The business of music
Rockers! Thanks for tuning in to the fifth and final installment of this series. For those of you just joining in, I've been sharing the lessons I've learned in my journey from disgruntled band member to one-man rock show. Personally, the solo gig works great for me. You might want to give it a shot, even if you've got a great gig with a band. A side project is always a cool thing! My writings have taken us up to the point where we've formed a project, written songs, did some singing, and recorded a demo. Now I will present my view on why it's vital for musicians to embrace the business side of music. This article is part instructional, part motivational, and all doing my best to convince you to jump into the great game! I have so much to say, I can't figure out how to say it. It's sort of like running into that dream girl and you just want to impress her, but at the same time show a quiet thoughtfulness (hard for me!), while expounding on some intellectual topic, while making your biceps seem as steely as possible. I usually end up saying something stupid and insensitive. SO, let's hope I've got better luck today on the topic of...
Takin' care of business
Ah, the music business. Musicians and artists often disparage capitalism and whine about lack of success in the same breath. They usually chalk it up to “society” not appreciating “really good music” and wanting to “just play music for music's sake.” I have two words for these folks: 'Sup, Comrade? What, are we, communists or something? The music industry is just that – an industry. You gotta make it work! At first, I was very discouraged by this fact, but it's actually great news! I had felt, and maybe you do, too, that commercialism somehow cheapened great music. I think that's because I equated commercial success with blandness, but check it out: Ozzy, Metallica, Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and so many other music gods rock the charts! Moreover, I came to love and appreciate business. It's like monopoly with real money! I'm very enthused that I get to combine both fields. Not only that, but the fact that the music business is, in fact, a business, means that there are steps we can take to further our success. Sure, a lot of it boils down to luck, but these actions increase our luck.
I like to think of the musician's job as that of a great pizza chef. We have a great recipe for pizza, and we cook it for our friends. Super, but now we need to get it to the masses.
The traditional way is to open up a shop (band or act), get noticed, and have investors back you financially (a record deal.) This allows you to open up more stores (go on tour), have fancy advertisements, and the legitimacy of a big brand. Grocery stores might start carrying your frozen pizzas (Walmart buys your CDs), and you have a team of managers, promoters, and publicists building demand for the pizza (music.)
The big pizza companies (record labels) have gotten greedy, but now they're sick, and the internet is blowing a hole in their profits. The dynamics are changing, and nobody is really sure where the ship is headed. However, these stormy seas that have made the fat cats sick have delivered an unexpected gift for the folks like us. The situation has made it very possible for independent pizza shops to peddle their own pizza to the masses, and build up a customer base (fan base) without the backing of a chain restaurant (record label.) There's people selling pizza in an army of food carts, there's people giving away pizza...there is pizza everywhere! (Man, now I'm hungry.)
A lot of the “chefs” think that if their pizza is good enough, it will get snapped up by Papa John's (Atlantic Records.) While that is occasionally true, Papa John's wants to see that people will eat the stuff, and that it will turn a profit. It's looking to buy a business, not just the product the business sells. A pizza shop that's got a line halfway around the block every night will attract more attention than one that's always empty, or has a sketchy management. The point of this rather lengthy food example is this:
You've got music, and now you need to get it to the masses.
You can do it yourself (the independent musician, or indie for short), you can use a major label, or you can use a smaller label. The indie route has been picking up popularity with great speed, and it's the path that I'm currently pursuing. The good news: You don't have to pick just one of these ways! Often a successful indie artist will be picked up by a small label, which in turn gets signed by one of the majors. Regardless, you need to create a buzz about your music, and build up a rockin' following.
Here's a few ideas:
- Play gigs
- Identify your typical fans, and reach out to them
- Network like crazy!
- Get a business card
- Record and release a CD
- Build a website
- Hit the social networking sites hard!
- Start a YouTube channel
- Start an email newsletter (sign up for mine at www.joshurban.com!)
- Put the CD on internet radio
- Get it on College Radio
- Play street music
- Get in the local paper (in a good way!)
- For some, starting their own record label
- And, of course, play gigs!
OK, this is all very vague, but the topic of business is enough to fill many, many books. And, as a matter of fact, I have a few I recommend. Check out the resources section at the end of this article.
What I'm saying is...
“Yeah, Josh! What are you saying?” Fair enough! There's pizza examples. There's a list of career ideas. There's a lot of different stuff. Remember, I'm trying to convince you to consider the business side.
- Approach it as a business, and be in charge. Or, view it as luck, and wait around forever.
If I told you I'd like to be a successful tax accountant, you wouldn't bat an eye. If I said I was out to be a rock star, you'd say “good luck with that.” The former option has a clear path to success. The latter is a bit more murky, but is further obscured if we remain ignorant of how the business works. So wake up, put on your commander hat, and take notice of the industry.
- Educate yourself
Wouldn't it be weird for a stockbroker to ignore how the economy works? But if musicians were in the finance sector, we'd all wait around until the market magically delivered us profits. So pay attention, and learn how the business works!
- Create buzz to build visibility
Be it Epic records you're after, or a better gig, more fans = more bargaining power.
- Be careful where you get your advice
I've been noticing a bitter tone lately in the books that I read. Then it hit me – most of the authors probably started out wanting to be famous, and didn't make it. Of course they'll say it's hard, and it probably won't work, because in their sphere of experience, it was, and it didn't. That being said, don't listen too closely to me, either! I'm not bitter, but I'm not big, either. When you see me on the cover of Guitar Player, then you know I'm well-informed. As of now, weigh my words very carefully. Strange advice, but I think it's true. Listen to everyone, but concentrate more on positive, successful people's advice. And if your Uncle Ron says it's impossible, walk away.
- The World goes around with people skills
I'm amazed at what a difference they make! Be personable, smell nice, and treat your business interactions as, well, business interactions! You can be cutting-edge, artistic, visionary, and still show up for the gig on time! In this business especially, it's about who you know – so make a good impression, and build lasting business relationships!
- Learn from other businesses
I love the magazine called Inc. It's got great advice and stories from people in small businesses in all fields. I find this magazine, and others, a neat way to get new ideas. For example, setting a price point for CDs – what models work for other businesses trying to get a product out there? How about advertising? What do they do?
Go out to lunch
This is an extra point that gets it's own section. Find someone who has information you want, and offer to take them out to lunch. The very worst thing that happens is they say no. The second-worst thing is if they have expensive tastes. But bite the bullet, and pay up. I had a great lunch one time with the president of a local indie label, and I learned a lot about the business. I wasn't even looking to get signed at the time – just learning. Next up – a reporter. I want to learn more about the press.
Here's a few resources I find very helpful:
- Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook - Bob Baker
- All You Need To Know About The Music Business - Donald S. Passman
- I Don't Need a Record Deal! - Dayelle Deanna Schwartz
- INC magazine
- CD Baby.com
- DiscMakers.com (Both of these sites have great industry blogs)
- Dottedmusic.com (A great blog with tons of cool ideas)
Final points, reinterated
- Create your own success
- You cook pizza. Now get it to the masses
- Understand your field
- Build buzz
- Smell nice
OK, Rockers! It's been quite a trip. Thanks for coming along, and thanks for listening! I hope it's clear that there are many, many opportunities out there for you, regardless if you're in a ten piece ska band or a solo acoustic act. Don't let bandmates, or lack of them, geography, or gloomy musicians get you down. You can do this. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't. Be excited – there's a whole world out there to rock.
Let me know if I can be of any assistance, and I can't wait to hear your new hit record!
Josh Urban is a solo guitarist and vocalist living near Washington, DC, USA. When he's not attempting to blow up stages with his iPhone backing tracks and brightly colored guitars, he's busy teaching guitar to over thirty students per week, adding zany videos to his youtube channel, or blogging about music. He just released his first “real” EP, Signalman, and is responsible for every single sound on it. Check out his website at www.joshurban.com, and say hello!