How to Make It in Music Today
by Sue Basko
“Making it” in music today does not mean the same thing it did in past generations. Back then, signing a record label deal was a sign of “making it.” In the meantime, musicians have figured out that most traditional record label contracts constrict their creativity and pay them a pittance for making money for a corporation. Today there are new types of record labels that may present a more balanced, if less immediately lucrative and flashy, situation.
Today, “making it” in music means having the skills and connections to pursue music as a career, whether or not significant money is made. The keys to making it today are the same at any level of financial remuneration. And here is the list.
How to Make It in Music Today:
1. Start young. If you can start playing music and / or singing by age 3, that is great. Age 17 to 30 is the prime time for developing professional music careers, so you need your basic foundation laid before then. However, do not try to be a child star. Instead, spend your early years building a solid foundation of skills.
2. Own a musical instrument. Get a piano or keyboard, a guitar, a cello, a flute, a harmonica. Ask for these things as gifts. Save up your own money and buy them. If you want to help someone else become a musician, give them a musical instrument.
3. Get lessons. Most great songwriters play piano. They learn to play piano by taking lessons in childhood. Real in-person teachers are best, if you can afford that. If not, don't give up. Your lessons can also be self-taught. There are lessons online and there are also lessons on youtube for free. There are video lessons and book lessons you can buy or check out of a library.
4. Practice every day. You will only become skilled if you train. Most good musicians practice 3 to 8 hours per day.
5. Sing. Even if singing is not your main strength, sing. If you think of yourself as a singer, get lessons and practice every day.
6. Write songs.
7. Listen to many kinds of music. This is so easy now with the internet. Make a point of expanding your listening experience, even if the music is not immediately enjoyable to you. Develop an expansive, rather than a limiting, mindset. Listen to music from many genres, from many regions and cultural groups, from many time eras.
8. Learn to play or sing music outside your comfort zone. Jump into other genres, other languages, try out a new instrument.
9. Get a computer and develop skills you will need for music production and business. Learn to record, mix, and create music on a computer. Learn how to make videos and put them up online. Learn how to make digital photos, web pages, email lists, etc. The more computer skills you have, the more you can place your music online and promote yourself as a musician.
10. Become proficient at home recording, mixing, and mastering on a computer. Learn how to use loops, create and lay music beds. Look into the great products for creating drum and string tracks.
11. Learn the basics of music law and business. Read books and websites on these topics.
12. Get a good music lawyer early on. This is crucial. If you are co-songwriting, get a contract written that reflects your agreement. If you start or join a band, get a band contract. Before you sign a contract or agree to anything, have a music lawyer read it. Do not rely on a manager, parent, or friend to do this for you. Get a music lawyer. The effects of signing something bad will often harm you for decades to come.
13. Do not fall for music scams. Music scams take a musician’s money in promise for a dream. These scams can destroy or halt a burgeoning music career. Have a music lawyer look it over before you agree to it. (Update: This cannot be overemphasized. Since I first wrote this blog post several years ago, I have heard from many more people whose music careers were ended or destroyed because they feel for an expensive, foolish scam.)
14. Make use of performance opportunities. The only way to learn how to put on a good show before an audience is through practice.
15. Avoid drugs and alcohol. Eat right and get fit. Look and feel your best. Take care of stress and psychological issues early on. Avoid troublesome people. The music industry, moreso than ever before, is a business. You are expected to be on time and in excellent performance shape with totally professional behavior. Music contracts now include cancellation clauses that can be invoked if a performer starts to have substance abuse, mental, or behavioral issues. If one of these clauses is invoked against you or at your option, you may also be banned from performing music for a period of time.
16. Be you. Try to have any contracts written so you have creative control over your music, songwriting, and appearance. One of the silliest things I ever saw was when one of my favorite rappers, who makes amazing music and truly clever lyrics that are of the sort that absolutely cannot be played on the radio, signed a deal with a major record label. Then, the record label people acted surprised that he was writing songs that cannot be played on the radio, when that is the only kind of songs he writes. What were they thinking? He should have gotten a deal with a record label that was not trying to change his music, a label that does not rely on radio airplay to promote music.
17. Don’t try to be someone else. If you want to sound like some already famous artist, start a cover band. That is totally legit and good cover bands get lots of bookings.
18. Avoid making music your second choice. If you want to go into music, do not instead go to law school or engineering school as a practical choice and develop a career in that field, telling yourself that you will pursue music later or in addition to this other career. This almost never happens.
19. Don’t quit. You may have interruptions, but don’t quit. The surest way to quit is by selling your musical instruments. Only sell the instruments if you are upgrading.
20. Develop an online presence. However, only put good things online. Make sure all the videos you put up have good audio. Make sure all photos convey the right image you are trying to portray. Avoid profanity or violent images or words. These mark you as unprofessional and rule you out for most bookings and other opportunities.
21. Develop a strong sense of gratitude. Thank people for their help. Be courteous.
22. Love what you are doing. If you love what you are doing, you will attract the right people and opportunities.