Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Let's Get Realistic About Your Music Career

There's a great discussion going on over at Hypebot about the extent to which marketing is a part of music.
I'm sorry if this comes as a surprise, but it has never been enough to just make great music. Every generation of musicians has had to face their own challenges which forced them to go beyond creation and recording. "I'm Sorry, But It Was Never Just About The Music," Hypebot, 9/15/09.
With the major label system coming down, the burden to promote music and connect with fans is falling more than ever on the artists themselves.

People are weighing in on both sides of the debate. I've joined into the discussion as well, posting quite a few times. But I wanted to elaborate on one of my comments, which I have copied here.
I can understand why musicians might be frustrated with all the advice.

First they are told to write, record, and perform great music. An understandable place to start.

And maybe they are also encouraged to tour and play various festivals/showcases that don't pay any money, but are good exposure.

Then they are told to give away their recorded music for free to gain fans. Not such a great scenario, but what are you going to do?

Then they are told to blog, twitter, YouTube, and use multiple other forms of online communication to develop a relationship with their fans.

I'm sure they will be told to do even more once the tools are available and it becomes the norm.

That's why I've been touting the joy of just making music that you want to make and not worrying about whether you can make a living from it. If the fans find you or if you enjoy seeking out fans, great. If not, you've at least created something that meant something to you.
So this is what I want to discuss further:

What is it about music these days that encourages people to think they have potential careers as rock stars or famous recording artists? Just because people can sing or play an instrument, form a band, record some music, and put it on MySpace, why do think they can make a living touring the country playing music?

When you shoot a photo, do you think about becoming a professional photographer?

When you learn a sport, do you assume the next step is a career in professional sports?

If your daughter takes ballet lessons, do envision her joining the New York City Ballet?

Do so many people think they can make it in the music because they view it as a profession that doesn't take all that much talent and/or training? Whether or not that is the case, and even if all it takes to make it big in music is the right marketing, the reality is still that relatively few musicians (other than those who teach or have music-related salaried positions) will make their living solely from music.

I don't want to discourage people from playing music. But I do want to encourage more people to embrace music as a form of self-expression and as a way to bond with friends, family, and neighbors rather than as a source of income.

Toward that end, I'll toss out these points:

1. Financial success and talent are not necessarily linked. Music discovery is still imperfect. The system does not automatically find and reward those who write the best songs or who are the most accomplished musicians.

I'm not saying that to reinforce the idea that you've intentionally been overlooked by a rigged system. Too many musicians already think that and they stew in their own bitterness. Rather I am suggesting that the music you create ultimately needs to be its own reward because it may not produce huge income or audiences for you.

2. You don't have to land a record contract to be validated as an artist. Until very recently, unsigned artists didn't get much respect. Now there are enough successful unsigned artists that anyone can say it's a personal choice, not a lack of talent, that keeps them unsigned.

3. You don't have to be a full-time working musician to be validated as an artist. Juggling music and another job can be very difficult, especially when your day job ties you to a schedule. Therefore many musicians hit a point when they wonder if they are being held back by not devoting themselves to music full-time.

But as the Hypebot discussion illustrates, a lot of what goes into a music career isn't playing music. It's doing all the marketing, promotion, booking, and other tasks that go along with turning music into a paying job.

Consequently, it's possible that you might actually play more music if you have a non-musical day job that pays the bills and therefore you aren't depending on music for income. If you don't expect music to be profitable, you can dispense with the business side of music and just create and play. It can be very liberating.

4. Artists who choose to stay local or regional may have very good reasons for doing so. Don't dismiss them as less talented because they aren't touring the country. Don't assume they have remained local because they weren't good enough to tour. A life on the road is not what everyone wants, particularly for those with kids in school, for those with day jobs they don't want to leave, and for those who are heavily in demand in their home markets.

5. Don't get caught up in the fear of overplaying. Don't listen to those who tell you you can't play in the same market very often. If you want to play every weekend and you have a place to play, do it. Don't assume you can only play once every three or four months. Limit your local appearances only if that's your choice or because you can't get more frequent gigs. In other words, play as much as you want to.

6. Local media and fans, please support your local music scenes. I think local media and local audiences sometimes reinforce the "rock star" mentality. Too often they discount local talent until it has gone national.

Therefore, don't fall into the trap of thinking local is second-rate. It may not be. And if it is lacking, spotlight what is good, and find ways to encourage more talent and opportunities to improve your local scene.

Local musicians are part of your community; they make it a better place. You don't want to live where no one plays music, so create an environment that is conducive to them.

7. There's a long tradition of playing for friends and family. You don't have to build your music around music venues, which can be in short supply. Play in your homes, schools, churches, or wherever you can find some space. You don't have to play so loudly that neigborhoods don't want you there. Unplugged jams are cool. And to get more people involved, encourage them to join in some fashion.

In summary, the music business requires more than just making music. If you just want to make music, do it, don't apologize for it, and don't count on it to pay the bills.

While I was writing this article, I came across this blog post, which I think is relevant because it deals with the realities of music as a career. It's written by Chris Sligh, who was on American Idol Season 6. He's giving advice to the top ten finalists from Season 8. Here's an excerpt:
Leave home and live WAY below your means. Move to a music city. L.A., New York or Nashville. Move there immediately. Don't wait for a record deal, because chances are you'll never have a record deal. Oh and when you move, get a crappy apartment that is cheap, cheap, cheap. You're not a rock star. You're a wanna be who happens to be more famous than most wanna bes are. Get a part time job with flexible hours that will help pay your bills...your tour savings will fly out of your bank account faster than you realize. $200k or whatever looks like a lot of money until you have to spend it. You need to finance your lifestyle and though a few gigs will pay big bucks most won't. So live WAY below your means. $200k now doesn't mean you will make remotely close to that next year. ...

Freaking love what you do. When you don't love this anymore, when the pain of travel and the hurt from non-success hurts more than the joy you feel when you rock people live, quit. Go get a "real job". Love what you do. Do what you love. Period. "To the Idols: A Realistic look at your career prospects," From My Mind To Your Eyes, 9/19/09.

Suzanne Lainson
@slainson on Twitter


  1. Amazing article... thank you for this. We all get trapped into thinking that a musician isn't anything until they make a full living at it (and on a national scale, nonetheless).

    A very practical and moving piece. Thank you-

  2. This is amazing. I love the honest nature. Great resource for ANYONE in this industry, not just musicians. Very moving...

  3. I agree. I think Americans in general are overly motivated by money. I love the question, "What would you choose to do daily, even if you weren't getting paid for it?"

    I've been lucky enough to encounter people who have those "dream jobs". Ironically, the majority of them are EXTREMELY UNHAPPY. They are stuck on small tour buses with people the don't like for month's on end; they are detached from family; THEY AREN'T MAKING THAT MUCH MONEY; they work 24/7 and love "clocking out" as much as anyone else. BUT, everyone wants to be them. And for some, that is the dream.

    Success may look like P. Diddy, but appearances can be very deceiving.

  4. Wow, there’s some really great advice in here. Nice to see some solid practical advice for musicians.

    Danny sent us a story a while back about not being happy at his old job and deciding to chuck it all to pursue his dream of playing music full time.

    He had the drive and the goal, and he set about making it happen. Really great story. Check it out at the link below. Hope you like it.

  5. Great post Suzanne.

    The key line, for me, is this:

    "The music you create ultimately needs to be its own reward."

    That says it all to me.

    Being a musician/artist promoting his/her own work is and endless job. And at the end of the day no one owes you a dime for it--no matter how many hours you put in above and beyond your day job.

    Know why you do what you do. Chances are, it's reason enough.

  6. In the electronic music scenes, there are very few producers/DJs who actually make a living out of it. Maybe a few hundred, maybe a few thousand... but if you look at all the 'popular' DJs and producers, that's just a tiny fraction.

    I think in the more club-oriented electronic music scenes (as opposed to the pop house / eurohouse scene), it's quite normal for producers and DJs to start and expect nothing in return... They do it for the love. This is why they want to make a living with it; because what's greater than to make money with the thing you love most?

    It will be hard to take the money out... a lot of DJs don't expect to make much with the songs they make, but they validate themselves with how much money they get for gigs. However, there are hardly any DJs that will change the style of music they play/produce, just to make more money. In this sense, they stay true to their style and they keep doing what they love - getting paid well is defined by what is normal for the scene.

    The free party scene is also something interesting to discuss, because these people don't make anything at all with throwing parties... they invest more then they get back (in material means anyway). But their whole lifestyle is adapted to it.

  7. Thanks for the comment. I'm hoping to change perceptions of music and careers. The fact that you aren't making a living at this doesn't necessarily mean you "couldn't make it." There are a lot of reasons why people do music for little or no money and have day jobs to pay the bills.


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