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Built for the System or Not

I was recently inspired by a Seth Godin blog, “Is a famous thinker better than a great one?”

Seth’s concept applies to artists and musicians, I think. Only the question for us becomes, “is a famous artist’s music, creativity, & show better than yours?” Because someone is famous, are they more creative, is their show better, and is what they have to say more valid than what you have to say?

Maybe… maybe not.

I like some popular music (pop, country, rock, etc.). There are a lot of great producers out there, as well as some very creative players with really good songs. But there are also a lot of artists that remind me of fast food.

Not that all fast food is inherently bad.In my travels I eat at some fast food places: El Pollo Loco (on the west coast), Taco Cabana (when I’m in Texas), El Pollo Tropical (in Florida)… those are some of my favorites.

But then there’s McDonald’s. McDonald’s has great branding, great marketing, and it’s conveniently located everywhere. But is it good food? I don’t think so.

A lot of popular music is like that: it has great branding, great marketing, and it’s conveniently located everywhere (on radio, TV, internet, etc.). But is it good music? Not always.

To be honest, when I go out to eat, I prefer going to a place where the chef is creative and not in a hurry. Not necessarily a famous chef. It might even be a good family restaurant that will never have a big world-wide chain. The chefs there get to do what they love to do, and they get to build a relationship with a community of people who keep on coming back. But they probably won’t ever be famous.

It’s that way with great music. Some artists will never be “famous,” but they “cook great food” (I mean make great music!). But they love what they do, and they make a living doing it. They’ll never (did I say “never?”), never get played on the radio. Does that make them any less valid or creative? I think not.

When I’m not working I like to listen to music many people have never heard of (because they’re not played on radio). Some of my favorite artists are groups like Shpongle, Afro-Celt Sound System, Zero 7. And I still love progressive rock bands like Yes, Gentle Giant, and others. I personally like trippy, creative, outside the box artists when I listen to music.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like popular artists who work inside the box, too. There are a lot of awesome artists who work within that popular music “box.” That’s because they’re still creative, they know how to work within the system, and their music, personality, & message fit into that system.

They were built for that system; some people aren’t built that way. And that’s OK.

Just because some of you haven’t achieved fame, fortune, and become a household name, doesn’t mean your music isn’t great. Because someone is popular, does that make them more important, more valid, worth more to people? I don’t think so. 

So, for whatever it’s worth, I encourage you to:

  • be true to yourself,

  • be smart (know what it takes to work within your system),

  • and don’t compromise just to make yourself “fit” into the wrong system.

Because if you are creative, your music is extraordinary, and you have the ability to communicate that in a live performance – you have a shot at a career doing what you love to do!


Tom Jackson

Tom is uniquely talented and skilled at transforming an artist's live show into a magical experience for the audience; helping artists at every level create a live show that is engaging and memorable, teaching them to exceed their audiences' expectations and to create fans for life. Tom has taught indie and major artists of every genre. He has worked with Taylor Swift, Le Crae, Home Free, The Tenors, Shawn Mendes, The Band Perry, Francesca Battistelli, Jars of Clay, & many more. Tom also teaches at colleges, conferences and events worldwide.

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Greenroom Comments

  1. Thanks for the encouragement Tom! I appreciate the time, heart and wisdom you put into each of your blog posts ☺️

  2. What a great article!! Thanks, Tom!! : )

  3. What a great article! Thanks, Tom!! : )

  4. Often times, the more popular choice isn’t the better one. One of the things I tell my clients all the time is that breaking out of being a best kept secret is more about marketing and messaging (and the capacity to serve at that bigger level) than it is about being the best at anything.

    Being great only helps further your work, but it’s not the only thing that gets you seen or builds your fan base.
    THANKS for this great reminder, Tom!

  5. Well said Tom. I lead the Chicago Songwriters Collective which is a group that is largely comprised of people like you’re addressing here. We too try to encourage musicians to get their creative offerings out into the world. The indies challenge today is that there is a dizzying array of options on the road to being heard.
    Carrying on the food analogy, while we’d all like to partake of a grand feast, perhaps the simple daily meal is the best nourishment. And sometimes, a chocolate shake at McDonalds gets the job done 🙂

  6. Yep! Great reminder. thanks Tom 🙂

    I was just looking ai web radio promotion btw: I think the greatest challenge for indie artists like myself is to get that sustainability in place. those 1000 true fams you can give your heart to and that can support your work in the long run. There are so many ways to approach this, the hardest thing is to choose what works for you.

    So your line “They were built for that system; some people aren’t built that way. And that’s OK.” really resonates.

  7. I love it, thanks so much Tom for the inspiration!! ♥️

  8. Thanks Tom! Great stuff!

    Victor from Germany

  9. Hi Tom,

    One hour before I found this in my email, I told my producer that I wanted to take an evolvoing recording in a direction that feels true to me and honors the song as I sang it, which is to make it long and luxurious, an escape for the listener just as I imagined it was for the speaker as I sang her words…rather than squashed into a pop song box. Which it will never fit into anyway. If I don’t create my art, who will? Thanks for the comments.

  10. Jesica Paige says:


    Thanks so much for this insightful post!

    As an actress in the last 1/2 of my life, and a mom with a musically gifted daughter who is a singer/songwriter trying to find her niche, I truly appreciate your perspective. You make 100% sense in what you’ve shared. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and much that I’m eager to share with my daughter.

    Thanks again!

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