16 – 03 – 2021

How To Make It In the Music Business: An Essential Plan For New Artists

At Instrumental we are working to change the music business to the benefit of independent artists. Here, Instrumental CEO Conrad Withey shares an indispensable plan for artists beginning their career.

I listened in on a Clubhouse group sharing advice to young artists starting out in the music business last week. There were so many questions being fired at the panel from ambitious but somewhat confused talent:

How do I find a manager? How do I know if the manager is right for me? Should I register for PRS? MCPS? How do I get on playlists? Should I be releasing more music? Should I be releasing less music? How do you find a good publicist? What’s the best way to manage my publishing? Do I need a lawyer? Etc etc etc

It can seem a very confusing business to be starting out in. You get so much advice from all quarters, often conflicting, that it can make the head spin. The panel did their best to answer the questions, but my big takeaway was everyone remained so unsure. They lacked a clear sense of priorities and next steps.

The truth is there’s always been a vested interest in the music industry to keep things complicated. By making it that way artists must rely on others (lawyers, labels, agents, managers etc) as they make their way and it has also created a multi million dollar industry full of advisors or “gurus” and expensive college degrees and online courses. None of this is really in the interest of the artist. It is disempowering and, to me, deeply frustrating because it gives totally the wrong impression - the truth is music is probably the easiest of all the creative industries to get started in.

At Instrumental we are doing everything we can to change the music business to the benefit of artists - we are on a mission to make things simpler. I want to address the problem and offer a clear guide to anyone starting out - any artist who wants to avoid unnecessary expense, dodge time wasters and hit the right track (pun intended) as fast as possible. So here is, I believe, the only plan you need to make it in the music business.

It’s in 3 parts:

  1. Setting the goal.
  2. The things you must do to achieve the goal.
  3. The things you should not do (until after you hit the goal).

This plan is all about helping artists to focus. Starting a music career is a lot like starting a new business. There is a high failure rate in the start up sector and the majority of companies that fail do so because they lack focus - they head in too many different directions at once, like a headless chicken, chasing sales but missing the opportunity to actually figure out the one thing that they needed to get right to build a long term business.

It is the same in music. There are so many things you could do - and indeed so many things you probably will go on to do - but at the start, forget about those. Park them. And focus.

Part 1 - Setting the goal

If an artist’s goal is to become a viable career musician - what does that actually mean? Well I think it means being able to live off your music, without input or investment from anyone else.

Once you are at that point you can start making choices about how to grow further as a musician, without the worry of how to pay the bills. You can survive entirely through your own endeavours and that’s what independence really is. Anything you may earn beyond that is upside, but by hitting this goal you know you can sustain a career in music and it is in your control.

So, where is that income going to come from? That’s easy. Streaming. We hear a lot about how streaming doesn’t pay and it’s nonsense. Streaming is your only way to achieve the goal. Like it or not streaming IS the record business - especially for new artists. We have seen what can happen to other artist income sources during the pandemic, a factor that has only highlighted how important a reliable streaming base is for every new artist.

How can you earn a living wage from streaming? In the UK that’s about £25,000 or US $32,500. Streaming pays, on average, about £2,500 per million streams (you can do the math for the US equivalent). That makes our goal easy to calculate: to earn £25k a year you need 10m streams annually from your music.

That may seem a lot initially but if you phase across, say, 50 tracks it means your recordings have to add 550 streams a day each. That’s achievable. That then is the goal and the single metric to measure your progress by and it is the only thing you need to worry about until you hit it.

To recap:

Goal: Earning a living wage from streaming -> £25,000

Metric: Annual streams needed to get there -> 10m

Part 2: The things you must do to hit the goal

  1. Grow your socials:

Socials are the absolute bedrock of a music career. They are the only way to build a fanbase quickly and pretty much for free. You need to be active on as many as possible but Instagram, YouTube and TikTok are essential. TikTok particularly is the current fast track to fanbase building. It is powering the music business right now and you MUST be active on there, figuring out how to make it work for you. And you need to keep an eye out for the next new platform that matters (Clubhouse perhaps?).

The good news is that every single one of these platforms offers totally free resources to teach you best practices and of course just by searching around you can see what other artists are doing to find and grow their audience. Socials have replaced radio, press and TV as the key media platform for musicians. Find an authentic way to share your music (and creative journey) across each platform but don’t spend money creating content. Do it all on your phone and tailor it for each platform.

  1. Release lots of music:

After sharing lots of music content on socials you will see what connects and what doesn’t and you must then release as much as possible onto streaming platforms. You cannot release too much and you don’t, at the start anyway, know what good looks like in terms of your music. You have to find that out. Release music in all sorts of different styles - produced, stripped back, demos - anything goes.

The great news is this is super cheap and easy to do. There are so many DIY distribution platforms - some free of charge. Put out tracks as often as you can and learn how to direct your growing fanbase on socials over to your profiles on the key streaming platforms. See how other artists do it through links and messaging.

And at the start just worry about Spotify. At some point it will be worth exploring what is happening to your music more widely but as a rule of thumb 80% of your early streams will come from Spotify and 10% from Apple - the other 200 odd services make up the rest. Get Spotify right and the rest will follow. Focus, focus, focus.

  1. Understand the data:

Every social and each DSP has data insights for artists - also free of charge. Learn what they mean, look at them ALL THE TIME and see what they tell you. The data will highlight where your audience is growing on socials, what they look like demographically, what else they like and listen to, which posts they engaged with most and shared more widely and it will teach you what is going well and what no one cares about. Through this data you will be able to focus on the right things that are going to help you grow streams fastest. It is all about understanding your audience and how to grow it.

If you have talent and do these three things with a passion you will get to the goal - maybe in a matter of months or maybe a lot longer, but you will get there. And if you don’t, you will have learnt something else important - that maybe this isn’t a career for you after all.

I think that is equally important to find out. The music business isn’t for everyone. Much better (as they say in business) to ‘fail fast’, learn from it and go do something else. Plenty of people will keep taking your money and telling you “you really have something”, but they aren’t helping at all. Real people out there on social media will really tell you what you need to know.

One of the great failings of the old music business was labels giving artists advances BEFORE they had a fan base. It gives the musician a false sense of having made it. The label would then do what it could to grow that fan base and if they failed (8 times out of 10) then the artist was dropped and they literally had nothing to show for it.

The new music business is different. Now you can find out first, without making any big bets - boot strapping it as they say in silicon valley - and put yourself in the driving seat for the rest of your career.

Part 3: The things you should not do (until after you hit the goal)

Pay a producer: You need to learn to make your own music. Firstly because it’s expensive to pay someone else, but also because you need to know how it is done so that when you do start paying producers (either directly or through a label) you can contribute to that process and know what good sounds like. And it isn’t hard to do - get a laptop, get on YouTube and figure it out.

Get a manager: No manager worth their salt will be interested in you before you get something going. The ones that are interested at the outset will typically be starting out themselves and therefore they know no more than you. Getting a manager should be an “inbound” process - they need to come to you, seek you out and convince you they are worth giving 15-20% of what you earn for the chance of them growing your business. You can take your time over that decision if you have achieved financial independence. Also, you really need to understand the business more to know if they are doing a good job - getting to the goal will teach you enough to know whether a manager is actually adding value.

Get a lawyer: You don’t have any deals that need contracts. Forget lawyers. Get one when you have a contract on the table from someone that needs looking at.

Get an agent: You need a fan base to sell tickets. An agents only option before you can sell tickets is getting you support slots - and you can do that yourself. If you hit the goal you will have enough fans to excite any agent and like managers they will come to you.

Pay for promo: Never pay for promo. It is a waste of money. Build everything organically - anything paid will be here today, gone tomorrow. It is not a foundation for anything. You are far better finding blogs and journalists who write about artists you love and relate to and pitching to them yourself. It will engage the journalist more and teach you the value (or not) of paying someone else to do this in the future.

Pay for a music business course: They are expensive and everything you need to know is out there on YouTube or elsewhere online. You’ll learn so much more just getting on with it and releasing lots of music.

Pay someone to manage your socials: You need to know how to do this - these are the tools of the trade. Do it yourself and learn as you go.

Run paid advertising: Paid ads are for telling people that already like you that something new is out they should listen to. You don’t have any fans at the start. And new music fans hate ads - they want authentic content straight from the artists. Leave paid advertising for others to worry about in the future.

Pay for a music video: This will be important at some point but for now, film everything on your phone, or get a friend to film it or persuade someone you find on socials to make a video for you for free. Someone at the same stage of the career who is as creative as you and loves what you do.

That’s it. Over to you. Go for it!

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