Make a Living in the Music Business: Myths and Methods

There’s no secret formula for how to make a living in the music business, and some of the advice in this post flies in the face of conventional wisdom

Written by Greg Savage for

How do you make a living in the music business? It’s such a popular question… one that’s on the tip of every newbie’s tongue who enters the music industry and repeated by those who’ve been in it for a while without major success. Those who don’t know are confused and those who understand pretend there’s some sort of secret sauce. I have 117 emails sitting in my in box right now that include some variation of this phrase (meshed within a pool of other questions), so I figured I’d give my insight on the topic, clear up a few things, and point you in the right direction.

First, what does “making it” mean? What does it mean TO YOU? Is your music goal to make a good living in the music industry or does it mean reaching celebrity status? Is it getting a record deal? How do you measure music success? This is an important question because the answer will determine how complex your road to success will be.

If money is the target, that’s easy as there are plenty of opportunities out there for you to capitalize on, you just have to know where to look and you need to deliver. If it’s celebrity status you’re looking for, well, that’s more difficult.

A little truth: most of the people who make a living (five or six figures) in the music business you’ve probably never heard of. You don’t hear about these individuals much because they aren’t interesting enough to write about and the majority enjoy staying behind the scenes. I lived next door to a successful jingle producer for five years before I knew what he did. I only found out because some of my mail was accidentally delivered to his address.

So, what does it take to make a living in the music business? Great question, but before we get into that, allow me to shoot down some myths that are floating about.

Common music industry myths

1) You need a lot of talent to have a career in music
I believe you need some talent, but you don’t need to be the most talented person in the world. You have to be able to deliver what the client wants and to be honest, they don’t always “need” or “want” the best of work according to the creator’s standards.

I know that might be hard to believe because everyone says “hone your skills, make sure the music is really good, focus on creating music of GREAT QUALITY.” Take that with a grain of salt. Talent certainly does help, but don’t let the “lack of” factor keep you from creating music and chasing opportunities.

Don’t worry about being a perfectionist either. I find that people who chase perfection miss out on a lot of opportunities. You have to know when to let go, and when to move forward. I would say being able to deliver a quality mix and meeting deadlines trumps talent and perfection any day.

2) It’s hard to make a living in the music business
True, but I find that people tend to make things harder on themselves than they need to. People are afraid to move out of their comfort zones. If touring is what you love, but you’re not successful with it, that might not be your calling. Some people are great songwriters, but suck as performing artists and vice versa. We’re all aware of one-hit wonders and acts that have been signed to big labels and then get dropped. Years pass, and you wonder, “what happened to those guys?” So, you do a Google search, you find them online and notice they sound exactly the same as they did during the time they were dropped. Most of the time they try to pick up where they left off and the result is music that is totally disconnected from the market — just no relevancy whatsoever.

Sometimes, these acts/artists have a small fan base they can rely on, but most of the time that fan base dies down and in most cases will fade away completely. You can’t use what worked 25 years ago and expect to see the same (or any) results today. Things change, you have to adapt. You can’t cater to a market that doesn’t exist.

3) You have to live in a big city
You can live anywhere in the world as long as you have a decent Internet connection. There are many musicians and indie artists making $60-70k or more a year from the comfort of their home armed with nothing but a mic, headphones, and few pieces of software installed on their laptops.

That said, living in a big city has it’s benefits. There are hundreds of talented people who live in LA/NYC who have yet to get their big break. For some, being in a big city is actually discouraging because they begin to realize “I’m not the only one trying to do this.” They also start to realize how clique-y and relationship-dependent the industry is. Big city, no strong connections? Good luck.

4) You Need Expensive Music Equipment
While most hit songs on the radio today aren’t being made on simple home recording setups, you don’t need to book studio time or invest in a pro home studio setup to record a song demo or a track for placement in commercials, video games, or other licensing opportunities. A laptop plus $600-$1,000 in recording equipment can get you off the ground.

5) You need to be original
Oh man, I can just feel the heat on my neck as I type this. Deep breath… I think this statement is crap, flat out. I don’t care what any industry professional tells you, “original music” doesn’t guarantee anything. Good music leads to longevity in a music career, and good music isn’t always “original.” Back in the day, when music was harder to record, if you had a sound or style that people liked, they had to come to you to get it.

These days, there isn’t a sound you can bring to the table that can’t be replicated. Technology has taken the mystery out of this, and it gets easier with each and every software update. Most clients want something that sounds similar to something they’ve already heard anyway. “I’m looking for a song that sounds like this,” or “can you create something like that?” or “I need a hit that sounds like so and so.”

Manager’s, A&R reps, and record labels are no different. They talk about the need for original music, but every hit that rips through the airwaves is carbon copy of everything else that’s out. So where’s all this original music going? Older musicians rave about how authentic and original music was in their day. Truth is, if you study older music (from any era or genre) you’ll notice that it was just as unoriginal then as it is today. Everyone was leeching off the success and sound from the next band or group, or trying to, some were successful and others, not so much. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, just calling it like a I see it.

So, how do you make a living in the music business?

1) Stay in the loop
I know It’s hard to stay updated with the latest and greatest applications, mixing methods, or music trends, but do the best you can. If there’s a software application or update that will improve your work flow, GET IT.

If there’s a hot music trend emerging, you need to be all over it. If mixing is something you struggle with, take a class on it. Get on a PR lists, find out when new shows, albums, and company events are arising — these are all possible placement opportunities. Learn the business of music, it’ll help a lot. People like speaking with others who have some idea of what they’re talking about. Go to workshops, there’s so much to learn, and they’re FUN.

2) Build Strong Relationships
Ask any successful person in any field how they got to where they are and how they maintain their success and they’ll tell you, “I have friends in high places,” or something along those lines. Having good connections in the music industry makes a huge difference if you want to make a living in the music business. Every month I find opportunities in my in box from people I’ve worked with over the years. They pass projects my way because they’ve worked with me and know I deliver in a timely fashion once contracted. These type of relationships keep food and opportunities on the table for a lifetime, and it takes patience and time to really build up a pool of these quality connections.

3) Build a fan base
A fan base is a must have, especially for bands and indie artists. You have to have someone to sell your products to. No fan base means no sales, no sales means you go broke. That doesn’t sound like fun in my book.

Building a fan base takes time, but a lot easier than it use to be. Some artist don’t even perform, they just build a social following or email list (of fans) and direct the traffic back to their singles, albums, and videos. Some are even clever enough to build their following online and then launch a script on their site that allows fans to suggest where they play next. From there the band can map out a mini tour based on the interest and location of their fans. Very effective if done correctly.

4) Analyze markets and their competition
People always say “don’t worry about what the next man is doing.” I disagree. You should pay close attention to what your competition is doing. Why struggle when you don’t have to? People have already made the mistakes and done the trial and error for you, learn from them!

If company X is seeing great results by doing ABC, then you need to do the same, or a variation of it. If you notice companies using a specific sub-genre of music, then you might want to tap into that genre. Can you create it? Is there an element that you can take from it and apply to your own music? If yes, then do so and make yourself more marketable.

If you notice a trend in the media, you might want to reach out to companies who stand to make a profit from it. While people were ragging on Miley Cyrus, I was contacting gaming developers to see if my services could be used in any spoofs they planned on creating. I did the same during the presidential election. Talk about easy money.

5) Give up a percentage of your publishing — be worth someone’s time
Yes, I’m telling you to go out there and give up a percentage of your rights. You do want people to help you make money right? Make it interesting for them. Sometimes 20% from profits isn’t enough. 30% ownership? That’s another story. Give a clerk 3% from every transaction that went through their register and they’d take their job more seriously.

People are more willing to help when they have a vested interest in your material. I’m not saying just give these rights up to anyone, but give them to individuals who can give your music career a boost. Managers, agents, publishers, etc. I know that probably goes against everything you believe in, but this is the real world.

6) Be flexible — keep your options open
Be willing to accept contract jobs. Not everyone can make it as a top record producer, musician, or performing artist. Don’t let this frustrate and stop you from earning good money in other areas of the industry. There are talented singers who make a killing doing voice overs. I know a lot of audio engineers who make good money editing sound for videos, games, audio books, and all sorts of random things. Yes, this might not be where they wanted to be initially, but it’s still audio related, and it has opened doors to other paying gigs allowing them to use their craft to make a living in the music business.

7) You should always be creating music!
The more music you create, the more material you have to shop around. The music industry is a numbers game. If someone likes a song of yours, chances are they’re going to ask for more, and if all you have is five tracks, that could be a missed opportunity.

Why do they ask for more? Because they want to hear your range, your consistency, and if you’re someone who has enough music to submit on a regular basis. If you have to create everything from scratch, that could be a problem, depending on how long it takes you to create. Some opportunities only have two-, maybe four-hour windows. If it takes you five hours to write, record, and mix a track, and the agent needs it in two, you’re SOL. A lot of opportunities have short deadlines, so get use to the time crunch.

A good percentage of placements and opportunities come to those who have the ability to deliver with consistency. Be one of those people.

8) Keep moving forward
You’re going to hear the word “no” a lot. Deals will fall through, people are going to tell you “you’re not good enough,” family may doubt you — heck, you may even doubt yourself. Push all that nonsense aside, and just keep moving forward. Good things happen to those who are consistent and persistent with their goals. Sounds like a cliché, but good things come to people never give up.

Greg Savage is an entrepreneur from California who makes a living producing music and sound designing for various companies without the use of a record label or manager. He started DIY Music Biz because he wanted to create a reliable resource for musicians, producers, composers, and artists that would be useful regardless of their success or skill level. Topics covered on DIY Music Biz include: Marketing Music, Music Licensing, Sound Design, Gear Reviews, Personal Experiences, Income Generation, Case Studies, and much more.

Posted on January 7, 2014 in Music Blog

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