How to Build a Career as a Musician


We often get asked how to make a career as a musician. There really are no hard and fast rules, and for every piece of advice you receive you will hear stories about people who ignored it and still made a career. But, in the interests of sharing our experience these are our suggested steps to making a career for yourself as a musician.

  1. First, take some time to decide whether music is a hobby or a career. This is an important step. You can change your mind at any time but starting with this decision will help you decide how much time and effort you are prepared to put into it. If it is a hobby, then it can still be many things from private practice and performance to open mic nights to the occasional or even regular gig. If it is your career, then it really needs to be treated like any other career decision.
  1. Deciding on a career also means treating it like any other career choice. This means study and practice. It also means gaining experience over time. Just as you wouldn’t expect to succeed in a career as a doctor simply by announcing you are a doctor, making career in music takes time, persistence and commitment. Have you put in time at your instruments playing, your song writing, your stage presence? Practice makes perfect so make sure you put aside time to practice your craft. Get some realistic feedback as well.
  1. Decide what sort of artist you are going to be. Are you going to be authentically you no matter what and play just originals? Will you adopt or mimic someone’s else style? Are you a covers sort of artists? Are you solo, duo or a band? There is no good and bad in this decision and don’t let anyone tell you one is better than the other.
  1. Realise that for every artist featured in gossip magazine, earning millions of dollars a year and headlining stadiums that there are thousands and thousands of artists just as talented who are making a good living, and sometimes a very good living, from music. Don’t compare yourself to the biggest artists as you will always come up short. If the opportunity does come your way to be a megastar, then take some time to serious consider all the pros and cons.
  1. Deciding to have a career in music means generating an income big enough that you don’t need to do anything else. Generating an income is linked to your ability to sell stuff (i.e. performances, music and merchandise) to people. Your ability to sell stuff to people is linked to your profile. When it comes to profile population is important – this is where social media profile is great as it allows you to access the whole world to build your profile. To build your profile in person you are going to need to be based in, or regularly visiting, large population centres. For the average New Zealander looking to make it as a music this often means having to move overseas. Some people choose just to focus on one or the other believing one to be better than the other. We advise building both your virtual and real life profile.

There are two main ways to build profile – through real interactions and performance, and also through social media. Both are important so don’t neglect either.

In terms of social media, you need to make sure that at a minimum you have:

 

Remember that no single method of social media will reach everyone as people have their own preferences so having multiple channels gives the most reach. Consider using something like Hootsuite to post to multiple social media platforms at once

  1. You need to forget what you think you know about being discovered and signed – these are myths reserved for a few, and based on the way the music industry used to work. If it happens that’s great but it won’t all be good because you will only be signed when a company thinks it can make a lot of money out of you. We recommend watching Artifact – this is documentary about the band 30 Seconds to Mars which you need to watch to see what being signed actually means.
  1. If you are going to the sort of artist that loves getting out in front of people either to build profile or is something you love doing then touring, or at least regular gigging, is going to be a necessity. We have a spreadsheet of venues and contacts in New Zealand so just email us of the latest version of this. Sometimes it makes sense to look further afield to places like the USA where the population is bigger. We have sent a few artists on mini-tours to different parts of the USA so just contact us for more information on doing this. Whatever you choose to do please remember to treat each gig like a professional engagement. Play when you said you would, play what you said you would and play for how long you said you would. Don’t develop a bad reputation or the venues will simply not have you back – Leave the diva stuff to Axl Rose, Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey.
  1. Remember that making a career out of being a musician means generating an income large enough that you don’t have to do anything else. You will be paid for your live performances (usually), and you may make some money from royalties as well. The other way to get some money flowing in is with merchandise. It is also a great way to raise your profile and it lets your fans feel connected to you. You can sell your merchandise through your social media (i.e. website and Facebook), and you can see it at your gigs. There are many types of merchandise to consider and we won’t go into it in depth here but we encourage you to check out sites like BandsOnABudget for great deals on merchandise of all sorts for musicians. Locally for CD production we recommend AmStore in Wellington (but getting CD’s produced overseas is still way cheaper)
  1. Sooner or later you are going to want some funding if you don’t have access to lots of money. Here in New Zealand there are several ways to get funding. Most people make applications for albums, singles and videos through New Zealand on Air. There are several criteria you need to meet to even submit your application so check them out here at this link. But you don’t always need to be dependent on funding. A lot of myths around funding are still based on the way the industry used to work. There are plenty of artists who had breakthrough music with, or who deliberately choose, lo fi approaches. Here are some specific tips on lo fi approaches:
  • Releasing music digitally – There are several great websites that allow you to join, upload all your music then they distribute it to all digital retailers and pay you the royalties. Use your Bandcamp or soundcloud site for people to listen and buy. For worldwide digital release we use cdbaby.com.
  • Recording music – Remember that any of today’s software and hardware is more powerful and accurate than anything that The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin ever recorded on. We use PreSonus Studio One software, which the professional version with Melodyne auto correct costs about $500. But there are cheaper versions as well, and of course the free ones (we know someone who used an industry standard expensive piece of software for years then switched to the free Reaper version and says its better). Reaper and GarageBand are free and both are capable of professional quality recording. In terms of hardware we use PreSonus Audiobox’s but we are seriously looking at the Behringer X Air series of wireless mixers as they can be used live and also in the studio and the price is just insanely cheap. And mastering can be done very cheaply at sites like LANDR
  • Website – Setting up a professional fully functional website should cost less than $100. Go to midphase.com, choose your website name and select a personal hosting package. Install WordPress, choose a theme you like and you have a website for under $100. Get a dedicated IP address if you are going to be using email a lot. We can help with this.
  • Videos – Really good looking videos do generally take a bit of money but there’s nothing wrong with doing one yourself (in fact, some artist make a reputation from lo fi videos). Also, there are venues that will record your performance and as long as you get permission from them they will probably give you a copy to upload.
  • Crowdfunding – It is increasingly popular to have a go at crowdfunding your music. Obviously the higher your profile the better. We recommend Kickstarter if you want to have a go at crowdfunding.
  • Getting money – set yourself up a PayPal account to receive all those royalties and sales once they start rolling in. Remember that if you start earning money you need to get advice from an accountant on tax etc.
  • The main point from all of these tips is that money doesn’t have to be the thing holding you back.
  1. Make sure you join your local Artists performing rights organisation. In New Zealand and Australia that means joining APRA AMCOS. They will collect royalties for you each time a song of yours that you have registered with them is performed. Make sure you lodge records of your own live performances as well.

 

Our final word is to make sure you stay well away from people who insist there is good and bad music, good and bad artists and people who want to make more money from you than you make yourself. If making music is a passion of yours then just do it.