4 Things You Must Do to Survive in the Music Business

The machine of the industry will try mercilessly to beat that deep abiding love of music out of you, but don't let it.

I'll never forget what my uncle told me when I broke the news to my family that I would be abandoning my English degree to study music instead:

"No one will support you in the music industry until you make it."

So start by developing iron will, thick skin, and the world's greatest listening skills. These are tools required by the music industry, and life generally.

From there, in my experience you can rocket past 70% of the people in the music industry if you actually learn and truly understand the copyright laws of your country and the United States. If you want a career in any back-office part of the industry like management, you'd better be damn sure you know how to protect your intellectual property and your artists. If you're an artist, you should know how to protect yourself.

(All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman isn't everything you need to know, but it's a tremendous start when you're beginning your journey.)

Next you need to learn how to interface with a few different types of people: lawyers, journalists, technology developers, and (critically) other artists/industry people. You'll spend the entirety of your career dealing with these folks. It's very important you know how they think, what they want, and how you can benefit them materially.

(Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki is a good start here but there is no replacement for real people experience. Find your way into conversations and situations with these people.)

Once you've got working music industry and legal knowledge (not bullsh*t, which is what the vast majority of the industry tends to run on), along with sufficient connections, your next steps involve uncovering opportunity. This is the longest, hardest climb and you'll be doing it your entire career.

The music industry is brutally competitive. To get your foot in the door requires giving more than you get. There are a few ways I've found to achieve this without undercutting yourself or seeming "easy" to others:

  1. Charge properly for your services, but always offer to throw in something extra; don't be a pushover, but let people know you want to work for them
  2. Ask 3 questions for every one you answer; the more you listen and let people tell you their story, the more opportunities you surface (and candidly it makes you a better person too)
  3. Love the part of the industry you're in; I can't stress this enough, the music industry is almost entirely populated by true believers and we can smell a rat from a mile away
  4. Understand your own timeline; it took me almost 10 years and 3 major cities to finally achieve the primary goals I set for myself at 21, but I knew that going in

You'll encounter many artists, managers, and industry operatives who seem to have it all. It will pummel your confidence and make you question your methods. In my experience, for every one that is truly successful beyond their years, there are 9 who are in massive debt and perpetually on the verge of collapse. The Rolling Stones are still going strong in their 70s. You have time.

While you're doing all this tireless work and study, remember to take time to learn who you are and care for yourself personally. This will not only ensure your long-term mental health, but it will inform your decisions as an artist and entrepreneur, and expose your own personal risk tolerance.

Oh and while we're at it -- take risks. The earlier the better.

Now let's talk about the music: There is such a thing as "objectively good" and "objectively bad" music. Like any other art it is a product of craft, and therefore is subject to the scrutiny of true craftsmanship. Some things you should learn to judge music on:

  • Production
  • Arrangement
  • Lyrics & Melody
  • Novelty
  • Potential to sell

Over time you'll learn to use these to vet your music and the music of others. Always assume everyone will know if you didn't. Never, ever treat your fans or the listening public like they're stupid. Instant career suicide, unless you enjoy toiling away in obscurity for only a chosen few. Music should always be inclusive, intelligent, and of lasting quality.

Finally -- really hold on tightly to the things that inspire you about music. We all entered the industry because music is deep in us. We play it, we listen to it, we feel it very profoundly; enough to make it our life's work.

The machine of industry will try mercilessly to beat that deep abiding love of music out of you, but don't let it. Every song and artist you've ever known came from a series of people who refused to be stopped, who made a series of decisions despite their long odds. Be a person who always stays the course, and good luck. - VIA