Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Whether you are a full-time student doing songwriting on the side, you have a part time job and you are actively pursuing a career as a touring musician or you are struggling to make ends meet as a full time producer, you will always find yourself in a position where you have to make some hard choices between making money and making art. I recently taught a master class at Berklee and these questions kept coming up: "How can I set myself apart as a producer/writer?" - "How can I build a career in music that would end up making me money while I'm struggling to make ends meet right now?"
My answer to you is, work smarter, not harder. There is a part of your musical journey that still relies on you studying and mastering the skills it takes to get to a point where you can comfortably offer your services. You have to master your instrument, your DAW, your writing skills, and often you can do that in between your other study at college, you can do it after you're done with your part-time job, you can play shows with friends a few nights a month to master your stage presence. But lets assume you have done all that, and you find yourself at the slightly depressing place where you don't make any money with your music, not many people know about you or your band yet or you don't have a large database of co-writers to get out into the world yet to write those hit songs with. What do you do??
1. Be Unique.
If you are a producer you will be able to relate with this, you are just starting out and you are taking anything you can get your hands on, from karaoke tracks, dj remixes to the occasional local artist that you either love or don't love and you produce their record. You find yourself doing this for a few years and can't seem to climb up the ladder with bigger and better projects and you are wondering why. If you are a musician you might recognize this story as you're the guitarist or bass player that played in every cover band in town said yes to every possible local gig but you are still not in a touring band like you always hoped you would.
In trying to make ends meet and taking on everything you can get your hands on, you forgot one crucial step and that is setting yourself apart from everyone else. What is your thing? If you got into music because you love playing Metal guitar but you are now playing Taylor Swift covers in every corner pub, you have not taken the time to do what you actually love to do, to set yourself apart, to advertise your craft and your unique skill set and expertise to the world. How will anyone ever know what it is that you truly love if you literally do everything?
Imagine you want to hire a guitar player for your touring metal band, are you gonna hire the guy who does all the cover gigs and plays everything or are you gonna hire the guy who spend 10K hours playing all the music that you know and love and is exactly the right fit for your team. For a producer, are you gonna hire the guy/girl who does every track and produces from country to prog-rock or are you gonna hire that indie producer who just does indie music like you and is great at it???
2. Be Visible.
Social media is everything these days, you can show anything you want to anyone you want, so be very specific about this. People who want to work with you want to know what music you love, what you are working on and what you are excited about. It's not just about posting about the successes but it's also not just about posting every night out. As I mentioned before in the be unique section, People want to work with people who love the same things they love. If it's impossible to find that identity in your socials, or if your socials show too little of your personality and preference, it's easy for someone to pass on you, even subconsciously.
Another example, you want to be a country touring musician but your only social presence is your favorite sports team, pictures of beer and maybe once a month a picture of a stage, no one will think this is something you are pursuing full-time, even if that is what you are doing. What you put out there, speaks for you.
Another easy way to be visible is to be active and follow the right facebook focus groups, there are groups for country songwriters, pop writers, pop producers, you can find a group for every niche you want to belong in. Interact with those people, be present on the message boards. Chances are that if someone is looking for someone like you, they will look on there first.
3. Make Less Music.
Once you start making these steps and selectively choosing your projects, style or niche, you might find yourself working on music less. This is a good thing, this means you are focussing in on the right things. By working less I absolutely don't mean working not as hard. It's better to spend more time finding the right jobs and being present in the right field than to spend a lot of time doing work in music you don't like and that doesn't represent you.
When your work starts to speak for itself it will actually attract the right clients and people to work with so invest in the right project, if you are going to give away your time for free or very little money, make sure that you give it to people who deserve that time, that you really believe in and that have a team that can take their music (and yours) to the next level.
4. Have a business mindset from the start.
It doesn't matter that you haven't done a full album yet, or that this is your first touring gig, make sure you are informed on contracts, your rights, publishing splits and all other legal matters. You have to make sure you are protected BEFORE you start working, because if you are not, you will have to fight for your rights and most likely, you won't get them without a lot of expensive lawyer.
One of my most painful lessons was to not hire a lawyer upfront but instead do handshake deals, did this with artists but also managers and when projects blow up before proper paperwork and a big team steps in you can't fight for your rights ,even if it's an email or a text, it's not going to work in court. So even when I thought we had an agreement, it didn't hold up. Instead I could have hired a $500,- lawyer and things would have been taken care of.
5. Give yourself time.
If you read all this and you're telling yourself you have done all these things already and still you're not getting the jobs you want and clients are still not banging down your door, don't worry. Nashville is known in the industry as a 10 year town, the average writer, producer, artist spends 10 years grinding before anything happens.
I'm not saying that you are going to have to deal with that for 10 years, but I am saying that you can't expect 2 years of hard work to put you on the top of the list. Be prepared to keep going, to be disappointed and discouraged and to keep getting up and do it again.
Create the portfolio you are proud of, make sure you are constantly growing and getting better and spread the word. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email.