So You Want to Be a Rock Star?
There probably isn't a person out there who hasn't dreamed of being a pop star or lead guitarist at one time or another. But those jobs aren't exactly dime a dozen (at least not paying ones).
Sure, anyone can strap on a guitar, put out a hat for tips in the park, and call herself a musician. You can even make your own CD and hawk it on MySpace. But American Idol aside, achieving the status of legend, or even mere fleeting fame, isn't easy.
Driven to Stand Out
For one thing, there's no well-trod path to stardom. Hard work, years of lessons and even luck are no guarantees in the music industry. A degree from a conservatory doesn't matter, nor does being in a band that can fill some tiny local club. You might be happy and even make a living, but that's a far cry from being a star.
Still, there are some traits that people with huge musical success have in common. Here's a look:
Mark Wolfson has worked as a producer and writer in the music business for more than three decades, working with artists like Smokey Robinson, Van Halen and the Talking Heads. He says the superstars do stand out. "They're driven, and would probably be successful at whatever they set out to do. It's an inherent personality trait. The more glutted the market is, the more they stand out."Telling Your Story Well
According to Robert Fink, chair of UCLA's musicology department, legend status is often designated by the media rather than consumers. "Certainly it is possible to be a legend in your own time, if your story is archetypal enough," he says. "The turning moment would be when someone tells the tale in a way that catches the public's attention and fixes the artist's story in a form that will last."Finding Staying Power
If you compare photos of the artists who sang "We Are the World" in 1985 and "We Are the World 25 for Haiti" this year, you'll realize that most of the singers in the older group are still around, singing and filling seats. For example, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few. Among the 2010 crew, only time will tell for newbies like Justin Bieber, Akon and Nick Jonas.The Good News for Mere Mortals
While the odds of becoming a megastar are small, the truth is that many musicians find happiness and fulfillment anyway. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 186,400 people identified themselves as musicians and singers in 2008. 43% worked part time and 50% were self-employed. And the paycheck? The median hourly wages worked out to $21/hour (that includes salaried employees such as those who play for orchestras).
Scott Albert Johnson, a blues-influenced musician from Jackson, MS, has degrees from Harvard and Columbia. He pays the bills as a writer, but if you ask the married father of three what he does for a living, he'll say he's a musician. "You had better love it, to the extent that you can't live without it, if you're going to give it a go," he says. "My main goal has always been to get my music to as wide an audience as possible, via recordings as well as live performances. That goal has never changed and I don't think it ever will. Thanks to the Internet and social media, I have been able to get fans and recognition all over the world despite very limited touring."
Johnson released his album, Umbrella Man, in 2007. He's not selling out stadiums, but he's shared the stage with Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer James Burton and with Marty Stuart, who played with Johnny Cash has made his own gold records. Johnson's Okay with this.
In fact, his goals provide a model for anyone wanting to pursue a musical career, or side career. He aims to sing well, play an instrument exceptionally well and write "good, challenging songs that work on a lot of levels." Says Johnson, "That's what I strive for."