Guest post by Zac Shaw
It is every musician’s dream to make a living doing the thing they love most, though a rare minority ever achieve this goal. Most of us resort to a day job, a side gig, or another form of supplemental income. Whatever you want to call it, you can’t call it a music career.
In the Digital Age, we imagine our music traveling around the Internet like an extended thumb, hoping to hitch a ride to industry discovery. But even a cursory glance at the history of the music industry reveals just how exploitative and dangerous that ride can be. Those of us who aren’t immediately thrown from the vehicle are often left stranded by the side of the road when our success fades. The few who really “make it” soon take the backseat to make room for the next unlucky passenger.
The days of hitchhiking your way to a music career are over, anyway. To be a musician today, you have to get out of the passenger seat, get behind the wheel and start driving.
Sure, it’s easy to blame the systemic corruption of the music industry for our woes, but we musicians must ultimately bear responsibility for our careers. The harsh reality behind why so few artists can make a living is that historically we have chosen to be passive when it comes to earning money. Our revenue has been derived from advances, royalties and licensing deals from intermediaries who only care about the “industry” part of the music industry. We have left the exploitation of our talents to others, often with predictably disastrous results.
Even as the record label business model collapses in front of our eyes and ears, many musicians still cling to the idea that being discovered by a powerful industry representative is the foundation of any music career. If only we can get enough exposure, we reason, the industry gatekeepers will throw open the gates and usher us into a realm where the streets are paved with gold records.
It’s true that exposure remains the key to achieving career success. But critically, the power to discover acts and break music careers is rapidly moving from the industry to the fans. Yesterday’s music was popular because the industry manufactured its popularity. Today’s music is popular because when they like it, fans share it en masse. Of course, they have to find it first. What it takes to make a living as a musician now is discoverable, shareable music, because fans are the new industry gatekeepers.
It all starts with a great song, but today that’s only half the battle. Cutting through the noise in a sea of information means presenting your song in a novel, engaging package. Prepare to be passed over if your delivery is derivative, inauthentic, or gimmicky. What you need to do is bring something new to the music scene you’re trying to break through, something fans have never seen nor heard. Great songs with novel presentations are the true foundation of any music career, for you need both to earn a fan base that can support you financially.
The other key to success is understanding that as a musician or band, you are really just another struggling small business. Until there is proper management of that business, all the great songs in novel packages won’t add up to a career. While everyone in your act (if you’re not solo) shares the responsibility of its success, one person must step up to lead the way toward attracting more fans and more industry interest. If you’re reading this, chances are that person is you.
Fortunately, you will have help. It’s increasingly possible to gas up your music career with self-serve crowd-funding services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, or patronage platforms like Sell-A-Band and ArtistShare. The Future of Music Coalition’s groundbreaking 2012 Artist Revenue Streams study found 42 different moneymaking methods for musicians to pursue. Many of these revenue streams once required industry representation to access, now digital tools have democratized their profitability.
These new resources can certainly level the playing field, but only if you know how to use them to your advantage. Sure, a few artists have the drive and business savvy to manage it all, but most of us need professional help to turn our fledgling music career into a sustainable enterprise. Regardless, you can never really escape the fact that at some point you must start managing your own career, if only to get it to the point where you can attract a dedicated manager.
Of course, there are good managers and bad managers. Perhaps the biggest payoff of stepping up to manage your own music is that you can tell the bad industry people apart from the good ones, having played the game yourself. This is not small potatoes. Your choice of business representation will dictate whether or not you can sustain a career in the long-term, or have to go back to your day job.
Your music career doesn’t automatically start with your first good song, though it won’t start without it. It really begins when you put your hands on the wheel and your foot on the gas. Let the music fuel your success, but always keep your eyes on the road.
About Zac Shaw:
Zac Shaw is a musician, writer and indie label owner with a passion for digital music and artist’s rights. He is also a Producer and Digital Strategist with web development firm Evolving Media Network. He is currently writing his first book, “Mediapocalypse: It’s the End of the Music Industry as We Know It… and I Feel Fine”. You can follow his progress at mediapocalypse.com.
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