How To Succeed In The Music Business: 10 Things You Must Do

A list of top 10 things is a favorite hobby of our society. It can help us maintain an illusion of ease amidst complexity. Why not make a list of the Top Ten Things to Do in Order to Get a Record Deal? No matter how many musicians don’t know what happens or doesn’t happen once they get their sacred “deal”, everyone wants one, or thinks they do at least – a chance at the big time right?

This list highlights 10 things you can do to increase your chances of landing a recording contract, but just remember there are a million ways of getting there. Based on my past observations, the list of considerations below is shared by a great many successful musicians who truly understand what it takes to succeed in this incredibly unpredictable business of music.

1. Make Music That Doesn’t SUCK!

We live in an era when everyone can write and record their own music. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your music will get record labels to develop, market, and promote that music. When asked, A&R reps always reply, “We don’t know what we’re looking for, but we will recognize it once we hear it.” Based on this comment, we can infer that your work must be truly original, dynamic, and creative. More than 95% of the demos on the market contain regurgitated ideas that were borrowed from other more talented musicians. Challenge yourself! The talent scouts in this industry hear hundreds of “want-bes” every week. How does your sound stand out from the rest that the public lists as “indistinguishable groups who all sound the same”.

2. Play Live Often, Even if it doesn’t pay money.

One way of telling a musician for the money and a musician for the music is to observe the different ways they go about their respective businesses. Devoted musicians have to play music every chance they get. Money-focused musicians complain that they are unable to find jobs at clubs that pay anything. You can expect a breakdown and disappointment if you expect to make your living solely as a musician in the first three to four years of your career. It is true that the most talented musicians have often struggled long and hard at their craft, and they have never given up. Play on the streets if you have to, play at schools, fairs, festivals, do benefits for other people and organizations. Donate your services to charities, churches, non-profit organizations and whatever else you can think of. Hang out at clubs, start jam sessions, or look for jamming opportunities. Check out your city, and you will see many places where musicians can perform. More people will attend your shows as you establish yourself, resulting in more paid gigs. Perform live, and then play again live, that’s what musicians are supposed to do.

3. Be a master musician on your instrument.

One of the strange developments in the late 70’s was the rise of garage bands, punk bands, and self-taught musicians, who just picked up an instrument, or started singing with friends, and 6 months later recorded a record and began playing live. New directions in music and some great music came out of that situation. Many years on, the novelty of hearing amateurs’ musical efforts has gotten a bit old hat. Before the 70’s, our heritage is mostly made up of music by musicians who idolised some amazing blues, jazz, folk playing legend or a fantastic songwriter that inspired them to make thier own mark.

It was an appetite for perfection from these inspired musicians. They were not satisfied with merely “good enough”, but were driven to be GREAT. No compromises. Get beyond whatever stage of development you are currently at, and take lessons or listen to your favorite guitarist’s record and pay close attention to what they are playing. 

Experiment with things you’ve never done before. Maybe it’s time for you to try something new in an effort to discover yourself, your “sound”, and increase your chances of standing out from the mediocrity that is your competition. 

Record labels are looking for innovative, accessible new sounds on every demo tape and from every new act in live venues. In fact, that is what they want. Our business is music, and when we hear new, original, and accessible material, we can invest with more security in you.

4. Protect Your Investment…Copyright your songs.

There is always something amazing about how few artists are willing to spend $25 to copyright their songs. By the way, these folks are often the same ones complaining about not being paid to perform their unknown music. The same action should be taken by any serious songwriter when an inventor comes up with some new product they think will appeal to a certain type of customer, namely, patenting their invention. Don’t wait too long to take care of this vital but simple task if you intend to develop your career as a musician who writes their own songs. If you truly believe in your music, then learn the basics of copyright protection. You can learn about copyright protection from the library or on the Internet. Do it now!

5. Design simple, but effective promo materials.

Writing effective promotional materials, including bios, fact sheets, cover letters, quotations, etc. is a daunting task to say the least. Promo materials should be as compelling and informative as possible, which is helpful for musicians in promoting their careers and securing deals. A good way to accomplish this is to take the time to reflect on any accomplishments, positive reviews, training awards, previous sales, and live appearance highlights, and to arrange them into a professionally written bio. 

Once the materials are collected, it is also necessary to determine who is to receive them, and to ask each recipient what type of information they would like to receive. Any gatekeeper in the music business should never receive “generic” kits.

6. Know The Labels and Publishers You Hope To Be Signed To.

Do you think you’d take some time to find out more about a company or corporation when applying for a job with them? Wouldn’t you want to know more about their stability, their reputation in the industry, and their executives background and experience? The same goes when searching for a record deal. Some musicians get overjoyed when a pressing company offers them a contract, or a publishing company becomes interested in signing them. The fact that a label or publisher has approached you for a deal is a compliment and recognition that they liked your music. However, without taking the time to learn about them, you may be making a terrible mistake. What percentage of royalties do they pay? What is their reputation in the music business? What special points are they offering? These questions and others can be crucial in making an unfettered decision about an arrangement that could go either way, depending on how you view them.

7. Have Your Own “Entertainment Law Attorney” Represent You.

Music business artists have always relied on entertainment law attorneys to get signed to any deal. That is the case today and will continue to be the case in the future. This is no time for humor, since every musician’s relationship with a record label, publisher, merchandiser, etc. will be handled by two attorneys who whittles down the contract for the musician and respective companies.

It should be made clear that, when all is said and done, the musician is never in the room during the negotiations. The music company’s lawyer and the musicians’ attorney meet, discuss the matter on the phone, and fax counter-offers between themselves. For any musician who is serious about the art of music, picking a reputable, ethical, well respected attorney who has experience in deals in the music industry is an absolute necessity.

8. Choose A Well Connected and Respected Personal Manager.

As a musician you always have the option of self-management, when developing your career. Lots can be learned by taking on securing gigs, doing some publicity, planning tours and handling various personal issues that arise within the band. However, there comes a time when the daily responsibilities of running your band become so overwhelming that you will need the help of a good manager. In my opinion, a musician or band who has worked hard to establish their career and has achieved some degree of success has a much better chance of “attracting” a professional, well-connected and respected manager.

Many upcoming artists don’t realize that to generate any income from a music career it can take years for the flow of money to be reliably there. For managers who do this job for a living, they can only work with clients who will pay them. The self-management of a band, or the assistance of interns and wannabe managers can pave the way toward professional management.

Over the years I have heard numerous horror stories about artists being approached by so-called “managers” saying they will help them in exchange for some amount of money. Legitimate personal managers don’t work this way. They get paid a negotiated fee for their services (get it in writing) for any business transactions they handle over a defined time frame (15-25%). The musician should NEVER pay a fee to a so-called manager who will only work if they are paid up front.

It is disappointing that scams like these still plague the business… be forewarned. Recording and publishing contracts are one of the most important responsibilities of a manager, hence why well-connected and well-respected managers are required. In the music business, it’s all about “relationships.” Who knows who, who can get to know who, and who does what successfully for whom is what this management game is about. Be careful when choosing the people who will represent you in any business dealings.

9. Don’t Take Advice From Anyone Unless You Know That They Know What They Are Talking About

In the beginning of this article I noted that there are a million ways to do something, and that these 10 tips are just my opinions based on years of dealing with music in general and musicians in particular. People have their own checklist of Do’s and Don’ts and the only value they offer is “opinions” on how to become a musician. The best way to know what works and what doesn’t in the music business comes from your own experience of building your own career – from your own interactions with the gatekeepers at labels, the media, management, and booking companies.

There is always an exception when it comes to a so-called “rule”. As I reflect on the advice I sought out and listened to over the years, the ones that struck home were from people who walked the talk and talked the talk as well.

Generally, the only source of feedback that might stand the test of time is a source you feel knows what they are talking about, and has had first-hand experience in the field you are trying to understand.

Make sure to choose carefully. Sometimes you can learn by your own or someone else’s mistakes – either way can help you make progress.

There are multiple milestones required for a successful outcome, so success isn’t founded on one single major success. In most cases, I basically listed all the mistakes and failures we’ve had over the years, and came up with a formula to make sure they never happen again.

10. Musician … Educate Thyself!

The ignorant, ill-informed musician is a threat to themselves. If you want a record deal, you must first learn about record deals and the business of music. 

There are many countless cases of musicians who have been exploited by their record labels and music publishing companies over the years. Why? Exploitation has been a big issue for decades. 

A decade ago, keeping musicians in the dark was standard business practice. These days, any musician who signs a record contract and finds out later what he or she signed has only themselves to blame. 

Twenty years ago, it was difficult to gain insight into every aspect of the music business. Not so today. There are dozens of excellent books available on each and every aspect of the music business. It is possible to access these books in bookstores, libraries, and through the Internet. 

There are now many major American cities offering seminar and workshop programs on the business of music, as well as many schools offering two-four-year programs. 

Many consultants, attorneys, and businesses exist so all that stands in the way of any musician getting a good contract is myth, superstition, stubbornness, and immaturity. 

It is very important to me to convey to every musician that they have been lied to about many aspects of the music business. They have been told many stupid things about it. 

“Spend money on quality instruments and equipment”… you have done that. “Spend time and money on practicing and rehearsing”, you have done that. “Spend time and money finding the best recording studio, producer and engineer you can”…you have done that. Nobody told you to spend time and money learning all you can about the business of music did they? 

If this is true, the fault in “not telling” musicians that they MUST spend some time and money educating themselves on music business issues is in the hands of the businessmen and women who kept their clients uninformed in the first place.

“Knowledge is bliss” should be the mantra of the musician of the new millennium. Take some time and spend some money to learn about the music business, a few hours now can protect your future forever!

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