The music industry has changed beyond recognition in recent years. Here are 10 rules that used to be sacrosanct if you wanted to be a musician, but today you need to break every one of them if you want to be noticed.
1, Your music is your life blood: Treasure it and never give it away freely.
Whether you’re launching a new chocolate bar, washing powder or narcotic drug the best way to grab market share is to flood the market with free samples. If people like the product they’ll come back for more. Music is no different. Lots of bands offer a free track or two on their website, but those that offer a larger selection will really grab the attention.
The Civil Wars offered a Live Album via NoiseTrade for anyone willing to swap an email address. This created a buzz that ultimately got their songs on primetime TV shows and earnt them 2 Grammy’s.
Radio sessions and internet sites like Daytrotter will help expand your fan base, and will start getting other organisations promoting your music for mutual benefit.
2, The best musicians will always be recognised
We are fortunate to live in a world where there are a great number of fantastic musicians. If you’re not any good you’ll never get far, but if you’re great it doesn’t mean that everyone else will move aside and let you through to the front. Of course you may be spotted by a major artist who’ll pull you up and invite you onto their next album & tour – but don’t wait for that to happen!
As well as being a great musician you also need to be an excellent marketeer. You need to develop your fan base by engaging with them through websites, newsletters and every social media device that there is.
At the same time you need to identify & engage with key people in the music industry. You want to make them think that they’ve discovered you – whether they are radio dj’s, venue managers, journalists or fellow musicians.
3, Produce an album every 2 years
12 songs every 2 years is simply no longer enough to make your career in music. A constant drip feeding of new songs will keep your name on the radar and provide content for your website.
EPs are your best friend. Fans are more likely to buy your new EP at your show than the album you released last year. Produce 4 EPs and you can market a box set. This is what Larkin Poe did successfully with their All Seasons box set.
A Christmas album is a must have. Try to develop something original, or at least some interesting covers – avoid the same 10 songs that appear on every other Christmas record. One great seasonal song will give you an income for life!
Record a live album and a stripped down acoustic album – or step it up and re-record your best songs with a philharmonic orchestral – like Brandi Carlile did!
4, If you don’t get signed your career is over
Getting signed might be the worse thing you ever do. A tiny fraction of signed artists succeed – and those that do are always keen to renegotiate their contracts and regain control of their music.
The music industry has become more niche based. If you sign with a major label and record an album with a top producer you might sell 20,000 copies, earning yourself $2 per copy. The label will take control of your music and say what you can and can’t do. Alternatively you can self produce an album in the style that you want and sell 5,000 copies at shows, but earn $10 per copy. Do the maths – what would you prefer?
5, Only ever play original music if you want to be treated seriously
The best way to get yourself noticed is to put out a great cover version of a classic song on to YouTube, and promote the link as much as you can. Word of mouth will then take over and if you hit viral gold, then you’ll have as many views as a Top 40 artist.
Up and coming band, First Aid Kit, recorded a version of the Fleet Foxes, ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’ in 2008. 2.6 Million views later they have played with the Fleet Foxes and have an album release with an international headlining tour.
6, Concentrate on your local town to build a fan base
We live in a global town with the internet and you need to market your music on a global level. The music industry is so diverse that you don’t know where your fans are. The second most important asset you have (after your music) is your email list.
Swap free downloads for email addresses and make sure that you sign everyone up to your newsletter at your shows. Use this to keep in contact with your fan base and make sure that you tell your fans about every show and marketing opportunity.
The downside is that your touring schedule is extensive and arduous. This is the less glamorous and most lonely side of the business, but one that will give you as many great experiences and inspiration for your music.
7, Your income will come from CD sales
It’d take you 5 years, 24 hours a day, just to listen to every CD released in 2011. Consequently you’re not going to sell a huge number of CDs. Unless, of course, you’re Adele who is STILL selling a copy of ’21’ every 6 seconds!
Your CD sales will – if you are lucky – cover the costs of recording, duplication, artwork, distribution and the associated costs of running your website and general expenses. Touring 50 – 100 shows a year will give you some income but travel is an expensive business and your income will quickly be absorbed into the overheads of basic survival.
Therefore you need to diversify to make any money. You need to turn yourself into a brand. If you are an artistic artist as well as a musical artist then you can use your talents to create a design for T-shirts, hoodies, bags, caps, buttons, pins and anything else you think you can customise and re-sell.
It’s simple economics again. Buy a T-shirt for $6 – $8 and sell them on for $20 – $25 — your profit margin is far greater than for CDs. And you’ve got people promoting your music at the heart of your demographic.
Say that you’ve got 5,000 fans – not an unreasonable number. You need each one to spend $20 per year (on average) on CDs & merchandising to gross $100k, which will give you a net income (pre tax) of about $50,000. It won’t make you rich but it is enough to enjoy the life of a musician.
Ofcourse this only works for a solo act – duo’s and bands have to have a corresponding multiple of fans. It’s tough but financially you’re better on your own. There is also no room for a manager or booking agent to take their cut. Like every other small business owner musicians need to wear lots of hats and it is a lot of work.
8, Concentrate your time on songwriting and developing your talent
Of course it is important to spend time developing your artistic endeavours but it is just as important to spend time developing your relationship with your fan base. It doesn’t mean that you need to tweet every bowel movement, but you need to keep in contact with people so that they feel that they are part of your journey. You need to treat them like friends rather than fans – then they’ll make sure that they go out of their way to support you.
Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers are masters at this. Not only have they developed a very loyal fan base (17,000 on Facebook) but they carry their fans/friends with them and have even created their own “Field Day” – a weekend of exclusive performances & games.
9, Let your record company manage your work and your image
Copyright law is outdated and outmoded. Modern artists need to let their fans have a far greater control of their image. YouTube is like a visual radio station and you need to get as much exposure on it as possible. Encourage your fans to video and upload your performances. Their friends will see your performance and the next time you come to town they’ll want to come to your show.
It is ridiculous to suggest that someone recording a performance on a mobile phone is going to act as a substitute for someone buying an album – it is far more likely to introduce your music to new fans, who will buy your albums.
You need to listen to your fans and let them influence the style of music that you play. You are on stage for them, and because of them, and you shouldn’t forget it.
10, If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously
Some artists can pull off the silent serious look, but you’re more likely to fade into obscurity if you take yourself overly seriously. However if you have fun then the chances are that your audience will have fun too. If your audience has fun then they’ll remember the night and will come back next time — with their friends!