As a consultant, I’ve worked with a lot of new artists in popular music over the years and have seen the ups and downs of so many different journeys. The core theme that rings true with all of my clients is that they often unknowingly impede their own success. Even when artists are the heroes of their own stories, sometimes they step on their capes. It happens. Here are 10 ways artists step on their own capes, and suggestions on how you can avoid making the same mistakes.
1. Failing to Invest in Themselves
The difference between the little fish and the big league is the investment. The artists that make it to a national level invest cold hard cash into their endeavors. Everyone knows the saying, “It takes money to make money,” but so many artists believe that they can scrape by without paying for professional marketing services, distribution, professional photos/graphics, professional mixing/mastering, promotions, etc.
Having the ability to invest in yourself means that you need a job or a stable source of income in order to build your career. It is very unlikely for any new music act to earn a sustainable income as soon as they start. Most artists end up playing free shows for a short time before they’re able to consistently book gigs at all. You need a job in order to survive while you work hard to turn your hobby into a paying career.
In an interview she did with HipHopMyWay.com, RapCoalition founder and artist advocate, Wendy Day reminds us that money is the vehicle that takes talent to new heights. “Everybody wants to be in the music industry, so, you’ve gotta be better than everyone else. And that’s really hard to do. Not only do you need to be better, but you need to have some budget. It’s a very expensive industry; You’ve gotta pay to record, pay to mix, pay to master, pay to market, and promote. At the very least, you’ve gotta pay your internet bill or your phone bill so you can get on to social media to promote. You’ve gotta [also] be able to promote in the real world. So, it’s not a free industry.”
2. Failing to Define Their Marketing by Identifying a Target Audience
One of the most common pitfalls independent artists trap themselves in is their desire to appeal to everyone. So many artists believe their sound/look is so unique that it can’t be defined. That line of thinking completely ignores the most basic principle of marketing: You must define your target market.
Yes. The ultimate goal is to get as many people listening to your music as possible. But the truth is, even if you are Spotify’s most-streamed artist of the year, it is impossible to reach everybody in the world and convert them into fans. Not everyone will like your music. That means you need to focus all of your efforts on the people who do.
In order to identify which kinds of people will buy into your brand, you need research. Instead of wasting money on marketing to people who won’t care about you, you need a plan that ignores specific demographics in order to build a stronger relationship with your target audience. If you don’t have a clear idea of who your fans are and only vaguely identify your goal as “just getting your music out there,” how would you recognize that you’ve actually built a solid relationship with those fans?
Musicthinktank.com suggests taking the time to sit down and write out a “fan profile” that outlines all the wants and needs of a musicians audience in order to really understand what tactics you can use to reach them.
3. Failing to Do the Paperwork
The music business is 15% music and 85% paperwork. You need business licenses, copyrights, trademarks, and contracts. Intellectual property law protects and enforces the rights of the creators and owners of inventions, written works, music, designs, and other creative works. Every business transaction rides on the validity of your paperwork. The harsh truth is that if you don’t have your paperwork in order, you do not have a music career.
There are specific agreements and contracts for every move you make as an artist from booking and producer agreements to synch licenses and corporate sponsorships. An entertainment lawyer is essential for learning about your intellectual rights as a creator and how to protect them. Copyright laws are the “meat and potatoes” for music business professionals such as songwriters, composers, and publishers. It can be difficult to understand the details of royalties, so it may be helpful to have each moving part broken down for you by a lawyer to help you decide on the terms and conditions of each contract to which you are a signing party.
“Every business partnership between recording artists and the companies who invest in them the way venture capitalists invest in startups must undergo the offer and negotiation process before finalizing any record or publishing deal,” Yoh Phillips of DJBooth.net said in his breakdown of a few well-known artist contract disputes. “The contract, above all, explains the binding terms, conditions, and obligations that establish what can and can’t be done during the agreed duration of said partnership. No amount of wealth, celebrity, or influence can override what the writing says once the contract is signed.”
4. Failing to Do Research and Learn More
The internet age has now made it easier than ever to learn the ins and outs of the music industry. There are thousands of sites that provide relevant, accurate information for free about the music business, as well as thousands of others that offer paid courses and/or consultations with music business professionals. The key is finding out exactly what you don’t know. Which is, admittedly, an extremely difficult task.
Joshua Kanter, a writer at Rolling Stone, said, “As an independent artist, trying to break into the music business can be a daunting and confusing journey. While mastering your instrument of choice, songwriting, booking gigs, and buying studio time is enough of a full-time job as is, navigating the business side of the industry requires an entirely different set of skills, lots of patience, and a learning curve that can seem intimidatingly steep.”
Once you are familiar with the areas of expertise where you lack, you can then pursue new information and advice from trusted sources. If you don’t have the money to spend to hire a professional to teach you or do the work for you, the only other option you have is to do the extensive research it takes to get up to speed.
Research is vital, however, the problem you will inevitably run into is a lack of time and resources. Music business experts do not gain all of the valuable knowledge they possess overnight by merely performing a few Google searches. They have years of experience and are constantly learning as the industry grows. It is nearly impossible to dedicate yourself to a career as a music artist while also dedicating yourself to the time commitment it takes to become an expert in every other necessary part of the business. This brings us back to #1 on this list. Do your research and learn what you can, but pay an expert to make up for where you lack.
5. Failing to Build and Maintain a Team
To have the freedom to focus on exercising and developing your craft, you need a solid team behind you to help you take care of business. So many new artists believe in themselves so much that they imagine an independent music career as a DIY project. There are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days a year. You cannot do everything yourself if you expect to grow your career beyond your own personal limitations. A successful music career requires a joint effort of people who are committed to helping you grow.
A basic team includes a Talent/Business Manager, a Booking Agent, a Publicist, an Entertainment Lawyer, and Social Media Manager. Keeping that in mind, it makes no sense to enlist a team if you haven’t established a fan base that supports a full-blown operation. You don’t need a manager if you don’t have any business to manage yet. Continue to record and test your music in your target market. Engage the fans you have until you have a big enough following to make an operations team necessary.
“Being a musician is a full-time job. You chose to pursue this journey because of your desire to write, experiment, and perform — not to chase club promoters or make pitches to media outlets. And while being an independent artist is empowering, it doesn’t mean you have to do it alone,” Sara Wass said in a blog post on AWAL.com.
6. Failing to Engage With Their Fans
Social media numbers may be the most obvious way to measure the size of a music artist’s audience, but it isn’t always the best way to gauge a potential ROI. An artist may have 100K followers on Instagram, but how can you be sure that those followers will stream your next song? How do you know the percentage of your following that would buy your merch?
The only way to find out is to constantly engage your audience and measure their response. Social media is a necessary tool for measuring your level of engagement. None of it means a thing if those engaged fans aren’t supporting the music. As a music artist, everything you do that isn’t directly tied to your music is still a tool used to get your fans to listen to your next song, go to your concert, or purchase your merchandise.
You may be practiced at posting quality content consistently, but you build real engagement with your fans by creating multiple points of contact with them. You need different ways to touch your fans personally. In a way, you need to establish yourself as an intricate part of their everyday life. When a fan becomes engaged with you as an artist on a more intimate level than social media alone, they’ll have more opportunities to support your endeavors and put money in your pocket.
VoxFoxStudios.com breaks it down a little further. “We all want to hide from social media on the regular, but since it is your job to engage with your fans, set aside a specific amount of time each day (or set days per week if you can’t do every day) that you can respond to comments, visit profiles of those commenting so you can get to know them, like their posts, share their posts (if you like it or agree), send a private voice memo thanking someone for their comment, etc. In other words, make someone’s day. How bad of a job is that?”
7. Failing to Operate and Organize as a Business
You probably make music because you love it or because you love the way it makes you feel, which is dope. Your love for the music you create, however, is not a solid foundation for a music career alone. Treat every aspect of your journey with respect and govern your career like a business.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “having fun” and just “enjoying your creativity”. Yes, your art should be enjoyable and fulfilling in the best-case scenario, but if you don’t treat your career with the same operational and technical respect that you’d give a 9-5, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. No matter what kind of musician you are, if you mean for your art to become your career, you must operate it as a business entity.
At the very least, this means trademarking your name, applying for a business license in your state, and opening a business bank account so as not to commingle your assets. Build a budget for your operation and stick to it. Formally interview new team members to see if they’re a good fit before hiring them. Set aside time every month to balance your financial statements, pay your bills, and review your ongoing contracts. Business operations in music aren’t a hindrance to your creativity. It’s what allows you to be creative as a career.
Nick Fox from VentureMusic.com says, “You need to mentally strip the idea that you are just an artist. That might seem hard to do when you genuinely care more about the art and creating meaningful work, BUT if your goal is to pay the bills with your music, sell records and merch, go on tour, get songs plugged…then you’re not just an artist…. you are a business. You yourself are your own brand. Your music and merch are your ‘products’. Your performances are your ‘services’. So, treat your approach to building your career no differently than if you were starting a business.”
8. Failing to Make Genuine Connections in Their Network
Most artists generally understand the need for networking in a “who-you-know” industry such as the music business. What many artists fail to grasp is how to turn a pocket full of business cards into an address book of genuine professional connections.
Networking is the way we associate ourselves and share information with people who may be able to support our personal and business ventures in a variety of different ways. Networking helps you find new fans and new business contacts. Building genuine connections within your network by engaging and reciprocating is how you’ll be able to turn your associates into valuable members of your extended support system.
CyberPRMusic.com reminds artists not to let digital technology stop them from nurturing true connections that might offer unique insights and hard-to-find information. “You will not make it in music without mastering the word of in-person networking. That’s the problem with all of the digital tools available to us: Way too many artists are hiding behind a screen and trying to launch the career of their dreams without connecting with people face-to-face.”
“Connecting the dots of your digital world to the real world is a crucial part of moving forward in your music career. Even if you only want to be a studio musician and have no interest in touring, you still need to be able to meet people and find out about potential work. It can be hard to break out of your comfort zone, and I have met so many artists who struggle with anxiety and have a notion that networking means ‘selling’ – but the most successful people are those who go out and meet other people who can help them.”
9. Failing to Aim Higher
It’s almost unavoidable. You start recording and performing music. You get booked with and meet other local acts in your city and get excited about becoming a part of the community of artists. You perform in every show that becomes available to you. You build a fanbase in that community but often have to stop yourself from comparing yourself to the other local acts that look like they’re doing better than you. You perform more and more often in the local circuit until you’ve exhausted all your venue options but it still seems like you haven’t been able to win the devotion of all the people in your city that know you make music. It’s a trap. And the disappointment it generates kills music careers.
Why are you pursuing this career? Is it to impress your friends? Is it to get “daps” in the club, get free drinks, and be perceived as popular? New music artists often and mistakenly commit a lot of time and energy trying to become hometown heroes. Even when you do happen to become the “most popular” act in your city, it still can be difficult to replicate that same supportive energy in a new town that has no idea who you are. That translates into a lack of profit from your business.
TheBalanceCareers.com brings up a harsh truth on this topic. “If getting out of your backyard is your ultimate goal, then don’t get involved in a popularity contest to rule said backyard. Believe me, your local celebrity status will be cemented when you start achieving things on a larger stage anyway, plus, you’ll get to avoid turning into the middle age wannabe musician saddo hanging around the college parties wishing the local scene was just like the…90s, the 80s, the 70s, or what have you…again, since that is when they ruled the local clubs.”
Compete with yourself and set new goals to work toward outside your city after achieving something in your hometown. If your goal was to get featured in your city’s most popular newspaper, once you achieve it, devise a new plan to be featured in a publication in another state. Focus on figuring out the steps in between. How did you get that news feature in your own city? Did the writer attend your show and fall in love with your music? If that’s the case, maybe your next step is to book a show in the next state and invite those local music journalists to also come to experience your music for free. Aiming higher should always be your strategy if you plan to take your music globally. There’s always a new level to reach.
10. Failing to Exercise Patience
In the age of instant gratification, many artists get discouraged way too early in their process when they don’t immediately see the fruits of their labor. Don’t quit. You’ve heard it many times before, but it’s worth repeating: There is no such thing as an overnight success in the music industry. Every hit song you hear on the radio took an unknown amount of time and effort to make it a commercial success. There are no shortcuts (unless you have a few hundred thousand dollars for marketing and promotion on-hand). There’s no magical formula. Success in this industry takes hard work and commitment. That’s the secret sauce.
When you feel like you’re losing your motivation, the important thing to do is shift your perspective. “Being” a professional musician is not something that is simply acquired. It can become a life-long journey that will be analyzed and adjusted as industry changes occur.
On BMI.com’s blog, acclaimed songwriter Cliff Goldmacher says, “While there is a lot you can (and should) do on your own behalf every day, the music business goes at its own speed no matter what you do. Songs, even ‘undeniable’ hits, routinely take years to find a home after they’ve been written. The journey from the creation of a song to royalty-generating copyright is as mysterious to me now as it was when I wrote my first song. So, given that it’s out of your hands once you’ve written, demoed, and pitched your song, why not be patient and keep filling the pipeline with new songs and pitches? Develop your craft, write as much as you can and one day you’ll look back to see you’ve got a catalog of great songs where some of the older ones are actually generating income.”
“I once heard a hit songwriter say that he wrote one of his hits in ‘three hours and 25 years.’ In other words, while the song took three hours to write, it was his 25 years of patiently refining his craft and developing his career that made it happen. As long as you’re not planning on being a songwriter for this week only, take a deep breath, work on your songs and your career a little every day and enjoy the ride. You’ll be amazed in a few years when you look back and see how far you’ve come.”