Leveling Up as a Musician

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Multiple conversations occur weekly with musicians in Nashville or musicians on Instagram that want to move here, about how to advance their careers. Phrases like “Next-level in my career” or “bigger opportunity” are often used. It’s a healthy pursuit to grow in your career, but I think there are also some huge misconceptions about what it means to be on the “next-level.” A lot of people want to shift the responsibility from themselves onto others. It’s easy to think that “if only (band or artist) would use me I’d get more exposure and better gigs”, or even think that “Nashville is a big clique that doesn’t realize what I have to offer cause they aren’t paying attention!”

I totally understand those statements because I’ve had the same thoughts at one time or another. Over the years I’ve learned that “next-level” doesn’t necessarily mean playing with bigger artists. Your success isn’t tied to your popularity or the popularity of the artist you play for. While popularity can be a great by-product of success, success itself isn’t found in fame. Certainly it’s healthy to want recognition for our work, so don’t misunderstand me there; I believe everyone can achieve success and move up in their careers and just wanted to clarify that because fame might not follow you that doesn’t mean you’re not succeeding.

Here are some of the take-aways I’ve found to be true in taking my career into the “next-level”:

Preparation is a Magnet for Opportunity

I truly believe that opportunity finds people who have put in the work and not the other way around. In my own career I put in the preparation no matter what gig I’m going on. If it’s a teenager who’s just getting their career off of the ground or an artist I’ve listened to for years wanting me to play with them, the lead up to the gig is the same. I show up to rehearsals knowing the music already so I don’t waste everyones time. I chart out the music so I can memorize it for the performance. I come with parts to play but also remain open to the leading of the artist. And I’ve done these things since I was in high school playing for youth group.

How it played out for me was that the preparation I had showed the worship leader at my church in high school that I could be trusted to play at the “main stage” on Sunday mornings. Then if there was an event he needed a guitarist for, I would get a call and we’d go play somewhere else. After a couple of years, as I was getting ready for college, that worship leader believed in me enough to encourage me to audition for a full-scholarship worship band in college. I made the team and the cycle continued. I would prepare for each situation, and opportunity somehow just kept showing up. Coincidence? I think not.

Getting Rid of Comparison

Comparison can derail you from your path faster than just about anything. Instagram and Facebook play such big parts in making people think they should be doing what others are doing on their feed. When you see other peoples gear, and the fact that others are playing a different genre than you, and the busy schedules that everyone has… it can take a toll on your self-confidence and make you feel like you’re not doing anything. When you compare your worst to the best of hundreds of other people, it’s an immediate loss. But there is some good news…

You don’t have to compare yourself to that. Just because your friend Johnny has a new gig playing for a country artist doesn’t mean you have to start practicing your chicken pickin’ licks to try to get a country gig. For me, once I defined my lane (worship music) I was able to watch my friends who have country gigs and cheer them on without feeling like I wasn’t able to keep up. Other peoples success doesn’t equate to my failure. Getting rid of comparison is a big part of being able to stay steady in your lane during your career.

Place Yourself In Opportunities Way

If you have prepared and you know your lane, the extra little push you need to get to the next level is in placing yourself in the way of opportunity. How do you do that? You find an artist you want to play with and camp outside of their house until they ask you to play a gig. (Just kidding. Don’t do that. And if you do, it wasn’t my idea.) For each person this looks different, but for many people it just means putting yourself out there and letting people know you exist. If you live in Nobodysheardofit, North Dakota, you might want to consider moving to another part of the country where there are more people in your industry.

For other people though, this step isn’t as drastic as moving to another State or country. Perhaps placing yourself in the way of opportunity looks like talking to your worship leader at church and letting him know you’d like to audition for the worship band. Or maybe it looks like posting videos of yourself playing on youtube if you don’t have anywhere to play yet. Whatever the “next step” in your career is, make yourself available to it.


For the last little bit of this blog I want to talk about goals and how to make them. There a few different categories of goals, but the 2 I’m going to use today are “macro” and “micro” goals. In your career your macro goal might be something like “play with an internationally known artist.” That would inform your micro-goals: “step one: learn an instrument. Step two: befriend a famous singer that’s huge in Japan.”

I would encourage you to make macro goals that are substantive so that you have a passion to push through to them. Here’s my macro-goal and the mico-goals to pursue it:

My Macro-Goal:

  • Build a career in music that allows me to be with my family and community

While it’s singular and somewhat vague, my macro-goal is really just to be able to have a career that allows me time with my family and community. This macro-goal is what I want out of life in addition to career. For other people there might be several macro-goals (become a millionaire, own a sports franchise, become a professional actor, etc). Whatever those macro-goals are it feeds into and informs your micro-goals. Here are some of my micro-goals to be able to achieve the “macro-goal”:

  • Find a niche in music that allows for physical time with my family while still playing music

    • Producing tracks

    • Having my own band

    • Finding artists to play with that value family time

    • Consulting with bands and artists to help their careers

  • Start a business outside of music to provide extra income that doesn’t come from playing

  • Be intentional about building community and build in time for spending time with friends

    • Move to Franklin, TN to be closer to our church

    • Cook more at the house and invite people over

This isn’t a comprehensive list of my goals, but I just wanted to show this to you to maybe help in your process with goal-setting and defining what’s important to you so you can go after it.

There are about a million more things to talk about when it comes to taking your career to the next level, but I’m hungry so I’ll just stop here. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

jesse phillips