Art Of War Sun Tzu says:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.

It carries great wisdom in its apparent simplicity.

Most of the significant thinkers in history (e.g. Socrates, Pythagoras, Nietzsche and others) put big emphasis on “knowing oneself” so this concept may be known to you.

It’s quite simple to think about one’s strengths and weaknesses. I bet if I asked you to do this, you could easily state at least a dozen of each - I know I could!

Knowing your skills is important. It makes you look before you leap. An average rap artist is highly unlikely to be able to perform opera-style singing. And vice versa. Knowing what you’re good at is the foundation of whatever you choose to do in life.

When you think about music though, there is more that you can focus on rather than just the skills alone. You can know yourself by the style in which you are performing: the way you strum your guitar, hit that snare or hold the vibrato. You may notice all the little nuances of it and embrace them as your own. This is a significant part of your branding and the way your listeners will learn to recognize you.

That’s how you know it’s Angus Young playing the guitar or it’s Aretha Franklin singing. It’s their style, their sound and their character that makes them distinguishable amongst many other artists. Not better, not worse - just different. Unique. And that’s what their audience wants.

Being aware of this makes it easier to deliver your music consciously.

I think it is very important that as a musician, producer, songwriter or an engineer you find those qnique characteristics of your own style. Know thyself and let yourself be known to others.

Having established that, Sun Tzu artfully brings our attention back to the enemy:

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

Knowing your style and skills is an important foundation of your career. But if you have a slightest desire of achieving even a minor success in the real world, you will have to know the enemy too.

The enemy is probably not themost fortunate definition in the musical world. There is competition of course, but as far as my own experience goes, it is a rather friendly one. However, just for the sake of this argument, I’m going to stick to Sun Tzu’s terminology.

Who is the enemy? Who do you have to get to know in order to win every battle?


Whoever is important, whoever is being listened to, whoever is good at what you are doing, or simply put, whoever is popular.

Remember that your audiences always judge you in relation to other music they listen to. You may argue that it’s not the way it should be, that you’re an artist and you play music the way you like and couldn’t care less whether anybody fancies it or not.

To be honest, I found this truth to be quite difficult too, but let’s face it - if you’re a performer, you will perform for other people. If you’re a songwriter, your songs will be heard by other people. If you’re a mixing engineer - like myself - you are aware that your mixes will be listened to and judged by other people.

Even if you’re a lawyer who likes to play the ukulele during his time off, you will eventually be heard by somebody, be it your family.

And then, whether they want it or not, the brains of your listeners are going to make an assessment.

As Daniel Levitin describes in his book, This Is Your Brain On Music, they will try to match what they’re hearing with what they have previously heard.

The point is that your music is constantly being classified and evaluated by your listeners. It’s like there is an unconscious mental battle inside of their heads. They try to decide which they like better: your latest heavy metal song or a similar tune they recently heard on the radio. Human brain likes seeing things in black and white; it makes it feel safer.

And if you want to come out as a winner, you will want to know in advance who you will be compared to, and either match it or beat it. 

The easiest example I can come up with is that, as an engineer, I constantly have to listen to new music. Especially popular music! I have to know what kind of sound other engineers are after these days, what the global audiences enjoy the most and what my clients will expect me to help them achieve.

This is not to say that you should abandon your own style and begin creating only what’s popular at the time.

But look at the bigger picture. Every era in music has its own distinctive sound. E.g., you can always tell whether a particular hip hop record was released in the 90s or 2000s. And yet, you can easily distinguish Jay-Z from Nas.

It is because they both have their own distinctive styles that have been developed by listening to other popular artists of the early 90s.

Only if you know yourself AND your enemy (competitor), you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you want to be successful in the music business, keep in mind these three principles:



Whatever you choose to do in the music business, remember to have fun with it and don’t get too fixed on the idea of the enemies. It’s much easier to get somewhere by collaborating than wasting energy on fighting against each other.

What do you think about it? Do you agree with Sun Tzu?

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
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