Actinomycetes are a diverse family of filamentous bacteria that produce a plethora of natural products relevant for agriculture, biotechnology and medicine, including the majority of the antibiotics we use in the clinic. Rather than as free-living bacteria, many actinomycetes have evolved to live in symbiosis with among others plants, fungi, insects and sponges. As a common theme, these organisms profit from the natural products and enzymes produced by the actinomycetes, for example, for protection against pathogenic microbes, for growth promotion or for the degradation of complex natural polymers such as lignocellulose. At the same time, the actinomycetes benefit from the resources of the hosts they interact with. Evidence is accumulating that these interactions control the expression of biosynthetic gene clusters and have played a major role in the evolution of the high chemical diversity of actinomycete-produced secondary metabolites. Many of the biosynthetic gene clusters for antibiotics are poorly expressed under laboratory conditions, but they are likely expressed in response to host-specific demands. Here, we review the environmental triggers and cues that control natural product formation by actinomycetes and provide pointers as to how these insights may be harnessed for drug discovery.