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The Silver Bullet for Music Business Success?

I know what you’re thinking. “There’s no such thing.” That’s what I thought too. Until I started to piece together the stories and advice I heard after going to several music industry events. It all came together for me when I attended the recent ASCAP NY Sessions. The light came on. I saw a common denominator - an overarching theme in all of their stories and thoughts. There it was. Could it be? The silver bullet for music business success? Except it wasn’t the shiny silver bullet I expected to see. If you’ve watched Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, you know about the ending when Indy had to pick which cup was actually the one with the power of life (the cup that Jesus drank out of at the Last Supper). The bad guy drank out of the gilded cup encrusted with jewels and died immediately. Indiana Jones got a worn, undesirable looking cup that would’ve belonged to a humble carpenter. That cup was the cup that miraculously healed and saved his dad’s life, who had been shot.

So, I’m sitting on the balcony because the main floor was too crowded. I’m listening to the panelists, who had great things to say. These are accomplished film/tv music people, hit producers and songwriters, and execs. And as usual, the audience members get the opportunity to ask questions at the end. And one by one, the questions were asked. And the gist of just about all of them was “how do I get to be where you are?”

I’m thinking to myself, “Did they listen to anything those guys just rattled off over the course of the event?” I could understand if the questions were about the technicalities of the business, but they weren’t (besides, you can learn technicalities from books).  They were looking for the finite steps to success. “Tell me exactly how. Who do I call? What do I say? Where do I go? What time should I go there? What are the exact sound patches and software you’re using to make that hit sound?” It was as though everyone was looking to be “rescued” from obscurity by some certain means/formula or a mighty industry big shot (if only they could be told how to get to that person, whoever it is).  Needless to say, they all missed it. And I did too for a while.

So, what is that silver bullet I think I spotted? I gotta warn you again. It doesn’t shine or sparkle. In fact, it’s worn, but still effective. It wont excite you. But, it’s the real deal. Are you ready? Here’s what I saw. The silver bullet: Collaboration with emerging/aspiring industry people. “Emerging” being the key word. Stop lusting after the “somebodies” and pay some attention to the “nobodies” around you. 

The truth is this: Just about everyone on these panels became successful because of their collaboration with virtual unknowns at the time when they started out. Time and time again, they told us that the people they work with now are people they started working with years and years ago when those people too were nobodies. Stargate (the production duo behind an onslaught of hits last year) shared about how they started working with Neyo when no one knew who Neyo was and no one knew who they were. And how that helped them excel in the U.S. with their career. 

One film music supervisor started helping Spike Lee about 15 years ago. He kept telling people to go find film students and offer to do music for them. (I don’t think too many people heard that because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.) 

Kerry “Krucial” Brothers (the hit producer behind the breakout success of Alicia Keys) told us about how he and some people used to go and jam out in Union Square (NYC). They were nobodies and they’d get in trouble for being too loud at times. At that time, Alicia would come by and jam with them. Nobody knew who she was. She too was a nobody. (Take that with a grain of salt please.) She started hanging out and Kerry would produce stuff with her (stuff that didn’t really go anywhere). He was mainly into hip hop. They just had fun together making music. Alicia ended up getting signed to a label through Jeff Robinson, who was not really that known then neither. That deal didn’t work out because the label kept trying to pair her with producers that weren’t a good match. That deal fell through and she ended up on J Records, who gave her liberty. And so she went to Kerry because she loved it when they were doing stuff together. Kerry didn’t know how to produce R&B, but gave it a shot. Together, they ended up creating a new sound that became a major success.

The silver bullet? Collaboration with emerging industry people. Add to that hard work and fearless creativity and you’ll have music business success. Why? Because opportunities inevitably come and the emerging always emerge.This applies not only to creatives, but also business type people like managers, lawyers, publicists, radio/media people, etc.

It is so important that you realize that, as a virtual unknown, you are a part of the emerging music community, which will one day occupy the seats of those you’re looking to now. The people on your level right now are the people that will also with you sit on top one day. Start working with them. Help one another.  The stories I mentioned above are not the only ones. In fact, I’d venture to say that just about everyone’s story is the same. I think, the major “players” in the industry right now can attest to what I’m saying. This business is a business of relationships. And it is a business of relationships because it’s always been a business of collaboration.

So then, there’s only one question remaining, “How do I know who to collaborate with?” First of all, your gauge is no longer whether or not that person is already powerful/successful. I think it’s also given that what they’re attempting to accomplish has to be a match with what you’re trying to accomplish. What you are now looking for is:

1. Is this person talented and always challenging his/her creativity?
2. Is this person determined, hard-working, and in it for the long haul?

You find someone like that and you’ve found someone who is going to succeed no matter what happens and YOU will succeed with them if you too are in it for the long haul. Just a thought for consideration.


Minh is an artist, producer, and entrepreneur based in the DC area. His official site is


Reader Comments (22)

Yes, this is exactly what I've always said to people. I think this is the true meaning of that oft-used phrase 'it's who you know'. I've so often heard people use this phrase, taking it to mean that you have to know somebody already big and successful to get anywhere. I've seen people neglect things that were going on all around them, not realising that 'who you know' means your fellow aspiring artists, who you might be able to work with, help and receive help from along the way.

April 18 | Unregistered CommenterEwan

Thought provoking stuff MInh!

I recall reading so many similar stories of collaborations between now-famous-once-unknown artists, that its quite a compelling observation.

If I were to add my own two-penneth I would have to suggest that the best radar anyone could have as to whether collaborations were "worthwhile" efforts is much, much simpler.....

How much excitement does it create?,/b>

It's not enough if its just yourself and your collaborant that are getting excited, but what about when you play it to others? any buzz? if there is some excitement there, people will remember it and that is the key ingredient for those referrals that occur later.

I agree with the points you make in 1 ) and 2.) but to be honest I think these are assessments that can only be made in hindsight, so I'd suggest that getting out there, jamming and looking for the buzz factor will yield a lot more hindsight to look back over.

Great blog, thanks.

Anyone wanna jam?

April 18 | Unregistered CommenterAllan Dawson

Definitely a well received observation! Though I, as a DJ prefer to work with aspiring artists as they are the least likely to be tainted by the evils of the music industry (both artistically and professionally) I will certainly be more conscious of those I choose to build relationships with!

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterDJ KayPlaya

You're obviously going to have much more fun with those who are emerging and as like minded as yourself too, instead of trying to appease someone 'higher' up and getting stressed on the journey. After all isn't that just one of the great things about this industry, we can have fun!

Great post!

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterMartinT

Thanks, Minh. The advice on this website seem to all come at the right time for me.
Now, to find those people to collaborate with!

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterStef

I think this post is the "Holy Grail" of the new music industry. I think we all have a point where we feel (or have felt like) maybe one call, or one introduction will turn things around...but every time we seek out that "one", we are disappointed. That's just like when people play the lottery. We see the stories of that elderly couple winning millions, and then giving it away?? Why? Because they get it, they already have what money can't even buy them.

So with all do respect to the endless A&Rs, and companies claiming to connect you to the right people when they are looking for music...we already have the formula, and the full power we need to succeed. It's the same when people say "work smarter, not harder".

We all need to pay more attention to those around us. Not saying that you can't hit the lottery, you can still buy tickets if you want to (contacting the major A&Rs, etc), because who's to say that it can't happen. But I believe time will be more effective treating others around you like they are the stars! Great post Minh!! And Allan, holla at me!

- Jared

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterJared Jones

If you and the person you are collaborating with are truly excited -- that IS the buzz. That's the fuel that allows you to forge ahead through the difficulties of getting started.

Too many people fail to understand that so I had to comment. If the second you play your music out to people and they don't get really excited, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. There's many reasons why you may not get immediate exciting reactions, and not all of them have to do with strategy and research. If your definition of "buzz" is how others react when you play it out for the first or second or third time, then I think you are in trouble.

You will constantly be searching for something that garners instant gratification, and most things worth it in the long haul won't hit you in the face with that instantaneous positive feedback. You have to believe in what you are doing to the core, and believe that if no one else likes it that you are still richer for having created it. That's what real artists do, and if they stick around they are usually rewarded. Too many people put such a large value on immediate reactions that it sways them down dangerous roads toward quitting. Or worse, they will constantly be looking for immediate positive feedback only to fall to confusion and fail to develop a unique vision. The latter is perhaps the most depressing thought for those who create. So people should know that in order to move ahead you have to ruthlessly develop and pursue your own vision. Excite yourself, or excite no one.

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterRandle

Great post Minh!

Collaboration with aspiring creatives and industry leaders is the secret ingredient to success. Not only is it important to have the same goals but the same path that will lead you to those goals. It's easy to find someone with similar determination to reach the top, but will they be willing to take the same steps as you in getting there?

It's all about the strategies you follow in creating the final product.

All hail Music Think Tank!

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterChristian

You are so right on Minh - I just placed two songs in films and got an artist signed who was a complete unknown and had never written a song - has an amazing voice. I look for talent like this and develop it - it's my passion! Thanks for writing this - love your posts!

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterCari Cole

I just don't get this post. Silver bullet? Come on.

Everyone who starts is unknown and at that stage you work with unknown people. You have to. You scratch your way to success. You buddy up with who you know. Who you met. Sometimes the chemistry is good, sometimes it isn't. But there is no general magic to working with "emerging industry people". That would be far to easy. The whole idea of a silver bullet is lazy to me. Unrealistic.

Emerging. We are all emerging.

Emerge. Be great. Otherwise, you are just kidding yourself.

April 19 | Unregistered CommenterDave Kusek

@Dave Kusek - The point is that it was a common denominator I noticed with everyone who succeeds in the music business. And I think I made it clear that it wasn't the kind of shiny silver bullet so many think of. And may be you are better than most, in that you've never pursued "unrealistically" those who are "big time" while ignoring the potential collab with "unknowns" around you that has been the key to the success of so many. So, kudos to you! The post is clearly beneath you.

April 19 | Registered CommenterMinh D. Chau

I love this! Success comes from the journey. Start by creating art that is meaningful. Collaborate with other artists who share your vision and inspire you, then work hard, together, help each other, take chances, make contacts, open doors for others and for yourself.

Anyone in the mood for a "virtual youtube collab?"


April 20 | Unregistered CommenterNina Perlove

This is an awesome point...this is all i've been doing lately! collabing with everybody trying to make it in my area not just in one type of music.

April 20 | Unregistered CommenterAlex G

It does not matter what industry you work in, there's no substitute for working with someone that has 20 years of experience. Collaboration is great, but the old dudes are the ones that know how to put lipstick on the collaboration.

April 20 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

After spending the weekend backstage at the Coachella music festival as a virtual nobody (ahem read emerging artist) I realized that EVERY deal made, every artist signed was the result of a relationship that began years ago. By relationship I mean that the parties involved became friends. Gasp! Friends. The promoter of one such festival reminded me that most of the people he chose to support and promote were chosen because he liked them as people....and that was more important than money.

April 20 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Horn

Just one addition. Last night, I kept thinking about Moby (the legendary electronic music pioneer). When asked how he achieved such monumental success while his contemporaries did not, Moby answered stating how glad he was that the question was asked. Because he knew exactly what made the difference. He said that while his contemporaries were spending a massive amount of time putting flyers everywhere and getting potential fans to know about their music and shows...he was spending his time finding and meeting with people that he could possibly work with.

Also, here's a link to a video interview of Stargate and Sandy Vee backstage at the ASCAP NY Sessions I mentioned. Very insightful in case you were not there.

@Bruce, you're right...if a person gets the opportunity to work with someone with that much experience, they're foolish not to. My point in this whole thing is that those that ARE experienced are telling us what it takes in their stories and advice...and a major common denominator in all of their stories and thoughts is this very thing about collaboration with emerging industry people.

April 20 | Registered CommenterMinh D. Chau

Great article. I fully agree that finding that right person to collaborate makes a huge difference. It keeps me going as a music producer and gives me motivation when I have that writer or singer that I gel wit.

April 20 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Lee

Great article. I've been making it a point to try and collab with more people this year. From my niece that sings to a few friends that rap. It definitely helps me take my music in directions I didn't plan and forces me to think of ways to fit the music to their style. I also like that it motivates me to finish projects I start. There's usually a greater sense of urgency when you're working with others. For some reason, working alone, I often get the "I'll finish it later" syndrome which isn't great for creativity.

April 20 | Unregistered CommenterJXD

Thanks for sharing. GOOD One. BP

April 20 | Unregistered Commenterbyron pierce

Great post. There's just no substitute for hard work. And when you find that magical chemistry that sometimes happens between 2 songwriters, producers, musicians, or people of any kind, you've got to roll with it.
The greatness comes when excitement is in the air! Here's some magic I helped create with another "unknown..."

April 21 | Unregistered CommenterShanna Gilfix

You're so right Minh. But you need to add that vital ingredient, hard work. Make your own luck

April 21 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Lawton

I have always noted those I admire had the great teams. Your post reiterated something I've been saying to myself for a while now, but hearing it very clearly since the start of this year especially: I can't keep creating in a vacuum. For so many reasons. Since moving to focus less on my band and more on being a singer/songwriter presence, it's been hard not to have, at the least, ideas to bounce off someone.

It is actually part of why I decided to go to the ASCAP Expo next week. I haven't been able to get any of them yet and the timing worked and seemed right. Glad to hear the one in NYC was valuable too. As I think about what I want to make of the trip, your post drove home the point--to seek out potential collaborators.


April 22 | Unregistered CommenterJosie

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