A Better Idea than Beating Out the Competition

“Build a better mousetrap” is the strategy adopted by most artists.  Believing that beating out the competition will lead to gigs and success, they work tirelessly to dance a little better, play a little faster, paint a little bigger.  This same tactic is applied to building a website, architecting a performance, making a recording, shaping a teaching studio, and just about everything else they do.

There are two problems with such an approach.

  1. Few of us can actually be the best.  The bar is already too high.
  2. Most audiences aren’t demanding higher levels of perfection. What’s already available is plenty good enough.

Here’s a better idea: Create a new market, where there’s no competition at all.

Consider cereal, for a moment. Grocery store aisles are lined with all kinds of cereal—sweet ones, healthy ones, fruity ones, fun ones, shaped ones, colored ones, crackle-y ones.  New cereals have a hard time getting noticed, even if they are “better” than the competition.  There are already more than we know what to do with.

Then one clever company invented the cereal bar. Wow—cereal isn’t just for breakfast anymore!  You can put it in your pocket!  They created a new market, and by doing so, made a lot of money and impact.  (Of course, a few years later, many competitors hope to capture some of that glory by making “better” cereal bars.)

The same logic applies to artistic products and services. Don’t try to outpace the competition.  You’ll probably fail. And even if you don’t, the rewards will be small.  Instead, avoid competition altogether.  Create new markets. Consider the following:


Will you be the original? The initial company/band/artist to open up a market has what is known as the “first mover advantage,” especially if they visibly market their wares. They have a head start towards becoming the leading authority in that area.  Since consumers don’t change habits easily, this provides a huge benefit.


What makes you and your work different than everything else available?  Better is subjective, and hard to market.  Different is easily quantified and explained.  Of course, make sure it’s not just different, but also fulfills a real need.


What barriers are in place to prevent others from copying your idea?  As soon as your venture is successful, new organizations will undoubtedly try to imitate and—once again—beat out the competition. To prevent this from happening, erect a moat around your castle. Place measures so that others won’t be able to enter the market and usurp your business.  Some ways to do this are:

  • Legal protection.  Copyright or patent your work/idea.
  • Money. Spend considerably more capital than the competition can afford (unlikely for us independent musicians).
  • Shock and awe. Be more thorough and comprehensive than the competition could ever be.  With the first mover advantage, you’ll have a head start.
  • Combination. Combine your unique skill sets and assets to ensure that no one else will be in your league.
  • Expert buy-in. Team up with the best minds in the business.  Instead of competing against them, make them partners.

How I Use These Principles in My Music Career

As a piano player, I’ve always been a hard worker and a strong performer.  But I’ll never be the best pianist in the world, or maybe even in town.  However, my brand is one against which few people can compete. For starters, I’ll play anything: virtuosic classical literature, burning jazz improvisations, beautiful pop ballads, quirky Irish reels.  Often on the same concert. And I’ll do anything.  Many events incorporate movement, costumes, secondary instruments, lighting, singing, interactive speaking, beat boxing, humor.  Heck, I’ll even do a magic trick or use a puppet. Please understand, these are not merely gimmicks. They are always used to support the artistic integrity of the show. But few other people (if any) are capable of or willing to exhibit this kind of versatility.

When I started writing The Savvy Musician, there were no other top-notch music career books for trained musicians on the market.  But a couple of years into the “product development” phase (writing), a text was released.  Not only did that author benefit from the First Mover Advantage, but this title was quite strong.  So I had to differentiate.  Some distinguishing features/benefits of my book: 165 case studies of actual musicians; comprehensive sister website (yes, this site!); in-depth focus on an entrepreneurial mindset, marketing, personal finance, performance models, and leaving a legacy; even a comedy song. (For a more complete list, click here.)  I’ve also become friends with the other author, and we’ve been involved with several joint projects to date.

Next time you brainstorm project concepts, try to shoot holes in them.  Will you have the first mover advantage?  Are there barriers to entry?  Will they be highly differentiated, while fulfilling real needs?  If so, the rewards can be great. Forget about the competition. Let them fight their own battles.

Check out David Cutler’s

THE SAVVY MUSICIAN: Building a Career, Earning a Living, & Making a Difference

“Hands down, the most valuable resource available for aspiring musicians.”

— Jeffrey Zeigler, Kronos Quartet

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