One of my favorite quotes about music, came from Sam Beam, aka Iron & Wine, he said, “When you treat it like a job, they pay you like it’s a job.”. I always loved this quote because I think it really sums up the mindset you need to have to turn your passion for music into a full-time career. If you simply dabble in music, whenever inspiration strikes, and take a half-hearted approach to your music career, chances are your income that you generate from your music is going to reflect that.
If your goal is to make music a full-time job, that you can live from, you need to approach it as such. This entails getting up every day with a strategy and a game plan that you execute on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I think where a lot of musicians get stuck, is not knowing exactly where to focus their energy and not know what the best plan of action is. Making music is sort of the easy and obvious part. But what do you do once the music is made?
As I’ve often said, music is different from other, more traditional professions, in that there isn’t always a clear and concise path to success. This can be confusing and frustrating. If you’re not sure what to do on a regular basis, that will help get you closer to your goal, how do you know where to best focus your energy? How can you confidently work towards the realization of your goals?
Well, there isn’t one clear answer to this, but in the hundreds of interviews I’ve done over the last decade, and in my experience with all the musicians I’ve connected and collaborated with in a variety of different capacities, there are a few clear commonalities that most success stories share.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you already have music that is amazing and ready to be shared with the world. This is obviously a gigantic subject and one which is ultimately subjective. Which makes it sort of hard to talk about in the context of a “how to” article. How do you make “great” music? How do you know if your music is “great” and ready to be shared with the world? Well, I’ll leave that up to you as an artist to figure out. I personally think you sort of just know. When you write a great song, or complete an amazing composition, you can sense it. If you’re not really sure whether or not you have great music, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t, yet.
Marketing And Connections
Success in the music business, apart from the music itself, comes down to marketing and connections. That’s really it. Look at the music business around you. Look at the acts that have become enormously successful. Start to ask yourself why certain band and artists are successful and you’re not. Start to actually investigate the back stories of what led to successful artists becoming successful. You can often times reverse engineer the relationships and connections that led to an artists’ success.
For example, did you know that Taylor Swift’s Dad was an early investor in Taylor Swift’s record label (until a few days ago), Big Machine Records? Swift’s Father reportedly invested around 120k in Big Machine to help launch the label and Taylor’s career. Does that mean that he bought her career? I don’t see it that way. The public voted a resounding yes on Taylor Swift and I think it’s her music, drive and personality that ultimately cemented her success. But did her Dads connections and money help get her started? Absolutely and I think there’s a good chance you would have never heard of Taylor Swift had her parents not invested in her career early on.
For an artist to become successful in the mainstream, there needs to both be a “product” the mainstream public wants, and it needs to be marketed successfully. Money and connections open certain doors, but the music itself obviously plays a huge role, that really can’t be denied. Whether you like music that becomes popular or not, there is something about popular music that works and results in becoming successful. For example, in the case of Taylor Swift, her Father’s support in launching her career no doubt helped, but it’s undeniable that Taylor Swift is immensely talented as a songwriter and performer and has an incredible work ethic. Money and connections alone don’t create one of the world’s most successful artists. If they did, there would be a lot more Taylor Swifts.
Apart from the actual music itself, the common denominator I see that separates the vast majority of successful artists from those who are not successful, all other things being equal, is how well their music and brand is being marketed. If no one knows you, then you’ll never become “successful” in the public eye. The public needs to know about your music, to know whether or not it likes it in the first place. Part of your job, if you’re an indie artist, is to figure out how to better promote and market yourself to more and more people.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Ok, great, it makes sense and is sort of obvious, but how? How do I get my music noticed and heard in a sea of unknown artists? Well, that’s the 64 Million Dollar question we’re all trying to figure out. If it was as simple as do X, Y and Z and then you’re a rock star, we’d all just do X, Y and Z and be rock stars already.
It might not be simple or easy, but I do think a few conclusions can be drawn. Here’s what I see working among all the success stories I know of, both in terms of mainstream success and success on a smaller scale, among indie artists who are able to make a living from their music.
These are the areas you should be focusing your time, every single day, if you want to make a full time living from music:
The Music – Again, it all starts with the music. Regardless of what your thoughts on contemporary music, whether or not you like it, and whether or not you think the public has “good” taste in music, the music itself still plays a critical role. Public tastes change and trends come and go, but the performance, emotion and feeling you put into your music matter as much as ever. Focus on the music you make, first and foremost. Write great songs and build up a body of work you can license, stream, perform, sell and so on. Without great, marketable music, nothing else you do will really matter. Whenever I’m not quite sure what to focus on, I focus on simply writing the most amazing music I’m capable of.
Money/Connections/Networking – Money and connections help, as they always have. Knowing the right people or connecting with the right person, can make a huge difference in your career. We might not all have rich fathers that are willing to invest six figures in the launch of our careers, but all of us can do things like attend industry events, network, shake hands, make phone calls and so forth, in order to connect with more people in the business. Don’t come from a place of trying to use people or get something from them. This is almost always the wrong approach. Instead aim to make connections with people that are genuine and authentic.
Money, as in the case of Taylor Swift, can buy promotion and attention. Money buys things like recording time, promotion, advertising and on and on. Of course, if we all had an unlimited supply of money, we could simply buy our way onto the public’s radar. But, do your best with the resources and money you have.
Things like Facebook advertising, google ads, Youtube, Reddit and more, can all be great ways to promote your music on a small budget. Of course, it will be harder with a smaller budget in many ways. But the good news is that you won’t be able to simply waste money on a product that isn’t ready to be promoted. Hone your music and your marketing skills and make every dollar count, winning over new fans, one at a time. As your success in music grows, you can increase your marketing budget accordingly. Working on shoe string budget will force you to really focus on what works. (Yes, my glass is half full.)
Outside The Box Thinking (Branding) – This is probably my favorite part of the conversation in terms of marketing and branding. It’s what I call “outside the box” thinking. This is my favorite part of the discussion, because it’s something we all have access to. We don’t get to choose our parents or what kind of wealth and connections we’re born into, but we can all choose to look at the world in a more creative, “outside the box” sort of way.
For an artist or brand to become talked about in the press, there needs to be something extremely compelling to discuss. Again, clearly the music you make needs to be great. But, the problem is that there is so much music out there, that even if your music is amazing, it can be hard to break through the barrage of music that exists, if you’re not doing something unique and original and branding yourself properly.
Having an interesting and compelling story and brand, will make it easier for people to remember you and make it more likely that you’ll get featured in the press, on people’s blogs, playlists and so on. Don’t just release your music and hope that’s enough. It won’t be. Tell people why you’re creating music. Reach out to bloggers, playlist curators, press outlets and more and tell them what makes you different and unique. Be creative not just in terms of the music you make, but how you present yourself and your music to the world.
I find that often times adding fairly minor details in terms of what inspired you to write specific songs and release specific albums goes a long way in getting bloggers and play-listers to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a super elaborate back story.
For example, I’m going to be releasing a new EP of all instrumental, ambient guitar music soon, and I’ve been contacting blogs and playlists to get some help in promoting my new release. In the last few days alone my first single, Rays, was picked up by two new blogs and is going to be added to a pretty large playlist (several hundred thousand followers) next week! I simply reached out to a few different places and told them about my new release and how I’m inspired and driven to create music that is positive and uplifting, in order to combat all the darkness and craziness in the world. Which is entirely true, but I had never really taken the time to articulate that until recently.
What’s your story? Why is making music so important to you? How can you better convey what inspires you and motivates you in your branding? Improving your branding and marketing can actually be a really fun and insightful process. It forces you to really get in touch with what motivates you and drives you.
Check out the first single from my upcoming, instrumental, ambient guitar release, called “Rays”.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.