A career in the music business can be one of the toughest, most frustrating paths to take, especially if you're a musician whose dream is to top the charts and sell out stadiums. It's an industry where the overwhelming majority of musicians experience failure more often than success. For the sake of defining what success is, in this case I'm talking about earning a living creating music, as opposed to the fantasy lifestyle that most people think of when they imagine what success in music looks like.
As a producer turned manager/A&R rep, turned magazine publisher/speaker, I can tell you that I've heard a ton of great songs by some amazing artists over the past 21 years. I've also seen most of them have their dreams dashed as a result of one specific issue that seems to plague most (not all) failed artists' careers. Is it because they never got signed to a record label? That can't be it, because tons of unsigned artists earn a living in music without ever signing a label deal. So, what is it?
The primary issue that most failed artists have in common is the fact that they do not view their music careers from a business perspective. If you currently earn your living from the music you make, or you're not looking to earn a living from music, then this article may not be for you. But if music isn't your primary source of income, and you'd like it to be, then it starts with your mindset and habits. It's my hope that you’ll learn something from this article that will help you find the right path to success in your music career.
Phase 1 – The Dream: I Love Music
When we first started to seriously consider music as a career option, we all – if we're honest – imagined this 30+ year career that included an enormous accumulation of financial wealth and notoriety. We imagined ourselves in the best studios with the top creative minds in music, touring the world, playing for sold-out crowds, Grammys, #1 Billboard chart hits, and all of the other glamorous stuff that comes with being a top artist. We didn't consider that all of these amazing things were the result of business transactions that involved invoices, attorneys, managers, agents, record labels, publishing companies, marketing execs, performing rights organizations, publicists, accountants, and even the IRS.
We loved the idea of being in the music business so much that we thought, "Man, I'd do music for free!" But, as stated earlier, monetary gain was a big part of our dream, which meant that we were implying we wanted to be paid for our music someday.
Phase 2 – Creating: Let the Spending Begin
Once we decided to go after this amazing music career, we had to purchase instruments, pay for studio time, hire a producer, hire a photographer, hire a graphic designer to build a website, pay for CDs and merch, and the list goes on. We just saw it as a necessary part of being an artist. But is that really it?
When we start spending money on service providers, we're engaging in business activities. Sadly, many artists are willing to (and do) spend more money and time on the creative aspects of their careers than on the areas that will actually pay their bills. This baffles me. I was once told by a major label A&R rep: "For every $1 you spend on recording, you must spend $2 on marketing and promotions." Consider this – when you're spending tons of money on recording in fancy studios just so you can feel like you're in the music business, the only people who are getting ahead are the studio owners, engineers, and the producer(s) you hired.
Phase 3 – Recouping: The Hard Lesson
Now that we've spent all of our rent money, we're thinking about how we can make our money back – or in music business terms, recoup. This is where the hard lessons kick in for most artists who don't understand – or don't want to understand – the business side of music. In this phase, they realize that it not only takes money to make money, but it also takes proper planning to make money.
In many cases, it isn't until artists have emptied out their bank accounts and have nothing to show for it but a few boxes of CDs and T-shirts in their closets that they realize they didn't think things through. They thought people would recognize their talent and rush over to iTunes to download their songs, but that didn't happen. So, now it becomes even more pressing to figure out a way to recoup at least some of what's been spent, because the rent is due and their stomachs are growling.
Phase 4 – The Future: Education = Success
At this point, many artists begin to contemplate their next move. Usually, they're forced to take one of three routes:
- Cut their losses and cease operations
- Rinse and repeat (i.e., jump right back into the studio and follow the exact same path of failure)
- Get educated about the business side of their dream job – like you're doing now – and approach it the next time with a real plan in place
Those who take the first route and quit weren't really cut out for a career in music. Those who take the second route are usually the artists who become jaded and angry, oftentimes blaming everything and everyone else for their failures. These are also the same artists you see celebrating their fifth album release and still don't have a solid fanbase. But those who take the third route tend to be the ones who eventually find success and don't need this article anymore.
Ultimately, it's up to the artist to decide whether or not earning a living in music is important. If it isn't that serious for you, then you're likely just a hobbyist. But if you view music as the only career path you want for yourself, then start educating yourself about how the business side works. I always tell people that there's no excuse to not know the business of music when there are music conferences taking place everywhere, and you have free resources like this blog and I Am Entertainment Media at your disposal.
Shaine Freeman is the co-founder and music editor of the award-winning I Am Entertainment magazine, as well as the host of the highly talked about music podcast, The Miews. Although he studied construction engineering at Bradley University, Shaine has worked with major music publishers, licensing companies, and even spent five years as a talent manager guiding the careers of top film and TV actors and indie recording artists. Today, he resides in Atlanta, GA, with his family where he's leading his editorial team into their fifth year of circulation.