2011 Best Reads from the Savvy Musician

Successful artists, leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators have the most interesting ideas. Not just because they’re somehow magically smarter or more creative. Part of the formula is that these individuals are voracious readers, impacted dramatically by the perspectives of thought leaders. They’re also experts at synthesizing information—taking something intended to address one situation and adopting it to another. Reading the right books challenges how you think, expands your horizons, and helps you imagine new possibilities for your art.

Below are 10 of the most influential books I read in 2011. This year, my reading list focused around the topics of institutional change, education, leadership, business models, and marketing. Notice that not one of the titles on this year’s list is written specifically for artists. But all are deeply relevant to the challenges faced by this sector in our quickly changing world. I hope you’ll find some of these helpful and beneficial to your own evolution.

1)      There’s a Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum’s Secrets to Business Success. By Joe Vitale. The world may be changing at a breakneck tempo, but what it takes to get noticed has not. This book examines the life and practices of the greatest arts entrepreneur of all times, circus mastermind P.T. Barnum. With engaging and powerful prose, this biographical account introduces ten “Rings of Power” that are spot on today for artists who hope to attract maximum attention. A great read!

2)      The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. By Michael Gerber. While several points addressed here probably aren’t the right approach for artists running the small business of their career (he often points to the fast food McDonalds model), I learned a ton from this book and so will you. Gerber explains how to methodically create a business model and life that works for you, rather than being overwhelmed by the frantic antics practiced by most artists and small business owners. This will alter your approach to creating a career in the arts.

3)      Linchpin: Are You Indispensible? By Seth Godin. When reading this, I was delighted to learn that “Our economy now rewards artists far more than any other economy in history ever has.” Wow!!!  As someone who has devoted much life energy to helping artists maximize professional and personal success, this assertion definitely caught my attention. But just because you’re involved with the arts doesn’t make you an artist. So are you indispensible? (Find more thoughts HERE.)

4)      Who Moved My Cheese? By Spencer Johnson. This short 94-page book takes literally less than an hour to read. It tells the story of two mice and two littlepeople who live off cheese in a maze. When their supply runs out, the mice immediate move on in search of new riches. But the smarter and more complex littlepeople have a much harder time adapting to their new circumstances. Throughout the evolutionary process, many valuable lessons are learned. Inspirational and vital words, especially during our industry’s current metamorphosis.  

5)      Buy In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down. By John P. Kotter. Let’s face it. No matter how good your idea, there will be scores of doubters and naysayers eager to tear it to shreds. Kotter urges that advocates of change initiatives welcome all feedback, even by the fiercest critics. He then outlines the four most common categories of idea squashing (fear mongering, delay, confusion, ridicule), and suggests appropriate and potent responses to the 24 most common attacks.

6)      Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results. By Roger Connors and Tom Smith. Though the writing style of this book is a little dry and academic, it offers specific and actionable steps for changing institutional culture. To do this, the entire results pyramid must be altered—from bottom to top—Experiences, Beliefs, Actions, Results. A must read for any leader hoping to help evolve an arts organization or institution.

7)      Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. By Yong Zhao. Claiming that America’s pre-college education system is broken is about the least controversial claim one can make. For evidence, just consider our pathetic standardized test scores when compared with other first world nations. However, Zhao points out that China, South Korea, and other high scoring societies understand that their education system is also broken. Innovation, creativity, and leadership in these nations are disturbingly low. As they increasingly try to emulate aspects of American education, such as creativity and individualism, we ironically embrace ineffective measures that will not serve us well. A fascinating perspective, and one that suggests (among other things) the true potential of arts education.

8)      In Defense of Elitism. By William Henry. After hearing a provocative talk by Norman Lebrecht suggesting that classical music become more elitist (my reflections HERE), a colleague suggested I read this. Without a doubt, it is the most controversial text I’ve read in years. Henry, the late NY Times reporter, argues that America has made a clear decision to embrace egalitarianism (the notion that everyone and every idea should be equal) over elitism (celebrating excellence) across the board. In terms of art, he argues that classical music is simply superior to pop music, end of story—a position far away from the egalitarian view I tend to espouse. Addressing everything from educaction to the job market, many of his points didn’t sit right with me, but others were quite compelling. If you want to be challenged, this book won’t disappoint.  

9)      Start Something that Matters. By Blake Mycoskie. The founder of the for-profit company TOMS, whose business donates a pair of shoes to poverty stricken children for every pair they sell, argues that giving is good business. “If you incorporate giving into your business and life, you will see greater returns and rewards than you ever imagined. So many good things happen to you when giving is integrated into your business—and I’m not even talking about the wonderful results of the giving itself…I’m talking about the business.”  Inspirational, and a great position for artists.

10)  The 29% Solution: 52 Networking Success Strategies. Though not particularly high-level or groundbreaking, this book provides many helpful networking strategies. It reminds us just how important word-of-mouth marketing is, and urges that hours each week be devoted to this practice. He also stresses that it’s not “net-SITting” or “net-EATing” but “net-WORKing.”


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