In the spring of 2021, I started The Art of Longevity podcast with the aim of interviewing established music artists with honest reflection and perspective the main thrusts of the conversation – and no other agenda. 

There are 21 themes overall and I expect there will be a few more to add as the podcast continues. 

Make art not entertainment:

Many artists have come a cropper by either trying to write a hit or trying to repeat the trick of writing a song like the one that previously was a hit. This is made harder by the pressure they are often under to do so, applied by record label execs with an obvious bias to hits, since that’s their job. But resist the temptation and the hits will come anyhow, at least sometimes. 

Obsess over your references, but meld them into something that is uniquely ‘you’:

In a world in which there are no new ideas, it is fine to beg, steal and borrow, provided you create something unique from it (if you want proof of that just think about The Rolling Stones!)

Work to an internal code, pact or system: 

Any artist looking to take risks is more likely to go the distance, but to do so will mean working to a code, mantra, manifesto, pact or system that only the band can access, nobody else. 

See line-up changes as an inevitable part of evolution:

The loss of a key band member can be a punch to the stomach for any band, yet the choice remains – pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on and make another record. 

Get very, very good live:

Honing your craft live is what a career in music is all about. Yes, there is making albums, but performing those songs is where it’s at. All the bands and artists that qualify for the ‘longevity’ conversation are very good live acts who have put in their 10,000 hours in rehearsal rooms, festivals and out on the road. 

Make music about themes you associate deeply with:

In the continuous waterfall of new music releases, it’s almost impossible to stand out. The best records contain strong themes that the creator can channel in a way that is individual and authentic.

Invent a sub-genre:

At the height of the ‘second latin music explosion’ in the late 90s came Calexico. With their eclectic mix of Tex Mex, mariachi and indie-americana, Calexico brought something different and new. All three musicians continue to make new music, thriving and still restlessly creating across many styles and genres. They earned the right to do so however, because they created a genre. 

Respect the great musicians of the past but do not try to compete with them:

Tears For Fears famously made one of the most tortuous and expensive albums in history. The Seeds of Love, an album so “opulent, expensive, puffed-up, bombastic” (Roland’s words) they couldn’t follow it up. Tears For Fears imploded under the pressure. Between long gaps, the band have come together to make records with the belief that even after making three of the best in pop history, they can still create work that they consider to be as good as their best. They are their own judges. 

Before you make your first album, make sure you have written two albums:

The ‘difficult second album’ remains a pivotal moment for most artists – the first bridge to potential long-term success. Most examples of failed sophomore records are either trying to repeat a successful debut or rushing out songs to capitalise an initial success. A way to mitigate this is have enough songs in the bag. 

Make your songs a bit weird:

When Nile took control of David Bowie’s early folk rendition of ‘Let’s Dance’ and turned it into Bowie’s biggest commercial success, the creative result was fantastic, yet also (in Rodgers’ own words) weird. Everyone involved knew Let’s Dance was special, but it sounded like no other song ever to reach the charts. Despite the ‘song-by-numbers’ culture in the streaming era, it’s worth remembering that audiences are real people, and that real people like stuff that’s weird.

Have the confidence to disrupt yourself before the industry disrupts you:

Many musicians are intuitive enough to know what record label execs do not; that staying in your lane will send you quickly down a cul de sac. That any number of comparative charts and benchmarks cannot inspire you in one commercial direction or another. As an artist (especially an important label priority) the last thing you might do is exactly what you are told, lest you might end up back in the charts and holding another token industry award but creatively disillusioned and soon washed-up. 

Welcome in those little details that might change your destiny aka trust your studio team:

Back in 1992, the Barenaked Ladies song ‘One Week’ finally broke the band in the USA and brought them international fame too. Although Ed Robertson had written the song and taken lead vocals duty (including that famous dexterous rap) Ed thought the idea of the record label, to make One Week the lead single for their new album, to be a joke. Then, the record’s producer (Susan Rogers) suggested the drum loop “wasn’t very cool”. Because of Susan’s input, the band changed the drums, a tweak which transformed the song and in effect, the band’s entire future. 

Be your own cottage industry:

A common pattern with artists that have achieved longevity is that they tend to get started under their own steam. Portico Quartet spent their early years busking along London’s Southbank. I bought a copy of the band’s very first, self-pressed four-track CD for £5, one of 10,000 sold. So much of success in music is still down to luck. But the point is, you need to make your own luck. 

Create in a vacuum but have an appreciation of how the market works:

It helps for artists to know their market, so that they can be aware of the true potential of what they have created, and to be obliging and to understand the commercial requirements of a label, whose job it is to make money. In the end, marketing and promoting a record is best done as a meeting of minds, not a fight over what should be the single, or who the target audience is. With hindsight, many legacy artists wish they’d known more about the industry and music marketing. Today’s business is more collaborative, with both artists and labels required to play major roles in marketing, preferably under a joined-up strategy. 

Remain grateful and humble for the stratospheric rise but know how to come down:

Most bands of longevity get to have their moment in the sun. Whether it was for one big song, a string of hit albums, being associated with a scene on the rise – their time in the spotlight didn’t ‘just happen’. As a legendary A&R executive once told me “We do not live in a world where talent rises naturally to the top”.

Keep in mind that your best work is ahead of you:

After her second album Fires, Nerina Pallot was suddenly hot property on the music scene circa 2007. Never quite comfortable with that, her third album The Graduate (2009) was an uneven affair that failed to keep the spotlight shining Nerina’s way. Maybe that turned out for the better. Nerina regrouped to make a more consistent and accomplished record ‘Year Of The Wolf’ in 2011. The album received positive reviews from fans and critics alike, many complimenting the more mature sound and direction. It became a foundation for what she does – make finely-crafted records of grown-up pop music. 

Create a culture and commerce will follow:

Some of the most successful artists created culture first and commerce second. Portico Quartet, Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub all did this. 

If you get dropped, turn things around and make your best record:

While being dropped might be bewildering and depressing for an artist (and labels too), it is a new beginning rather than the end. It follows that labels might think twice about dropping artists and perhaps rarely should. 

Earn the right to say ‘no’ and recognise what this means for your career:

After Fink made ‘Perfect Darkness’ (album number four) the band had earned the right to say “no”. No to playing small shitty venues. No to rushing out a follow-up record. No to some (of the many) sync offers that came rushing in. It was at that point, after seven years of saying yes to everything, that the band began to realise they had created something of real value and were in it for the long game.

Take your time:

You cannot make memorable songs by fidgeting and frittering away ‘content’. Well you can, but the more confident way through is to quietly focus on your art. The fans will welcome you back long after the ‘followers’ have forgotten you existed. 

Have other pursuits of meaning outside of your main music vehicle:

In life there are four elements: work, family, relationships and you – and a balance has to be achieved. Artists can struggle with this balance. Between the intensity of writing and recording and the hard graft of touring, the obsessive element to being a musician makes work-life balance impossible. It goes without saying that paying more attention to physical and mental wellbeing has become more recognised and important for artists in the modern industry, though problems are still rife. What matters is that you make the time to regenerate, make the art you need to make and that you keep in touch with your fans. Longevity is not a linear process, but cyclical – everything comes back around.

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