As the founder of ROCKRGRL Magazine, I’ve interviewed hundreds of artists and edited thousands of stories about artists. I’ve heard every variation of success and failure that exists, and I’ve been around the block a couple of times as a musician myself. I’ve seen the overnight successes and the slow burns. And even though the music industry is battered and broken, there is still great music out there that deserves to be heard.
If you love making music, you’re in luck. Thanks to technology, home recording is more affordable and accessible than ever. Anyone can create a decent-sounding album at home. But selling that album and actually making a living as an artist has never been more problematic – not that it was ever a cakewalk. Reality television has fed us the delicious myth that anyone can be a star – and we’ve gobbled it down. Look at Susan Boyle. Then look at Susan Boyle’s make-over!
Fact is, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning – multiple times – than you do of becoming the next multi-platinum-selling megasuperstar. The music industry as we knew it has gone the way of the stegosaurus and the cassette tape. It makes banking (another predatory industry) look stable in comparison.
So how come we still have stars? Most of today’s best-known musical artists got famous through a television tie-in. Last week Demi Lovato was the only artist on the charts to sell more than 100,000 CDs. Unless you competed on American Idol, star on a Disney show or have a song playing in the background during a romantic moment on Grey’s Anatomy, your chances of hitting it big are slimmer than an Olsen twin. Here are a few eye-opening statistics, courtesy of the Nielsen Company:
- 105,575 albums were released in 2008.
- 79,000 albums were released in 2007.
- Less than 1% of all releases (just 950 albums) sold more than 25,000 copies.
- New release album sales fell 18% in 2008; these sales are now less than half the number of albums that sold in 2001.
- 50,000 digital-only albums accounted for less than 2% of all new release album sales.
Even though the demand for albums has plummeted, there were 26,575 more albums released in 2008 than 2007. Those are very depressing odds but it’s what you are up against. So just because albums aren’t very popular and there are more albums available than ever, does that mean you shouldn’t at least try? Of course not. But I’m about to serve you a reality check cocktail to wash down with your big dream. To wit, here are 10 stupid career moves artists make, and tips on how to not make them yourself:
1. We Don’t Need No Education – Many musicians see the real life experience of playing and touring as a substitute for education. You may not need a PhD from an ivy league university to put rock star on your resume, but it is critical to know how the music business works if you want to retain control of your life and not make bad decisions. Suggestions: take a music course at a community college in business, songwriting or recording. Spend some of your online time reading about industry trends. Attend music business conferences, lectures and workshops in your area – many are free – or join the local Recording Academy chapter (www.naras.org). They have student rates. Be a sponge and absorb everything about the business side of music that you possibly can. Attending classes is also a great way to network and meet people who might become fans down the road.
2. Turn Off the Hype Machine – There is no greater turn-off than letting people know how important/talented/wonderful you are. If you are really all that, the music will speak for itself. People will find you and they will do the talking for you. Note that during the American Idol auditions it’s the people who come in with humility and sincerity – not the big talkers – who usually end up blowing the judges away.
3. Have a Contingency Plan – Don’t put all your eggs in the superstar basket. Do other things to make money while you are working on your music and find things to do that are equally as satisfying. Play music because you love it, because it’s fun and not because you visualize a profile on Cribs in your future. If you really crave validation and approval that much, get a pet.
4. The Friends and Family Plan – Everyone’s friends and family are there to offer unconditional support. But after the people who are obligated to support your efforts are tapped out, you need to start building a following. Do you have fans? Is your fan base growing with each gig or staying the same or declining? Pay attention to what songs go over when you perform. They may not be the songs you prefer. Many artists are shocked when the throw-away song that barely made the album becomes the hit single. Keep an open mind.
5. Falling for Scams – This is the music business and there are lots of people out there promising superstardom for a price. Check credentials and do online searches to make sure that the people who want your money have a solid reputation and verifiable proof to back it up. Anyone who charges you to play a show or listen to your music is suspect. If it sounds fishy, it probably is fishy.
6. Watch Your Wallet – Musicians spend a fortune on unnecessary gear, thinking that this new guitar or this new pedal will suddenly make them Erica Clapton. Really, you don’t need all those toys – especially if it means you can’t pay your rent. Put yourself on a budget if you are a gear junkie. Which brings me to . . .
7. Living the High Life – I know drugs and alcohol seem cool and romantic and all that, but trust me, there’s nothing cool about ‘em. Yeah, we’ve all got demons. A good therapist is much healthier and cheaper than a habit and a rehab. Don’t do anything that makes you more stupid and vulnerable. If you don’t have your wits about you, it will be that much easier to fall prey to someone who does.
8. Play Well with Others – Don’t be a drama queen and avoid falling in with anyone who is. Deal with problems as they arise and don’t let them fester. Distractions are a huge waste of productive time and it is just as easy to be considerate as it is to be a great, big jerk that nobody can stand to be around. Band rule number one – no drama. No exceptions.
9. Be Authentic – Be yourself. Always. Not the next (fill in the blank) because there is already a (fill in the blank). There’s a big difference between being influenced by an artist and trying to copy them. The original is always better and everyone knows it. It is your true self, whatever that may be, that people relate to.
10. It Really Is All About The Music – There’s no doubt that image plays a big and unavoidable role in the music business. But at the end of the day it’s still about the music. Working on your image rather than your music is like working on your shoes and not your outfit. Image is just an accessory. Don’t get hung up on it. And see # 9. If you are truly being yourself, the rest will follow.
Making a living as a musician is already tough enough. Don’t make it any harder. Good luck out there.
(And if you need a life coach hire me!)