10 Tips for Finding Your Music Business Happy Place by Heather McDonald

I am not going to teach you anything new in this blog. That is the disclaimer. Although I am usually on a “concrete advice you can apply” trip, I feel like kicking it a little philosophical style today. So…you’re not going to walk away from this with a set of instructions to apply to, say, booking a show, promoting your single or finding a new drummer. For that I can only apologize, because those are all good things.

What I DO hope is that you will walk away from this blog feeling a little bit more confident about this whole “music” thing. The internet can be a scary minefield of gloom, doom and conflicting information for aspiring musicians/music industry types and yes, current musicians/music industry types. So, let’s talk this out. You and me. Music lover who happens to work in the music industry to music lover who happens to work in the music industry. These are my tips for cutting through all the rah-rah and finding your music biz happy place:

1. Love Music – Oh yeah, I said it, and I know it sounds simple, but love the stuff. Be a student of music. Understand its cultural and economic importance. Know its history. Never get too old or too cynical to hold on to that endorphin overload you got the first time you heard (insert chill inducing recording of choice here). Some people get to keep things cushy for their entire music industry careers, but for most of us, there is a lot of sacrifice involved – lots of hard graft and lots of so-so pay, especially when you are just starting out. If throwing on one of your favorite records makes it all worthwhile, then you’ve got a good thing going on, and you’ll be able to ride out the bumpy times.

2. Your Instincts May Be Right… – Here’s a common music business story: someone says, “I am going to do X.” People start raving, “you can’t do X! X will never work! Only a fool would do X!” Low and behold, X works. People start raving, “any musician who hopes to have a chance in music must now do X. It’s a new day!” Pah. Get off the rollercoaster and trust your instincts. There is no ONE clear path to making a living in music. There are no ten clear paths to making a living in music. Creativity and initiative are probably your most valuable assets in the music industry, so don’t let some guy (or girl) on the internet tell you your idea will never work. Trust me. My personal story involves bake sales. You’re going to tell me someone would have told me that I could lemon bar my way into a music industry job? Listen to your gut.

3….But Do Take It Seriously – I do feel compelled to add a FEW caveats to the whole “trust your gut” thing. Approach every music industry endeavor seriously. Treat it as a job. If you don’t understand something, get answers before you proceed, even if getting answers means cold calling/emailing information sources until some kind soul helps you out. Work hard. Your creative idea might be just the trick for, say, promoting your new song and making you stand out in the press crowd, but it will absolutely fail every single time if you aren’t committed to planning and executing the idea. There are tons and tons of great IDEAS floating around in the music business, but make a point of becoming one of those music industry yetis – the follow-throughers.

4. Ask Yourself the Hard Question – That question is: Am I doing this because it is necessary and viable, or am I indulging my cool music fan fantasies? Really. Asking yourself this question will spare you from asking yourself other hard questions, like: Do I want to have dinner or electricity? (This is a question many musicians and indie labels find themselves facing after they press up 1000 units of yellow vinyl 10”s or indulge other extremely fun but almost certainly un-recoupable expenses.) Plus, even if you can have pizza AND lighting, it’s important to make sure you have enough money to completely execute an idea and keep everything moving. Don’t book a tour of Bora Bora if you’re going to come home broke and unable to do anything music related for the next 12 months. Bora Bora will come in due time, my friends.

5. Respect the Fan – Don’t assume that the people who like your music aren’t willing to pay for it. Assuming that all music fans expect a free ride these days is like assuming that none of today’s music fans are as capable of falling as crazy in love with music as you are. That’s just nonsense. Music lovers are pretty resistant to ripping off the musicians they love. Your job is to find a way get people engaged in your music so much that they want to buy it (and yes, spend money on concert tickets and merch).

I can’t tell you exactly how to do that because I don’t know your music or your fans – but you do. If you listen to them very closely, your fans will tell you what they want – how they want to buy your music, what social networking sites they want to see you on and which of your songs are hitting the spot. By golly, listen to them, even if what they are telling you conflicts with current fashionable wisdom. There are a million and one different methods (and websites) you can use to get this valuable info from your fans. It would be silly for me to tell you: use X – even though you may wish that I would. The truth is that my best advice is to use trial and error and elbow grease to develop an individual plan that works for you – and to never, ever treat your music like it doesn’t have value. Yes – value can mean using a song as a promotional tool to gather info from your fans you can then use to promote other songs for sale. Using songs for promotional tools is SO different from resigning yourself to the fact that no one wants to pay for music anymore.

6. Consider: Perhaps The Revolution Isn’t So Revolutionary – Sure, it’s a new music industry and all that jazz. I don’t mean to understate the impact of the internet on the music business, but let’s all take a collective deep breath. What the internet really is is one more tool for promoting and distributing music. It also has helped bring us a new format. You can’t blame it for every single woe facing the music industry. Even more importantly, you can’t use it to conduct your entire music career. The basics, like having good music and playing shows, still matter a lot. I would go as far as to say that the most important things you do in your music career will happen away from the internet. Step away from the computer – often. Beyond that, well, fans have long been trading music with each other, and you will never, ever stop that. Using free music to entice fans to do something? Not such a new fangled concept. Exclusive stuff for Facebook/Twitter/Whatever fans? Ever heard of fan clubs?

My point is that, in practical terms, in terms of the net, what most of us should really be worrying about today is how to make the best use of it as another tool in our arsenal for reaching the fans. Don’t get freaked out about all this “new” hyperbole, because most of this internet stuff just consists of new ways of applying old ideas and/or the things most indies have been doing to hustle for years being picked up by some deeper pocketed players (who think they’ve split the atom). Relax. You’ve got this.

7. Don’t Be a Jerk – And just roll your eyes at the people who are jerky to you. Hey, it’s the music industry. Some people gotta do that whole too-cool-for-school routine. Don’t let ‘em get to you, and don’t be one of them. You catch more flies with honey. Besides, being all pretentious is exhausting. I should know – I am an indie record store veteran.

*Steps off soap box for the home stretch…*

8. If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get – Want a show? An agent? A manager? A review? Never, ever be afraid to ask. You’re going to hear “no” a lot more often than “yes” in the music biz, especially when you’re starting out. A little old “no” never hurt anyone, so get out there. Besides, sometimes “yes” comes from the least likely of places. You just never know.

9. It’s All About The Stepping Stone – As long as you’re moving forward, you’re winning. So, you played to eight people, and you knew seven of them. OK, next time, play for 10. Then 20. Then appeal to a promoter to put you on as an opener for a touring band. Then get a review in the local paper. Then get a feature about your new release. And so on and so forth. If you’re in this for the long haul, feel good about building this kind of solid foundation, even if it seems like it is taking FOREVER. No matter how small the victory, look for a way to use it as a stepping stone to the next victory.

10. Relax, You’re Doing It Right – Enough said. (No, really – you are. There is no rule book. And if someone says they have a rule book to sell you, please, please, don’t buy it.)


Author: HeatherMcDonald

Heather McDonald is a music journalist and press agent. You can read more of her work on About.com's Music Careers website.

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