I recently listened to an interview with guitarist Steve Vai where he talked about the ups and downs of his career. From playing with Frank Zappa to artists like David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, to his massively successful solo career in the 80s and then surviving the 90s and early 2000s where virtuosic guitar playing wasn’t considered as trendy or “cool” as it once was, Steve Vai simply kept being Steve Vai through it all.
One of the things Steve said during the interview that really stuck with me is how, throughout all the ups and downs of his career and throughout the changing trends in the music industry, he just kept making the sort of music he was inspired to make. He didn’t try to become a grunge artist just because grunge was popular in the 90s and he didn’t try to become a pop star in the 2000s when pop music became trendier. Steve Vai just kept making Steve Vai music through it all.
And although most of us probably aren’t at the level Steve Vai is in the music business in terms of fame and success, I think his philosophy really applies to all musicians, regardless of what level you’re at. If you think about it, all you can really control as a musician is the music you make. That’s really it. You can’t make someone like it or stream it or license it. You can of course do things to increase the odds of these things happening in terms of promotion. But all you’re really in control of ultimately is your musical output. And if making music is all you can really control, doesn’t it make sense to make music you’re actually excited and passionate about?
I recently found out that one of my songs was “almost used” in a major Netflix production. A sync agency I recently signed with informed me that one of my tracks was being held for consideration for an upcoming Netflix movie but that it didn’t end up making it into the final edits. They asked me to send them more tracks and said they feel confident they will be able to place my tracks, but that it’s a matter of finding the “right opportunity at the right time”. Such is the nature of sync licensing.
I don’t normally brag about my music almost being used in a project, but it’s relevant to the point of today’s post, so hear me out… You see, at first, I was a little bummed out about the news of my song not being used, but the more I thought about it the more inspired I got. There are always several different ways of looking at any particular situation. I could get discouraged about the fact that my song got so close to being used but that ultimately it wasn’t picked and use this as further evidence that success in the music business is unattainable. Or I can choose to be motivated by the fact that my music was considered high quality enough to be considered by the film’s music supervisor in the first place and use that motivation to keep going and continue making even better music that will eventually find its way into even bigger productions.
The choice is always up to you in terms of how you respond to these types of situations. You can choose to get down about your perceived lack of success, or you can celebrate every victory and step forward no matter how small it might be. But either way you go, all you can really do if you want to move forward, is keep making more music. That’s it. That is your number one job as a musician. Make music. Of course, keep pitching your music and connecting with people in the business to increase the odds of your music connecting with the right project, but ultimately it’s about the music you make.
One of the things that’s strange about the business of sync licensing, is that often we have no idea as musicians pursuing sync licensing deals how close we are to attaining success. The only reason I found out about the Netflix production was that this particular Sync agency requested more music and so I asked them if there had been any specific interest in my tracks. They told me there were several close calls and gave me specific details about the Netflix project.
If you have your music placed with different libraries and agencies you could be getting really close to having the sort of breakthrough you’re hoping for, but not even know it! Of course, it’s helpful to find out details about projects and when you find out specific details it can be encouraging, even if your music isn’t ultimately used. But you can’t count on finding these details out. You have to stay motivated and keep making music regardless of what happens. I’m sure there have been many, many more “close calls” over the years that I never knew about.
Fortunately, I’ve never stopped making music and so I have new tracks that I feel are even stronger than the track that “almost” made it into the Netflix film. I’m so glad that I’ve kept going all these years, because I know that getting my tracks into even bigger, higher profile projects will happen eventually. But until that happens, I’m going to keep focusing on the only thing I can really control, which is simply making the best music possible.
Hear my track that was "almost" licensed to Netflix, The Road I Travel, here:
As a generation Xer, I grew up in a time when the music business was dramatically different than the music business of 2022. When I was a teenager in the 80s and 90s, there was still a “record business” that consisted of record labels, radio stations, record label advances, tour support, etc..
The music business was never considered an easy business to break into or a “practical” business. But there was a system and a process in place “back in the day” that seemed to work, in many ways, better than the music business we have today. It was highly competitive of course and cut-throat, but the music business of the past produced an enormous number of iconic musicians for a span of forty years or so.
Here's Gene Simmons of Kiss describing why he thinks, in his words, the modern-day music business is “chaos” and describing how the “old school” music business model worked better:
As someone who grew up during part of the era Gene Simmons is describing and then transitioning into adulthood when the music business really started to change (which in my estimation, contrary to Gene’s date of 1988, I think is more around the year 2000), a part of me really resonated with Gene’s take on the music business of today. In fact, I think Gene, sadly, is more or less on target with his summation of the current music business. The modern-day music business is sort of chaotic, with no clearly defined path to success laid out for aspiring musicians.
But the more I reflected on the video with Gene Simmons, the more I realized he’s sort of looking at things the wrong way. Let me explain…
When I started my business teaching music licensing way back in 2008, my plan was to simply supplement my income while I worked towards “making it” in the music business. To make a long story short, that never really happened the way I had hoped and anticipated. Yes, I was able to license a lot of my music over the years, and yes, I was able to sustain myself working in the “music business”, but I never quite reached the level of success I had hoped to when I started out on this journey many years ago.
Over the last couple years, as I find myself, well, not getting any younger, I’ve been really reflecting on where things went wrong, so to speak, if anything even went wrong at all, or if I simply ended up where I’ve ended up due to circumstances largely out of my control. I’m certainly not responsible for the internet or the death of the music industry after all, and we all know talent alone doesn’t guarantee success and that music is subjective. Breaking into the music business was never exactly easy.
In other words, if I didn’t become more successful due to circumstances outside of my control, I’m ok with that. I can accept that. However, if I failed to go further because I didn’t accurately assess the situation, that's a little harder for me to accept and at the very least I want to learn from where I went wrong. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20.
The Music Business Will Never Go Back To What It Used To Be
It's hard to be objective about ourselves and our own lives and careers. We all have “blind spots” and things we can’t see about ourselves. As the late philosopher Alan Watts used to say, “It’s hard to see the spot you’re standing on”. I’ve been working really hard this year to be more objective about myself and my own strengths and shortcomings, and what I could have done better or differently in terms of my own career, so that I can do better going forward. After all, I can’t change the past, but I can certainly learn from it.
One thing I’ve realized upon reflection, is that over time I’ve become quite cynical about the music business. Not about music per se, but the music business. I’ve realized that I’ve sort of been waiting for the music business to go back to what it used to be or to somehow magically improve and all the while bemoaning the fact that the music business is in the state it is. Although I’ve embraced things like sync licensing as alternative forms of earning money from music, the fact is I never got into music to sell my songs to tv shows. Licensing my music has been a great boost to my confidence and it’s something I will continue to pursue, but there’s more to the music business than just sync licensing.
One of the things I’ve realized is that while I’ve been sort of inadvertently sitting on the sidelines, waiting for some sort of path to emerge or some sort of semblance of a music business that I can wrap my head around to emerge, is that there have been many musicians quietly paving the way and showing us the future of the music business all along. And how wonderfully ironic it is that they’re using the internet, the very technology that arguably killed the traditional music business, to create a new one.
The New Music Business Paradigm
I plan to do a follow up piece to this article, where I dive deeper into specific artists that are forging the way in the new music business paradigm and how they’re doing it. I’m going to give you just one example today, so this piece doesn’t go too long, but trust me there are many artists out there paving the way, that you may or may not have even heard of.
The band that I’m talking about today is called Polyphia, and in my mind they are a perfect example of both a band that have embraced the modern-day music business paradigm and they’re also a great example of the challenges that this new music business paradigm present.
You see, Polyphia has actually been on my radar for several years. I came across the video for their song 40 oz a few years ago online, and I remember really liking it at the time, but I quickly forgot about them and the song to be honest. Like many artists that I discover online, I appreciated their music when I initially heard it, but without a constant reminder that they exist, they simply faded from my memory.
Radio used to function as a great way to constantly remind us of current artists and their music. It generally takes repeated exposure to a song or artist before it really “clicks”, and you really start paying attention. When radio was more popular, you would hear the same songs over and over and eventually, if there was a band or song you really resonated with, you would go buy their album or CD and perhaps even see them live. Of course, there were flaws with this model, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a very effective means of promoting the bands and artists that were lucky enough to get on the radio.
The problem, as I see it, with the new music business paradigm is that things have become so fragmented, and there are so many artists, that it’s all too easy for a band like Polyphia to get lost in the sea of music and content out there. However, greatness does have a way of rising to the surface and Polyphia are back on my radar in a huge way. I don’t remember exactly how I re-discovered them, I think Youtube suggested their song “Playing God” to me a couple months ago and since then I’ve gone down the Polyphia rabbit hole and can’t seem to stop listening to this band. Honestly, their style of music isn’t even my favorite, but they’re just so good at what they do and I find their music so compelling that I keep going back to it. It reminds me of a lot of the guitar-oriented music that got me into playing guitar in the first place, yet it’s modern, fresh and different at the same time, which is why I think they’re music is resonating with so many people.
Check out their latest single, “Ego Death”, a collaboration with Steve Vai!
This year has been a great year for me musically in the sense that I’ve been forcing myself to step up my own game musically. Both in terms of my own understanding of the current business and in terms of my own musicianship and guitar playing. I’ve practiced guitar more this year than I have in perhaps over a decade and have been actively promoting myself on Youtube, slowly learning how to get more views and followers, which has been a humbling yet rewarding process. Check out my latest guitar piece to see an example:
There’s a great quote I heard a few years ago, which I will paraphrase as I don’t remember it exactly, but it was something along the lines of “often times in life, we’re so busy looking for our path, that we fail to see we’re already on it”. Well, I think the same could be said about the music business. Many of us, myself included, have been waiting for some sort of new music business paradigm to emerge, but have perhaps failed to realize, it’s already here and it’s been here for quite some time. It’s certainly not perfect yet, but it’s here and it’s happening now.
As a Berklee College Of Music Alumnus, a question I get a lot is whether or not I think attending universities like Berklee are worth it and whether or not it’s really necessary to study at an institution like Berklee in order to pursue a career in music.
My short answer to the question is no, I don’t think it’s necessary to study at a school like Berklee or any music school, for that matter, in order to pursue a career in the music business in 2022. Before I explain why I think that is the case, let me preface this article by saying I had a wonderful experience at Berklee and it no doubt helped shape the musician I became. With that said, I think there are alternative, much less costly and more efficient ways to arrive at a similar level of musicianship and preparedness for a career in music.
The great thing about going to a school like Berklee is the structure it provides and the wealth of knowledge the instructors possess. During my time at Berklee I lived and breathed music and it was almost impossible to not improve in that environment. During my time at Berklee I practiced several hours of guitar a day, spent all day studying things like music theory, ear training, orchestration, songwriting and lyric writing and more.
When you immerse yourself in this sort of all out, intense music education, you can make huge leaps forward in a relatively short period of time if you apply yourself. And looking back, I feel like my time at Berklee was a period where I progressed a lot over a relatively short period of time. Perhaps more than any other time before or since.
Here's the thing though. If I’m honest with myself, after having met hundreds of musicians over the years, it’s pretty clear to me that you can achieve similar leaps forward in other non-academic environments, if you really want to. In fact, many of the most accomplished musicians I’ve known over the years didn’t study music formally at all and were completely self-taught.
I have travelled frequently over the years and one of the things that always amazes me is how many great musicians there are all over the world. I don’t just mean in developed countries, but places that you’d least expect it. I spent several months in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, a few years back, and I was amazed that there is a thriving jazz scene there with musicians that would rival the best musicians I’ve met and heard in places like New York, New Orleans, etc.
I was in Mexico earlier in the year and I met an absolutely amazing jazz guitarist, as good as many guitarists I knew when I attended Berklee. I asked him where he learned to play so well, and he said he was completely self-taught. He learned everything he knew online from Youtube videos and other websites.
In this day and age, there are no secrets when it comes to learning how to play an instrument like guitar or learning something like music theory. It’s all out there, online, for free. Here’s the catch though, and this is a big catch, even though the information is out there, the one thing schools like Berklee do is provide a framework and a structure for progressing. Even though we all have, at our fingertips, a wealth of information in terms of music education, a lot of us simply lack the discipline and will power to put it all together. And there is something very helpful about having teachers and mentors that we can learn from and bounce ideas off of in real time, not to mention the networking and socializing opportunities a school like Berklee provides.
In 2022, the average cost of a four-year degree from Berklee is $240,580.00. This is a hefty price tag for a degree in an industry where there is little job security or real guarantees in terms of getting a job when you graduate. Of course, there are other, more affordable schools you can get a music degree from. I’m just using Berklee as an example. But if you’re considering going to music school in general, you should really weigh the price tag against your expected return on investment.
In my mind, in retrospect, it would probably make more sense to spend several years living in a cheap studio apartment or renting a room from someone while immersing yourself in taking lessons, practicing your instrument, writing music and going out networking and playing with local musicians in a place like New Orleans, LA, Nashville, New York, Chicago, Austin, etc, than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a music degree that at the end of the day, doesn’t really even guarantee you a job.
Also, another drawback to getting a formal music education is that you end up spending a lot of time studying subjects that you won’t necessarily end up using in the “real world”. This is similar to getting a formal high school education where you are forced to learn certain subjects that you don’t end up using in the “real world”. To this day I look back and scratch my head when I think of all the time and energy I exerted learning subjects like Algebra and Calculus that I simply have no practical use for in my day to day life.
I can recall a defining moment I had when I was around 24 years old. After Berklee, I continued taking private Jazz guitar lessons with a Chicago based jazz guitarist named John Mclean. One day I went into my lesson and I simply wasn’t prepared. This was after several consecutive lessons where I showed up ill prepared. John stopped the lesson, looked at me in a befuddled way and said, “Aaron. What’s Up? Why are you so un-prepared?”. I hesitated for a moment and confessed to John, “John”, I said, “I have to be honest. I don’t really like Jazz”. John sort of laughed and asked me, “Then why are you studying Jazz?”. I went on to explain to him that I just thought it was a logical progression in terms of things to study. After having studied at Berklee, I simply thought it was what I was “supposed” to do and that it was the inevitable next step as a guitarist. John simply said, if you’re not into Jazz, you shouldn’t force yourself to like it. We spent the rest of our time together focusing on ways I could improve as a rock and blues guitarist.
There is a certain degree of flexibility in terms of what classes you can take when you get a formal music education, but you’ll still end up studying things that you’ll likely not continue to draw from when you graduate. This is just the nature of formal education. When you’re self-taught you’ll end up gravitating towards things you’re really passionate about. After all, you’re not going to force yourself to learn about things you don’t care about or are interested in. Of course, you might end up missing out on a few things that could be beneficial if you’re not careful, but at the very least you’ll spend time learning about things you’re actually interested in and passionate about.
So, to sum up this article, there are definite advantages to getting a degree in music. The knowledge of the instructors, the structure and format the institution provides and the networking and socializing opportunities are all very real, tangible benefits. But if you can’t afford a formal degree in music or if you’re sort of on the fence about whether you should bite the bullet and get a music degree, make no mistake, you don’t need a degree in music to become a great musician and/or succeed in the music business.
If you want a low cost education on how to make money licensing your music in tv and films, for a fraction of the cost of an institution like Berklee, be sure to join my premium site, HTLYM Premium, for a wealth of resources related to licensing your music. You’ll get daily licensing leads, in depth courses, weekly webinars, industry directories AND much more for one low price.
Today’s post was inspired by a recent video that “Youtuber” / Musician Mary Splender posted on her channel, called “The Dark Side Of Ambition”. It’s a great video that I really resonated with, and it touched on a similar theme as one of my recent blog posts called “Be Careful What You Wish For”.
In Mary’s video, which I will post below, she discusses the dark side of ambition and success and how high levels of success in the music business comes with a price, in some cases a very steep price. Things like grueling tour schedules, the pressure of supporting the team of people that are needed to support a successful touring act, the pressure to pay back record label advances, the pressure of maintaining the success you achieve and more, are part and parcel with achieving the “success” that many musicians spend years aspiring to attain.
Check out Mary’s video here:
What from the outside looking in, often seems like a glamorous, enviable lifestyle, in many cases is anything but. In Mary’s video she cites the example of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who took his own life at the height of his success, The Foo Fighter’s drummer Taylor Hawkins, who died, most likely in part due to the grueling touring schedule of The Foo Fighters, Prince’s addiction to opiates and his untimely death and Tom Petty’s drug addiction and subsequent death at a relatively young age, as examples of musicians who literally paid for success with their lives.
This is just scratching the surface, there is an extremely long list of famous musicians who died prematurely due, at least in part, to the stress and pitfalls of the “rock and roll lifestyle”. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, Tupac Shukar, Whitney Houston and Mac Miller are just a few names that come to mind off the top of my head, that died at least in part due to the pressure that comes with being successful in the music business.
Of course, just because some musicians succumb to substance abuse or struggle to deal emotionally and mentally with fame and success, doesn’t mean that all musicians will. I can think of plenty of musicians actively touring and performing today who are legitimate rock stars that, at least from what I can see, appear to be well adjusted, healthy individuals. There are plenty of musicians playing music at a high level while successfully managing the stress of life on the road. People like John Mayer, Dave Grohl, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa are a few that come to mind. I don’t know these people personally, so who really knows how well adjusted they are in their personal lives, but at least from my vantage point, these musicians seem to be dealing with their success in a very grounded and centered way.
For many years, especially when I was younger, I really pursued the idea of becoming “famous” with a lot of intensity. The idea of “making it” and becoming famous seemed like the whole point of getting into the music business at the time. It seemed so obvious that this was the whole point of becoming a musician that I never even questioned why I had this goal for many years.
The idea of “making it” in the music business is so wrapped up in what it means to pursue a career in music for most musicians, that I feel like, as a community we don’t really step back and question why we have this goal in the first place or if it’s really a healthy goal. Why is it so important to musicians to “make it”? Is it to get rich? Is it to boost our egos? Is it because we want the attention and status? Is it because we feel like we’re nobody if we’re not “somebody”? Is it because we think we’ll get a more attractive partner or partners if we “make it”? Is it because we simply love music and want to share our talents with the world? Is it a result of capitalism and the “American dream”? My guess is that for most musicians it’s some combination of at least a few of these different motivations that are driving us.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything right or wrong per se with wanting to “make it” in the music business. I also don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with wanting to be famous. Having goals and things we’re passionate about that we’re working towards is an important part of life and it’s a big part of why pursuing a career in music is so exciting in the beginning stages. But it’s important to have enough self-awareness to make sure we’re pursuing the right goals for the right reasons. That’s a personal job and it’s something only you can do for yourself. I can’t really tell you what the right goals are for you, in the same way that you can’t tell me what the right goals are for me.
Regardless of your motivations, pursuing and building a career in the music business can be a stressful endeavor, whether you “make it” or not. It’s a good idea to check in with yourself every few months or so and just make sure you’re on the track you actually want to be on. Are you happy and healthy? Are you connected to friends and family? Are you enjoying the process of working towards whatever goals you’re working towards? Are you sure that what you think you want is what you actually want? And so on…
As Mary points out in her video, the solution to the fact that there is potentially a dark side to ambition, is not to aspire to failure or mediocrity. There is a healthy middle ground. Mary cites a study from the Harvard Business Review on ambition that concludes:
“In excess, ambition damages reputations, relationships, and can lead to catastrophic failure. On the other hand, too little ambition can make the person in question look lazy and unmotivated. Further, it can result in mediocre performance, boredom, and a bleak sense of futility.”
From my personal experience, pursuing a career in music and being involved in the music business over the last couple decades has been a humbling experience. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t gone as far in the music business as I aspired to when I set out on this journey so many years ago. Although I get the occasional twinge of “I should be more famous by now”, or “I should be more successful” by now, there’s also another part of me, a more mature, spiritual side that realizes, in the grand scheme of things, I’m exactly where I should be.
In many ways, when I’m being totally honest with myself, I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with many of the pressures that come along with fame and the lifestyle of a touring musician and I’m happy that I’ve figured out a way to support myself doing something I love.
These days, I’ve become, more than ever, simply focused on being the best musician and guitarist possible. Over the years, whenever I have moments of frustration related to the business of music, I find myself returning to playing music for the sheer joy and thrill of it. This invariably gets me back on track and serves as a reminder of why I got into this crazy business in the first place.
To that end, in my ongoing effort to become "internet famous", I've been posting a lot of videos lately of myself simply playing guitar, which musically speaking, is probably my greatest strength. In an effort to get more views, I've been experimenting with using sometimes sort of silly, "click-baitish" titles and I've been trying a lot of different things with varying degrees of success. Check out my latest video, "The Next John Mayer?" here:
How do you know if you’re pursuing music for the “right” reasons? Well again, that’s a personal thing and there are no definitively right or wrong answers to this question. But, in my mind, a simple litmus test is this: Ask yourself the following question: “If you knew that there would never be a chance of becoming rich or famous from your music, would you still make music”? If you can honestly answer yes to that question, your heart is probably in the right place.
If there’s one thing I’m guilty of that in retrospect has probably prevented me from going further in certain ways career wise, it’s taking on and pursuing too many goals at once. It’s both a blessing and a curse that I have so many different interests and passions. Over the years I’ve pursued a myriad of endeavors related to music and the music business, often pursuing many goals at the same time. At different times, I’ve simultaneously hosted a podcast, wrote a blog, started a Youtube Channel, played in bands, wrote and recorded music for Sync Licensing, owned a music marketing company, taught guitar, created and ran How To License Your Music dot com for many years, travelled extensively abroad, created several side businesses and the list goes on.
My rationale for taking such a wide-ranging approach to music and my career is that it’s good to have multiple revenue streams and it’s not smart to “put all your eggs in one basket”. There is a certain wisdom in this philosophy, but only to a certain extent. It’s probably a good idea, for example, to at least have some sort of a way to support yourself financially if you’re a struggling musician or if you’re simply not making enough revenue from music to pay the bills. There’s nothing wrong with having a “day job” while you’re figuring out how to make music work financially.
This was my rationale for starting How To License Your Music dot com in the first place. At the time, when I first created the site, I was a guitar teacher and I was playing in bands while starting to break into licensing. I wanted to figure out a way that I could quit teaching guitar and focus more on performing and licensing and so I did. I launched HTLYM dot com in 2008 and was able to eventually earn enough extra money from the site to quit my job as a guitar teacher and focus on just doing music and running my website.
Then, over the years, I started doing a lot of different things related to music and the music business; all the things I mentioned above. It sort of worked for a while. At one point my music business podcast cracked the top 100 in the music business podcast section on Itunes. My website was bringing in plenty of money, I was starting to license more and more of my own music at the same time and I was also continuing to perform live on a regular basis. It felt like my plan was really coming together.
A few years ago I had what, at the time, was my best year ever financially. I don’t want to say how much I earned because I don’t really like to discuss money publicly and it’s beside the point. But to me, it was a lot of money and it was a culmination of a lot of hard work I had put into all my different endeavors over the years. I was really proud of how far I had come on one hand, but to be honest, at the same time, by the end of the year I was feeling pretty burnt out and I wasn’t particularly happy at the time. I was feeling really excited about how far I had come, but I was also pretty stressed out about all the different plates I was spinning at the same time.
I had a conversation with a good friend of mine around this time, a friend who is a highly successful copywriter. He was working far less than I was and making quite a bit more money. Granted, we work in two completely different industries. But I remember one day we were having lunch and I was discussing all the different projects I was involved in and everything I was up to and he looked at me sort of befuddled, paused for a second and said, “dude, you’re doing way too many different things”. “You should just pick one or two things you’re doing and focus 100 percent on that”, he said. He went on to say, I guarantee you that you’ll make more money and be a lot more relaxed.
My initial reaction to my friend’s advice was to be sort of defensive. “You don’t understand my industry”, I said. “It’s not good to put all your eggs in one basket”, I declared and so on. I said all the cliché things people say to defend pursuing multiple goals at the same time. My friend, sensing my defensiveness, dropped the subject and we started talking about something else.
However, the more I reflected on the advice my friend gave me, the more it really resonated with me. Perhaps I am trying to do too many things at once I thought. I’m only one person after all and although I’ve hired assistants from time to time over the years, the vast majority of the work I take on falls on me and me alone. It can get to be overwhelming trying to juggle so many different things at once.
Despite this realization, For the next year or two, I sort of carried on with business as usual and my income dropped a little each successive year. Nothing dramatic, but I was simply struggling to keep all the plates I had spinning, spinning. Then the pandemic happened in 2020 and like a lot of people, I slowed down a lot that year and did even more reflecting during this period. I realized my friend really was right after all. I was simply trying to do too much and it wasn’t sustainable.
Over the last couple years, since the pandemic, I’ve scaled back a lot. If you’ve followed me for many years, you’ve probably noticed I’ve done less podcasts and videos and have put out less content in general over the last couple years. I’ll sometimes get what I think is a great idea initially, like an idea I had for creating a new podcast promoting other artists last year, announce the idea and then upon further reflection, change my mind. I’m really trying to simply be more careful about how much I take on and where I focus my energy. At this point, I’ll only start a new project if I’m certain I can give it my all. All or nothing.
I’ve realized, when I look around and observe highly successful people, the vast majority of them became successful by focusing on one thing and becoming really, really good at that one thing. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, people like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, or Joe Rogan who is a podcaster, comedian and UFC commentator, come to mind. But I think people like this are the exception to the rule and they’re also building multiple careers and businesses on top of a foundation that took them years to build initially. They’re not just coming straight out of the gate doing ten different things.
These days I’m focused primarily on two different things, making and marketing my own music and running my member site, HTLYMPremium.com. That’s it. Oh, and writing blogs when the inspiration strikes.
As always, I have other ideas in the queue, other ideas “on deck” so to speak, that I may act on when the time is right, if I can figure out how to execute them properly with 100 percent commitment. I haven’t completely eliminated my addiction to taking on new challenges and exploring new ideas, but I’ll only move forward with something if I’m fairly certain I’ll have the time and dedication to see the project through. Otherwise, it just feels like a waste of time.
My advice, for whatever it’s worth, as someone who has been working in the music business for many years, and wearing a lot of different hats over the years, is to think really hard about what you actually want to do in music and focus all your energy on that. You may, out of necessity, need to wear a few different hats at times and it's certainly ok to pivot in your career if you find that you need to, but be careful not to spread yourself too thin. Diversification works to a point, but if you push it too far you simply become a “jack of all trades and master of none” and that rarely leads to massive success.
I recently connected with a girl who was a fairly well-known pop artist in the UK, for a minute, about 10 years ago or so. She had a top 30 hit in the UK in the early 2010s and was on the verge of becoming pretty well known. I’m not going to reveal her identity because I’m just getting to know her and I’m not sure if she’d be comfortable with me telling her story publicly. But for the sake of this story, I’m going to refer to her as Mary, although that isn’t her real name.
Mary and I met on, of all places, a dating app. Bumble to be precise. Our first “date” turned into basically a four-hour long conversation about music and the music business, with a few other topics sprinkled in. Mary reached out to me because she saw that I was a musician and since she is also a musician and vocalist, she thought it would be interesting to meet.
Mary was signed to a major label in the UK somewhere around 2013 or so. I don’t remember the exact year. As a result of her record deal, she had a pretty big hit in the UK that shot all the way up to the top 30 on the UK pop charts. She toured and opened for some very well-known acts around this time and was on her way to becoming a bona fide star. Long story short, for details I won’t go into, she ended up getting dropped from her label and her career came to a halt.
Fast forward a couple years later and she got signed to yet another major label. This deal didn’t go as far, and her subsequent album was never released. I’m sure you’ve all heard stories about how common it used to be to get signed to a major label back in the day, but never actually have an album come out. This was one of those types of stories. She got signed, but due to executive turnover at the label and changing trends in the music business, her album that was going to be released as a part of this new record deal simply never came out.
The one thing that struck me about Mary is how unfazed she seemed by all of this. She told me she was never sure if she actually even wanted to be a “star” in the first place. She said the process of pursuing her dreams was more exciting to her than actually realizing them and that the further she got in the music business and the closer to real success she got, the more she realized it wasn’t something she was really even that interested in. She said she liked the idea of being successful in the music business more than actually being successful in the music industry.
Mary went on to form a successful businesses and achieve success in another, completely unrelated industry. Then, about a year ago, due to her connections in the music industry she was approached to sing background vocals on a major artist’s new release. Again, I don’t want to say who exactly, since this would make it all too easy to look up who this person is, but let’s just say it’s a band that everyone reading this will be familiar with. A hugely successful band that has been around since the 80s and is still going strong.
Mary ended up singing background vocals on multiple tracks on their latest album and was even asked to go on tour with them. She declined, because she told me, she didn’t like the clothing she was asked to wear and that she didn’t really want to go on the road. She again just seemed very nonchalant about the whole thing. She said it was a cool experience to get to sing on their record but didn’t really want to commit to a major, extensive worldwide tour and would rather be based in one place. So she politely declined and that was that.
Why am I telling you all of this? What’s the point?
Well, for me it was a really interesting conversation, because as someone who writes at length about how to become more successful in the music industry, albeit in a different facet of the music business, and as someone who, in my own way, has been pursuing success in the music industry for multiple decades, it’s oddly refreshing to talk to people who have actually tasted success in the music business, real success, and come back to report it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Granted, this is just one person’s experience, but I’ve talked to other people, who have reached similar levels of success, who have a similar perspective. Several years ago I interviewed Sublime’s former saxophone player, who toured with “Sublime With Rome” for over a year, but ultimately decided it wasn’t a good fit for his lifestyle and returned to his medical practice and family life.
The interesting thing about Mary is that she’s still writing and pursuing music. She hasn’t given up on music per se, she’s just not particularly interested in becoming famous or becoming a “star”. She was really interested in learning about music licensing and publishing, and we even talked about the possibility of getting a band together. Whether or not that will happen, it’s too soon to say and to be honest our styles are quite different, but who knows, I like to think meetings like this happen for a reason.
But the main takeaway I had from our conversation is an idea that I’ve alluded to in a variety of different ways over the years, which is to simply write and record and perform music, whatever your thing is, for the sheer love of it. Let your love for music be your driving force and just see where it takes you. Maybe you’ll become a huge star and you’ll love the lifestyle. Maybe you’ll get close to major success, like Mary, and find out it’s not for you. Maybe you’ll pursue success in the music industry for years and it never happens for you, but you’ll have an amazing journey filled with great memories and experiences.
Who knows how our individual paths will unfold. The music business is filled with unexpected twists and turns. But no matter what happens, whether success and fame come or not, the one thing you’ll always have, the one thing no one can take from you, is your music and your love of making music.
Over the years I’ve found that focusing too much on the business side of music can sort of taint our experience of performing and writing music. Not that focusing on the business side of things is bad per se, this is the “music business” after all. But being overly consumed with making money and stressing about the business side of things can interfere with the creative process and clog our channel of inspiration, if we’re not careful.
I’ve returned to playing live music with a vengeance this year. It feels so good to be performing again and it’s really reinvigorated my passion for music once again. Performing music live again has reminded me of what a wonderful gift being able to perform music is, both to ourselves as musicians, and to the audiences that come to hear us play.
One of the great things about playing live music is that when I'm performing, the last thing I'm thinking about is money or making money. I'm simply lost in the moment, enjoying the beautiful exchange between the audience and the group of musicians I'm performing with.
What I’m trying to say, albeit in a somewhat woo-woo way, is that we need to strike a balance between playing music for the sheer joy and thrill of playing music and worrying about all the business stuff. I find that when I relax about making money from music and stop worrying and obsessing about how I’m going to monetize my music, things tend to work out much better, both financially and emotionally.
There’s something about going with the flow of things and not overly obsessing about things outside of our control that is very freeing. In many ways I feel like the path of being a musician is a spiritual path, in that you really need a lot of faith to pursue a career in music. It’s not for the faint of heart. It can be challenging at times, but what I’ve found in my experience is that if you keep pushing forward and keep putting one foot in front of the other with determination and faith, things somehow work out, often in very unexpected and amazing ways.
Practically speaking, it’s a good idea to tap into multiple revenue streams as a musician in this day and age. This is why I push the idea of music licensing so frequently, because it’s one of several revenue streams available to musicians that can help musicians carve out a full-time income doing music, for those that have that as a goal.
It’s certainly not healthy to worry or obsess about how you’re going to make money from music, but it’s also not healthy to simply ignore all of the different potential revenue streams available to musicians in 2022. It’s about striking a healthy balance between art and commerce. You can make art that you’re inspired and moved to create AND figure out ways to monetize it. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
I’m currently in Mexico performing in a variety of cafes and wine bars for a project that I will write about at greater length in the future. It’s a project that I’m only able to pursue because of the income I’ve built up from licensing.
I’ll be sharing more about my Mexico project in the near future, as well as a few other interesting things I’ll be doing musically this year. In the meantime, I’ll leave with you my latest release called “We’re Only Human”, featuring my friend MJ on harmony vocals, and produced and engineered by MJ and Gary Gray and his production team.
Do you ever find yourself feeling discouraged because you haven’t gone as far in your music “career” as you’d like? Do you sometimes find yourself obsessed with thoughts about when and where your “big break” is going to happen? Do you wish you made more money from your music? Do you wish you were more known and respected for the music you make?
For some reason, a lot of musicians associate being successful in the music business with being “famous” in the music business. I think a lot of musicians even start with this being their primary goal. As if being a great musician and being a “famous” musician were somehow the same thing. It’s sort of weird if you stop and think about it.
There are few other professions where the goal is to get famous for doing said profession, apart from the entertainment industry. If you aspire to become a great doctor, you’re probably not also hoping to get famous in the process. Unless you’re Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil perhaps, but their career trajectories are more the exception than the rule. If your goal is to open a restaurant, chances are you’re not looking to become famous for it.
Ideally, fame, if it comes at all as a musician, should be a byproduct of being a great musician. If you’re really, really good at something, and enough people find out and appreciate what you do, there’s a chance fame will come as a result.
But, to pursue fame as the primary goal, is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, in my mind and I would even go as far as saying it's probably why most musicians don't actually end up becoming famous; they're pursuing the wrong goal.
I’m not really sure if I would even like being famous, it seems like a lot of pressure. Especially if you’re super famous like Shakira or Justin Bieber. Although, there are obvious perks, I can only imagine that level of fame would also come at an extraordinary price, in terms of having very little privacy, having increased demands on your time and the pressure to maintain the success you’ve achieved. I can understand why a lot of super famous musicians crack under pressure.
When I was younger I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed and become famous as a musician. To me, it seemed at the time, to be the ultimate goal. I wanted to be famous like my idols that I looked up to. When I didn’t have the success I aspired to have after several years of playing in bands and doing everything in my power to make it happen, I grew disillusioned.
I started to feel really negative about the music business and my role in it. I can remember the awful feeling of playing gigs that weren’t well attended and feeling like a failure. This isn’t how this is supposed to be going I thought. Music, for awhile, stopped being fun and started to feel like a giant source of frustration and pain. My goal of becoming a famous musician seemed to drift further and further away.
This feeling lasted a few years, until after about ten years of gigging, I took a break from playing live and playing in bands, in my early thirties. For a couple years I sort of put music on the back-burner, not really sure what to do with my passion or love for music. I still wrote new songs during this period and continued to pursue things like licensing, but music started to seem like more of a glorified hobby than a career.
This feeling lingered for the next few years until I noticed something sort of strange, which was that I reached a point where I wasn’t trying to “make it” in the music business anymore and didn’t really think about it anymore. As a result, I no longer felt the frustration associated with trying to do something and falling short of my expectations, but, my love for music remained.
In fact, untethered from the need to “make it” in the music business, I realized I enjoyed writing and playing music more than ever. It was as if I rediscovered what drew me to making music in the first place, which, at least in the very beginning, wasn’t to become famous. I simply loved music!
I think for most musicians, there’s something that drew us to music, before the idea of “making it” in the music business entered our minds. When I grew up listening to music, I wasn’t drawn to bands and artists because they were famous. I was drawn to different bands and artists because I enjoyed their music. They became famous, because a lot of people enjoyed their music. I was drawn to making music, because I simply loved music and wanted to follow in the footsteps of all the great musicians I grew up listening to. It wasn’t until late that I started obsessing over and worrying about becoming famous.
Benefits Of Detaching From Your Success
There’s this idea in eastern philosophy of the importance of detaching from the outcome of things. The idea is that as you pursue your goals and desires, it’s best to do so from a place of non-attachment. In other words, go for what you want, but relax about how things unfold. This isn’t the same as not caring about the outcome at all, but it’s just that things aren’t always going to go exactly how you want them to go, so you’ll be a lot happier if you just lighten up and not worry too much about how or when things happen. Do you really want to be successful, but worried and stressed out all the time? That doesn't sound like fun.
One of my favorite quotes, is a zen proverb that sums up this idea: “the hungry don’t get fed”. Think about this and how it rings true in your experience. Think about people who want things so much that they come across needy and desperate, as opposed to ambitious and confident. You obviously don’t want to simply throw your hands up in the air and become completely apathetic about your life and your goals. That’s not what I’m suggesting. But you also don’t want to be so fixated on your goals that the thought of not attaining them causes you to become crippled with fear. I think there’s a middle ground where you can simply pursue the things you love and let things happen, however they’re going to happen.
Back To The Music
When you shift your focus away from being overly concerned with success and back to your love of making music, you take your power back. You see, there are people in the music business, who in some ways can hold you back from success, although not as many as there used to be. But, there are still gatekeepers that can reject your music.
Maybe it’s a music publisher who doesn’t think your music has what it takes, or maybe it’s a music supervisor who doesn’t think you have the right “sound”. But, when you stop worrying so much about success and just focus on making great music, well, no one, and I mean no one can stop you. Only you can decide whether or not you’re going to keep making music, keep writing better songs and keep improving your craft.
You are completely in control of how good you become as a musician. Maybe you haven’t had the success you’ve desired so far, but it’s up to you whether or not you want to keep improving and growing as a musician. This is what’s so exciting about letting go of the need to “make it”, it puts you back in the driver’s seat and puts the focus back on the only thing you ever really had control of in the first place, the music!
And of course, the better you get as a musician and the better your music becomes, the chances of attaining “commercial success”, or success in general, become greater. It’s easy to be cynical about the music business and there are plenty of examples of ultra successful musicians and artists whose music you might not respect.
We probably all know musicians who are uber-talented that, for whatever reason, haven’t found much success to speak of. But, in my experience, when you work hard, and stay focused on growing as a musician and doing what you can to move your career forward, opportunities do come and doors do open, eventually. It might not happen exactly when or how you think it should, but when you persist at something like music long enough, success, in varying degrees will eventually come. And when that happens, you can take a deep breath, relax, and get back to making great music.
As I’m sure you’ve probably heard by now, Kate Bush’s song, “Running Up That Hill” was featured in season 4 of Stranger Things on Netflix. Due to the exposure of the song being featured on Stranger Things, this 37 year-old track by Kate Bush has become a viral sensation and went all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Global 100.
Kate Bush now holds the record for being the oldest artist to ever have a #1 song, at age 63. It’s estimated that to date she’s earned 2.3 million dollars in streaming revenue alone as a result of her Stranger Things sync placement.
2.3 million dollars!
This was a big deal. For Kate Bush.
I’ve seen multiple Youtubers and bloggers in the sync licensing community covering this story and alluding to how there are lessons we can all glean from the Kate Bush / Stranger Things story.
Although I think there are definitely some takeaways from this story we can learn from, I’m going to approach this story from a slightly different angle than how I’ve seen it covered.
First things first. The bad news.
99.9% of you will likely never have a Kate Bush moment.
Think about it. Most of you probably didn't write a hit song 37 years ago that is going to be picked up by a massively popular TV show and even if by chance you did happen to write a big hit song back in the day, this is the sort of thing that no one could have predicted.
Not even Kate Bush herself could have predicted what happened with this track. Here’s what Kate Bush had to say about the resurgence in popularity of “Running Up That Hill”:
“How utterly brilliant! It’s hard to take in the speed at which this has all been happening since the release of the first part of the Stranger Things new series. So many young people who love the show, discovering the song for the first time. The response to ‘Running Up That Hill’ is something that has had its own energy and volition. A direct relationship between the shows and their audience and one that has stood completely outside of the music business. We’ve all been astounded to watch the track explode!”
A few days later she went on to say:
“The track is being responded to in so many positive ways. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this before! I just want to say a really big thank you to everyone in the U.S. who has supported the song. It’s the first time I’ve had a Top 10 single over there and now it’s in the top 5!”
And finally, upon the song reaching #1, she went on to say:
“We’re all so excited! In fact, it’s all starting to feel a bit surreal,” she said. “I’ve just watched the last two episodes of Stranger Things and they’re just through the roof. No spoilers here, I promise. I’d only seen the scenes that directly involved the use of the track and so I didn’t know how the story would evolve or build. I was so delighted that the Duffer Brothers wanted to use ‘RUTH’ for Max’s totem but now having seen the whole of this last series, I feel deeply honored that the song was chosen to become a part of their roller coaster journey. I can’t imagine the amount of hard work that’s gone into making something on this scale. I am in awe. They’ve made something really spectacular.”
So even Kate Bush herself was taken by surprise that this happened, and why wouldn’t she be, there was absolutely no way her or anyone involved could have predicted the massive success that resulted from her Stranger Things exposure. Older hit songs are used in TV shows all the time, but seldom if ever do they result in this sort of massive viral success.
Which leads me to takeaway #2:
You can’t predict what is going to go viral online.
In the internet age, some things go viral, and well, most things don’t. No one can really predict what songs or videos end up going viral in advance. Some things just take on a life of their own and end up becoming massive viral hits. This is clearly one of those times and I’m happy for Kate Bush. “Running Up That Hill” is a really cool tune and it clearly stands the test of time.
Although it’s doubtful that most of us will have a moment quite like Kate Bush has had, there are some important takeaways as it relates to sync licensing and your music.
Which leads me to takeaway #3:
You can’t predict when your songs are going to be licensed or how much they’ll earn.
One of the most important takeaways from the Kate Bush story is that your back catalog has significance and you just never know when an older track is going to be used and how much it could potentially earn. I’ve had songs get placed in tv shows as much as 10 years after they were recorded. Not as extreme as the Kate Bush example and I didn’t earn quite as much as she did, but ten years is still a long time to wait for a track to get placed!
I’ve had other songs take as many as 7 and 8 years to get placed. You just never quite know when it comes to sync licensing, which is why I always tell people licensing is a marathon and not a sprint. There’s an element of uncertainty and unpredictability which can be both frustrating and exciting (when songs finally do get placed).
Which leads me to takeaway #4
Play the long game.
If you love writing songs like I do, then my advice is to simply keep writing songs and putting them out there. It can seem like an uphill battle at times with all the music that’s out there these days.
But, and I guess this is most important takeaway from the Kate Bush story, you just never know what’s going to happen with your music and who knows, maybe one day you or I will have our own “Kate Bush Moment”. You just never know :)
In case you're one of the few people who haven't heard this song yet, here is the official music video, which currently has 94 million views.
Here are a few examples of some of my songs that ended up being licensed many years after they were recorded and initially placed with music libraries.
1) "Where We Were" - I wrote and recorded this song in 2015. It was used multiple times earlier this year in a German television show called "The Great Way" or in German "zu Fuß um die Welt". I've yet to receive a payment for this placement so I'm not really sure how much I'll make from it. (Produced by Gary Gray featuring MJ on harmony vocals)
2) Joy To The World - Instrumental Rock Guitar - This track sat in one of my music publisher's catalogs for ten years until several years ago when it was used multiple times on ABC Primetime News, a tv show called "The Middle", and multiple commercials for several different ABC shows. What was strange was that it got multiple uses one year and then was never used again. Such is the nature of sync licensing. I ended up making several thousand dollars from the track.
3) "Up To You" - This track has been synced over 150 times. It took about seven or eight years before it started getting used and since then has become my most synced track to date. It's been used primarily in sports shows like Fox Sports, MLB Whip Around, The US Open and others.
A few months ago, shortly after Russia began their invasion of Ukraine, I woke up one morning and improvised a guitar piece in an effort to express some of the sorrow and sadness I felt over the events that were unfolding in Ukraine.
When things like this happen, events that are clearly outside of my control, I often feel powerless and to be honest, somewhat apathetic, since there’s really no clear course of action to take, that I’m aware of at least, that I feel would make any difference.
I have a similar reaction to the mass shootings that keep occurring in the U.S., I feel a deep sadness and sense of sorrow when these events happen, but since I don’t really know what to do to change the situation, I tend to sort of compartmentalize the emotions I feel and after a day or two of watching news coverage of the events and sharing in the collective sadness that everyone is feeling, I simply carry on living my life the best way I know how.
But, this particular morning I woke up and I decided to at least try and channel some of what I was feeling into music, and so on a whim I improvised a three minute and 25 second instrumental guitar piece. I recorded the piece in one take, with no edits. I decided to call it “Song For Ukraine” and over the next few days I proceeded to share the piece on Facebook and I posted it in a handful of Facebook Groups I belong to around the world in places like Mexico, The Dominican Republic, Chicago, Panama, Costa Rica and a few others. Places I have travelled to and lived over the years.
You can check that out here:
I received a lot of comments and feedback about the track, perhaps more than any other song I’ve ever posted on social media. I received hundreds of comments, most were positive, a few were cynical and wondered why I would care about this particular war as opposed to previous wars the the U.S. have been involved in, as if people that don’t know me online somehow know where I stand on other wars. But one comment in particular really stood out to me, it was from a musician who was and is living in Ukraine, a musician by the name of Evgeniy Lenov.
He informed me that he was living in Kharkov, right in the middle of an active war zone and was in the process of making an album called “Symphony of War In Ukraine”. I was so intrigued by his story of making music under what I can only imagine to be one of the most intense, surreal and incredibly stressful circumstances possible, that I asked if there was any way I could help to share his story and his music and invited Evgeniy to do an interview so I could share his story on my blog and Youtube Channel.
Through corresponding with Evgeniy, I learned that although he can read and write in English, with the help of Google Translate, he doesn’t speak English as his native languages are both Russian and Ukranian, but he offered to type out his responses in English so that I could share his story on my blog. So, I messaged him back and said this would be perfect and asked him when we could proceed. Then, a few weeks went by and I never heard back from him.
I didn’t want to be pressure him to do the interview since obviously his circumstances were not the most ideal, to say the least, and I knew that things could take a turn for the worse at any moment. A couple months went by and I started to fear the worst until one day I started to see him post on social media again with updates about his music. I breathed a sigh of relief, but I still had yet to hear back about doing our interview.
Then, a few days ago Evgeniy commented on one of my posts on Facebook. We got into a back and forth exchange and I asked Evgeniy how his album was coming along. He said he had finished it and sent me the link to the full album, which you can check out here.
I asked him if he still wanted to do the interview and he said now would be a better time and that he had recently moved to the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, and that although there are still air raid sirens and occasionally incoming rockets, that in his words, “day to day life had become more or less peaceful”. I was relieved to hear that and so I sent him a list of questions about his experience of making an album in the middle of a war zone in Ukraine.
At the end of the interview, I’m going to link to a track from the album called “Part 12: Final” which in Evgeniy’s words "symbolizes the end of the war". I will also link to the full album, so be sure to check that out and support Evgeniy.
Making music under even the best of circumstances can be daunting in this day and age, but making music in the circumstances that Evgeniy made his album in are hard for me to even fathom really and my interaction with Evgeniy has been a great reminder to be grateful for the circumstances I find myself in, as well as a reminder that unfortunately, many other people that share our planet, as we speak our experiencing situations that to many of us would be unfathomable.
I hope you enjoy my interview with Evgeniy. I’ll be working on creating both an audio and video version of this story for my podcast and Youtube channel, respectively.
Here's my interview with Evgeniy Lenov.
Aaron: Hi Evgeniy, Thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview. Can you start by telling us where you’re from and how long you’ve been making music?
Hello. Thanks for inviting me to do the interview.
I was born in the city of Kharkov. At that time it was the third largest and most important city in the Soviet Union after Moscow and Leningrad. At the age of six, I went to the first grade of a general education school and at the same time I was enrolled in a music school, and studied accordion. Then, at the age of 14, I discovered the guitar and taught myself to play it. At the age of 15, my friends and I formed our first band and recorded our first album. In 1991, my thrash-death band was at the top of the local charts, ahead of even pop groups there, and we played concerts to full houses. That's how it started.
Over the years I have left music. But in 2017, I decided to return again. Because in life you have to do what you love. After all, life is too short to spend it on other people's goals and affairs.
Aaron: Where in Ukraine were you when the war broke out and where are you currently?
At the beginning of the war I was in Kharkov. Early in the morning, it was still dark, we were awakened by a powerful artillery barrage. Glass and walls - shuddered from powerful explosions. And we realized that life suddenly had completely changed. The past life we knew was no more.
Now I am in Kyiv. Thanks to a friend who gave me a place to live. But I spent the first three months of the war in close proximity to the front lines of the war. Cannonade was heard constantly.
Aaron: What has your day to day life been like since the War started? I know that you are in a more peaceful part of Ukraine now, but what were the initial weeks and months like? Can you please describe your experience?
I won't go into great detail as it will take a lot of time. Only the main points - the most significant part of what I saw and experienced.
On the first day of the war, I saw the explosions of shells with my own eyes – I was very close to the front lines. I saw A black column of smoke that was very quickly blown away by the wind. And the sound of an explosion.
On the morning of the second day, near the house where we were, a rocket hit the yard. We heard a powerful explosion, that caused a ringing in our ears. the house shook. The rocket hit the neighboring yard - 50 meters from the house where I was. If the rocket had hit 50 meters to the side, we would not be talking now.
Then for a whole week, mostly at night, we listened to how artillery and MLRS were firing at us, from the city center, we listened to the explosions of missiles, the roar of flying aircraft. A curfew was introduced in the city, and we knew cases of people being shot for violating the curfew. In the early days of the war, our house in the center was shot with machine guns - neighbors sent photos of bullet holes in windows and walls and photos of bullets they dug out of their walls.
Then, after a week of sitting in a bomb shelter, we decided that it was time to leave at least for the suburbs, and we packed our things at home, a plane flew very low overhead and fired a rocket that exploded not far from our house. We threw ourselves on the floor. It was an unforgettable experience.
Living in the suburbs, we listened to the cannonade from several directions all day long. But it was a little further from the front lines, so the shells did not reach is.
For a week we went to a friend in - and the next day rockets also flew there - three powerful explosions early in the morning. And they began to turn on sirens every morning from 5 to 9 in the morning.
Before moving to Kyiv, I returned to live at home in Kharkov in the city center for a week. And every day the cannonade became louder and more intense. In the evenings in the dark from 22 to 24 hours, from the center of Kharkov, I observed flashes and glows on the horizon - it was no further than 8-10 km from me, from the city center.
During the curfew, blackout must be observed - it is forbidden to turn on the lights at home. Therefore, the city at night looks like you are in a distant village - bright stars, the city does not illuminate the sky at all.
And the last thing that left an unforgettable impression - four cruise missiles, which already in Kyiv flew right over the house in which I live on one of the upper floors. This is a 25-story building. And all four rockets flew right over my head, no further than 30-50 meters from the balcony on which I was standing. I examined their wings. And I saw where they all exploded - just 2 kilometers away from me.
This is what war looks like.
Aaron: I listened to your new album, Symphony Of War In Ukraine, which I really liked by the way. What was the process of writing and recording this album? I can only begin to imagine how surreal this experience must have been for you. Can you describe your emotions and what you were experiencing while you were making this album?
In the first days of the war, sitting in the basement of a bomb shelter, I realized that you can’t just sit in depression and kill time by reading the news, but you need to convey your emotions and feelings in music. And the name of the album was born by itself - Symphony of War in Ukraine. I had a Laptop, headphones, Cubase Pro and a small midi keyboard - what else do you need?
I just wanted to convey the sensations of what is happening around, the experiences of people, the events taking place in cities, the emotions. And now the listeners tell me that by naming the tracks after the names of the cities, I accurately captured and conveyed the spirit of what was happening and is happening in these cities.
When, in the first days and weeks of the war, my musician friends called me and said that they were depressed and could not do anything, I tried by my example to ignite them, stir them up, make them start making music again. I told them: "War is a time in which music has its own important mission, music is very important in this period of history." And gradually everyone came to life, they also began to record songs and even perform at charity concerts.
It was during the war the value and significance of music increases many times over. Don't forget that. We each have our own function and our own mission. Including musicians.
Aaron: We are now several months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Do you have any sense of how long this invasion will drag on?
The fact is that we are now forbidden to say "what is". We can only say publicly what propaganda tells us. If you tell any other version- you can be arrested or even shot. Therefore, I cannot tell you my assumptions about the further course of the war.
I can only say my assumptions about when the war will end. Perhaps it will end before the onset of winter.
By the way, from the first day of the war we were forbidden to leave the country. This is the kind of freedom we have. Only women, children and the elderly over 60 can travel. But women will soon be banned from leaving too, as they began to put all of them on military records. It seems that the population of our country is perceived as cannon fodder. But let's not talk about sad things...
Aaron: You said during our correspondence, that you recently relocated to the capital of Ukraine and that although there are still air raid sirens throughout the day and that sometimes rockets fly into the city, that things are much calmer and more peaceful and in your own words, “the city lives an ordinary, peaceful life, as if there is no war”. That’s amazing to hear, can you describe what your life is like now, living in Kyiv?
Yes, Kyiv lives an ordinary life. There is also a curfew here, but it is short (from 23:00 to 5:00). There is no need to turn off the lights at night - the whole city glows brightly with street lighting all night. Sirens are sometimes turned on here, but nothing arrives and no one pays attention to the sirens. The city lives a normal peaceful life.
But, as I said earlier, a few days ago, four cruise missiles flew here. People sometimes forget that the country is at war. But the war does not let you forget for long.
Aaron: How has this experience changed your perception of being a musician and making music? It can be hard to find the inspiration and motivation to make music at times, even under the best of circumstances, I can’t even begin to fathom the emotions you must have been experiencing making this album. Has this experience in any way given you more motivation to get your music out there and have it be heard?
I have a Soviet upbringing. And we were taught from childhood that, in the most difficult times, we should not give up, but on the contrary, we should give our all and make our contribution. We had good teachers. Thanks to them, parents and grandparents, who taught us all this and, prepared us for any turns that life would take. They wanted us to live in peace. But they prepared us for everything.
Music is an art that can inspire, give strength for life and struggle and fill people with optimism, etc. Therefore, the significance of music in such periods of history is greatly increased. Everyone should understand this and not forget.
Aaron: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. I’ve been wanting to share your story since we first connected several months ago. Are there any closing words or thoughts you want to leave us with? And thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my questions and my thoughts and prayers remain with you.
Thanks for the invitation. It’s good that we didn’t do the interview two months ago and that we waited – more events have happened during this time, new impressions and emotions have appeared, more information and life experience have appeared.
I wish your blog and your podcast and you personally success and prosperity. And I hope war never comes to your land and your country. It is better to read books and watch movies about the war. And it is better to live in peace.
So, that concludes my interview with Evgeniy. One musician’s first hand account of what it was like living through the ongoing war in Ukraine while simultaneously making music. I’m not going to lie I was moved to tears at several points during the process of reading and editing Eugene’s responses. Regardless of what you feel about the politics of the war in Ukraine, or what you feel about Russia or Putin or Zelensky or Biden or any of the international figures involved in this conflict, at the end of the day, war is simply horrific, brutal and incredibly sad.
Here's Evgeniy’s track from his album, "Part 12 (Final)":
Listen to the full Album, Symphony Of War In Ukraine, here.
I’m excited to announce a new, year-long project.
My goal is simple: I’m giving myself one year from today, July 4, 2022, to become “internet famous”.
Why a year? Why “internet famous”?
Let’s start with the time frame. I’ve never been famous on the internet before, but I’m assuming that it will take some time to build sufficient momentum to catapult me into internet fame. I’m going to give myself an entire year to pull out all the stops and try every whacky idea and creative marketing concept I’ve ever thought of, and others that I will discover along the way, during the course of the year.
If at the end of the year I’m still not internet famous, then nothing much will have changed, since I’m not internet famous now. I’ll have lost nothing but the time I invest into the idea and if I’ve made substantial progress, there’s a good chance I’ll just keep going even if I’m not legit famous.
But, if I succeed, then I will achieve my goal of becoming internet famous and ultimately sharing my music with more people around the world, which is my ultimate goal.
I’ll probably also learn a thing or two about marketing along the way, regardless of the outcome, which I’ll gladly share with anyone who follows my journey.
Why “Internet Famous”?
It’s simple really. We live in an era where as musicians, in many ways it’s become more about marketing and creating content than the music itself. It’s easy to become cynical about this reality, but I plan to have fun with this project and approach this in a way that’s positive, fun, silly and hopefully inspiring.
What platform will I become “internet famous” on?
I’m going to start with Youtube since it’s the platform I’m most familiar with and since over the course of a decade I’ve amassed a small army of almost 5,000 subscribers. But I may or may not venture into other platforms like IG and TT. To be honest, I’ll be sort of making this up as I go and experimenting with different ideas and strategies to see what works.
What about music licensing?
Nothing has changed here. I’ll still be active in the licensing space both writing and placing my own music as well continuing to provide resources and training to my 10,000 plus subscribers. In fact, I’ll be launching a brand-new resource soon for musicians who want to learn how to license their music that is going to blow away anything I’ve ever offered related to licensing. Stay tuned!
Isn’t this sort of an “egotistical” idea?
I don’t think so. Like I said, I’m going to approach this whole project in a fun, lighthearted way. The truth is I have a fairly cynical outlook on social media and I don’t really even want to be famous per se.
But, I do want to get my music out to a wider audience and I’ve sort of grown tired of watching all these youtubers and educators preaching to other musicians how to “make it” in the music industry without having really “made it” themselves.
So, I’m going to “put my money where my mouth is” and really go for it. I’ll be honest, I’m a little nervous about announcing this publicly since there’s a good chance I could fall flat on my face and this whole project could fail miserably. But, even if I do “fail”, not much will really have changed. I sort of look at this as a situation where I can’t really lose, regardless of the outcome.
So, there you have it. Please follow me on this journey and support me if this is something that sounds interesting to you. I’m also going to be doing a lot of collaborating with other artists and content creators, so if you think we might have some synergy feel free to contact me.
Here’s a video where I announce my new project on Youtube. Please watch it and like it because that helps the algorithm and will help me achieve internet fame faster.
Please subscribe to my channel here. I’ll be releasing two to three videos per week related to this project, for an entire year! These will be fun, silly, inspiring videos all related to marketing music and achieving internet fame.
What do you think? Is this a good idea? A stupid idea? Do you have any ideas, suggestions, etc? Do you want to become “internet famous” too? Maybe we can support each other… Talk to me!
Over the holidays I went the longest period of time in my adult life without picking up or playing the guitar. I went an entire month without playing anything at all on the guitar. 30 days to be exact.
I travelled to visit my Mom for what was originally going to be a ten day visit, that ended up turning into an entire month of visiting my Mom, my Brother and my dad, all separately. I didn’t take any of my guitars with me on this trip since I didn’t originally plan on being gone so long and I figured I probably wouldn’t have that much time to play anyway, since I would be busy doing family stuff.
When I got back home after my extended visit with my family, I found my guitar in my bedroom, undisturbed in its case, with a small layer of dust on top. I opened up the case to my guitar on my first night back, picked up the guitar and played for about an hour, without an amp, slowly re-acclimating myself to the fretboard. The next night I played about two hours, with an amp, re-discovering different licks and improvisational ideas I had been working on before I left to visit my family.
Since then, I’ve played more and more every day, sometimes playing as much as five or six hours per day. After the longest period of time not playing the guitar at all in my adult life, I’ve entered a period where I’ve been playing more guitar each day than I have in many years, as corny as it sounds, re-discovering my love for the guitar and playing guitar in the process.
In fact, I’ve been playing guitar so much during the last month or so, that I haven’t written any new songs or new music during this period. I often fluctuate between periods where I’m focused on either songwriting or guitar and tend to go back and forth between these two crafts, so this isn’t particularly out of the ordinary for me. But this particular period of focusing on guitar feels more intense than previous periods and I find myself really excited when I wake up each day to pick up my guitar and see what ideas and licks I come up with. It’s a great feeling that I haven’t felt in a long time. There is a real sense of having come full circle and getting back to my roots in terms of what I love so much about music and the guitar in the first place.
I think it’s good to take a break from time to time from music, in order to go back to it with fresh eyes and ears. Sometimes we can get so focused on trying to “make it” or become successful, that we can lose touch with what makes music so fun and invigorating in the first place. I didn’t plan on taking a break from music for so long, but the unintended consequence of this accidental sabbatical has been a renewed sense of passion and purpose for the guitar and music.
I’ve found myself really gravitating back to listening and playing the kind of music that motivated me to start playing guitar in the first place so many years ago. I fell in love with the guitar, thanks to guitar players like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Gilmour, Jerry Garcia and many, many more.
After high school I got really into Phish and Trey Anastasio, as well as a few other jambands. I’ve seen hundreds of concerts in my life, but hands down the single band I’ve seen live more than any others is Phish. I saw them over 50 times between 1992 and 2019. They have been a huge influence on my approach to music and songwriting and Trey has been a huge influence on my guitar playing.
Originally, I was going to announce a new series of tribute videos devoted to my love of Phish and their guitarist, Trey Anastasio. I still plan do that project, but Sunday morning things took a slightly different turn when, on a whim, I recorded a three minute and 20 second improvised guitar piece expressing my sorrow over the conflict in Ukraine. I called the piece “Song For Ukraine” since the conflict is unfolding in Ukraine.
I then proceeded to post the video on a handful of Facebook groups I belong to throughout the world. I’ve travelled a lot over the last decade or so and so I belong to a number of international communities on Facebook in places like Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Costa Rica and more. Here’s the message I posted….
Here's the song I posted if you want to check that out:
The song and post weren’t really meant to make any sort of grand political statement. I have my own take on the conflict and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the recent history of Russia, Ukraine and NATO. However, it’s not my intention to take sides with my music or promote tribalism. It’s this sort of taking sides and tribalism that leads to war in the first place.
As a musician, I’m playing music to try and bring people together and promote peace and harmony. As such, I was simply expressing my sorrow over the war and the fact that innocent civilians are dying. I received a ton of support and received a lot great feedback about the track and the sentiment. I also received a lot of comments from people questioning why the outrage over this specific war and not other conflicts, as if strangers on the internet somehow know my position on other wars and conflicts.
Here’s an example of some of the comments I received:
A lot of comments were debating the validity of media reports....
Many comments questioned why I cared about this conflict and not others (as if strangers online know how I feel about other conflicts)...
I actually welcomed the push back to the post. It’s a reminder that wars and conflicts always have two sides and different perspectives. Life isn’t some sort of Marvel comic book only comprised of “villains” and “good guys”. The real word is complex and nuanced with different perspectives and different interpretations of the same events. The real world is messy and complex. But to me, at the end of the day, war and innocent civilians losing their lives is simply sad, irrespective of the reasons for going to war in the first place.
I realize this has nothing to do with music licensing per se, and this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, I’m just an artist following what I’m inspired to do to see where it takes me.
I’ll be making a few more “pro-peace” videos and improvised guitar pieces over the next few weeks. If you’re interested in checking those out, please be sure to subscribe to my Youtube Channel here.
First and foremost, I’m just an artist doing my best to grow as a musician and get my music out there. I’ll be leaning into that part of my personality more going forward.
I just got back from a long overdue, extended period of time visiting different family members. I spent close to two weeks visiting my Mom and Step Father, 5 days visiting my Brother and his wife and nine days with my Dad and Step Mother. This was the first time I've seen my Brother and Father in several years and the first extended visit I've had with my Mom since the pandemic started.
It felt like really great to visit with the Family and it gave me a lot of time to recharge my batteries and think about 2022 and my goals and plans for the year. As much as I enjoyed my family time, the more I started contemplating the New Year and all the things I want to do this year, the more I started itching to get back into the swing of things and start what very much feels like a new Chapter of Life.
2021 was in many ways a challenging year for me personally. Without going into too much detail, there were several things I went through in my personal life that made 2021 probably even more challenging than 2020, albeit in different ways. 2021 was very much a transitional year for me as I found myself making some pretty big changes in several areas of my life. These changes were both difficult and ultimately rewarding.
As I look ahead to the rest of 2022, I find myself feeling excited and enthused more than anything, and eager to dive head first into my plans for the year. Most of the issues I was dealing with last year have been resolved and are firmly in the rear view mirror at this point. Sometimes in life we have to go through difficult situations to grow, expand and ultimately gain more clarity about our lives and how we want to show up in the world. 2021 was one of those years for me.
One of my main take aways from 2021, is that life in many ways is simply what we make of it. Not exactly profound I know. Most of my biggest life realizations and insights over the years have been remarkably simple. Not happy where you're living? Move. Not satisfied in your relationship? Work to make it better or end it. Not happy where you are in your career? Work harder. You don't like your job? Find a new one. And so on. Of course, we have to sometimes work through nuanced details and evaluate the pros and cons of our choices, but in the end, most of life really is this simple.
Most of the time, the answer or solution to what is holding us back in life is quite straightforward. It's simply doing what we know we need to do and taking decisive action that is the hard part for many of us. Humans tend to resist change and it's all to easy to simply take the path of least resistance and coast through life, not terribly satisfied or excited, but also not terribly stressed or worried. Sometimes we're just going through the motions, stuck in a safe, but not particularly rewarding "comfort zone". Not a very inspiring way to go through life in my opinion.
I've been reflecting on my own my life and some of the choices I've made over the years. Although I'm proud of so much that I've accomplished and the own growth I've made over the last few years, if I'm honest with myself I know that I still have a lot of unrealized potential. This isn't a depressing realization per se. In fact, this awareness makes me really excited to start making positive changes. More than anything, it's simply motivation to step up my game in a few different areas.
But because I know myself so well and have such a high degree of self awareness, I know that making real and lasting change in the areas I want to grow in is going to take more than simply writing down a list of New Year's resolutions in a journal. Like many of us, I'm a creature of habit and as much as I consider myself an ambitious and relatively successful person, I also know that I sometimes have a tendency to procrastinate and become complacent.
Like most of us, I have a comfort zone I like to stay in. But as Tony Robbins accurately states, "All growth starts at the end of your comfort zone". My plan for 2022 is to push myself to expand and grow in new areas that are a little outside my comfort zone both in terms of how much I'm effort I'm willing to put in, and in terms of taking new chances and pushing myself to grow in several different areas.
Since I really want to hold myself accountable and make a very tangible step forward, I've decided to go public with my plans and goals for the year, and also to invite you to go on a similar journey with me, if you choose. I've come up with a list of key areas I'm going to be taking action in this year, and I've decided to be very deliberate about my goals and the actions I plan to take to reach them. It's easy to simply write down a list of goals or "resolutions" going into a New Year. It's much harder to actually come up with a specific game plan and execute it.
I'm all about planning and strategizing as you work your way towards goals. It's one of the key things I stress when I'm coaching clients for HTLYM Premium. For example, it's not enough to just decide you want to license your music in 2022. That's a great starting point. But what specific actions and steps are you going to take to get there? It's not enough to just decide you're tired of being single and want to find a partner this year, that's great too, but what are you going to do to change your situation and put yourself out there? It's not enough to want to simply "get in better shape", but what are you going to do change your health and achieve your fitness goals?
I think you get the idea. For any goal, in any area of your life, there are most likely a list of things you could do each day to get you closer to where you want to be. Don't just set broad, vague, far off in the future goals. Come up with a specific plan that you can execute as you work towards your goals. You don't necessarily need to know every detail of how your plan will unfold. It's impossible to know exactly how the future will unfold. But you can come up with a list of things you can take action on that will move you closer to your goals.
To give you an idea, here's a list of things I'll be doing daily, weekly and monthly in 2022, to move forward in areas important to me. These are just a few initial ideas I came up with. I'll likely be adding to this list and modifying things as I go forward. I encourage you to come up with your own list and own goals that you can work towards this year.
Here's my list so far:
1) Submit my music to 5 Sync Companies Daily
2) Reach out to five music supervisors each day
3) Make 5 Youtube Videos weekly
4) Workout 5 times each week
5) Release 5 podcasts per month
6) Attend three social/networking events weekly
For some reason I gravitated to the number five for most of my goals, but you can pick any number and frequency you think you can stick to. Make sure you don't overdo it with your goals. Make sure you push yourself to move forward, but at a pace you can maintain.
It's amazing how much you can accomplish by taking this "numbers game" approach to your goals and life. For example, if you simply pitch your music to five companies a day, every day for a year, at the end of the year you'll have made 1,825 pitches. Do you think if you pitched your music to that many places you'd have better odds of making something happen as opposed to simply pitching your music here and there? I estimate this will take me less than an hour a day. If you attend three networking events each week, at the end of a year, you'll have had 156 opportunities to meet and connect with new, interesting people. Of course, these numbers don't have to be set in stone, but pick numbers that you think you can commit to for the most part.
I'm creating a forum and newsletter specifically for this project. it's free to join and I have nothing to sell you. I'll be posting my own progress and updates, as well as a few motivational emails here and there, to hopefully keep you motivated and inspired. I'm also creating a forum where you can post your own goals and your own results as well.
If you'd like to join me on this journey of growth and progress in 2022, sign up for free here:
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts and podcasts, this year I’ve been focusing more on making my own music. Like a lot of you, last year was a forced opportunity to reflect and give thought to what was and wasn’t working in my life and figure out what direction I wanted to move in going forward.
If you’re a long time subscriber of mine you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been releasing fewer podcasts and writing fewer blog posts this year. The reason for this is simple; I’ve been spending more time working on my own music.
I’ve always pursued things I loved and have figured out ways to make a living from endeavors related to my passion for music for over a decade. I’ve been fortunate in that regard. But one thing that has changed is how much music I’m making. I’ve always written and recorded music over the years on a pretty regular basis. But at times my music has taken a backseat to other projects and things on my plate. My biggest post-covid change is simply how much time I spend devoted to making my own music vs all the other things I have going on.
Pre-covid, around 75% of my working time was spent on business endeavors and running my website, and perhaps about 25% of my time was spent on writing and recording my own music. Since last year that ratio has switched to around 60/40, with about 40% of my time devoted to making and promoting my own music. In other words, I’m gradually shifting towards spending more time on my own music.
This is something I’ve been working towards and planning for all along, but Covid served as a nice kick in the rear to get moving and start making things happening now. Since last year I’ve signed with six new sync agencies and have secured several dozen new syncs (BBC, Tesco, Speed TV, Girl Meets Farm, Inside Out..).
In addition to my renewed focus on making music, I’m also in the process of re-branding and revamping a new version of my podcast, with a focus on promoting up and coming artists. This is also something I’ve been planning to do for some time.
My goal all along with my podcast has been to help other artists figure out how to make money from their music and succeed. In the past my focus has been helping musicians learn about the music industry and how to succeed by interviewing “experts” and professionals working in the music licensing space and beyond. I feel like I’ve provided a lot of value for musicians via my podcast and got a lot of great feedback over the years from people who tuned in.
[You can check out all my previous podcasts here: https://anchor.fm/music-money-and-life]
With the new podcast I’ll be launching, in both audio and video format, my goal is to create a platform where artists can get more exposure. This is something I feel is sorely missing in the sea of music and “how to” make it in the music business content. At the end of the day what most artists need is more exposure. My new podcast, for lack of a better word, will serve to address this need.
If you’re interested in being featured on my new podcast/show, I’ll send details soon on how to sign up to be a guest. I’m still putting finishing touches on the set design and getting things set up, but should be up and running in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!
So, there you have it. A quick update on where my focus is. In short, I’m focused on making music and helping artists get more exposure. As always, I’m also busy running our member site, How To License Your Music Premium. If your goal is to license your music in TV, Films & Ads, be sure to join our premium site to access dozens of in depth courses, daily leads, hundreds of interviews and much more.
I have a very strange “career”. It’s unlike anything I could have imagined when I was first starting out in the music business, studying songwriting at Berklee College Of Music. I imagined, way back then, that at this stage in my career, that I would be in some sort of rock band that, by now, would be attempting to make a comeback after already having had major success in the earlier stages of our career. Of course, that didn’t exactly happen. Like they say, if you want to make God laugh, make plans.
Although my dreams of becoming a rock star didn’t exactly come true, in another way my dreams have come true. You see, one of the reasons I think I was so drawn to the idea of being a musician and becoming a rock star, was that from a fairly young age, I was drawn to the idea of having the freedom to do my own thing and live life on my own terms. I was always opposed to the idea of having a “regular job” and living a conventional life. I wanted to be a rock star because I wanted to be “free” from the shackles of modern society, and I had this romantic sense that the rock star life was the ultimate expression of the sense of freedom I was pursuing. Whether or not becoming a rock star would have actually fulfilled that sense of freedom and adventure I was seeking, well, perhaps I’ll never know.
In some ways I think I actually have more freedom now, living the life of a fairly obscure, self employed, guitarist/songwriter/podcaster/course creator/blogger/marketer/entrepreneur. I wear way more hats than I ever imagined I would have to or need to wear, but for the most part I get to do my own thing and I consider myself enormously blessed.
I had no clue when I first started out that I would need to do so many things to carve out a successful career as a freelance musician. There are many reasons why things unfolded the way they did; the music industry changed, the internet happened, becoming a rock is actually pretty hard, a desire to learn new skills and try new things and on and on. There isn’t just one thing that happened. A convergence of things happened that resulted in my career path becoming the hodgepodge of things that it is today.
On the outside looking in, it probably seems like a lot of work, and in many ways it is. However, after 12 years of being my own boss, I’ve developed a rhythm and flow to my work, that well, works. Through multiple revenue streams I’ve created, all connected to my passion for music, I’m able to live life on my own terms and more or less design my own schedule. Truthfully, I’m not even sure I would want to be a rock star at this point, beholden to some record label executive, that would most likely have a massive amount of control over my music and my schedule. There are huge advantages to being independent. I might not have as big of a house as I could have, had I achieved mainstream success, but all things considered, I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out.
Although I do a lot of different things to create one, full time income, everything I do has two things in common: music and creation. Whether it’s writing a song, creating a podcast, creating a course, or writing a blog post, everything I do, in one way or another, involves music and creating things. Different forms of creation no doubt, but all acts that require a certain amount of creativity to execute.
My mantra over the last few years has become, “always be creating”. Some things I create net me a lot of money, other things very little, and most things are somewhere in between, but I’ve learned that there’s no shortage of ways to create value and earn a living. I figured out a long time ago, that if I wanted to keep putting food on the table, that I needed to keep creating value, in one form or another.
As a musician in our current climate, this way of thinking and approaching my “career” has been immensely valuable and has given me an extra sense of security in a fairly uncertain and unpredictable profession, in what are increasingly becoming uncertain times. By diversifying the ways in which I express myself and create value, I’ve given myself a variety of ways and means in which I’m able to provide for myself and my loved ones.
I’m currently working on a new course, called “Multiple Revenue Streams For Musicians” in which I break down what works for myself and the musicians I know. This is a course I have thought about creating for a long time and I think it’s a topic that is more important than perhaps ever before. If you want to make a full time living as a musician in 2021 and beyond, there’s a good chance you’ll probably need at least a few different revenue streams to draw from. Most freelance musicians and producers I know are utilizing several different skillsets in order to truly thrive.
The music industry has changed and the economics have shifted. What worked 10, 20 and 30 years ago, doesn’t work today. Rather than resisting reality and spending your time banging your head against the wall, it’s much more empowering to face reality, accept the situation, and come up with a game plan the does work. This will likely look slightly different for each of us. We all have different skills and strengths to draw from. You might be able to create a full-time income with just a couple different skill sets, or perhaps three or four. Again, we’re all different.
There are a variety of combinations of skills that, together, could create a more than sufficient income to live off of comfortably. Here are a few examples of what I see working:
But by having a few different skillsets and corresponding revenue streams to draw from, you can protect yourself against any unexpected downturns in any single revenue stream. This is just being smart. This is a strategy that proved really effective for me personally last year when the pandemic hit and almost overnight the income I was generating from playing live disappeared and several other revenue streams slowed down considerably. I was extremely grateful I had developed multiple revenue streams in the years prior to 2020 and would have been much worse off if I hadn’t.
In my upcoming course I’ll be outlining and diving in deep into a couple dozen or so potential revenue streams that are currently available to most musicians. The aim of the course is to help you diversify and become completely self-sufficient as a musician, taking into consideration the current state of the music industry and the very real challenges musicians face when trying to make a living in the music industry.
“Multiple Streams Of Revenue For Musicians” will be available freely to all members of HTLYM Premium upon release. More information coming soon.
I have two distinct, very different, musical personalities. Two very different facets of my musical persona that are sometimes slightly at odds with each other. First and foremost, I consider myself a guitar player. I started taking guitar lessons when I was twelve, long before I started seriously pursuing the craft of songwriting. I love playing long, extended improvised guitar solos. I love playing blues, jazz, fusion, jam rock, etc. I can spend hours getting lost in long, improvised guitar solos over something as simple as a two-chord progression.
On the other hand, I have a deep love and passion for songwriting. This was a passion that I developed several years after I began learning to play guitar. I write a fairly diverse range of songs, stylistically. But if I had to sum up the kind of music I write the most, I guess I would describe it as a combination of “singer/songwriter/folk/rock”. I tend to write songs that are fairly simple harmonically, with an emphasis on lyrics and story-telling. Simple, yet, I like to think, catchy songs.
I tend to alternate back and forth between phases where I focus on songwriting and phases where I focus on developing as a guitar player. If I spend too long only writing songs, I start to get worried that I’m getting rusty as a guitar player and vice versa. Lately, I’ve been practicing guitar more than writing new material, although I sill have several new songs in progress.
When I’m writing and recording music for something like licensing, playing long, elaborate guitar solos is usually not appropriate or required. In fact, I’ve turned in songs where I’ve been told by my publisher to “tone down” the guitar solos. Licensing music is more about writing music that has the most “commercial appeal” and sensibility and as you’ve probably noticed somewhere in the last decade or two, playing guitar really well seemed to fall out of fashion. Although there’s clearly still a market for great guitar playing in the context of pop music. John Mayer, for example, does a great job of both writing amazing pop/rock songs but also shredding on guitar when needed. Check out the studio version of “I Guess I Just Feel Like” for a great example of a great, current pop song with some really tasty guitar playing.
To satisfy my love for both guitar playing and songwriting, I both play live and spend a lot of time writing and recording for licensing projects, and just for the love of making music. When I perform live, I’m able to stretch out more on the guitar and really put all my years of practicing and learning to play guitar to work. Conversely, when I’m in the studio recording material for licensing or just recording music in general, I’m able to put my love for the craft of songwriting to work and develop my songwriting and production skills.
It would be hard to pick which aspect of making music I enjoy more. Fortunately, I don’t have to. It’s fair to say I enjoy both playing guitar and writing music equally, but for different reasons. Writing music is more about expressing something I want to express emotionally through music. Whether it’s writing about something I’ve experienced or expressing myself through a story in the form of a song, songwriting to me is akin to therapy in the sense that I’m able to articulate and process things I’ve gone through or am going through, in the context of a song. Playing guitar on the other hand, especially improvising and “jamming”, is just plain fun!
Here’s my latest song release on Spotify. A song called “We’re Only Human” I recorded with Michael James.
Here’s an instrumental guitar piece from my new all instrumental guitar album, called "Radio Floyd".
And finally, here's a compilation of a few of my favorite solos from last weekend during my reunion with my friends in the "Bandits Of The Apocalypse".
In this blog, I thought I’d share the stages my tracks go through, from the initial demo stage, all the way to the fully produced, “radio and sync ready” master stage. This particular song, “Home Is Where The Heart Is”, I wrote last year when I was vacationing in The Dominican Republic, right before the Covid pandemic started and I ended up effectively trapped there for several months due to the airports being abruptly shut down and my flight cancelled.
I wrote this particular song, if my memory serves me correctly, in about an hour. It was one of those songs that sort of just poured out of me. I was on the balcony of a small studio apartment I was renting at the time and this song came to me in a moment of inspiration early in the morning around 7 am.
A few days later I recorded the following very simple, rough demo:
As is often the case, this song sat on the shelf for a good long while. I tend to have a pretty large back catalog of un-recorded tracks at any given time, that I often circle back to when I go into the studio to record.
Fast forward to earlier this year and I was with my friend and collaborator MJ and we were going through my demos deciding what songs we would work on and we came across this one. My friend MJ really resonated with this track and he was one of the main reasons I decided to revisit the track and finish it.
So, for the next couple weeks or so, MJ and I worked on the track. MJ came up with some really cool harmony parts, a great piano part and helped write the song’s outro. One of the things I love about collaborating with MJ is having an extra set of ears that is able to hear things slightly differently than I do and come up with different parts and ideas that really enhance the song. Ideas that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.
After a couple weeks, MJ and I then created the following, more fully produced demo:
I then sent the demo, along with a few other tracks to my publisher to get her feedback. My publisher is cool with checking out songs in their demo stage, in order to see if it’s something she wants to move forward with or not. This is extremely helpful as I’m able to get a good sense for which tracks she thinks she’ll be able to successfully pitch before I go through the longer process of creating the actual fully produced and mastered version.
One of the other tracks I sent her was produced by Gary Gray and featured a different vocalist, Joseph De Natale, who has sung several of my tracks. My publisher loved his voice and requested that I use him on, “Home Is Where The Heart Is”. Since I aim to please I said sure, I will see what I can do and that I would get back to her.
I reached out to Gary, who is friends with the vocalist to see if he could arrange to have Joseph sing the lead vocal on the track and help me finish the production. Gary, being the agreeable guy that he is said absolutely! Over the next few weeks, using the initial tracks that MJ and I laid down, as well as adding their own parts and tweaking the arrangement slightly, Gary and Joseph created the final version of the song, which you can hear below.
I’m really, really pleased with how this track turned out. I think it’s one of my best sounding tracks overall. Joseph nailed the vocals and both Gary and Joseph nailed the production.
Have you ever reached a point on your journey where you thought about just giving up? Have you ever been so frustrated you thought it would be easier to just throw in the towel and walk away from your crazy dreams and aspirations? I know I’ve felt like this on more than a few occasions over the years. But for whatever reason, there’s something inside me that just won’t let me quit. Although I’ve come close several times.
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately and to be honest, looking back, I’m sort of surprised I didn’t just give up at a few different points. Although I certainly felt like quitting a few times, the real simple reason as to why I didn’t, is that I love making music. Somewhere along the line I realized that my love and passion for music was greater than any sense of frustration or disappointment I felt related to the music business.
When you reach a point where you realize that you’re in it simply for the love and joy of making music, it’s incredibly liberating. Because if that’s your true motivation, it’s a lot easier to be detached from the outcome and enjoy the process and paradoxically, when you stop worrying so much about “making it”, it becomes lot easier to move forward.
Over the years I’ve fallen in love with the process of writing and recording music. To this day, I get the biggest thrill from watching a song come to life in the studio. To see and hear a song that I created slowly become realized over the course of days and weeks is a feeling that I live for. Anything that happens after that point is really icing on the cake.
Don’t get me wrong. Having goals related to your music is important. It gives you something to work towards and will help keep you focused and on track. I’ve had the most success with my music in licensing. If I didn’t have goals related to licensing to keep me motivated and focused, there’s a good chance I would have given up along the way. Because as much as I simply love making music for the sake of making it, I still want my music to be heard, valued and enjoyed. I first and foremost make music because it brings me joy, but I also want to share my music with the world and find as many outlets as possible through which I can get my music out there.
A good analogy is that of being single vs being in a relationship. Have you ever heard the idea that in order to attract the right relationship, you need to be happy on your own first? I feel like there’s a lot of truth to this. When you’re able to find fulfillment in your life and create an amazing life when you’re out of a relationship, it becomes much easier to attract quality people that want to join you on your journey. There’s of course nothing wrong with desiring relationships and connection with other people. It’s a healthy motivation as long as it’s not coming from a place of lack and desperation.
For me, making and marketing music is very similar, in the sense that first and foremost I want to make music that I’m happy with, that I’m inspired to write and that I feel like is an authentic expression of who I am as an artist. Then, when I’ve made the music I’m inspired to make, I seek out connections and people in the industry that support my vision and believe in the music I’m creating.
So, should you give up your dream of music? Not if you love making music. Why would you stop doing something you love?!
Speaking of music. Here’s my latest release, a song called “Oh, My Love” that I created with my friend and musical collaborator, MJ, with production and engineer by Gary Gray. We recently signed this track to North Note, a boutique music licensing agency out of London. One of several new agencies I signed with last year.
Check it out below:
2020, to put it mildly, was not a good year for the music industry. Many facets of the music industry were hit particularly hard. Most strikingly, revenue from live music plunged by 75%. For many artists whose primary source of revenue is from performing live, 2020 was a particularly brutal year. For many musicians, who were already struggling to make a living wage, 2020 was a major setback.
My personal income from both performing live and from online sales all took a major hit in 2020. My income from performing live went to zero for most of the year, due to local lockdowns and regulations imposed due to Covid. My income from internet sales of music business related products, which I’ve used to supplement my income for over a decade, also declined pretty sharply in 2020. This downturn was primarily due to the overall downturn of the economy at large and the fact that the music industry and musicians, who are my primary demographic, were hit particularly hard economically due to the pandemic.
The only revenue stream that I saw an increase in, over 2019, was licensing and publishing revenue. 2020 was one of the best years I’ve had in licensing in several years. I signed five new publishing and licensing deals for multiple songs in 2020 and earned consistent revenue from sync and performance royalties throughout the year. I’ve never been happier to be a musician involved in sync than in 2020.
Although 2020 was a monumentally difficult year for the music industry, and how quickly things will rebound remains to be seen, there is reason for long term optimism. Goldman Sachs’s new “Music in the Air” report forecasts that, long term, the music industry is expected to grow in several key areas.
Revenue from streaming is expected to increase by 18% over the next decade. In terms of live music, 79% of music fans have indicated they will return to seeing live music events within four months of restrictions on public gatherings being lifted. 74% of people polled also say they will continue to watch live stream concerts post-pandemic.
“According to researchers, the pandemic will “accelerate the shift” from offline to online music, prompt more “reliance on social media and streaming for music discovery and promotion,” and up direct-to-consumer efforts in merchandising and live-streaming.” According to the “Music In The Air” study, “While user time spent may shift away from music streaming to other forms of entertainment in the short term, overall we believe the industry’s long-term growth outlook is intact, driven by the secular growth of paid streaming, growing demand for music content and live events, new licensing opportunities (e.g. TikTok), and positive regulatory developments,” the report finds.”
The forecast is for the music industry at large to hit $142 billion in revenue by 2030, up 84% from $77 billion in 2019.
Music publishing revenue actually increased 3.5% in 2020 over 2019 and is expected to continue to grow in 2021 and beyond.
So, while 2020 was undeniably a really difficult year for the music industry and for most musicians, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future. Music isn’t going anywhere and one day, in the hopefully not too distant future, this pandemic and its negative impact on the music industry will be in the rear-view mirror.
In the meantime, my humble opinion is that musicians should double down on what’s still working. Focus on things like licensing and publishing, that for the most part, have not been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Work on growing your catalog and repertoire and build connections and plant seeds now, so that you’ll see things come into fruition in the next few years.
2020 sucked for musicians, there’s no way to sugar coat it. According to a recent study conducted by Encore Musicians, 64% of musicians are considering quitting music altogether. I get it. We all have financial needs and making money from music is challenging even in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
With that said, we won’t be going through this situation forever. As my research points to, long term forecasts for the music industry are optimistic about the future of the industry. If you can get through this, undeniably rough patch, there are better days ahead.
This too shall pass.
How were you impacted as a musician in 2020? What lessons have you learned? Were you able to find any silver linings? How optimistic are you about 2021 and going forward as a musician? I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments, the good, bad and the ugly.
You would think that after 25 years of being a professional musician that I’d have it all figured out. You would be wrong. One of the exciting things about being a musician and songwriter, is that you never run out of ways to keep moving forward and improving. The opportunities for growth as a musician are never ending. There is no final destination that you’ll arrive to and have it all figured out as a musician. As a professional musician you need to constantly grow and adapt to the changing environment.
2020 has been one of those years where, despite all the craziness, or perhaps in some ways because of the craziness, I’ve been able to move forward and create new and improved routines and systems for writing and making music. I’ve been able to refine and improve upon past methods and approaches to recording and develop ways to work more efficiently and quickly.
I did something sort of spontaneous and a little crazy this year, in large part because of the Covid pandemic and some of the unexpected changes that came as a result. A good friend of mine and a long-time musical collaborator and I had talked for years about spending an extended period of time together writing and recording music. Over the years we’ve made many trips to visit each other and would spend up to a few weeks at time working on music together. Many of the songs we’ve collaborated on over the years have found their way onto tv shows, video games and more, but we always felt there was potential to do even more, if only we could find the time. Well, 2020 has delivered the time we were looking for!
[Here’s a track called “Breath Divine” we collaborated on that was recently licensed by the UK supermarket, Tesco. (Production by Gary Gray)]
This year, my friend lost his job due to the Covid pandemic and we decided to seize this opportunity to do what we’ve talked about for all these years and rent a place together with the sole purpose of making music. A few weeks ago we signed a year lease on a four bedroom villa in the Caribbean, where we’re setting up all our recording equipment and we'll be embarking on a year’s worth of writing and recording. We chose the Caribbean due to its lower cost of living and the inspiration from all the beauty of all the nature that surrounds us. 2020 just seemed like a good excuse to step back, unplug for a bit and get back to the basics. Which in our case, is simply focusing on making more music, with as few distractions as possible.
Preparing For Recording Sessions
One of the advantages of being in the same space as my songwriting partner and collaborator, is the ease of getting together to work on music, schedule rehearsals and schedule recording times. Since we’re in the same space, we can literally just walk out of our bedrooms and meet each other across the hall in our studio. Being in close proximity is allowing us to easily schedule all the necessary time together to rehearse sufficiently, work on new material and schedule consistent blocks of recording time.
In the past, we would sometimes run into issues when we got together to record music where when we went to work on a track, certain aspects of the performance weren’t quite right initially. Maybe it was something about a particular vocal phrase that was a little off, or maybe it was a harmony part that didn’t quite work. Perhaps it was a rhythm guitar part that wasn’t quite tight enough. It could be any number of different, usually, small things. We would always find ways to fix these issues. With modern recording software and plug ins there are ways to “fix” just about anything. The problem is it can be time consuming and the digital “fixes” are almost never as good as simply performing things correctly in the first place.
My biggest challenge over the years has been with vocals. I’ve come a really long way as a vocalist. A few months ago I went back and listened to my vocals from about 20 years ago. I cringed. It was that bad. Over the years I’ve practiced countless hours, I’ve performed hundreds of shows as a vocalist, I’ve recorded around 100 songs where I’m the lead vocalist. After a lot of work, I’ve gotten to the point where my vocals sound pretty damn good, if I must say so myself.
But as anyone who records music can attest to, recording vocals in a studio setting and singing live or just sitting and singing with a guitar, are two completely different experiences. When you get into a studio, put the headphones on and go to sing a vocal, where you hear your vocals loud in the cans, with other tracks in the mix, it’s a totally different experience. To sing well in this setting, you need to be really prepared. You need to know the part inside and out. There needs to be no hesitation or uncertainty. The more prepared you are, the more you can let go and get a really great, emotional performance.
The main thing my friend and I are doing differently now in terms of preparing for our recording sessions is simply spending more time rehearsing, prior to starting the recording process. In particular, rehearsing vocals. We did a recording session for vocals last night on a new track of mine. This particular song has a two-part harmony throughout the track. It’s a pretty challenging part for me, as it covers a really wide range that is both at the edge of what I’m able to sing in my lower and higher registers.
We decided to spend a week rehearsing the song, pretty much every night for an hour or two, prior to going into the studio to get it as tight as possible. We would get together and record the track, with both of us singing our parts and then play it back. We’d make note of anything that sounded off or needed tightening. Then we would do it again. Then we’d listen back again and simply repeat that process until we worked out any kinks or parts that didn’t sound tight. Once we get our parts locked in, it’s simply a matter of rehearsing them consistently throughout the week until we feel like we’re ready.
After following this method for our latest track, when we went to record vocals last night it was a piece of cake. It was the smoothest, most painless vocal session I’ve ever had. The first take was completely in tune and on point. Then I just sang it a few more times so that we had a few extra tracks to work with. There was no punching in or needing to record things one section at a time as I would often need to do in the past. We both looked at each other in awe.
Who would’ve known, practice really does make perfect!
This might seem like an obvious suggestion, but if you’re struggling to get great, impactful performances in the studio, spend more time rehearsing your tracks before you record them. Get to know each song intimately. Memorize the lyrics. Be able to sing and play your songs in your sleep, backwards and forwards. This sort of over compensation will make your recordings sessions a breeze and will allow you to capture your best performance possible.
PS. If you're interested in studying music licensing and songwriting in a tropical environment, send me a brief email, with a few details about yourself. One of the things we'll be using our space for in the Caribbean, starting in 2021, will be to host small retreats and mentorships for songwriters and composers interested in moving forward in licensing and related music endeavors, in one of the most peaceful, serene environments on the planet. More details coming soon!
When the quarantine/lockdown situation started back in March I found myself effectively trapped in the Caribbean, in the Dominican Republic, in a little beach town called Cabarete, on the north coast of the DR. The borders and airports were abruptly closed two days before my scheduled flight back to the states. Unable to get out a flight out prior to the airports closing, I was forced to spend the duration of the lockdown in the Caribbean.
March through June was one of the most creative and prolific periods I can recall having in my entire life. I wrote and recorded dozens of songs, made about 30 videos for my Youtube Channel, formed a Caribbean quarantine side project called “Bandits Of The Apocalypse”, and dove head first into music production and video editing. I instinctively immersed myself in music and music production as a way of dealing with the surrealness of the situation I found myself in, to combat the boredom of a 5 pm daily curfew and most businesses and activities being shut down.
I’m now back in Chicago and I find myself reflecting on the last seven months or so. I look back at this year so far and I’m in awe of both the sheer strangeness of this year and my own resourcefulness for dealing with a truly unprecedented situation. My own creativity seemed to go into overdrive much of this year. It felt as if my creative output was in direct proportion to the stress and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic and the lockdown. Music and my creative pursuits provided a great distraction from the heaviness and surrealness of 2020 and writing songs felt more cathartic than ever this year.
But was my experience typical? Did most artists have a typical experience during quarantine? I decided to do a little research to determine whether or not my reaction as an artist and creative was typical of what other musicians and creatives experienced.
From an article in Psychology Today called “Creativity In Quarantine”:
“What’s unique about this quarantine is that it constrains us in so many ways, creating what philosopher Bertrand Russell called “fructifying boredom.” Our typical means of working, socializing, and even provisioning ourselves have been dramatically restricted. And while people tend to think that constraints limit creativity and innovation, research proves quite the opposite to be true.
When there are no restrictions whatsoever, people become complacent. They follow the “path of least resistance” and go with the easiest and most obvious choice. Constraints, however, act like a reverse Occam’s razor: They provide specific focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to seek out diverse perspectives and connect ideas in dynamic ways to produce novel solutions.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. Too many constraints and our focus becomes too narrow. It becomes more difficult to stumble across those “eureka” or “aha” moments of creative insight that occur, not when we’re laser-focused on a problem, but when we let our minds wander. And as it turns out, these boredom-born moments of clarity may just be one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary adaptations.”
It's interesting that the research suggests that restrictions, to a certain point, improve creativity. We tend to think of restrictions as an obstacle to creativity. For example, the idea of writing a song that works in the context of commercial music or music licensing, can, at first glance, seem limiting and contrived. The thought of forcing our music to a fit a certain mold or make our lyrics fit the parameters of sync licensing, can be perceived as a hinderance to our pure creative expression. But yet, within these parameters and restrictions, there’s tremendous room for being creative. By limiting the number of creative choices we can make, it’s actually liberating in a sense, in that it tends to focus and guide our creativity. Too many choices on the other hand, can be overwhelming and lead to a sort of option anxiety, where we’re not sure which way to turn or where to start.
The quarantine and lockdown was restrictive in a different sense. In my case, I was forced to stay inside during specific hours, and I was restricted in terms of movement and places I could go during the day. I recall having a conversation during this period where I explained the feeling I had to my Mom that my life “had become simplified in a beautiful way”. By having the number of things I could do and places I could go dramatically reduced, it became much easier to determine how I wanted and needed to spend my time and energy during this period. Much of my time was spent on creative pursuits.
I recently created a poll for members of HTLYM Premium where I asked whether the quarantine had led to increased creativity, diminished creativity or a neutral effect on creativity. The overwhelming consensus has been that quarantine led to increased creativity. This really comes as no surprise to me, since the quarantine and lockdown were so conducive to creative pursuits, in many ways.
Of course, we don’t need to wait for a pandemic to have periods of increased creativity and we needn’t stop being creative when the pandemic ends. Many of us were spending extended periods of time focusing on our art and music long before the great plague of 2020 came along. I also wouldn’t want to live in a world where my movement and choices are restricted indefinitely. This goes against my freedom loving nature and would be a net negative in the long run.
For me, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from 2020 is that by being forced to simplify my life, my life paradoxically became much richer and more focused.
Sometimes less really is more.
What about you? Did you find your creative output and overall creativity increase during quarantine? Let me know in the comments!
I’ve had enough. I’m sick and tired. I’m sick and tired of watching talented, hard working, passionate musicians being tossed by the way side. I’m sick and tired of watching musicians invest their blood, sweat and tears into creating beautiful art, only to eek out a meager living, if they’re fortunate enough to even be able to do that. I’ve had it. I’m done.
I’ve grown disgusted by how music has become less and less “valuable” in the marketplace with each passing year. I’m tired of watching super talented, hard working musicians struggle to make a viable life for themselves.
I’ve always taken a half glass full attitude to life and the music industry. I’ve encouraged artists to hustle and carve out a name for themselves in a marketplace where music has become more and more devalued with each passing year. In life, you have to focus on the things you can control. Sometimes you have to make lemonade out of lemons. We don’t choose the hands we’re dealt in life, but we choose how we play them.
But with all that said, I’m tired of musicians simply resigning themselves to the idea that this is simply how things are and if they want to compete in the music industry they have to accept giving their music away for next to nothing. I’m tired of musicians putting up with sub-par work conditions, no health care, little to no safety net, no job security and so on. I’m tired of musicians lining up to get proverbially screwed.
Have a few musicians figured out how to “succeed” in our modern-day music industry? Sure, there are examples of musicians who are able to support themselves solely from their art. To those of you who have figured this out, more power to you. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to carve out a decent living primarily from my art and endeavors closely related to it and I’ve invested the last 12 years of my life to helping other musicians figure out ways to make money from their music. But having a small percentage of unknown artists able to sustain themselves from the music they create and pay their bills isn’t going to fix the music industry or the declining state of contemporary music in general.
In my assessment, and I’ve given it a lot of thought over the last few years, the music industry is deeply broken and fundamentally flawed. The music industry has become a race to the bottom. I’ve broken down all the depressing stats for you about the state of the music industry in previous blog posts. See this blog post as an example. The problems that ail the music industry are deep seated and widespread. There are no easy solutions or simple fixes. However, the first step is correctly diagnosing the problem. After all, we can’t fix a problem if we don’t know what the problem is.
In my estimation, there are essentially two fundamental problems plaguing the music industry. Here are the two main issues holding most musicians back in terms of making a real living from their craft:
In some cases, musicians are able to generate enough streams to make “decent” money. But in my own experience and according to the research I did for this piece, these musicians are few and far between. In fact, according to a recent article in Rolling Stone, called “Spotify Dreams Of Artists Making A Living. It Probably Won’t Come True”, the average artist on Spotify makes just twelve dollars a month. That’s right, that’s not a typo, just twelve dollars a month. The article is a great read and provides an in depth breakdown of how much money Spotify takes in and how it trickles down to artists using the platform: https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/features/spotify-million-artists-royalties-1038408/
Even when musicians do manage to generate hundreds of thousands or even millions of streams, the money that is generated, after it’s split with fellow musicians, recording and production costs are deducted and expenses are paid, it’s usually a pretty modest payday at best. Of course there are a few exceptions. If you’re reading this and you’re doing well on Spotify, or even if you know someone else who is, I’d love to hear about it.
Let’s take a look at some hard stats. The title of the blog post takes aim at Spotify, but to be fair, it’s really the entire streaming industry. All of the platforms pay next to nothing. Some are closer to nothing than others.
Here’s a breakdown of what the major streaming platforms pay per stream.
As you can see, it’s fractions of a penny per stream. It’s literally, next to nothing. But how does this work out in terms of streams and generating money? How many streams does it take to add up to a live-able income? Well, fortunately Youtuber Damian Keyes broke down the math for us. When it comes to Spotify, it takes about 15,000 streams a day, or 450,000 streams per month for one person to make the equivalent of a 40 hour minimum wage work week with their music on Spotify. That's just per person. If you're in a band with other members then multiply that figure per band member. What percentage of musicians do you think generate these kinds of numbers on Spotify? I don’t really know off the top of my head, but I’m guessing a very small percentage.
See the following video for more:
Now you might be thinking, but Aaron Spotify isn’t about making money, it’s a platform to promote your music. It’s the new radio, that we all have access to. I’ve heard this argument a lot. That Spotify has essentially replaced terrestrial radio and has become the new radio and that musicians should be grateful for a platform in which they can get their music out to the masses.
The only problem with this analogy is that when terrestrial radio reigned supreme, we had something called CDs, that music fans would go out and buy. If you heard a song you liked on the radio there was a good chance you would go out and buy the CD to get the full album. Well, consumers don’t really buy CDs anymore. They rarely even download music anymore. Why? Because of services like Spotify! Why would you go pay for an album or a single when you can listen for free on Spotify over and over and over? There’s no incentive to buy music anymore. If video killed the radio star, the internet killed the recording industry.
So if consumers, by and large, aren’t buying the product we create, why are we giving it away in an effort to promote it? Hmmm. You could say that it’s promotion for your live shows, if you actually play live. Ok, after all, this is one part of the music industry that the internet can’t kill. Unfortunately, a pandemic can though. So, for the near future at least, this money-making option is largely off the table. I know in some areas, musicians are finding creative ways around not being able to play live; outdoor shows, implementing social distancing and so on. Again, if you’re able to get gigs right now, that’s great. But these opportunities have been dramatically reduced for the time being, unfortunately.
Ok, so I’ve outlined the problem. Most of you were probably already aware of these issues. What can we do about it? Well, I’d be lying if I said I had all the answers. Like I said, there are no easy solutions this far down the hole we’re in. There are no quick fixes.
However, I firmly believe that musicians and creatives are the most important part of the music business. After all, we’re the ones making the music. We have to start to take our power back. We have to unite together in an effort to drive the industry in a more sustainable direction. We have to start valuing our art again and refusing to sell ourselves and our art short. Easier said than done, but in my mind, it’s imperative that we start having these conversations. I don’t know anyone in my circle of musician friends and colleagues who think the state of the music business is better now than it was in the past. Although the music industry collectively generates billions of dollars each year, most of it isn’t going to musicians. (See https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/news/music-artists-make-12-percent-from-music-sales-706746/) Something has to change.
So what now? The title of this blog post is “Us Vs. Spotify”. How are we going to change things? How can we take our power back as musicians, collectively, and work towards creating a more equitable music industry? Well, obviously we can’t do it alone. We as musicians need to come together, united, to forge a more sustainable path. It’s really the only way we can make any real, significant change in our industry.
To that end, over the next few months, I’ll be exploring this issue and ideas related to it on my podcast. I have lots of ideas. Some of them I’ve had for years. Some ideas I have will be fairly easy to implement and others will require a lot more work and planning to execute.
First and foremost, I’ll be bringing on different guests on my podcast to explore this issue and to get the conversation going. I’ll also be launching a second, new podcast, soon that will be strictly a platform to promote new up and coming artists to help them get their music out there and encourage people to buy it. I have other plans related to this mission that I’m not ready to share yet. I’ll be announcing more efforts in the near future.
The music industry is broken. It’s high time we do something about it.
I was playing music in the Caribbean when the Covid situation took a turn for the worse in the USA. I had planned on heading back to Chicago in late March to begin a new music project with a friend of mine. My plans were de-railed when just two days before my scheduled flight back to the states, the borders in the Dominican Republic, where I was staying at the time, were abruptly closed, with no flights allowed in or out, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
After a few weeks of uncertainty and several cancelled flights back to the states, I realized this wasn’t a situation that was going to quickly resolve itself. I was essentially trapped in the Caribbean for the time being and would likely be stuck for several months. So, instead of flying to Chicago to begin working on our project together, my friend MJ and I did the next best thing, we started collaborating remotely.
The last few months have been, ironically, some of the most productive months for me musically in years. In part due to being stuck indoors for much of the last few months due to the pandemic, and also in part due to the fact that in many ways the pandemic was a huge wake up call and reminder, that you never know just how quickly life can change and throw you a giant curveball. For me, the pandemic and lockdown has been a reminder to pursue the things important to me while I still have time. Things like music.
In this post I thought I’d break down my process for collaborating remotely over the last few months. Even in “normal” times, there are situations where you’re simply not able to be in the same space, at the same time, with people you’re collaborating with. I’ve collaborated remotely for years with my producer Gary Gray, as well as a variety of different vocalists, and we’ve had a lot of success finishing songs this way.
This time the collaboration was different, in that I was collaborating with a musician friend of mine, during the beginning stages of writing and arranging, all the way through to the final production. After a month or so of collaborating this way, we refined our system of collaboration down to a pretty tightly run machine and we’re now averaging creating a new song every week to ten days.
Our goal has been to get songs up to professional level demos which we can release on Youtube to grow my Youtube Channel, which I’ve recently monetized, and also potentially go on to create full blown, licensing ready mixes of the songs that get the best feedback and that we feel have the most licensing potential.
Here’s my remote collaboration routine:
Since the music is primarily for my own Youtube channel, the only gatekeeper I have is myself. However, for songs that my producer Gary and I feel have strong licensing potential, I’ll be sending Gary the stems to finish up and do a final mix. This adds an additional week or so to the above process.
For me, one of the biggest take-aways from the last few months, is that there are simply no excuses. If you want to make music, regardless of where you are in the world, you can find a way to make it happen. When the lockdown and airport closings happened, my friend MJ was really bummed because collaborating remotely isn’t the same as collaborating in person. He kept saying it would be so much cooler if I was there. Of course, collaborating remotely isn’t the same as being in the same room, but it’s still a completely viable way to collaborate. The last few months have been as productive as any period we’ve had collaborating before, in person. In fact, in many ways the last few months has been more productive. I’ve definitely been more prolific than usual.
With the technology and tools we have at our disposal in 2020, you can be almost anywhere in the world and be collaborating with musicians almost anywhere in the world. Just because you don’t live in a major music city, doesn’t mean you don’t have access to the same pool of talent. Use the tools you have at your disposal and make the most of whatever your situation is.
Here’s the most recent track I collaborated on with my friend MJ, as well as a few musicians I met during my time in the Caribbean. This one is called “Lost In A Dream”. I also did the video editing for the video. We’ll be sending this one to producer Gary Gray for the final mixing and mastering, as we feel this one has strong licensing potential.
Check it out and let me know what you think! Subscribe to my Youtube Channel here.
It took me a long time to develop a workflow and work routine that was consistent and that I could commit to on an ongoing basis. It takes a massive amount of momentum to see any sort of real, sustainable success in the music industry. For this reason, developing a workflow that fits into your overall life and that you can commit to on an ongoing basis, is one of the most important parts of realizing success in music licensing and the music business.
I used to have a sort of two steps forward, one step back approach to making music. I would work really hard for a few months and make a little bit of progress and then inevitably start feeling burnt out and take a step back to rest and regroup. The first few years of my music licensing career I had very sporadic success as a result. I’d license several songs and then there were often long stretches where not much was happening. I’d then frantically go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and throw myself into the process of music making again, see some renewed success, slow down and take a break again and repeat the entire cycle over. This went on for several years as I was also juggling the duties of several internet businesses and different projects.
These days I have a much different and much more consistent approach to making music. It’s very simple and my workflow and creative process has become much more efficient and dialed in. I write and record one song a week and release one music video weekly. It’s still a lot of work, don’t get me wrong. I can easily spend 30 to 40 hours a week or more, mixing, rehearsing, writing and video editing. But it’s a schedule that I can commit to regularly without getting burnt out doing. I still have plenty of time to manage my other duties and I really enjoy the time I spend making music. And if takes me ten days to finish a track instead of seven, it’s not the end of the world. I simply aim for averaging a song a week.
A lot of people ask me how many songs they should be aiming to record weekly and monthly, and like a lot of things related to music licensing, there are many variables. It depends on what kind of music you’re making, how efficient you are at writing and recording, what your goals are, etc. But really, the most important variable, is you. By that I mean, it comes down to what you can commit to, how skilled and motivated you are and so forth. I like the song a week model because, after a lot of trial and error, this is the schedule that feels right to me. My goal is to consistently make music and put it out into the world, without getting burnt out or stressed about it. There are enough stressful things in the world right now that the least thing I want music to be is a source of stress or frustration.
Aim to setup your schedule and life in a way that you’re excited about and brings you more joy than stress. If making a living from music if your goal, you’re going to be doing it a long time, so make sure you’re creating a workflow that’s sustainable and enjoyable. If you’re pushing yourself to the point of burn out you’re not going to be able to sustain that.
What is your workflow like? Do you have a set amount of songs you record each week or month? Have you given this issue much thought? One of the keys to success is consistency. Just keep showing up and putting in the work. There’s a lot that’s out of our control in the music business, but the one thing you we do control entirely, is our output. And like I’ve said before, more songs will generally lead to more licensing opportunities and more money. In my own experience, I've seen my licensing income go up significantly over the last several years as I've simply been writing and recording a lot more music. It's sort of a no brainer. More songs = more licensing opportunities.
I’ve also been ramping up my efforts on Youtube ever since the pandemic started and have been releasing new music videos each week. Here’s my latest effort, a video for my song “Everything Is Going To Be Alright”, shot in the Caribbean during lockdown with my quarantine project, Bandits Of The Apocalypse. Check it out and be sure to subscribe to my Youtube Channel here.
As many of you know, I’ve worked with producer Gary Gray a lot over the last few years. When we collaborate, we have one singular mission in mind for the music we’re working on together, which is to optimize each track for licensing opportunities. We’ve racked up quite a few syncs the last few years and recently had our biggest ascap payday yet, for several dozen tv placements in 2019.
We recently completed and signed a publishing deal for a track that I feel is one of the strongest overall tracks we’ve done together. I thought I’d share what the collaboration process was like to give you an idea of how songs can evolve and go through a few different stages, until they are ultimately completed and ready to shop to licensing opportunities.
Our latest track, Lost And Found, took several months to complete, from its inception to the final mix. We recently signed this one to my primary publisher in LA and I’m confident, as confident as one can be in this industry, that this track will get syncs going forward. We sent this one to our publisher and she responded right away, enthusiastically, that she would love to sign it. That’s always a good sign. As opposed to when you submit tracks and weeks or months go by and you ultimately never hear anything. Submitting music is sort of like going out on dates with prospective partners, if someone is really interested, they’ll let you know sooner or later. On the other hand, sometimes people just aren’t that into your tracks.
I started writing this song last year and made a basic guitar/vocal demo that I sent to my friend and frequent collaborator, MJ. A few weeks later MJ and I got together in person and we spent about a week creating a full band demo and fleshing out all the parts. MJ came up with a great 2nd hook, the line “gonna turn this thing around”. (See below)
After MJ and I finished our version of the track we sent our mix and the stems to Gary to start his process. Like I said, when Gary and I collaborate, our main goal is to create tracks that have the best chance of getting placements. Sometimes this could mean making changes to the track’s arrangement. Sometimes it could mean changing certain lyrics or re-writing tracks to make them more “universal” in terms of subject matter. Other times, like in the case of Lost And Found, it could mean doing a completely different version of the track with a different vocalist and even different instrumentation. I give Gary carte blanche to make whatever changes he feels necessary to optimize each track for licensing.
At the time Gary and I finished this particular track, Gary and I received a playlist of the types of songs my publisher is most in need of for a variety of shows she pitches to. Gary used these tracks as reference material when it came to arranging and mixing my track, “Lost And Found”. Based on this playlist and the style of production these songs had, Gary ended up completely re-doing Lost and Found using a different vocalist and also re-doing the guitar parts in a different style.
When I got the track back from Gary, I was a little surprised at first, because I didn’t realize he was making such drastic changes to the song. But, when I put my ego in check and just objectively listened to the song, I was blown away. Of all the tracks we’ve done together, this might be the one I’m most proud of and excited about. Gary’s mix and production sound so solid on this one that I would be really surprised if this one doesn’t get some great syncs.
You can check out my demo version below I did with MJ, as well as Gary’s final version below. I’ll probably do another fully produced version with MJ at some point as there are elements of our version I really like, but I can’t deny how undeniably great Gary’s version is. Listen for yourself below!
Lost And Found Demo Version
Lost And Found Final Mix By Gary Gray, featuring Joseph De Natale