• Mike Monday is a veteran music producer and DJ, who now helps beginners to big names like Claude VonStroke to enjoy making more music in less time with better results. Click here now for his free video training series and ebook on the most effective ways to get the music out of your head and into the world.
I had many up and downs during my career in music. It comes with the territory. But the longest and deepest dip was at the start. So if you feel like you’re getting nowhere fast, please take heart from my story. Because it took me at least six years to make any meaningful impact as a solo artist, and around ten before I could say I was successful in any way.
Now in the last couple of years I’ve hung up my headphones and stopped DJing around the globe every weekend and moved towards helping others do it. So I’ve had the time to ponder my 17-year career and identify the biggest mistakes I made. What would I do differently? No, let’s be more accurate.
How would I think differently?
Because the space I’ve had to make sense of my experience has made me realise all the mistakes in what I did came from deeper mistakes in how I thought. So let’s look at what those three big mistakes in my personal approach were:
1. Being completely wrong about talent
Ever since I was a young kid my passion had been to entertain. Being up there in front of a crowd doing my thing and making them dance, smile or laugh is how I got my kicks. So when I got hooked on electronic music and discovered DJing through my university buddy Andy who played out almost every week, I desperately wanted to do it too. But despite this desire, it took me at least seven years to get my first paid DJ gig. This was because I made a fundamental error. When I saw Andy smashing it night after night instead of asking “how do I do this?” I thought “I’ll never be as good as that!”
You see, at Oxford University I was surrounded by people who had been told throughout their lives they were “talented” (including me). That our talent was an uncommon gift to be protected and cherished. And worst of all, this talent wasn’t a result of what we did.
It was who we were.
Now, on the surface this might seem perfectly normal and healthy. It’s still a prevailing assumption of our society. But if a particular talent is a gift bestowed upon a particular person at birth, then to be so good, Andy must have had an innate talent for DJing. And if I didn’t have it? I couldn’t. Ever.
(When I think about it now this is obviously ridiculous. I mean, I’m pretty sure he didn’t leave his mother’s womb knowing how to mix tunes together to rock a crowd.)
It’s even more surprising I took on this hogwash given the years of daily practice on the piano and bassoon I put in to become what people called “talented”. As a child I remember wondering why it bugged me when folks referred to my “talent”. It was because it devalued the work I did.
But the myth of talent is so widespread because it is so tempting…
If you believe people are born with innate skills and abilities they can’t improve, then there’s no point in trying. You don’t have talent. You weren’t given it. It’s not your fault. In short, you’re off the hook. This is why falling for this myth was so deadly to my motivation to improve and grow as a DJ and music producer.
Because while I wasn’t as talented as Andy, I’d got a music degree from Oxford. So I must be more talented than most people, mustn’t I? That would see me through…
And for the best part of a decade when I could have been getting better, I didn’t really go for it. I pretended to be a DJ and producer. I’d spend hours and hours in my bedroom playing tunes imagining the wall in front of me was a crowd of people going mental. I’d get “gigs” at my friend’s house parties and rock their kitchen. I’d play the same set over and over because I knew it worked.
(No point in taking any risks and pushing yourself if you can’t get better right? Just go with what you know.)
Now I could call this period of my life “paying my dues”, “putting the leg work in”, “climbing the first rung of the ladder” or any number of other rosy tinted metaphors. But the first step in learning from experience is to be honest about your mistakes. And if I compare my progress to my peers at this time (like Andy), I went at a snail’s pace. Because I didn’t invest the time, money or effort to get to where I thought I should be with my supposed talent.
As my talent was innate and fixed, if I put the time in, if I put myself out there, if I invested in myself and something didn’t work out – then this would be proof I wasn’t as talented as I thought. I’d be found out as a fraud. Of course the irony was by focusing on my level of talent, I was ensuring I wasn’t developing it. I wasn’t taking the action to grow and become more talented. And I was making sure I’d never be anything but a fraud.
What I know now…
Some have a natural ability for certain activities. Of course they do. Just like some people are tall. But this is simply a starting point. Where you start is nowhere near as important as what you do on the journey to your destination. What most call talent is in fact a combination of some natural ability and a lot of hard work. So my life has taught me a different belief:
Nearly anyone can do nearly anything they want to do. As long as (and this is important) they do the right kind of practice over enough time.
This is much closer to the truth about talent. And the bonus is in understanding this you realise, there are only two ways you can lose: Doing the wrong kind of practice, and giving up before you succeed.
2. Being scared of failure
Almost immediately after university, Andy and I formed an electronic band called Beat Foundation and we got pretty successful. We released a succession of EPs that got noticed by Virgin Records Dance Department. So they put us in the studio with a couple of big “pro” music producers (who had worked with folks like Adam and The Ants and Paul McCartney) to work on one of our tracks with them.
Things were looking up! To be honest I couldn’t believe my luck, especially as I felt such a fraud. But at around the same time, Andy made an album called “Northern Lights” as Groove Armada. It did very well and when they got signed by another major, Beat Foundation was history.
I’ll be honest, this was a pretty hard pill to swallow, especially as I knew Andy had done the right thing. If I was in his position I would have done exactly the same. But I’d gone from an opportunity to be the next big dance act on Virgin (the last one they’d signed was Daft Punk) to absolutely nothing.
Remember, I thought Andy was very talented. I believed I had less talent, but more than most and I thought there was nothing I could do about it. So my perceived failure (even though down to something beyond my control) compounded my motivation issue. If I wasn’t trying before, now I just gave up.
Actually, it was more like I “kinda” gave up. Because this wasn’t the positive giving up. Not the giving up where you learn from failure. Not the giving up where you move onto something new. Instead, I did that “kinda” giving up where in reality you don’t even give up. You just stop trying and start blaming everything else.
I said I was making music. I told people I was a DJ. I kept myself sane by telling everyone what I was going to do – without actually doing it. I didn’t make decisions of any kind (including giving up) because I was scared that any decision I made would lead to failure. And this failure would be yet more proof of my lack of talent!
Once again, in hindsight this was a completely absurd course of (in)action. Because by not taking action I was ensuring my certain failure.
What I know now…
No one who has done anything big ever experiences success alone. Success is the little bit of failure you hear about. What you call failure is the process you go through to become successful.
And what makes you successful is what you learn from failure.
For a couple of years after this experience I retreated, lost contact with the big producers and the contacts at Virgin who could have helped me in the future. And what was even worse? I didn’t push myself. I spent more time helping other people make their music instead of focusing on my own. As a result, predictably any hope of gigs dried up.
(Apart from those in people’s kitchens!)
I could have taken so much from the experience. I had rubbed shoulders with “real” big time producers and had learned how they work. I had learned much about how majors work. I even knew people at Virgin personally (one who now manages David Guetta). I’d also learned where I was lacking in my skills and abilities, and even how to improve them.
So if I were there now, I’d focus on what I’d gained, not what I’d lost. I’d keep in contact with the people who could help me and see if or how I could help them. And most of all I’d continue to make as much music of my own music as possible!
3. Forgetting an essential element in a modern DJs career
What’s the most obvious similarity between 99% of DJs who travel the world playing to thousands?
They release music.
And to some extent it’s always been the same. Less so when I started out, but even back in the 90s the quickest way to get promoters from San Francisco to Sydney to book you was to release your own music. Now I knew this. In Beat Foundation, pure and simple our gigs came from the tunes we released. But after we broke up this simple fact seemed to desert me.
Trouble was, even back then “everyone” was a DJ. So bar starting your own incredibly successful night and turning it into a worldwide clubbing brand, one of the only ways of getting noticed was to release your own music.
But the mental obstacles I created for myself through my beliefs about talent and failure ended in a two-year long bout of creative block. I didn’t finish a single thing of my own for two whole years. And predictably, because I hadn’t finished any of my own music, I had no DJ gigs and virtually no money coming in. In the end I had to get a job in a cafe at the crack of dawn every morning to make ends meet.
But getting that job was the best thing I ever did. Because it was like a switch went off in my brain. I remember the exact moment of clarity. I was on a train going home from that awful job stinking of burnt coffee about to struggle with my music once again. I was dog tired, had blisters on my fingers from chopping carrots half the morning and all I could think about was the prospect of working under a boss for the rest of my life. And then it hit me like a thunderbolt.
I hadn’t even tried. I’d been playing at it.
You see, how good I thought I was, what I’d done in the past, the “talent” I thought I had? No one cared or would care until I actually did something. Finished something. A DJ mix, a tune, anything! So right then and there I made a decision. The first positive decision I ever made. I was going to give my music career its first and last real go by spending six months doing whatever it took to get as much of my own music finished as I could.
Because if I didn’t do this I knew I’d spend the rest of my life wondering “what if?” You see, this decision took another of my huge mental obstacles away. The question that had haunted me since Beat Foundation went belly up:
Would I succeed or fail?
Because now, success or failure was unimportant. What was important? That I’d tried. Taking positive steps to make as much music as I could in six months was the roll of the dice that would allow me to go through the rest of my life with my head held high, whatever happened. And do you know what? Things did start to happen. Almost immediately.
You know when you buy a particular car and suddenly you start seeing loads of the same model everywhere? This was the same. When you make a big decision like this you start noticing opportunities everywhere. I finished music. I got it released. I started a label. I put myself out there. I got booked! An agent got in touch with me about international gigs…
And literally within six months I was earning enough to give up that job at the coffee shop.
What I know now…
There are many routes to success in most things. But not so many as you might think, and there are some quicker and easier than others.
If your goal as a DJ is to have adventures travelling the world doing what you love, then one of the only ways to do it is to make and release your own music. Without that “calling card”, people outside of your town, or (if you’re really lucky) your country will never know who you are. Now, I know finishing music might seem like a mountain to climb. Heck, after two years of complete creative block when I literally didn’t finish a single piece of my own music it did for me!
But once I finished one (which was pretty terrible if I’m honest), the next one was easier (and a little less terrible). And then the next was easier and so on until at one point I was described by a Mixmag reviewer as being “too prolific”! It’s almost too obvious to say, but the more you do something, the better and quicker you get at it. (Which incidentally flies in the face of the “talent” myth.)
To be honest now, I don’t know what I was waiting for. I waited about six years to take action. Don’t make the same mistake. Because taking positive action make taking more action easier. Taking positive action means you fail quicker and learn quicker. And taking positive action means you will grow and improve your “talent”.
• Mike Monday is a veteran music producer and DJ who has produced at least 300 tracks and DJed in 20+ countries over a 17-year career, who now helps beginners to big names like Claude VonStroke to enjoy making more music in less time with better results. Click here now for his free video training series and “Seven Steps Every Music Producer Needs To Take” ebook on the most effective ways to get the music out of your head and into the world.
Did your career finally get going after a false start or two? Are you still waiting for something to happen to kickstart your career for you? Do you recognise the way you currently think in Mike’s lessons? Please share your thoughts in the comments.