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5 Non-Music Related Books That Will Help You With Your Music Career

I can hear you typing now: “So this is it? Three blogs in and you’re already writing lists?”

Well hold your horses, I have a feeling that these books are going to interest you. To many musicians, myself included, music is integral to our lives and it is rare for us to come up for air and look at the world around it. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout the last few years it’s that the world outside of music is even more beautiful and chaotic than many of us give it credit for and if we ignore it we risk isolating our art in an environment where it can only be inspired by itself.

So here it is, my top 5 non-music related books that will help you on your music career:

5. The Art of War – Sun Tzu

While it does seem a little “contrepreneurial” of me to drag this text up, bear with me I have actually read it and I am actually going to show you a practical way to use it. Written in the 5thcentury BCE, this 13 chapter Chinese military treatise has influenced both eastern and western thought, lifestyle, professional sports, and business thinking since its formal translation and rise to prominence in the late 18thcentury. Aside from fascinating descriptions and analysis of optimal military tactics, rank structure, and discipline of the time, Sun Tzu also stresses the importance of clandestine warfare, momentum in combat, and how best to anticipate the next move of an army. Most importantly, he lays out the most basic requirements for victory on a battlefield: The commander who makes a mistake first will lose.

As you can imagine, the need for knowledge however historically valuable on Chinese military formations and such is not exactly high when it comes to your music career. What matters here are the sections of the book that stress the importance of planning, gathering intelligence, and executing war-winning actions. Speaking from personal experience, these pearls of wisdom are very helpful when planning releases, scoping out business and band competition, and how best to get things done efficiently.

For instance: lets say you’re playing a battle of the bands and you’re on at some point in the middle of the evening. You know that you’ve been dealt the short straw so to speak because it’s the point in the evening where the fewest amount of people are going to be really listening, but is there really nothing you can do? If you read The Art of War you’ll know exactly what to do! You’ll know full well that the best battle to fight is one you’ve already won before you step onto the field and where you know your enemy and yourself. This means specific discipline, training, planning, and research on a myriad of possible factors you may encounter well in advance. Your set list and the construction of your live show should be secret until you want it to not be anymore, you should know the bands you’re playing with and you should have listened to their music, watched their videos, and analyzed their social media engagement so you know exactly who you’re dealing with along with their strengths and weaknesses. In much the same way, you should try and learn who’s judging, what factors they’re judging on, what makes them qualified to judge, and what do they personally like. You could even feign disorder or intoxication within your own band to lure people in to watch a possible train wreck only to blow them away (although it should be noted that this requires the utmost planning and discipline among your band).

Additionally, Sun stresses that if you watch your opponent’s troops you can ascertain with a reasonable degree of certainty the state of your opponent’s mind. For instance if you observe that when gathering water the troops who are assigned to do so drink first for themselves before collecting for the others you can deduce that the army is running low on water. Again, if you see that an army is leaning on their spears while of watch or patrol, they are weak from lack of food and if you give their army an opportunity to attack (real or fake) but they do not, that means that they are exhausted. These observations were made from fighting hundreds of battles and this sort of thinking can also ring true in the world of finding clients for a business like a recording studio. If when you bring up the prospect of recording and one member of the band seems way more interested in your offer than the others then could you assume that the band member has a solo project? Or maybe there’s a divide in the band about the quality of their last record? Either of these are openings that you must follow up on. It won’t be a 1:1 analogue obviously but you can begin to find similar cues that are relevant to your specific business and you’ll be a lot more likely to win the sale.

The Art of Waris a text that really should be read in full and I’ve had to cut out a lot of really fundamental concepts for the sake of brevity. It is also a text that has been twisted around for many reasons by many people so I encourage you to read it for yourself and use its framework draw your own strategies from it!


4. Principles for Success – Ray Dalio

This is an interesting one to be sure but don’t be fooled by its appearance. Ray Dalio is an American Philanthropist and Hedge Fund Manager who founded a company called Bridgewater Investments who are widely considered to be wizards of sorts on the stock market. In 2017 Dalio released his book “Principles” which is a rather dense but rewarding read about the principles by which he has governs his work and his life. His real stroke of genius here is that, years before in 2005, he took his principles that he outlines in his book (that used to be on his website), and packages it into a pleasingly illustrated, and simply worded children’s book. More recently he has even taken these illustrations and made YouTube videos including animation and a high quality voiceover.

He posits a simple model for what success actually looks like even within the flawed and transitional confines of life. He is quick to stress that you will fail but what matters is how quickly you can turn that fall from your path into a loop that extends higher and further than you ever got before. Even if it’s half a percent better than when you fell, you will have succeeded. Success is how much further you can walk even after making that loop and how many times you’re willing to fall before you give up. He expounds on his personal failures in the denser book but it doesn’t take a genius level intellect to see how such a model is incredibly valuable to someone who is effectively the C level executive of everything in their own personal small business.

Rejection as a concept is hard to decouple from failure in the minds of many musicians. This is because we are very attached to what we create and someone saying “no” sounds an awful lot like “you tried to make something that would impress me but you failed to do so. You’re bad at what you do.” But this model shows you that you only fail when you cease to leave the door open for victory. You fail when a solid opportunity comes along to follow your dreams and you say “no I have better things to do and I don’t need to advance at this anymore.” I fully intend to read this book, along with many others to my kids when I have them, it’s by far the easiest on this list to digest.


3. How to Win Friends and Influence People– Dale Carnegie

Yes, the title sounds like an overly pushy, pickup artist book but it’s really not. It’s about how you can most effectively build lasting, personal friendships with people and how to interface with people you may not want to be friends with, but need to be around anyway. Since being published in 1936, this book has never been out of print and has gone through 7 editions. It effectively created the “Self-Help” genre (as much as you can call it that), and is ranked by the Library of Congress as the 7thmost influential book in American history. It offers basic, easy to understand principles for more effective social interactions for people in all walks of life.

I however want to take it a bit further: I think this book should be issued with a teenager’s first professional instrument and if I ran a music store that is exactly what I would do. If you read nothing else on this list I would recommend you read this. I’d conservatively wager that 60-75% of our job as music professionals is networking, making friends, and building two-way relationships that will help you out down the road. So it then stands to reason that the more knowledge about building that kind of thing in the real world, the better. Trying to do this blind is akin to one of Scotty’s metaphors in Star Trek and it takes a savant in a sense to be able to do this without failing a few times. This book however shows you not only how to approach situations that are not ideal but also gently points what you may be doing to completely sabotage such efforts. To say it was eye opening for me would be a grave understatement and my copy is flagged, underlined, and annotated to oblivion.

The best part about this book is that it’s written with the intent to make you a better communicator and not to “get people to do what you want.” Carnegie stresses that when you show interest in someone else’s likes or habits that interest must be totally genuine. He accurately observed that people possess the ability to smell disingenuousness and a mechanical insecure smile like sharks smell blood and points out the crucial difference between cheap flattery and sincere appreciation. Let me give you an example:

Because I love what I do so much I have a tendency to get really excited while talking about it. Some of this is because I’m excited and want to sell my ideas and talk about what makes me happy, and some of it was because I was insecure about speaking on any other subject. This excitement tends to come across to potential customers as nervous energy, like a scammer trying to sell you some piece of crap car, and makes me seem like a person that’s being pushy and trying to sell you something you’ll regret buying. This combined with the artist’s belief that their songs are their children leads to an instant no sale and that’s no good for anyone. This was intimated to me in a rather interesting way but that’s a story for another time; what matters is when I sat down to ask myself how on earth I was going to solve that problem which seemed to be immutable, it struck me that I already knew the answer. I had read this book and after doing some revisiting it all clicked.

Because I was a ball of pent up excitement, desperation, and all in all nervousness, I seemed like I was being insincere whenever I tried to show appreciation to people or tried to show them that I could in fact record their band well. Additionally, I wasn’t exactly being any better of a conversationalist because it always seemed like the onus was on me to sell my skills and myself. You hear that? “Me me me?” “I I I?” How on earth was I supposed to build a working relationship with people when I was coming off for all the world as a nervous, insincere, self-centered know it all? People love talking about themselves and the more opportunities you can make to get them to do it, the more they like it. Additionally, a person’s name is their favorite sound in the whole world so use it. Not a creepy amount but more than once. This is not only to help cement their name in your head but also to make them feel like you care about them and really remember to whom you’re speaking.

The book is full of tidbits like this that are bound to bubble up when you’re having conversations and you’ll cease to dread social interaction because you don’t know what to do and start actually enjoying yourself. I will leave you with this quote from Mr. Carnegie on the subject of getting people to like you instantly: “If we are so contemptibly selfish that we can’t radiate a bit of happiness and pass on a bit of honest appreciation without trying to get something out of the other person in return… we shall meet with the failure that we so richly deserve.”


2. The Nichomachean Ethics – Aristotle

Written in 340 BCE, this text whose title refers to the author’s son (as it was written in no small part to tech him how to act) has been called one of the most important philosophical texts of the most important historical philosophical works ever. As a basic introduction of this text Aristotle lays out what exactly a Virtue is and how you can go about acquiring such a thing in pursuit of what the Greeks called “Eudæmonia” and the Golden Mean. While it doesn’t have a simple English translation, Eudæmonia roughly translated means “A life well lived” or “human flourishing” and was (and I would argue still is) considered the peak of human capability.

In terms of the question of “What is a Virtue?” take courage: too little courage is cowardice, but too much is overconfidence to the point of stupidity. Either state will lead to ruin, however, if you have enough courage to not run away in the face of danger and take action but don’t have enough to try and take on a far greater foe than you can possible hope to conquer alone then you can be said to have attained the virtue of courage. In short, not too much, not too little and if one develops every virtue this way they will reach the Golden Mean and unquestionably will have attained Eudæmonia.

How does this apply to music? Well, Aristotle disagreed with the common notion of the time put forward by his teacher Plato that one could simply attain and cultivate a virtue by simply pondering, meditating, and researching it. Aristotle believed that this was not enough and that the true way to learning a virtue was to exercise and practice it in the real world.

If I may be allowed the luxury of a brief quotation: “…virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too do we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

I love this quote so much for a number of reasons but here’s the one that’s specific to the topic: All musicians know this principle intellectually on some level and in some cases don’t even think about the fact that every single one of them does it already when they practice. The disconnect usually comes when they are trying to expand their knowledge or have reached a block in their playing, writing, or any other skill they want. We would rather search for quick fixes or magic techniques to accomplish our goals when we should really be practicing and honing our craft. That’s one of the reasons having a teacher who is a taskmaster is one of the best things you can do! Hell, most musicians could do with applying this concept outside of music in their personal lives then maybe they could show up on time and well practiced for sessions. What a concept!

So now you know the journey but it might be helpful to have a roadmap: First, decide what you need to improve on, what kind of player do you want to be? Is there anyone you know who already is that way like a mentor, idol, or teacher? Once you know that, study or contemplate how that kind of player would live their musical life. How often do they play, with who, what roles do they take on within a band dynamic, how often do they practice? Etc. Then finally… do it, and repeat throughout your life. It sounds simple to do but you’ll soon find that you can spend your life doing this stuff and you’ll still see more to do. You won’t get exactly the same results as anyone else obviously but you’ll be further along your path than if you didn’t and tried to ascend the same staircase that they did. Again, you aren’t trying to become someone else, such an errand is all too common and in my view rather foolhardy. You’re just trying to develop a quality you want to have by watching what he or she who exemplifies that quality does to manifest it.

The reason this system works is because of a little thing called “cognitive dissonance.” When there’s a conflict between your self-perception and your actions your brain experiences tension and will naturally shift how you feel about yourself to match your actions. By acting as if, you can use this cognitive dissonance thing as a way to tell when you’re improving and even to make you feel more confident and self-assured.

This is all well and good, however conventional wisdom conveyed to us by modern media states that one needs to feel like doing something or feel like the kind of person who would do something before they do it. You may even feel like applying this “act as if” methodology is inauthentic somehow! Well I pose this question to you: when will you feel like doing whatever that something is? Is it going to be a lightning bolt from the heavens that will suddenly goad you into action or does it have to come from within you? You didn’t get to where you are as a musician or as a person simply by thinking about doing the things that you do now. You worked at it, practiced in some form or another and eventually became. Through Action. It’s within you, you just have to push past that initial resistance stage and swallow your fear of failure a bit and you’ll be well on your way to Eudæmonia in no time.


1. 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos– Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

Dr. Peterson is perhaps one of the most famous and also one of the most misrepresented public intellectual today. He’s also a true tour de force in his field. In addition to garnering massive YouTube notoriety for posting his incredible university lectures, he has also created software to help companies hire people based on their “Big 5” personality traits, created a website that through the guided meditation on the user’s past, present, and future life goals helped diversify college campuses and very literally save the lives of countless people, authored or co-authored over 100 peer reviewed academic papers in prestigious journals and been cited over 8,000 times as of mid 2017, made numerous podcast and theater appearances, and written another book that revolutionized the study of religion and Jungian psychology.

Recently he has been fighting a rare but life threatening side effect of benzodiazepine withdrawal (the circumstances of which revolve around his wife’s horrible battle with cancer) and there are people who have criticized him for not abiding by his own rules and principles. I take particular umbrage with this especially when it manifests as people who seem to think he elevates himself to figure of perfection pointing and laughing when (a mortal man) begins to crack under pressure the likes of which they will never know. These groups of people in my view are also the ones who have completely missed the points he was trying to convey and in all likelihood have never closely read of listened to anything he’s done. He has never elevated himself to such heights and readily admits that the rules he sets out are ideals he’s striving towards and is encouraging you to do the same (if you even crack the book at all you’ll see that quite clearly).

Don’t misunderstand, he’s not above criticism at all, again he is a fallible mortal man and I disagree with him on some points however; even if you disagree with everything he stands for, it is frankly odious in the extreme to kick a man when he’s down like that and says a lot more about you than it does about him.

Phew… rant over. Sorry, that kind of behavior gets under my skin. Moving on!

Here are the 12 rules as they appear in the book:

· Stand up straight with your shoulders back

· Treat yourself like someone you’re responsible for helping

· Make friends with people who want the best for you

· Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

· Don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

· Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

· Peruse what is meaningful, not what is expedient

· Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie

· Assume the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t

· Be precise in your speech

· Don’t bother children when they’re skateboarding

· Pet a cat (or dog) when you encounter one on the street

Now I won’t go into the content of these rules or the thinking behind them, you can listen to Akira the Don’s 12 Rules for Life album (linked at the end) for that if you really don’t have time to get the book. I will say though that it starts to follow a pattern that’s very interesting: First, he states the rule, shows you why it’s a good thing to have with anecdotes or commonly held thoughts, then dives deep into philosophy of it starting with the most basic point possible. The ensuing explanation takes you through a jungle of sorts and could cover everything from Christian, Buddhist, Greco-Roman, and Hindu mythologies and iconographies, to Jungian archetypes, to biochemistry, and the writings of Nietzsche, Socrates, Solzhenitsyn, Marx, our friend Aristotle, and Freud then; slowly but surely brings you back up to where you were at the start and finally examines what you could be if you were to live by this rule and develop the virtues that would be necessary to honestly follow that rule.

This book has been possibly one of the most influential on my outlook on life I have ever read. I found it at a critical crossroads where I had to decide what kind of person I was going to be. It was in my nature to take the hardest path I could but it would be truly impossible for me to take it alone. Credit for this naturally goes to all the wonderful people I have around me but also in no small part to Dr. Peterson (Brett McKay and Theodore Roosevelt also). I began to notice my world getting brighter and more meaningful and my brain working in overdrive every day. I felt more alive than I ever have done. I eventually began to apply this way of thinking to my music and it felt akin to doing something you know you should but don’t want to do to it. I was more motivated than ever to practice and improve, even if that meant sucking for a little while longer. When the breakthrough came it was magical but again I looked off to the proverbial horizon and saw the next thing I had to do. And the next. And the next. I feel an immense sense of pride to count myself among those whose lives has been oriented in a much better direction than where they were going thanks to his work.

I’ll end with this: If you feel yourself seeing the world as a zero sum game or feel that ever seductive pull of nihilism, or even a bit aimless and listless, pick up this book or listen to the album and it will take you on a long walk that feels like a parent or a trusted friend with an outside perspective getting you to talk about yourself for a bit. All of a sudden you’ll know what to do and you can start clawing your way to what you could be and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll make it and go beyond. You are more than you are, and you’re also more powerful and important than you think.

Well… this became way denser than I thought it would be and I hope you enjoy my novel. Or rather novlog if you will. This list was originally supposed to be a Top 10 list but it just got way too long and the remaining 5 will probably be the subject of a later post. I hope you enjoyed and I will post links to the books above so you can buy it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Links to the books:

Akira the Don’s 12 Rules for life Album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSQSETwnrio

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