Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of musicians from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing over 100 different songwriters, producers, publishers and so on for my podcast and website.
I’ve had the chance to see first-hand what goes into creating numerous successful indie music careers in both licensing and beyond, and although there is a lot of common ground in terms of what contributes to a musician becoming successful in 2019, no two stories are exactly alike. Although hard work, persistence, dedication and an “eye of the tiger”, never give up sort of attitude are shared by all, there are a variety of ways to become successful in a variety of different niches.
One of the keys to success in the modern-day music business is finding your niche. Finding the particular part of the industry that you best fit into and can thrive in. I don’t think anyone can really teach you how to find your niche. It’s something each one of us has to figure out on our own, through trial and error. My niche might not be your niche and vice versa.
It’s sort of like dating. There are lots of different types of people out there, and not everyone fits with everyone else. I tend to click with Latin and Spanish women. Almost all of my serious relationships have been with Latin women. Of course, this doesn’t mean all men are going to click with Latin women. There’s something about my laid-back musician vibe and the carpe diem (seize the day) sort of approach to life that many Latin women possess that seems to work well together. But that’s me. What works for you or someone else is obviously going to be completely different based on personality, tastes, background etc.
I feel like finding your niche in music is similar. Part of finding your niche will obviously be based on your unique background, skill-set and interests. My niche is writing singer/songwriter/indie-folk vocal tracks. That’s what I enjoy doing the most and it’s what I tend to focus on the most. As a result, I’ve had the most success with these types of songs. I’ve had a few other styles placed here and there over the years, but my niche, my bread and butter, has been my own blend of singer/songwriter/indie/folk music.
What’s your niche? Do you know? Are there one or two styles you really excel in? Have you figured out one or two niches within the licensing world that you can focus on and dominate in? Or are you all over the map, not quite sure where you fit in?
If you’re not sure yet, that’s ok too. Part of the journey to success in music involves trial and error, experimenting and trying different things, until you find what best works for you. Sometimes we just stumble onto a niche through dumb luck. For example, when I first got started in music-licensing I stumbled upon the niche of writing music for soap operas by accident. The first publisher I worked with, and still work with to this day, places a lot of music in soap operas. For the first few years of my licensing career, I placed music in soaps exclusively. I wrote music for The Young & The Restless, All My Children and One Life To Live. Eventually I was able to branch out into other shows and projects, commercials and video games. But getting music placed in soaps is surprisingly pretty lucrative and I was able to make great money from this niche alone for several years. I still get music placed in soaps to this day. The Young & The Restless, in particular, use my music frequently.
Check out this Y &R playlist for the current season that features my track, Be On My Mind, for an example of a recent song of mine I’ve used. Track #7 below.
So, one of my niches has been vocal tracks in soap operas. But again, this niche might not work for you. Your music might not work in the context of these shows. Perhaps your music would best work somewhere else, in a completely different niche. This is something you’ll need to explore and figure out.
Here are some examples of a few other niches that writers and composers I work with have discovered.
Royalty Free Music Libraries
I worked with a client recently who informed me they were bringing in an average of 5k a month from just two royalty free music libraries. The libraries are both well known, easy to find royalty free libraries that are both pretty easy to get accepted into. I won’t tell you the exact libraries and give away my clients source of income, but there are plenty of royalty free music libraries to choose from. Just Google “royalty free music libraries” and hundreds of sites will come up.
A lot of writers sort of look down on these types of libraries due to the fact that they sell music so cheaply. I used to have this attitude as well. But, then again, this is a case where it’s more about quantity than quality and although I’m not big on cranking out mediocre tracks just to pay the bills, I’m all for writers figuring out how to support themselves from their music. This particular writer came to me because he was looking to branch out and expand his licensing work int other areas. But, hey, having a consistent 5k a month coming in from royalty free tracks is nothing to scoff at.
I’ve talked about my buddy Chuck Hughes a lot on my blog over the years, because he’s a great example of an artist who has found a successful niche. Chuck and his band “The Hillbilly Hellcats” create very well produced and well-crafted Rockabilly music and Chuck has done a great job at getting tons of placements for his and their music over the years. Over 3,500 placements last time we talked! I think one of the main reasons Chuck has done so well in licensing, apart from the fact that his music is great, is that Chuck’s music addresses a specific niche in terms of genre; rockabilly. Rockabilly might not be the first style that comes to mind when you think of music licensing, but Chuck’s music has been used thousands of times in TV shows and commercials. He's a big fish in a relatively small pond you could say.
Check out my recent conversation with Chuck about his success in licensing here:
My producer, Gary Gray, has discovered a lucrative niche within the licensing world, which is doing re-records for companies like Disney and 20th Century Fox. Gary has been contracted to do multiple re-records of well known, existing songs for use in commercials, tv and films. I’m not sure if I’m at liberty to say how much Gary earns from these projects, but suffice it to say, it’s a very lucrative niche.
I’ve worked with and have created composers with a couple different composer/writers that have specialized in writing music for commercials. This is a great niche if you can break in. Commercials tend to pay more than songs used in TV Shows. In some cases substantially more.
To learn more about this niche, check out my podcast with Michael Lande from Orange Music:
Production / Instrumental Music
Another niche I’ve seen multiple writers excel in is music that could broadly be defined as “production music”, or as Joel Feinberg from De Wolfe music described it on my podcast, “functional music”. Music that serves a function. I’ve worked with multiple writers/composers who have carved out careers in this specific niche, creating background music for use in TV shows. Like royalty free music, this is a case where you need a lot of music for the math to make sense, in terms of creating revenue. The good news is these tracks are much easier to create quickly and efficiently than fully produced vocal tracks with real instruments.
I created a course with a composer who makes a full time living just from Youtube ad revenue alone. Dhruva Aliman is a composer from California who figured out how to generate enough ad revenue from his Youtube videos alone to support himself. He teaches you how to do it here.
I’m sure we’ve all heard about Spotify by now. Although we all know how little Spotify pays per stream, if you get enough streams, it adds up. I’ve worked with several different artists now who have figured out how to generate substantial revenue from Spotify by getting millions of streams.
Check out these recent podcasts for two examples of artists getting millions of streams on Spotify and how they did it:
These are just a few niches to consider. There are many more areas you could look into within the niche of music licensing. Things like creating trailer music, specializing in other specific genres, creating your own music library and so on are all worth exploring.
Ultimately, a big part of success is figuring out what niche or niches you can excel in and doubling down on those. It’s hard to get any real traction in this business if you’re all over the place. It’s sort of like life in general I suppose.
I turned 45 years old a few months ago. Although I still feel more or less the same as I did 20 years ago, and as far as I know I’m still in good health, the truth is that with each passing year, my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber decline. Not that my chances of becoming the next Justin Bieber were ever very good. But each passing year, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that my dream of becoming a teen heartthrob/pop star are slowly diminishing.
Jokes and sarcasm aside. Just like you, I’m getting older each passing day, each passing month and each passing year. Let’s talk about what it’s like getting older in the music business and how our age affects our role within the music industry.
First, let’s be honest with ourselves. Becoming a rock or pop star at any age is a one in a million sort of endeavor. The odds of “making it” in the music business arguably get harder as you get older, but it’s not really easy or likely (statistically speaking) at any age. Most musicians don’t become as famous as Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift at any age, and the odds are even more against you as you get older.
So, although the mainstream music business is arguably a very youth and looks oriented business. Most artists never become mainstream at all anyway. Most artists will remain in the realm of “indie” artist throughout their careers. According to my research, only about .4 percent of artists make it into the “mainstream”.
That’s the bad news I guess you could say. But it’s also sort of liberating when you think about it. Screw the mainstream music business is what I’ve always said. Actually, I’ve never said that, but I’m going to start saying it, because, the reality is although “making it” in the music business was always a long shot with the odds stacked against us, making a career out of music isn’t, and it’s something we can do at any age. in many ways it actually gets easier and more likely the older you get and there’s new data coming out that suggests it’s never been a better time to be an “indie” artist.
The Advantage Of Age
The reason age is advantageous in terms of building an “indie” music career is because building a viable music career takes time. Let’s take something like licensing. Licensing, although a competitive industry, is still a totally viable way of making money with your music. The main obstacle in terms of building up income with something like licensing is time. It takes time to create music. It takes time to network and build contacts. It takes time to build up a revenue stream from music that’s sustainable. It can take years to build up a licensing catalog to the point where it generates a sustainable revenue stream and as the years accumulate, you will of course be getting older. I think most musicians who fail to make it in something like licensing, simply give up too soon.
The good news is that, for the most part, no one really cares how old you are when it comes to something like music licensing. No one has ever asked my age when screening my tracks and to the best of my knowledge no one really cares.
Age is also an advantage in terms of simply getting better at the craft of writing and playing music. It takes time to learn and master an instrument. It takes time to excel at songwriting and composition. There’s really no end to growth in either of these endeavors. I feel like I get better at songwriting with each passing year. I have more life experience to draw from. I have more to write about. I have more to say. The same is true in terms of my skill as a guitar player. I continue to improve each year and I feel like I’m playing much better now than I ever have because I’m continually racking up more and more hours as a guitar player.
Also, depending on what style of music you play, age isn’t necessarily a factor in terms of playing music live. For example, I’m really into jambands, blues and jazz, in addition to songwriting. These genres are much less age-centric than mainstream pop and rock. There are plenty of thirty, forty and fifty somethings and beyond, playing live in these genres. Of course, having time and youth on your side never hurts. It’s arguably easier to deal with the stress and overall lifestyle of pursuing a live music career when you’re younger. But don’t discount the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.
In many ways I’m grateful I didn’t go further as a performing musician when I was younger, because I don’t think I was mature enough in my twenties and early thirties to deal with the lifestyle in a healthy way. In retrospect, I could have easily fallen into a very unhealthy lifestyle in terms of things like alcohol and sleep deprivation had I had more “success” when I was younger. Thank God I didn’t.
With age comes experience and wisdom. And although I’m not currently touring, I still perform live an average of once a week and I always make it home at a reasonable time and manage to get in a full nights sleep and wake up refreshed and hydrated, bright eyed and bushy tailed.
My buddy Chuck Hughes from the Hillbilly Hellcats (see previous podcast here) didn’t start touring until he was 45, my age now. Now in his 60s, Chuck was able to carve out a great indie career both touring and licensing his music, and he didn’t even get started touring extensively until he was 45!
One of my favorite guitarists, from one my favorite bands, Nels Cline of Wilco, is 63 years old. Nels didn’t join Wilco until 2004, when he was 48! The music business is filled with examples like this, if you know where to look.
Focus On Building A Career
One of the reasons I’ve focused so extensively on things like licensing and simply becoming a better musician and songwriter, is that I want to focus on things I can control. I don’t need the added pressure of worrying about getting too old hanging over me. It’s hard enough creating a viable music career as it is, without worrying about something that’s inevitable and completely out of my control.
The bottom line: Don’t let something as natural and inevitable as aging deter you from pursuing and doing what you love. I’m a big believer that having things in your life that you’re passionate and fired up about will actually keep you younger and more youthful longer. There’s absolutely no reason to stop doing something like creating and performing music just because you reach a certain age.
It might be too late to become the next Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift, but it’s never too late to keep doing what you love. If you’re still alive, you can still make music.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.