Posted: Apr 19, 2023
Category: The Musician Business
**Guest post by Musician Indie Coalition, Business-Based Artist Development Experts who help DIY Musicians develop, launch and scale their music careers.
"When it comes to pursuing a music career, we’ve all been brought up to believe that becoming a professional artist or band is just one lucky encounter or chance meeting away – that if an artist focuses all their efforts and resources on creating great music, they just need to get it in front of the right industry professional and they’ll get signed to a record label. From there, a manager or label rep will take care of the business side of their career and the artist can go on doing what they know and love: writing and recording music, playing shows and interacting with fans. This is what we call ‘The Getting Discovered Mindset’ and it is all too pervasive among aspiring artists. Shows like American Idol and movies like A Star Is Born have bored this narrative into our collective conscience – and while it is fun and oh so cozy, I’m here to tell you this is NOT the correct way to approach your music career.
Too often, we see artists dumping money into high-end recordings, advertising, PR and playlisting, sometimes driving themselves deeply into debt – all in the name of getting discovered. From a business perspective, this is unsustainable. A shot in the dark is no justification for this kind of spending, and unless you have a real plan in place, you will not see a return on your investment. A handful of sweet recordings and an uptick on social media followers are not going to keep you afloat for long, and if you hang on too tightly to the Getting Discovered Mindset, you’re going to end your career before you even had a chance to start.
Thankfully, there is an alternative: The DIY Approach. A DIY music career is ideal in today’s landscape because it puts control in the artist’s hands and allows them to take 100% responsibility for their success, leaving less to chance. But the DIY route is in no way all sunshine and roses – quite the opposite actually. Being a DIY artist requires a lot of time, hard work and learning – and there are still no guarantees. While there are a ton of resources out there to help artists manage a successful career, many will find themselves overwhelmed and unable to understand the overall process for creating one, rendering the tools at their disposal ineffective and hindering their career progression. It’s like handing someone a hammer, nails, a saw and some wood and telling them to go build a house – some people might be able to do it, but most will fail and many will waste a lot of time and money trying.
There’s a big difference between CREATING a successful music career vs MANAGING a successful music career.
Like professional artists, many indie musicians choose to focus solely on creating music, playing shows and promotion. However, this is only effective when you’re MANAGING an already successful career and have an established and loyal fanbase that is willing to financially support your work.
Aspiring artists and bands (meaning ones that have yet to find financial success) need to focus their time and energy on learning what will make them successful and this process starts with creating a plan. When we work with artists, the first thing we do is create a business plan. Using a special tool we developed called the Artist CMS, we task our artists with mapping out their career as it is, and where they ultimately envision it being. Then we start filling in the blanks. Creating a business plan serves two purposes:
You can’t simply release music and see what happens, you need to have a plan. This is so important! If you wanted to open a restaurant, you wouldn’t just start selling food and handing out fliers. There would be a ton of things that you would do BEFORE you could open your doors and start serving food. Launching and promoting a music career is no different.
Once you decide that you want music to be your profession, you need to create a plan and figure out everything you’re going to need to do BEFORE you begin doing it. Most artists’ business plans will contain some standard items, such as recording and releasing music, recording videos, maintaining a website, engaging in social media, playing shows, selling merch, etc., BUT as important as these things are, they aren’t going to make you successful by themselves. Why? Because there is an X factor when it comes to developing your music career that most musicians don’t account for – and in my opinion, it is the main reason behind most artists and bands failing.
And this reason is: you’re unique! Your music is unique and your audience is unique. As a result, to create yourself a successful music career, you’ll need to tailor your business plan to fit your unique needs and interests and the unique needs and interests of your audience.
We’ve all heard stories about how record labels control their artists’ image and railroad them into certain genres and archetypes. Well, labels do that because they’ve developed techniques for selling certain kinds of artists and certain types of music and it simply isn’t practical for them to create a one-off business strategy for each artist on their roster. It’s easier to change the artist to fit the label’s business model than the other way around. So, if you want to have a successful music career (and one that makes you really happy), then your primary job as an artist or band is to figure out your ‘Unique Recipe for Success.’
When musicians enroll in our online program the Musician Success Blueprint, we provide them with the knowledge and tools they need to develop, launch and scale their career, while providing them with the expert guidance and support needed to overcome the challenges they encounter in their career. However, no matter how much information and guidance we provide, what we can’t do is tell artists their unique recipe for success.
Because no one can tell you that.
It’s something only you as an artist or band can figure out.
The good news is, while we can’t tell you your recipe, we CAN tell you how to figure it out. The 3 Steps to Unlocking Your Unique Recipe for Success are as follows:
A musician’s brand is a detailed description of how they want to portray themselves as an artist to their fans. When musicians ask us about creating their brand, they tend to focus on visual things like their logo, font, color scheme, wardrobe, etc., but that’s only one part of a brand. The other part is emotion. Emotion is everything to your brand – it encompasses and reflects all the things you and your music represent and who you are as a person and it’s ultimately why people will care about you. Are you politically active? Are you a party band? Do you represent or identify with a specific social scene or group of people? These are the kinds of things that will move the needle when it comes to making true fans out of your casual followers.
To put it another way, your brand communicates your beliefs and all the things you’re passionate about. We call them your ‘emotional hooks’ – and just like a song hook, these are the elements about you and your music that people will focus on and walk away remembering. You can also think of your emotional hooks as the things you have in common with your friends, such as activities like sports or yoga or music-related interests such as your favorite band or your passion for writing lyrics.
It’s these hooks that are responsible for building your emotional connection with your fans and the reason behind why they will financially support your career. Afterall, no one is going to support an artist they dislike – so you need to highlight all the themes you feel will resonate with fans.
Your niche on the other hand is what stands out about you as an artist and person. For example, Johnny Cash was known as ‘The Man in Black’, which isn’t necessarily unique, but wearing black was one of the things that stood out about him. Today’s industry is flooded with tons of artists and content, which makes the process of standing out challenging, but you don’t need to invent something that no one has ever done before to stand out, you simply need to highlight the things that make you you! In many cases, the combination of your different emotional hooks alone will help you stand out or at least give you a clearer picture of how to do so.
A large amount of your time and effort needs to go into learning about your audience. You need to ask yourself questions about your fans as people, like: What are their interests? What are they passionate about? What motivates them?
From a music perspective, you need to know: What artists do they listen to? What type of live shows do they attend? Do they care about lyrics? Do they like acoustic performances?
Then from a business perspective: Do they buy merch? If so, what kind of merch? Do they attend live stream shows or prefer in-person events? What social media services do they use?
The more you know about your audience, the more informed your choices will be when it comes to making decisions about your career. You don’t want to press vinyl if your audience won’t buy it and you don’t want to print hundreds of t-shirts that your audience won’t wear (we can take a moment here if you need to steal a glance at the dust-covered cardboard box in the corner of your apartment filled with unsold merch – shh shh shh it’s ok – we all have one).
By learning about your audience and including their feedback in the development of your career, you’ll create an experience that is more in line with fans’ likes and interests. How do you do this? By talking with them, either in person or online. For example, run a poll and see if they like a t-shirt design BEFORE you create it. Create a post that says you love cooking and ask if anyone out there has any good recipes. If you get a lot of responses, then you’ve learned something important about your audience that you can use to strengthen both your relationship and your bottom line.
The point I’m trying to make is, building a loyal audience comes from turning casual followers into your friends and treating them like they’re a part of your family. And you make friends by sharing the things you have in common with them.
In today’s industry, your job isn’t to sell your audience music. It’s to sell your audience an experience. And that experience is being a part of your life and your journey as an artist. Once they’re a part of that experience, it will be easier to get them to support your career financially – because that’s what friends and family do.
Now the last step to unlocking your unique recipe for success is the most crucial, because it’s the actual process you’ll use to learn about your audience.
When it comes to learning about your audience, you don’t just want to simply throw something against the wall to see if it sticks. You want to think strategically and plan actual experiments using the feedback loop.
The feedback loop has 4 parts: Plan, Test, Study, Adjust
In part 1, you set a goal and create a plan for accomplishing that goal. For example, I bet I can collect 50 email addresses over the next 2 weeks by giving away a free track. (And quick tip: ALWAYS give yourself a deadline when creating your plan - otherwise, the experiment can run forever.)
Once you have a plan, you move on to part 2, which is to test that plan. If your plan works as expected and you meet your goal, great! If it doesn’t, you’ll study the results, make a single adjustment to your experiment and then test it again. And I stress changing one single thing because if you change more and you’re successful, you won’t know which change was actually responsible for your success.
Keep repeating this process until you get your desired result, and once you do, then you’ve learned something about your audience’s behavior that will benefit your career.
These 3 steps are SO important when developing your career! Without them, figuring out your unique recipe for success is almost impossible.
And listen, I practice what I preach. These are the same steps we use to develop Musician Indie Coalition and our program, so trust me – it works. It will take some time and effort, but if you follow these steps, you will reach your career goals. And hey, if you don’t – at least you didn’t spend all your money along the way."
Related Blog Posts: