From time to time I get asked what advice can I give to those who are just starting their journey with music. It’s actually the hardest question I get asked but it’s a good opportunity to put some thoughts together so I thought I’d share them for anyone else who is interested.
I am far from being an expert, everything I tell you is through the lens of my own experience and understanding. Like all advice, you must try it and test it for yourself. We are each responsible for our own journeys.
1. How Do You Become A Musician/Artist/Producer?
The truth is a creative person never stops to ask this question. We just do it. For any artist, it’s a necessity. It’s a state of mind and a state of doing. If we don’t express ourselves then we feel like we are going to explode. To me it feels like a lifestyle and the moment you are engaged in creating music or a work of art, you are an artist.
2. The Journey Is Full Of Little Steps
If you keep being creative there comes a point when you wake up one day and realise you are there. But there is no such thing as an overnight success. Behind even the most commercially produced pop bands, there is a lot of work and preparation that goes into making them successful, it just happens to be that some have access to bigger budgets and marketing campaigns.
If you keep doing, creating, learning you will eventually get there.
3. Being An Independent Artist Is Not Glamorous
It may surprise many of you that although I enjoy the life of being an independent artist and I absolutely love what I do, I do not actually make my living from it.
I currently earn my wages from a normal full time day job just like most people do. I spent my entire savings on releasing my first album and pretty much still do. I earn just enough money from my album sales to be able to cover the costs of upgrading my equipment and paying for the release of each album, but that’s about it.
The whole point of being independent is that you have to do a lot of the work yourself. In my case that means I pretty much do everything. But the upside to that is that you get greater creative control.
Even if you sign up to an independent record label, they won’t necessarily throw lots of money at you, in fact they usually expect you to come with the finished goods.
4. You Have To Work Hard & Be Prepared To Make Sacrifices
If you’re not afraid of this fact then you have everything it takes to achieve your dreams.
If you look at all successful people, across all industries, one of the common denominators is the hard work they have put in over a sustained period of time.
If you have a dream then you need to make it happen. No one will come knocking on your door offering the world on a string.
The life of an independent artist for me means coming home from a full day in the office, having a quick dinner and then writing/recording sometimes until 4am. Then I repeat the same the next day. I get so tired, but I cannot stop when I’m in the creative zone, which can last for weeks. I have had to sacrifice my social life on many occasions in order to make time for it, but the fact is I do make time for it.
Instead of spending my money on other things, I invest in my music production. It sometimes means I have to use all my holidays to complete & organise my album releases. I hardly ever buy clothes or make-up. My luxury is buying music and if necessary, I might indulge in some equipment or software upgrade. Funnily enough, these don’t feel like sacrifices to me though, in my mind I wouldn’t have it any other way.
5. What Does Success Mean To You?
Given I’ve just alluded to the fact that being an independent artist doesn’t necessarily lead to riches, you need to evaluate what success means to you.
It is very difficult to become one of the few high earning artists like Beyonce or Adele, but just because you can’t achieve the same heights of fame and wealth doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a successful music career.
It all depends on how you measure your success.
If the thought of not earning any money through your musical expression turns you off, then you will probably be very disappointed. You need to accept the fact that you may spend years, if not a lifetime, earning very little from music, but this is where I go back to point number 1. If you love it you do it anyway, because it makes you happy.
If you persevere you may very well (hopefully!) achieve some level of success and that’s wonderful, but you will need to be able to endure some hard years to get there.
Further to that, do you know WHY you want to be successful? It may seem like a riddle of a question, but I think with all things in life you need to know why you want something.
We can spend years wanting something and then when we finally get it, we discover it hasn’t made us any happier. In fact it could make us very unhappy. This is probably because we’ve wanted it for the wrong reasons.
The reason I bring this point up is because you need to know why you want something in order to be able to determine the best action plan to achieve your goal. It may also be that your goal needs re-working. There’s no point wasting your energy chasing the wrong goal. So think about why as well as what.
I feel successful as an artist because I have released three albums and have written, recorded and produced them all myself. I have put in a lot of hard work, I’ve learnt so much and I continue to develop as an artist. Further to this, I have found listeners who connect with, and enjoy, my music. That is the most fulfilling part. I just want to continue creating the best music I can. There are other important things in my life which I value equally so I’m happy with just that. Anything else is just a bonus to me.
6. Don’t Wait To Be Discovered
At the risk of shattering some illusions, this just doesn’t happen. Even those who get “discovered” have put in preparation and hard work to ensure they are in the right place at the right time, with the right skills & experience.
In this day and age of modern technology, it has become possible for anyone to create music (or anything artistic) and to find an audience online. This is a wonderful, wonderful thing and has provided me with so many opportunities – it is arguably the main reason I am able to do what I do.
But the fact that anyone can make music means that there are so many, MANY artists out there sharing the same space. The greater the number of artists, the harder it is to be discovered. It’s literally like finding a needle in a haystack. Some people refer to this as competition, but I think using this word makes it seem like an impossible hurdle, which it’s not. It’s simply a challenge to be aware of.
So the responsibility then falls back on the artist to go out there and find their audience. That could be through word of mouth, gigs, clever marketing campaigns, whatever – but the key thing is you need to make it happen.
I’ve heard so many people tell me about their dreams but then they tell me “if only I could find the right producer/record label/bank manager/[insert any excuse here] then I could make a go of it.” They tend to never do anything much and unsurprisingly never progress.
Given what I just said about the sheer number of artists out there, it is incredibly naïve to think that if you just meet a producer/record label executive that they will take you by the hand and help you develop as an artist and pay you lots of money.
The question you really need to ask yourself is how can you make your mark? But I don’t have the answer to that, that’s one for you to figure out. It’s about your uniqueness, so it’s a very personal and individual thing.
7. How Can You Get A Record Label?
I have a lot to say about this topic and I’ve wanted to write about it for some time. I think there are so many misunderstandings about record labels. I only have experience as an independent artist working with independent labels or on my own, but I have also spent the last ten years working a full time job in the media industry and there is a lot which also applies to the music industry.
First of all, you need to ask yourself a few important questions:
- What is it that you want to achieve as an artist?
- What is it you hope the record label will do for you?
- What can YOU offer a record label?
Record labels are not the only means of being a successful artist. In fact, with the media industry developing as rapidly as it has been in the last 10 years, many record labels are struggling to compete with internet piracy, DIY artists and other new platforms which make music more accessible to everyone than ever before. Once upon a time record labels were the “gatekeepers” – the only means for an artist to find an audience. But now anyone can release their own music on the internet and even become massively successful.
You need to be clear about what you want to achieve, because you may find that even if you do find a label that they aren’t able to meet your expectations. This is not necessarily their fault. They have their business strategies and you should have your own as well. Like any relationship your strategies/values/goals need to be aligned otherwise it won’t work.
If you do get yourself to the point that you have an interested label and are talking contracts, you are not going to get the best out of the negotiation if you don’t know what you want. Read up about negotiation skills if you need to, it’s so important to feel confident and sure about what you want.
Most people want a record label so that they can make lots of money as a musician/artist. Aside from the fact that it is very difficult to become one of the few high-earners in the industry, at the end of the day, the music industry is a business and needs to operate as one.
Like any other business it needs to be profitable, there are bills, salaries and royalties to pay. No business is a charity and just because you have a talent, doesn’t mean they have an obligation to find you hidden at home, whisk you away and hand you lots of money. If they did this for every talented person, they’d go bust very quickly.
Therefore if you are sure you need or want to work with a record label, the really important question to ask yourself what you can offer them.
Think of it like applying for a job. Like it or not, you have to give a prospective employer (or record label) good reasons for why they should hire you. Passion alone is not enough. When they have the choice of dozens (or thousands) of candidates you will stand a much better chance if you have all the relevant skills and experience.
So don’t wait for someone to offer you a contract because you will probably be waiting for a very long time.
I know I haven’t answered the question directly yet, but that’s because you need to be ready for it first. Being ready is the hard part. Finding the door is easier when you are.
8. Get As Much Experience & Training As Possible
This is such an important point. The more experience you get and the more skills you acquire, the more appealing and useful you are as someone to work with. This applies to all industries, not just the music industry.
Get some training, learn an instrument, put a band together, perform at a gig, whatever, just do it. It all forms part of your musical CV and will give you a better chance in succeeding in the industry.
It may be that in the process of gaining the skills and experience you need, that you discover that you don’t need a label anyway.
There are so many courses available, from short courses to full degrees, for all different levels of experience and at local colleges or even online. The internet is full of free articles to read which is a start if you cannot afford a proper course.
Even if you specialise in one area only, you should make an effort to expand your understanding of what other people in the industry do and how the business works. Like all jobs you should understand the industry you work in otherwise you cannot map out a path in order to be able to achieve your goals. Without this knowledge you are operating blind which won’t get you anywhere.
I started my musical journey by learning the piano and having singing lessons as a child. Then when I decided I want to write music I recorded some music. But I realised there was so much I didn’t know and couldn’t do.
So I found courses to do. I completed a 6 month course in Studio Sound Recording/Audio Engineering, I learnt jazz singing, I’ve done improvisation courses, been part of many vocal groups, sung in a few party bands, concerts, jazz gigs, taught myself some guitar, bought a ukulele. The learning never stops.I even completed a diploma in journalism just because I was interested in the subject and I didn’t realise how valuable it would become in contributing to my work as an artist, because I now have a better understanding of the media industry, media law, how to connect with audiences, how to find and tell stories etc.
Some things you are drawn to learn may not even seem relevant, but I assure you that all learning is valuable and may become so relevant when you least expect it.
9. Create A Network With Like-minded Peers
Attending courses and getting involved in the music scene is a great way to meet likeminded people. Find those people who you work well with and nurture those relationships.
If you are quite inexperienced, it is far more likely that you will be able to develop a network with people of a similar level of experience to you than with top producers or talent. This is not because of any snobbery, it’s simply because top producers or experienced industry folk are busy people and are likely to have enough on their plate with their own projects which pay their bills and they probably don’t have time to take inexperienced talent under their wings. That’s why you do courses instead.
If you develop good relationships and a vast network with your peers, you actually all help each other to become the next generation of top talent yourselves. That’s the best way to “break into” the industry. When one of you finds the first break, you will call on each other because you are friends. If you want to be the one someone calls up when they have a big break, be a good collaborator and team player. And vice versa.
10. Learn Some Business Skills
I know that creative people are often reluctant to have anything to do with the business side of things, but as someone who has extensive experience both sides of the fence, I can tell you that the two go very much hand in hand.
Talent alone is not much. It’s just one of many ingredients to success. Knowing what to do with that talent is what makes the difference.
I often hear stories about how people feel let down by “the business” but like anything in life, you are always in a much stronger position if you understand it and know how to harness it.
As strange as you may find my advice, I can highly recommend learning the basics about how to run a business, negotiation skills, marketing etc.
The music industry is a business, whether you like it or not. If you choose not to get involved in the commercial side of things, that’s absolutely fine, but in that case you will have to accept that you may never reap any financial success from it. But understanding expressions like profit & loss, social media marketing, the purpose of business strategies etc. is enlightening and could make all the difference for you.
I happen to find the business side of things fascinating, sometimes even exciting. I keep an accounting spreadsheet with all my income and expenses and try to make sure I do not spend more than I earn through my music. I sit down at least twice a year to do a mind-map and update my business strategy. I have a 3 – 5 year plan even if it changes dramatically from one month to the next, the point is at least I have a plan and a direction. I always have an ongoing list of things I need to do, research or learn. I have learnt about royalties, legal contracts and so on. I’m always reading up on new books or publications about industry topics and trends also.
11. Where Should You Start?
The best advice I can give is to just start with something. Anything. There is no correct place to start. As I mentioned before, it’s a journey of many little steps so it doesn’t really matter where you start. Everyone’s journey is a unique tapestry and once you start it becomes easier figuring out what the next step should be.
But the important thing is to START NOW. Don’t wait, don’t put it off because you think you won’t do a good job of it. Whatever it is, you won’t get any better if you don’t make that first step.
When I started recording music I remember having doubts and wanting to put it off until I could meet a producer or until I had the right equipment or some other excuses. But I told myself to just do it. I didn’t judge myself or the work I produced. It was easier to find the courage by telling myself it was all just “experimentation”. Most of it was pretty amateur, but I kept at it and one day I realised that I had an album on my hands.
I have spent over 15 years learning and gathering experience. It is biased, it is not exhaustive and it cannot be imparted to others in a truly meaningful or lasting way through a simple blog post. But I hope that perhaps it has inspired some of you and given you some food for thought.
I firmly believe that all you need is courage and determination to follow your bliss. There are no short cuts on this journey, but enjoy it. Remember that being an independent artist is a lifestyle not a job title.