Four simple things preventing most artists and composers from making SERIOUS money in music

Today, there are just so many ways to get your music from between your ears and in front of a global audience. Artists, songwriters, composers, bands, producers have every tool at their disposal to make a lasting career in music without having to be concerned with industry gatekeepers at every step of their journey, as they were 15+ years ago.

Despite all the negative, and downright depressing press the state of the music industry has received in recent years, the democratization  of the channels through which independent music is exposed has been one of the great outcomes of this new tech age.

That’s great, right?

Well, not if you’re a cash-strapped, time-limited part-time artist or producer creating your art at home and trying to navigate your way through the litany of options in front of you in your spare time. When not writing, recording, producing and mixing, now you have all the administration, research, promotion and publishing to worry about? It can be intimidating at best, and paralyzing at worst.

Pretty common are questions like, “how do I get my music in front of paying opportunities?”, “how do I ensure I get paid?”, “who even pays me?”, “do I need a fanbase before I pitch my stuff?”, “how do I go about building one?”, and “Ahh! What the heck do I do FIRST?!”.

This is this downside to the new industry model where you are your own manager, label, publisher, distributor and A&R person.

With limited time to both work on your career and work on your craft, it is exceptionally important to learn quickly, and execute well. Knowing what to focus on, and perhaps more importantly, what not to is a skill that few master before they run out of energy and revert back to their day gig – relegating music to hobby status in their lives.

Well we can change that! We’ll get to the Four Things shortly, But first, let’s touch on some of the common flaws I have seen in 25+ years of observing (and personally experiencing) musician psychology …

Four Things You Can Do

If I could sit down all the people I’ve personally known that I would say are “making a good living in music”, and ask for a handful of secrets as to what got them there, this would likely be what they’d say.

#1: Be a sponge. Learn from your successes and failures.

Successful artists and creatives are great at this. When they’ve released an album, performed live, or pitched their music to screeners at an A&R service and had it fall totally flat, they take notice.

They ask questions. They pause and think, “what could I have done better”?

What they do not do is declare, “Nobody gets my music! I’m ahead of my time.” and continue on; uninfluenced by the 100% FREE market research they just received!

I can hear you asking now, “but isn’t important to be true to your art, and make the music that moves you, and not worry about the critics?”. This is a common defence mechanism that inexperienced professionals throw out there as a way of protecting themselves from criticism.

Absolutely, it is important to stay true to yourself and make the music that you want to make. But is doing that and making music that is commercially-viable mutually exclusive? All feedback deserves reflection, and can be learned from. Even if your learning outcome from a negative comment is just, “this must not be my audience”, there’s value in that.

True professionals are ego-less and good at self-critique when assessing their work. They aren’t threatened by the criticism. They are brutally honest with what is working and what is not, and are eager to course-correct – either in their art, or in the way they manage the business side of things.

If possible, take stock of your music catalog, and see if you can spot any trends or common characteristics. For example:

  1. What genres am I having the most success licensing or getting published?
  2. What type of sync usages are generating the best results for me? ie: reality TV, sports, video games, episodic drama?
  3. What distribution channels are working versus not? ie: Spotify streams, music libraries, network TV, iTunes, ad placements?
  4. Are certain lyrical themes resonating more and translating into plays/downloads?

Starting by simply reviewing your PRO statements or your play counts on Soundcloud or the like, you can compile some really meaningful analytics that might nudge you in one creative direction or another. Successful people know EXACTLY where the money is coming from, and use that to drive their future production plans. Subscription software like Magnetracks make this type of analysis dead-easy, but a simple spreadsheet can also do the trick, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves.

#2: Your songs are your assets. Treat them as such.

Your music catalog is your product inventory. It deserves to be insured, protected, and monetized. In short, you deserve to be paid!

It is mind-blowing to see how many people will just give their music away for free, hoping for some future benefit with no clear vision of how exactly that will happen. By giving away music or working for nothing or hoping to “make it up in the backend”, you are essentially cheapening your craft and lowering your marketplace value.

Just like if you were a retail store, by giving your product away it’s only a matter of time until you put yourself out of business. Except in this case, it means that you starve yourself of being able to continue doing the thing you love, and have to revert back to a day job to support yourself. 🙂

So, how do the successful ones walk the line between being a good steward of their music catalogs or craft, but still recognizing that there’s IS a reality where you may first need to earn your way up to headliner status where you earn huge licensing fees, fat royalty cheques and endorsement deals?

Well, beyond avoiding those opportunities that involve giving something for nothing, a good place to start is by protecting your inventory…

Protect your music by:

  1. Registering every track with your performing rights society: Unless you’re working closely with a publisher (who will typically register the completed tracks as soon as you deliver them), make it part of your regular routine that you register the track immediately once it’s done under your own publishing company and writer handle.
  2. Having thorough and accurate metadata: One easy but often-overlooked way of ensuring your music gets properly connected to you as the writer is to make sure all recordings have your metadata burned into the ID3 tags and include your name, performing rights society and CAE/IPI number (your PRO member number). If you’re releasing your music commercially, you can add getting ISRC codes to your to-do list as well.
  3. Getting your tracks digitally fingerprinted: “Watermarks” as they’re commonly called is a fairly recent, and exciting technology. This essentially burns an identification mark into the audio file itself that cannot be heard, but can be detected by decoding technology that monitors broadcasts constantly. Digimarc and Tunesat are examples of these services. With Tunesat, it’s easy. You upload a bunch of tracks, and they monitor all uses of it in the territories you pick. This is the one option in this list that will cost you money – based on the number of tracks they’re monitoring. However, the payback on that investment can be staggering.
  4. Keeping track of where and when you pitched your music: This may not seem obvious, but having an audit trail of exactly who has heard your music and when, not only helps you to retrace your steps if (heaven forbid) something goes sideways, but also is just helpful for relationship building with publishers, labels and industry people. Whether you log it in a simple spreadsheet, or use a full-fledged system like Magnetracks, knowing that history will inform better conversations, help you target your submissions better, and will prevent you from embarrassingly pitching the same track twice.
  5. Make smart choices about who you work with! Particularly in recent years, there’s been a proliferation of music libraries that range from huge ones owned by major labels and are very reputable, to ones that… well… aren’t. There are pro’s and con’s to each, but one decision factor before signing your music to a library is, ‘how well do they monitor their uses and care about fairness to their writers they work with?’. The deal they offer their writers will play into this decision as well. Fairness can’t be easily defined, but you’ll know when a company doesn’t seem to be practicing it!

#3: Your Reputation is Everything.

I have found this clichĂ© to be absolutely true: the music industry is a relationship business. Without exception, the friends, colleagues and clients that I’ve known in thie business that have done something remarkable with their careers over a long period would share this sentiment. The more plentiful and stronger those relationships, the greater your likelihood you’ll get where you’re going.

But let’s back it up. It’s fair to say that nearly everybody actively climbing the music industry ladder is far more likely to work with and help people within their network. These include:

1. People they already know and trust (because they represent a safe harbor on your upward trajectory. They’re low-risk.)

2. People they WANT to know (because they can give you a fast-track on that upward trajectory. They have the ability to swing open doors for you.)

I don’t think there’s any surprise in that. When in an Achievement Mindset, we’re all guilty of thinking selfishly about how others can help get us where we want to go.

However, what so many forget (or never come to understand) is that there’s also a third category of people on your journey that probably has greater long-term impact than either of the first two:

3. Everyone else! These are the baristas and servers, the engineer working on your demo, the club’s sound guy, the people on the forums your frequent, the guitar tech at Sam Ash, and on and on. By being kind, courteous, and taking an active role in getting to know them, you slowly but surely develop a reputation as being “a good guy (or girl)”. While they may not be directly connected to industry people, they each have a network of their own, and somebody in that network may become your next co-writer, manager, or even travel agent! When you like somebody, you want to help them! It’s human nature.

It’s just good karma to treat people well, and it’s even better to do it when you have nothing to gain from the exchange. Over the long term, this generous way of living turns back toward you in the form of good luck, a big break, and serendipity. Favours can come from anywhere at anytime – a bartender you met last month may have a brother-in-law that is starting a label next year. You never know!

So make every relationship count. Make every person you meet leave your interaction with a positive impression of you, and the rewards will certainly come in the long run.

IV. Be intentional about how you use your time and resources

This could be applied to any facet of business; music is no exception. The self-made high achievers all seem to share an understanding for the preciousness of their time.

Plus, the climate has changed. We’re in an era where you need to be constantly productive, constantly visible and engaged with your fans/clients/consumers in a more direct way.

Gone are the days where you’d spend two years locked up in isolation in a studio producing a dozen songs for release to an patiently-waiting fanbase. As a creator, your production cycle is closer to two months than two years. And if you’re a composer in the Production Music space, it’s more like every two days and you should have a finished product! You simply cannot allow a day to slip by while you fiddle with the EQ on your drum sounds.

You must constantly strive to be efficient and intentional with how your use your time. Here’s a couple ideas to add accountability to your schedule and bank account:

  1. Get a simple task timer app for your phone and watch yourself for a week. Capture everything you spend time on while you’re supposedly writing or recording or doing whatever you define as your bread and butter activity. Then, look back and see how much actual productive time you had. Did you spend two hours flipping through synth patches? Did you attention shift to Facebook 15 times throughout your session? Did you devote three hours to fiddling with your band logo in Photoshop?
  2. Don’t be a Gear Slut! This affectionate term describes so many of us with a technical leaning. Researching, shopping for and buying new gear is one of my favourite things to do. So many of us get seduced by the idea that the one thing separating our current situation with BeyoncĂ©-like stardom is that new all-in-one Class A Preamplifier with Opto-compressor and three band sweepable EQ! If I have that, I’ll be set! Not true.Just remember that it’s highly likely one of your favourite artists’ tracks was probably done on a 4-year-old iPad running Garage Band (free). Your money is much better spent on marketing, skills training/development, or attending networking events.
  3. Be Goal-oriented, but task-driven. Seems simple, right? But rather than just creating a Vision Board of your goals and complaining that you aren’t getting any closer to accomplishing them, reverse-engineer them. Break them down to one year milestones. Then break those down to one month milestones that support those annual ones.Finally, decide at the beginning of each WEEK, “what must I do this week to feel I’ve made tangible progress toward my monthly goals?”While any big goal can be broken down this way, I understand that sometimes the tasks required aren’t clear. But work done in earnest in the general direction you know you’re ultimately headed, is never wasted time.So what if you look back and think that rather than attending that social event thrown by your PRO, you would have been better off tracking background vocals in your home studio? It’s all in the range of what you need to do to push your musical career forward. There’s no loss. You WILL, however, regret laying on the couch binge-watching Ozark on Netflix.Remember the saying, “Success isn’t an accident. It’s a choice.” Successful writers, producers, artists, etc. make small, good choices many times every day to stay focused on the tasks needed to propel their fortunes forward.

The Last Word: Tools Over Talent.

When you consider what the four principles discussed above have in common, it’s hard to ignore what is MISSING from this list. Did you notice that there is no component that speaks to having more talent than anybody, being the most skilled, or having the best chops? This is because natural or learned ability is not what separates those struggling in this business from those that are killing it.

Turn on Top 40 radio and ask yourself if you think what you’re hearing are the BEST 40 songs in the world at any given time. Likely not, right? Talent alone simply does not rise to the top anymore – if it ever did.

By learning from your success and failures, protecting your musical assets, carefully building your reputation, and being efficient and mindful about where you put your time and resources, you’ll have all the tools that any successful artist or producer or composer or musician has I’ve seen throughout a long life in this industry.

Work hard, be deliberate in how you conduct yourself, commit yourself to being the best professional you can be for the long run. The rest will take care of itself.

This article was written by: Eliot Pister, Greengate Media, Vancouver, Canada.


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