10 steps to success in today's musical climate

Pragmatic advice for performers, producers and DJs

There are few guarantees in today's music business – even a deal with a major record label isn't necessarily going to make you rich. However, what we can tell you is that there are several things that any aspiring musician who wants to take their career further must do in order to give themselves the best chance of success.

Hence this guide: if you do nothing else, make sure you do the following.

Get good

You can't make it in this business unless the music you make is good. 'Good' means that it has a market (beyond your loyal friends and family) and that you can write and produce to a standard substantially higher than average.

It's a harsh reality to face but, looking at the law of averages, it stands to reason that not everyone will be above the centre line. If enough unbiased people are telling you that what you do is impressive, do everything you can to become even better. Devote time, effort and - yes - money to fuelling your dream. If nothing is ventured then nothing is gained.

Get motivated

Write every day. We all know people who have 200 tracks on their hard drives which amount to 'good starts' but no more. This isn't enough. Whether you're making dance, pop or rock records, no successful record has ever featured a single verse or promising intro alone.

The art of writing is one that develops with time and effort and, if you're good already, imagine how good you could become with practice. It's amazing how lazy musicians can be with their talents. Take a tip from other competitive industries such as sport where, irrespective of natural ability, no athlete lines up to run a race without having trained every day for years. Get motivated and get to work.

Multi-task

If you're really hell-bent on going it alone, you'll need to learn how to multi-task and organise your time. To start with, you'll find it easiest to commit time to the creative side as this is the aspect fuelling your dream, whereas devoting hours to getting on the phone to chase contacts, updating your website or posting new gig details on Facebook will feel much less fun.

However, planning your time so that you're spending enough of it on each task is essential - remember, if any part of your business is ignored, the whole thing will collapse.

Discover marketing

Never assume that your music will have so much appeal that it will sell itself. Quality alone is no guarantee of success - we all know of music that we think deserves a wider audience while, conversely, we also hear music whose success seems inexplicable. These successes and failures can be explained by a single word - marketing.

People who don't know your music exists can't buy it and that's true even if it's the best song ever written. Any and all ways of letting potential fans know of your existence must be explored. Ignoring marketing in favour of churning out new material will guarantee that your fan base won't expand beyond your friends and family.

Get social

Start your marketing with social networking. This costs nothing but time and it's not hard to bring a network of people together who will begin to understand what your music is about and help you spread the word. Also free are sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp which let you upload music for your grateful public to hear, comment on and, in the case of Bandcamp, download or buy.

Setting up accounts within YouTube and Vimeo for visual content is also free, so you can broaden the appeal of your label beyond the purely musical there. Videos of studio sessions, screen capture videos highlighting your mixing processes, even photo content cut to a rudimentary video over one of your tracks are all powerful marketing tools which you can promote through Facebook and Twitter. And if that's still too daunting, services such as Root Music will easily pimp out your Facebook band page for a more pro look.

Go professional

As your profile grows, it might be time to bring in specialist marketing personnel. Generally, such people are hired in blocks of one month (three is recommended as a minimum for an album launch) and it's their job to raise awareness of your product.

Specialists like this spend their lives keeping in touch with people you'll find it hard to reach yourself, such as newspaper and radio journalists, pluggers, gig bookers and other essential industry contacts. You'll effectively employ them to take your product to market and work as hard as possible to ensure that awareness of your record and label moves a few crucial rungs up the ladder. Often, the momentum generated by a few months of carefully planned marketing can be sustained by you thereafter

There are things you can do solo though, such as sending your tracks to your favourite blogs or blogs that suit your music. Most of them have SoundCloud DropBoxes too, to make it even easier.

Get online

Register a domain name, find an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and get a website built. It needs to be one which draws people back regularly, so keep it loaded with content, update it as often as possible, and make it intuitive and informative. If you're having a slow month without activity on your own label embed links to studio sessions, live gigs you've had recorded or even to videos for tracks by other artists you admire, to show not only that your label is 'on the move', it's also aware of what else is going on in the industry and that it can be the place to get a real sense of what's happening out there in your chosen genre or style.

You don't need to be a programmer either. Services like WordPress and Tumblr can give you a professional-looking platform that's easy to master and maintain and doesn't have to look like a blog. There are a huge number of free themes that enable you to make it personal.

Get smart

One simple question - can you develop the skills required to balance the books? Just as most musicians don't find marketing a very 'natural' process (most of us would far rather be in the studio, onstage or in a DJ booth), so it often proves with financial matters.

However, this side of working life isn't something to be feared or ignored and, with some careful organisation and time dedicated to understanding basics such as income and expenditure, paying bills on time and making sure you're not committing rookie mistakes like racking up mountains of debt, there's no reason why you can't handle financial matters yourself, particularly when your project is finding its feet. When it all gets too much, hopefully because you're doing so well, you can consider looking elsewhere for assistance.

Know your rights

Be aware of rights through the deals you cut for your music. If you write, produce and master every note of the music you make in your own rent-free studio filled with gear you alone own, and your music is released physically or digitally on a label which you've set up yourself in which you're the only shareholder - and you've done all your own marketing, distribution and publicity - then, and only then, is it likely that every single penny which comes to you through sales is yours alone.

If you've cut deals with anyone (labels, co-writers, guest performers, CD pressing plants, studios, producers etc) which offer a share of future earnings (and it's likely that you will have) be sure to honour these contracts, otherwise you can expect to hear from lawyers. A lot.

There's an age-old saying: 'Where there's a hit, there's a writ'. Get everything in writing, agreed and signed with anyone involved as early as possible.

Know your finances

Get on top of your finances immediately, setting yourself 'good practice' goals from the outset. If you can handle small sums of money, correctly distributing finances among interested parties when the sums are a few pounds and pence, you'll find the process less intimidating if the amounts become substantially greater.

As revenue comes in, you'll need transparent accounts which detail payments to everyone with clear columns in your books for each receipt and payment. You'll need to file a tax return detailing all financial activity on time with the taxman and you'll need to be keeping hold of invoices and receipts to provide evidence of all monies in and out.

Don't forget too, that you will technically be self-employed so can claim back tax on your business expenses - another good reason to hold on to your receipts. And then be prepared to assign these roles to a trusted 'music specialist' accountant when things get moving. Remember: more labels fail for financial reasons than for any other.


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