ADVICE FOR THE UNSIGNED, INDEPENDENT RECORDING ARTIST
Why hire a good record producer? Because without someone who can make you sound amazing within a great, fresh, radio-ready original song you will be never be able to launch a career as a RECORDING artist. Can you launch a career as a SINGER without original music and a great producer, sure! But be ready to sing weddings and on cruise ships because regardless of how WELL you sing, without original material you’ll be performing wherever people want live singers singing covers.
The advice contained above and below is designed to give you a point of reference on to how to proceed in a vastly different and ever evolving 21st century music industry. But first and foremost, you’ll need a music producer, one who can write songs you love. Yes, the good ones are very expensive but you’re investing in the only vehicle that can take you out of your mundane, suburban life and thrust you into international relevance…. An EP or LP filled with original music where YOU are the recording artist. There is NO other way of getting there that is even remotely valid or repeatable. You hire the best producer you can, you trust them and then work harder than you’ve ever worked before in your life. However, it will be the most rewarding work of your life as well!
Your ability to play and/or sing exceeds social networking. Putting up 3 videos a week means nothing if the musicality you’re displaying is lame.
Your chops are more important than your social skills. Frequently, the best musicians don’t say much, they speak through their music, which brings adoring fans to them.
First learn how to play & sing. Everything else comes next.
If you can’t write then your producer better be able to and do it at a high level. You can certainly make it with other people’s songs if they are established pro writers with great radio-ready songs. However, don’t give up on the idea of writing. Consider writing another club in your bag, not only does it give you more options it also makes you more attractive to labels and other investors. Writing expresses who you are as an artist which is, in the end, what you’re selling. If you sincerely cannot write, make sure you find a producer that does and that “gets” you and is able to write songs in your “voice”.
A great song translates with just you and your instrument on YouTube. But if it’s someone else’s song, what is known today as a COVER, you’re not going to go far. We all pass around YouTube covers from time to time, but none of the acts ever stick, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it’s not the way into our hearts. Karaoke makes you feel like a star, original songs can actually make you a star.
Yes, if you hire name people (someone you can Google and get more than 20 pages of results) with a track record and record with an experienced music producer who “gets” you your track will sound better, but ultimately it’s about the quality of the song. Some producers offer super slick production but absolutely no real songwriting skills to accompany them. In the end, it’s always about the songs. Great “sound” means nothing if the song sucks. Find producers who also write well and either let them find you or write you an actual hit or collaborate with them on original material designed for radio. Producers whose tracks sound great and whose songs you love that exist within your budget to hire are rare indeed, but they exist.
Put your music everywhere. Starting on SoundCloud. It’s the default home of the wannabe. If you get any traction thereafter, get it on iTunes and Spotify, via TuneCore and promote like crazy. Reverbnation is another good destination for original music.
Comes after SoundCloud. A lyric video is good enough assuming people want to see it.
But if someone comes to your clip and the count is low it’s going to work against you, especially if you told people to go there.
You start with your friends. And try not to burn out your friendships. Seed them with material. Listen to their feedback. Don’t lean on them to spread the word, if they like your material they will. If you give it to them and two weeks go by and you’re not hearing from other people, especially those you barely know or don’t know at all, your track wasn’t good enough. Maybe good enough for you, but not good enough to make it. Be realistic, this is a marathon and not a race.
Retain all the contact info of anybody who contacts you about your music. You want to know who your fans are.
MAILING LISTS 2
Put yourself in the shoes of your fans, look at it from their perspective, not yours. You may be frustrated you’re not more successful, but that’s not their problem. Only contact people when you think they’ll be thrilled to hear from you, when they’re interested in what you’ve got.
MAILING LISTS 3
If you’re getting positive feedback, feed information on a regular basis. If you’re seeding people and getting nothing back, the problem is you. Back to the drawing board. Yes, you may want to tell everybody they don’t get it and you’re misunderstood, that’s your prerogative, but that won’t help you make it. Take a step back and find some perspective.
Almost meaningless unless you’re already a star. Then it’s purely the cherry on top. And sundaes taste quite fine without the cherry. The problem with Twitter is most tweets go unseen. But if you notice retweets and feedback feeding the system is not a bad idea, as long as it doesn’t take your focus away from your music.
A home for looky-loos (people who look but don’t buy) before you can afford your own URL/website. But don’t expect any virality on Facebook. However, Facebook is great as a way of launching interconnectivity with your early fans. Facebook is also the default marketing “tool” of the unsigned, independent artist. It must be respected and understood. Hire a social media firm (if you have the money) like Socialfinity (socialfinity.com) and let them increase your social media footprint a hundredfold with constant Tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook posts, all with the proper tagging. Social media has to be respected.
Comes last. It’s after you’ve learned how to play, practiced, written and recorded. If you put it first, you’re probably gonna be in trouble. Especially if you don’t know how to play and make mistakes. Yes, road chops are the best. But that’s assuming you’ve got somewhere to play. That’s the problem today, live music is not everywhere and live venues for POP recording artists performing original music are truly tough to find. Venues don’t want to pay and certainly don’t want to alienate their patrons by putting forth what might be some pretty bad artists singing some pretty random songs. They’d rather spin records and control the cost. So don’t beg anybody to play at their venue unless you’re going to make them money. That’s the cardinal rule. It’s your responsibility to bring people in, not theirs. Certainly if you’re completely unknown.
Having said all that, it’s not a bad idea to start out as a cover band. But use originals sparingly. And if people stop dancing and/or leave the room, pull them.
If you can get places to play, more power to you. But don’t put the cart before the horse.
It’s gonna happen slower than your wildest dreams. It’s gonna be long after your buddies have graduated from college and have careers and are starting families. If you’re not willing to risk it all and fail, music is not the business for you. And if you do fail, don’t complain, either get out or go back to the drawing board and work harder. Making an album or an EP is just like opening a small business. It’s a substantial financial investment, it’s 100’s and 100’s of hours of work and it goes completely unnoticed unless you advertise the product once it’s completed. If an artist were to open up their own DRESS SHOP, they’d have to rent a locale with great foot traffic, buy furniture to suit the business (including cash registers), hire employees to run the store and administer the books, buy the actual merchandise to sell, dress the store beautifully and then advertise, advertise, advertise to get as many people into the store as possible. Only once more than 40% of the initial stock has been sold can you re-order more dresses so, the fate of the venture lies solely in the work you put into promoting those first 6 months. The music business is exactly the same. The investment is substantial in order to hire a good music producer/songwriter. The process of wrting/recording/mixing/mastering takes 100’s of hours! Once the product is MASTERED, it’s ready for a sales portal like TuneCore or CD BABY or AMAZON but once uploaded through those portals to iTunes, etc how will anyone ever FIND your project? You’ll have to promote, promote, promote. Hire social media promotion sites (Socialfinity) or Public Relations firms with strong social media promotional departments, find a reliable list of venues to perform live and constantly contact established acts, managers, music attorneys and labels in order to expose them to your music. Your recording career is like opening a small business, it’s up to you to make it a success.
BLOWING UP 2
Your one big break is never the one you think it is, and is oftentimes a series of mini-breaks. Humilty is something everyone THINKS they are but few people ACTUALLY are. Be grateful for anything you get and don’t push. Just smile and say thank you a lot and let your music do the persuading.
Are about the shows, not the talent, about advertising, not music. At first, they were such a hit surprise this wasn’t completely true, but Kelly Clarkson made it a decade ago. Contests are short cuts that usually lead nowhere, and depending on the type of music you do they can actually tar your resume. The Voice has been on 5 seasons and has never had a contestant or winner have an ACTUAL hit song. X Factor’s record is easily as bad which is why it got cancelled. Only American Idol has consistently discovered actual artists who have launched successful careers from the show, and it’s day is ending. Singing competitions are not a realistic way of becoming a recording artist, no ore than Survivor is a realistic way of becoming a millionaire.
Assuming people come to see you, and like you, they’ll want to buy something from you, to evidence both their support and their identity. T-shirts are great, but make sure they’re well-designed and made with good materials, otherwise people will buy once, if that, and never again. As for CDs…this is what they’re made for, live gigs. They’re souvenirs. The music is available easily online. But personalized, signed product is not. Give them access, make your music personal to them. If you can afford it, give away your album. Make them more than fans, make them your evagelists! When you give away a CD, do it in exchange for their email and social media addresses. Then send them hello and thank you messages saying you hoped they liked the CD. Make friends and WORK at making friends with your fans and they WILL love you back.
No act makes it on almost any level without one. Don’t sign a contract if you can get away with it. If you do, give up no more than twenty percent, hopefully fifteen. And hire a MUSIC BUSINESS LAWYER to negotiate the deal, not your dad’s attorney buddy. Whatever you spend will be a pittance compared to how screwed you will be if you actually make it and have signed a bad deal. The bottom line is when you start no one good wants to manage you, and chances are you’re going to leave your initial garage manager for someone more experienced. It’s gonna cost you, remember that.
More important than a label these days. Agents work on commission, usually ten percent. And they don’t like to work for free. So if you’re not making any money, an agent isn’t gonna wanna represent you. I know it’s a conundrum. You need an agent to get work, but you can’t get an agent unless you’ve got work. Figure it out. Often times it’s the drummer who both manages the band and gets gigs before professionals get involved. As to why it’s the drummer, we’re still trying to figure that out.
You might feel good you’re signed, but that don’t mean diddly-squat if it’s an indie who neither distributes nor promotes you. Give up rights commensurate with how much you’re being paid. Up front. Upon delivery. Guarantees of marketing and promotion are worthless, even if they’re in the contract because who are you gonna sue? Some broke label who’s job it is to BELIEVE IN YOU? If you’re not getting any money, you want it to be a one or two album deal, with a hefty royalty rate and a return of rights upon termination of the deal or shortly thereafter. If you’re getting up front money then be wise and spend at least 70% on the actual product because that could be the only money you ever see from the venture. Be smart.
A MAJOR LABEL
You give to get. Your deal will be lousy unless you don’t need them. If you’re pulling in thousands of people a night and tracks are flying out of the iTunes Store the major label will cut you a good deal, otherwise not only won’t they treat you fairly, they may demand a 360 degree deal (where they take 20% off of every dime of income you get regardless of the source! You could sell your house and owe the label 20% if you signed a 360 degree deal!) where your chances of surviving become slim to none. And just because you have the deal don’t expect the label to break you. The hard work is just beginning. Give them tools, i.e. music. And play nice. Otherwise the label will blackball you, they don’t need troublemakers, unless they’re guaranteed revenue makers. And major labels only want acts they can easily market and profit from, i.e. radio acts. Remember that. If you’re not one of these, a major label deal is worthless, furthermore you won’t get one.
Comes slower than you expect once you’ve got a deal. It’s all work with very little reward for a very long time. In other words, if you’re not willing to enter the Ironman competition, don’t be a musician. Just when you’ve scaled one hill, there’s a mountain range looming in the distance.
You need more than one to sustain a career. Find a great music producer/somgwriter and stick with them.
Comes long after you think it should. Not only does the label take most of it, what you deserve isn’t rendered for eons, that’s the nature of royalties. You’re also going to need to reinvest the money into the next project and everyone is gonna want a raise if the first one succeeded. Strap in, it’s a bumpy ride.
It goes with the territory. You’re never going to receive what you’ve earned. You just hire the best people and try to get the most you can. Stay on top of everything but don’t look over anyone’s shoulder. Trust the pros.
Won’t be as sweet as you think it’ll be. But don’t freak out in the middle of it. Because we need neither you nor your act. Do your best to be humble and sustain. Otherwise, you’ll be replaced.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE ABOVE
Exist. But they’re rare. Do you want to bank on being the exception?
NEW RULES FOR THE 21ST CENTURY ARTIST
YOU WANT A HIT
It anchors your career. There are hitmakers and everybody else. A hit just means something ubiquitous that everybody listens to, chart numbers are unnecessary. Hits can come in a flash via inspiration, but oftentimes they require a huge amount of effort and craft. Are you repeating the verses? Is the chorus singable, is there a bridge? Strive for excellence in your own chosen genre, reaching the brass ring is what it’s all about.
DON’T LISTEN TO YOUR PEERS
They don’t want you to be successful, that would mean they are losers. They want to keep you down in the hole they’re in. Follow your dream, which is individual to you.
Without it, you’re toast. Today’s society is all about being a member of the group. Winners in art are singular. They stand alone, they endure the bows and arrows as well as reap the adulation. If you’re not dreaming big in today’s world, you’re not dreaming at all.
PUT OLDSTER ADVICE IN PERSPECTIVE
Wisdom comes with age and experience. But don’t forget the pre and post Internet eras are as different as the pre and post telephone eras. Not everything remains the same.
There’s no such thing as a cycle in today’s world. Art is like life. Keep making, errors are tolerated as long as you follow them up with more work of quality. Today the key is to be remembered, because almost everything is forgotten. Don’t overthink and overlabor your efforts. Raw and honest works today, and it forges a connection between you and your audience.
DON’T GET LOST MAKING A LIVING
Don’t sacrifice your art to get paid, whether it be a day job or going on the road to fulfill your financial desires. Art is about sacrifice. You live on a subsistence level until you break through or you give up.
DON’T SCORN HITMAKERS, LEARN FROM THEM
Even if you don’t want to cut a Katy Perry-type tune, your career would be enriched by an hour with Dr. Luke or Max Martin. They understand the game, they understand a hit.
WORK WITH THOSE WHO’VE HAD SUCCESS
Cred in a producer is secondary to track record. Work with someone who’s been to the mountaintop and continues to journey there. They can give you a perspective no one else can.
Do it to learn, not to write a hit song. Those Nashville cats are the best in the business. Their songs might be saccharine or predictable, but they know the system. Once again, it’s all about learning.
DON’T CATEGORIZE YOURSELF
They rap in country songs. Avicii put country in EDM. Feel free to incorporate your fandom into your work.
THE WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY IS SMALL
You can only be the critics’ darling for a brief period. People will only check you out once or twice, then they’re done. Strike when the iron is hot.
People will listen to two new substandard works and then abandon you.
BODY OF WORK
It exists on Spotify. If you connect with a track, people will go deeper.
Forget them. Unless you’re making a concept one, a statement. They don’t fit with today’s world. You drop one every other year when nothing in the news lasts longer than a week, in most cases barely a day? If you have a stiff album, it’ll take years to recover. Better to keep in the public eye by continuing to produce. You want to create a body of work, but it doesn’t have to be in album form, after all, the term “album” initially denoted a cardboard container for 78s.
YOU’RE ONLY YOUNG ONCE
You get worn down with age, you know too much. Test the limits. Follow your exuberance. Live and create to the limit.
SCREW THE SYSTEM
Unless you’re creating Top Forty hits, feel free to stand up to the powers that be. Too many businessmen, label people, agents and managers, are stuck in the old system. You can be dragged down by them, or stand up to them. This doesn’t mean you’ve got license to be a jerk, but standing your artistic ground is an asset. But it’s got to feel right to you, don’t be afraid to change or take input because you abhor criticism and believe everything you do is phenomenal, no one’s got that great a track record.
AMATEURS vs PROFESSIONALS – How Do They Differ In The Music Industry?
They just do it.
As the greatest producer/songwriter of all time Rudy Perez says when asked by beginners how best to break into the music business as a singer or songwriter or producer, “You know…. I never asked anyone how to do anything in this business.” Rudy says, “I really didn’t. I just sat down worked my butt off and figured out how to do it myself. Your best chance to actually succeed in this business is to put in the work and figure it out for yourself as well.”
Amateurs are afraid they’re going to ruffle feathers, they’re afraid they won’t have success; they want everyone to feel good about them. They have no idea if they’re any good unless someone tells them constantly.
Professionals know that it’s an impossibility that everyone LOVES you. Sure, there are amateurs who don’t ask the right questions and do terrible things, but they usually don’t even see the landscape to begin with. Professionals decide and then act. They don’t worry about who’s going love them, they do what they do because it’s what THEY have decided to do.
Manipulate. Mislead. Waver. Flake out.
Are crystal clear. They make their counterparts believe the behavior/solution is to their advantage. No one likes to be manipulated. They don’t mind being influenced, even if it benefits others at the same time. They just don’t want to be a pawn in the game. Respect is everything and the real pros get that. Amateurs treat music business professionals as if they’re just window shopping at the mall. The pros won’t even initiate a conversation unless they’re ready to pull the trigger. Once again, it’s all about respect.
Are all about today.
Are all about tomorrow. Professionals leave money on the table (yes, they do! I’ve done it, all of the true professionals do it!), they nurture relationships, they know that today’s triumph may not translate into victories tomorrow, that taking a victory lap in the press prematurely is going to backfire and piss people off. Taking one for the team is almost ALWAYS the way to go. Nothing screams professional louder than monetary sacrifice. If you collaborate with a pro and then fail to mention them in the press article about you, well then good for you, everyone who read that article thinks you did it all yourself. Once you disrespect a pro, whether in the press or just talking crap, good luck working with them ever again. This business is about relationships. If 10 people wrote and produced your song, mention all ten every darn time.
Want to stay out of the news. And if they’re in the news, they will only do it if they can control the story. Which is why professionals hire expensive PR people, because those PR people know the players, they can influence them and trade horses with them, because they both know they’ll see each other tomorrow. Perception is a powerful friend or a vicious adversary: It has to be respected.
Know it all.
Are always learning. If you don’t learn something important every month, you’re hanging with the wrong people, if you’re hanging with people at all. The web is a fountain of information, but professionals will tell you stuff in on one day of working and hanging out with them that they would never put in writing. A pro is always absorbing information.
Are about filling up their contacts list.
Know that it’s WHO you know, not how MANY you know and one key relationship is better than a dozen secondary ones. The pro wants to know the decision maker, the person who can say yes, the CEO of the company, not the head of marketing or development. The pro also remembers the person’s name and title by writing the information down on their smartphone and cultivating a list of power players. It’s a business, treat it like one.
Bitch about the game.
Play the game, and try to change what they dislike over time. Rules are temporary in the music industry, the major players are not. No one cares how great it used to be in 19xx, shut up and figure it out for the 21st century.
Are afraid to bring out the big guns.
Know when to huff and puff and blow someone else’s house down. The key is to do this consciously, aware of the fallout. Picking your battles is the only way to move forward in the music industry, but sometimes there is no recourse but scorched earth.
Don’t talk about their accomplishments unless they come up in the conversation naturally. They don’t need to advertise, they’re already the person. Artists, songwriters and producers who constantly bring up their (usually modest) accomplishments bore the crap out of the highly prolific, highly successful musician. Don’t be a bore. Shut up and learn.
Burn the wrong people.
Burn the right people, that’s IF they burn anybody at all. Burning relationships can demonstrate power, but don’t piss off the CEO unless you’ve got a chip to play against them. Being gracious and kind, even when you’re completely not interested, costs you nothing but a bit of humanity and Godliness. These are people’s DREAMS you’re messing with here. Be extra, extra nice.
Need to win all the time.
Know if you never lose, you never really win. If the deal is one-sided, if leverage is overused, it will come back to haunt you. Let everyone get their slice and pray there are lots more pies coming.
Are all flash.
Are subtle. They fly private, but they don’t tell you. They close a big client and then celebrate in the studio with excellent $20 wine they bought at a discount. They drive a BMW or a Mercedes, not a Lamborghini or Bentley. They blend in, they don’t stand out.
Believe life should be fair.
Know that life is inherently unfair. And sometimes you have to grease a palm or work a relationship to get what you want. A pro knows, it is what it is. You can’t change it so adapt, play the game and try and win.
Think they’re better than everybody else.
Never forget where they came from and are aware they can go back there, so only the very unintelligent pro might act entitled, most usually go out of their way to be nice to the little people. Because there you go but for the grace of God! Success is a blessing. Pros never forget that.
Can only see what’s in front of them.
Are always looking over the hill, around the corner. They’re searching the unknown to see where it’s all going, so they can be prepared when it arrives. Pros have vision. They dream their future and then make it happen.
Think nothing changes.
Know that everything is constantly changing, they’re not married to the past. They don’t lament the death of small town America and manufacturing, yada yada… Pros are all about the data, the now. Whatever works, that’s the new rule, screw the old rule.
Put all their eggs in one basket.
Spread the risk. They know the only person who wins all the time is the one who does not play. The best song wins. Call the pro who’s done it before and pay his price, don’t haggle with your own success. Give everyone their share, be gracious at all times.
Have false modesty.
Own their success. They’re confident. Every pro has (from an amateur’s perspective) an “ego” because every pro is good at what he does and is well aware that he’s good at what he does. What the amateur perceives as “ego” the pro perceives as “confidence”. When you compliment a pro, they won’t say “No, it’s not that good, really” because they KNOW it’s good. Pros say “Thank You” and then get busy with the next thing.
Expect to win right away.
Know that success is elusive and hard fought and that a momentary blip of success at the moment may be just that, momentary. Pros are always climbing.
Get down but never out. They are self-assured. They roll with the changes. They don’t get thrown off guard. They’re cerebral. They don’t fly off at the handle. They absorb the loss and figure out how to punch back. Fear is an old friend, it never paralyzes it inspires action.