First off, you should know that this article isn’t about any kind of secret formula or insider knowledge about how to make it in the music industry. In fact, you should be wary about reading any advice that claims to have… “the secret”.
Fact is that there are a lot of variables at play that determine who makes it and who doesn’t. A lot of these variables are random, and out of your control. But some variables are in your control and I’ve come to see time and again from artists and bands that somehow find a way out of obscurity (even if for a brief moment in time). You should know what you can’t control first. You can’t control things like cultural zeitgeists (what becomes new and cool, seemingly over night), nor can you control fortuitous happenstance (some A&R guy just happened to be at your performance, and happened to actually be listening, and happened to not be too drunk/just drunk enough to enjoy your act). Many artists often trace back their early success to such “lottery-winning” moments and can take no credit to such random success beyond simply buying a ticket along with the millions of others who also bought tickets.
So, that’s what you can’t control but what can you control? The first thing in your hands is actually buying that lottery ticket. You will have to make sacrifices in your personal life, be it relationships or careers or whatever, just to join the lottery of making it in the music industry. An expensive lottery ticket indeed. But, once you have that ticket you can stack the odds in your favor by simply working harder than the next guy with a ticket, so that when/if your break comes you are more visible than most others.
Nowadays, working harder means a lot more than it used to. In decades prior to the advent of the internet working harder as a musician was maybe 80% honing your artistry and 20% putting yourself out there. But now, artists are expected to also be their own marketers, savvy social media experts, and generally willing to do everything outside of just… you know… making music. Part of the reason for this is because there just isn’t as much money going around in the industry as when records and airplay royalties were still viable income streams for artists and labels. That and there are just a lot of artists out there who are adept at using the internet and its many platforms to promote themselves. Never before have there been so many aspiring musicians with wide open platforms for promotion available to them. And that’s great because music making is meant to be for everyone, so why shouldn’t everyone be able to throw their hat in the ring equally? But on the flip-side of this you have to consider that its harder to standout amongst all of the noise. To borrow a mixing term: you have to work harder to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. So, now you’re looking at atleast a 50/50 split between being a musician and being a marketer.
Notice that I’ve spoken very little about talent and originality. That’s partly because you can’t really advise people to be more talented or original. I think those traits kind of emerge out of a mixture of hard-work, dedicated passion, and a host of underlying factors. But also I think talent – and to some degree originality even – aren’t strong indicators for success. It’s like that scene in ‘Boyhood’ where the kid’s photography teacher lectures him on how even though he’s the most talented kid in the class:
Like it or not, talent isn’t a wand you can wave that will magically allow you to outshine everyone else around you. You’ve probably noticed it yourself whenever you turn on the radio or catch a promo clip of “the next big thing,” and notice how underwhelmed you are. Surely these can’t be the best musical artists living in the world today. They’re not, and they don’t have to be. They just showed, at some level, a potential to sell to a certain demographic or market… that’s it! They may be offering absolutely nothing new, but they either worked hard enough to gain attention or else just stumbled on plain old dumb luck. But hey, if you can somehow merge a stellar work ethic with some degree of innate talent/originality you are certainly improving your chances – just be aware that work ethic and luck may get you there, but talent alone probably will not.
It doesn’t matter which corner of the industry you are coming from, everything is a lot more competitive than it ever was before. The concept of competition can seem strange to musicians, but make no mistake people have a limited attention span and a lot of choices. That deadly mix means you have to be more eye-catching/ear-catching than the next guy just to get peoples attention. So, definitely be true yourself – there’s no sense selling out and giving people what you think they want or else you’re unlikely to pass the act – but be prepared to play up your particular angle, whatever your schtick might be, and push it everywhere you can. Join the throngs of social media sites and try to connect with people who you think are likely to be interested in what you are doing. There’s probably no point in just spamming everyone under the sun. You’re far better suited to targeting those who are interested in your particular niche as those are the people who are most likely to care and possibly open you up to others in their personal networks who share their interests. You’re better off developing a grassroots following in this way than mindlessly throwing your demos and links to the top labels and artists associated with those labels. Those people are very busy and are extremely unlikely to give your work a listen, and even less likely to take it seriously unless they see an existing level of interest in your music through sales figures or followers, Youtube views and so on.
Remember, we’re in the information age where people can ‘discover’ new & unheard music at the push of a button. You’re not exciting anyone’s interest just by adding yourself into that mix. You have to push it out there, increasing the chances people will see/hear it more than just once (studies show repeated exposure directly relates to people’s willingness to actually pay attention). And again, focus on pushing it into the areas that will be most receptive to your particular angle and existing level of interest. If nobody knows who you are, start at the bottom by finding random people who might like your stuff. Once you have some sort of fan base, consider pushing your content to intermediary folks that are open to low-level promotion like local DJ’s, college radio, bloggers and vloggers. If you keep building those avenues and have tangible numbers that show you have an existing support base, the record labels and taste-makers will eventually be coming to you… if you’re lucky.