Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What It Takes to Succeed in Music

There are a lot of people who will tell you what you need to do to succeed in (or at least making a living at) music.

Unfortunately, people are recommending all sorts of strategies, some of it conflicting.

I decided to make a list of many of the suggestions I've read.

Lots of people start with this, although not everyone does. (People can cite examples of musicians who don't make great music, but still do well.)

  • But what exactly is great music? Who decides? If it sells, is that a sufficient indicator? Does it have to be perceived as great now, or does great mean it will be revered 30 years from now?
  • Do you have to write it yourself? Or can you cover someone else's as long as that is great? Or does the music have to be original but not necessarily written by you?
  • Can great music consist of mashups? Can combining other people's music be the path to success?
  • How much great music must you put out? A new song a week? A new song a month?

    Since recorded music is getting harder to sell, some people say the key to making it is the quality of the live show. But what is a great performance?

  • Do you need to play an instrument? Do you need to play it well? Or just in a showy manner?
  • Do you need to be able to sing?
  • Does dancing count as a great performance?
  • Is a well-rehearsed show the way to go? Or is impromptu better? Or are you supposed to make it look impromptu, but you've really heavily rehearsed all of those meaningful moments?


  • On stage?
  • After the show?
  • In a blog?
  • In videos?
  • In a newsletter?
  • On Facebook?
  • On Twitter?
  • Do you have to do it yourself, or can a team member do it?
  • Should you hire a band member precisely for his/her social skills and give him/her the job?
  • Are you running contests for your fans so they are creating videos and remixing your songs?


  • Do you have great looking merchandise? Or maybe not so great looking merchandise, but you made it yourself and you're marking up the price like crazy?
  • Are you offering merchandise at multiple price points?
  • Do you have something for the guys and something different for the girls?
  • Limited edition items?
  • Vinyl?
  • A snazzy display table?
  • A sexy merch person?
  • Have you created special events?
  • Are you selling membership subscriptions?


  • Can you make frequent videos? At home? On tour? Using split screen? Animation?
  • Can you do all of your recording in a home studio that you've put together yourself?


  • Are you authentic?
  • Or maybe you've totally invented yourself and you keep the fans guessing? What will you be this week?
  • Have you built a good story? Around yourself? Around your music?
  • And how do you look on stage? What are you wearing? Do you have lights?
  • What's your one line description of yourself? Of your music?


  • Do you have a website?
  • Are you blogging?
  • Are you microblogging?
  • Are you on YouTube?
  • Are you on ReverbNation? What about all the other music websites?
  • Have you gotten your music on TV yet?
  • And have you mailed out your music to college radio stations?
  • And have you contacted all relevant music bloggers? And gotten to know them first, before pitching your songs?
  • And are you giving away your music everywhere you can? And collecting email addresses? Or not.
  • Are you going to music conferences?


  • Are you touring? Or maybe you're staying local until you're selling out there first.
  • Are you booking lots of shows? Maybe 200 a year?
  • Are you living in a van and/or sleeping on people's floors and couches?
  • Have you raised money on Kickstarter for touring? Or sold lifetime show passes to 1000 of your best fans to buy a van?

  • Okay, folks. Now do it. Do it all. Or maybe don't any of it. And then if you succeed anyway, people will go back to figure out why you succeeded and then recommend that as a blueprint.

    Have I left anything out? Have you gone to a music conference and then left with your head spinning because you've gotten too much advice, particularly conflicting advice? If so, what didn't work for you?

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter


    1. Be professional. Build relationships with venues, other bands, as well as fans. When starting out, Jam Econo, a la D. Boon and the Minutemen. When given an opportunity to get signed, contemplate http://www.negativland.com/albini.html.

      Diversify. Learn to record, teach music lessons, learn different types of music, challenge yourself.

    2. Try to realistically look at what "success" means for a band. In the Albini example, success for some people might be to not really make any money, but spend a year or two on the road having a blast. Or success might be a having a steady stream of income, enough to live on, while doing what you love. It's important that band members communicate their goals to one another.

      Under "be professional" I'd emphasize, be organized. Give people in the band responsibility for different aspects of the business. One person might be an artist - let them create flyers. One person might be good at setting up gigs - give them the tools to do that (everyone's calendar, phone number, etc.) Another might be good at organizing pre-production for recordings.

      Work efficiently.

    3. As always, the question is how we define "success". I find, however, that before you can be successful and to that end I have one piece of very simple advice:

      Find out whatever works best in generating income for your project and focus on that for a start.

      It may not be new fangled and sexy - maybe it's just playing gigs and flogging your self pressed CDs. If it's making you money, don't worry about being hip.

      Once you've got some spare change for investments, you can try branching out and experimenting with new stuff. If it works, great! If it doesn't, try something else.

      Ultimately, if you're good enough and persist at what you do, you'll start getting somewhere. It may not be superstardom, but it just might pay the bills, provided you remember to charge for what you do.

    4. Yes, I have a musician friend who has never been perceived as cutting edge and yet she makes more money than most other local/regional musicians because she is willing to play a lot of shows and her music connects with people who continue to buy her CDs. The opportunity was there to go national and she chose not to. She's been making a good living without the hassle of touring beyond a day's drive.

    5. Cool post and well timed. I just had a big discussion about this with my friend Dave Brogan.

      Here's what I would add: learn to delegate. In a DIY world you can find yourself DOA for the simple reason that you have spread yourself too thin. Truly, you need to find people who can help you and whom you can help in return (pay, groupie sex, whatever!). To do otherwise is to bury yourself in minutiae.



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