Why are you a musician? We recently asked this question on our Atomic Disc Facebook page. Besides the jokes about free beer and loving being broke, the overwhelming response was: “Because I have to”.
There is no choice in the matter. It’s an innate need to create and share your creations. The only thing that fulfills you. Your passion. Your therapy. Your true self. Few things can compare to those electric moments when the groove is in the pocket, the crowd is totally with you and singing along to your best song.
However, being a musician isn’t an easy career path, there are easier ways to make a buck.
That being said, if music has to be your full-time gig, it's important for you to leverage as much know-how about your business as possible.
What kind of musician are you?
There are three kinds of musicians. This article is aimed at the third kind, the artist-musician.
These are the session players, freelancers. The ones that love performing and playing their instrument. They spend a lot of time honing their skills and craft. They get hired for studio work or as backing musicians for live performances. The range of these gigs is anything from high school musicals, worship bands, background music in restaurants, tribute bands, full-time employment in symphonies, to backing up the likes of Billy Joel or Taylor Swift at Madison Square Garden. The successful ones are often like chameleons, they can fit into any genre and style. They always show up prepared, on time and with a positive attitude.
People that compose and write songs. Either on their own or in collaboration with others. For some, songwriting is more rewarding than performing and their big dream might be seeing one of their songs performed by a top-charting artist.
A common dream for an artist is superstardom. Living in the limelight, chart-topping success, name recognition... yada, yada. But let’s start small and focus on a simpler goal: to make a decent living recording and performing your own songs. That is fully doable for anyone who writes good songs, understands the value of an “image” and branding, and realizes that you cannot be “just a musician”.
You cannot be just a musician
Before you can be 'just an artist' or 'just a musician' or 'songwriter', you have to be a lot more. When working towards your goal of making a living solely on recording and performing your own music, you’ll have a slew of job titles and responsibilities. You’ll have to be a business manager, marketing director, video editor, photographer, graphic designer, copywriter, bookkeeper, salesperson, driver, and your own motivational speaker.
Of course, you’ll write great songs and put on a killer show. If you don’t, then stop right here and go back to your rehearsal space to focus solely on your musicianship before trying to make a career of it.
In order to make a living as an artist, you’ll need other people to know about you and what you do. This is where marketing, branding and sales come in. There are two questions that need to be answered before you even start.
Who do you sound like?
I know, this one might make you cringe. A lot of new, and up-and-coming artists have a hard time with this question. Everyone wants to be unique and some artists even find the question in itself insulting.
However, keeping the end goal in mind; making a living off your original music, you have to remember that you need fans (customers) in order to do so. And customers are humans. And humans like to categorize things, and put them in boxes, so they can better comprehend what they’re looking at or listening to. For marketing purposes, this is immensely important. You don’t want to waste your time, effort and hard-earned money on marketing to the wrong demographic. When you’re doing small talk at a party and people ask what you do, and you say “I’m in a band” their next questions are most likely “Oh yeah. Cool, what kind of music is it? Who do you sound like?” Being able to quickly answer these questions, allows your new acquaintance to determine if they should check out your music or not. If they like music similar to yours, you might have gotten yourself a new fan. If you’re not their cup of tea, you can still be friends, but don’t push your new album or talk too much about your next show.
Assignment 1: Make a list of 5 artists / bands you sound like and come up with one sentence that encaptures your sound and style.
When it comes to social media marketing, which we’ll cover in-depth later, knowing who you sound like allows you to very precisely target people that listen to music similar to yours and not waste money on people that won’t be interested. If you sound like the Rolling Stones, people who are into Billie Eilish, are probably not your ideal fan. Which leads us to the second most important question:
Who are your fans?
If you were to stereotype the people that come to your shows, what can you say about them? Make a list of all the traits, likes, dislikes, etc of your stereotypical fan. The more comprehensive your list, the better. An example could be:
- Between the age of 21 and 40
- Mostly males
- Wear jeans and T-shirts
- Drink beer
- Watch Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and action movies
- Eat fast food occasionally
- Go to bars that aren’t too hipster
- They’re not into sports
- Listen to Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Jet, My Morning Jacket, The Black Keys
Or maybe your fans are more like:
- They are mostly female
- Between the age of 20 and 40
- They drink tea and wine
- They buy organic food
- They listen to Joni Mithell, Sheryl Crow, Adele, Ed Sheeran and John Meyer
- They watch Grey’s Anatomy, HGTV and baking shows
- They wear floral printed dresses and sandals
- They recycle and compost
Now call your ideal fan Dylan. Visualize him/her. Can you see him/her? Whenever you write an email to your list, create an ad for Instagram, design a band poster or shoot a music video; think about Dylan. Would he/she like it? If the answer isn’t a convincing “YES”, then go back to the drawing board.
Assignment 2: Make a list of at least 15 ways to describe your ideal fan.
The not so romantic truth about a music career is that ultimately you have to sell something. And the principles for selling something aren’t that different if it is music, shoes or used cars you’re selling. But before you get too depressed picturing yourself as a sleazy used car salesman, remember that selling something is also about providing value. You’re not selling some junk that nobody wants or needs. You’re selling your music, which your fans truly like and want more of. Your fans connect with you as an artist. They want to identify with you, with your brand. They will proudly wear a T-shirt with your name on it.
In the following months, we will be publishing a series of articles and podcasts focusing on how the artist or artist/musician/songwriter can make a living. We’ll be interviewing successful artists, industry executives and marketing experts.
No one said it's easy, however, armed with knowledge and a lot of perseverance, it is possible to build and sustain a successful music career.
Photo credit: Johna McKinnon, Jeremy Keeney, Olivia Mayes, Ares, Tyler Watley, Your Hands Write History, Matthew Henry