Wednesday, March 19, 2014

5 Myths About Launching a Music Career

The problem I've always had with reading definitive "how-to" lists is that depending on the individual, the lists may show too much bias one way or another. It's rare to find an unbiased list. Mine is no exception, but here goes.

As an amateur manager trying to navigate my son's career, I've learned a lot about the how-to formula for success in the music business.

The ingredients include:
- things to avoid
- things to do for sure
- people to know
- industry terms and vocabulary
- the art of timing
- branding
- creativity
- production methods
- marketing
- who's who among industry royalty
- artistic skill
- and so on

The problem with this formula is that depending on who's sharing the recipe, chances are that it was only good for one meal for a different artist at a different time. In fact, most veterans in the business warned us to stop trying to do things with a formula. They simply encouraged Spencer to keep doing his thing and maybe some day things will happen.

That is the very definition of frustration.

In Spencer's pursuit of sports, at least, there were measurable and tangible benchmarks for a young athlete aspiring to play college ball. Athleticism, physicality, skill, mental toughness, stats from games, team chemistry, etc. We spent a lot of years learning the system of preparing for college recruiters and what they are looking for in a student-athlete. We talked to recruiters. We went to camps, clinics, and private sessions with elite trainers. We spent hours and hours watching game film, studying small successes and failures. We were shown scoring systems used to grade athletes and players aspiring to go to D1, D2, or D3 levels of colleges. It was really cut and dry. You could predict if your child had a chance or not and at what level they could initially reach as a college commit. Simply looking at these formulas you'd know if you're kidding yourself or if you have a shot. Go to the right tournaments where recruiters were present and compete against the best. If you rise to the occasion, the phone starts ringing. I know this because several of Spencer's friends have gone through it and are currently going through it. Obviously there's no guarantee of what college you end up at and how much scholarship money you may be offered, but the process is essentially the same for every athlete.

In the music business, not so much. Don't get me wrong. The music industry has plenty of developmental teachers and mentors that will help artists become better at their skill and to understand the life of an artist. But those people are either made available "after" you are signed or for a nice hefty donation called a stipend, retainer or fee.

My personality is somewhere between a forensic accountant and Ralph Waldo Emerson documenting nature in a ponderous poem. I need a balance sheet to make sense of it all, and I'm not talking a financial balance sheet. (although I highly suggest you keep your financials tracked closely along the journey). I like neat and tidy columns of facts and results that I can weigh and evaluate in order to calculate the next logical step. The problem with this approach is that a lot of the music business is driven by fads and fans. It's also driven by crystal ball predictions of what will be popular on radio in 18 months. Because there is so much speculation attached, it can't be as cut and dry as I so desperately desire.

Now I'm fully aware there are clinics, workshops, and showcase events in the music business, just like sports. I know there are Lebron James-like-artists out there who clearly have skill beyond the norm and are ripe for picking by the right label. So there are plenty of similarities between sports and the music business, but enough difference to make it annoyingly painful to navigate the journey at times.

But, and this is a big but, it still boils down to raw economics. The big question among music industry executives look like this:

Can money be made from this artist and their music and who gets to keep how much of the pot-of-gold at the end of the day?

And, how much of whose money will be spent to acquire that pot-of-gold?

It takes money to make money is the only soup-base ingredient for getting discovered. The game is, in the spirit of Danny Devito's character Lawrence Garfield, "...What I love more than money is other people's money." Finding a way to launch your career using someone else's money is somewhat the beginning of launching a career. The only caveat being that the paying back of that money should be as mutually beneficial to them as it is to you.

So the myths I've learned were all derived from assumptions and stereotype beliefs most naive artists and their team have to learn. In all reality, the only truth is that it takes funds to start and maintain a career in music... just like any entrepreneur with a dream learns about making their dream reality.

So here are my personal experiences so far on this journey that I believe would have saved me some frustration had I fully understood them earlier in the process.

Myth #1 - If I can just get a record deal, then I will make it.
Labels come in all shapes and sizes. The big ones have unlimited talent to consider for their roster. Even music industry veteran artists are still waiting on those big boys to come calling. Then there's the small, indie labels who are comprised of ex-big label executive types who have a list of experience and accolades that make for nice eye-candy at first glance. They no longer have a seat at the big label table or they simply got tired of the corporate machine of big labels and decided to make their own run at it. Whatever their size or story, labels are all about profits. Profits in the short term. Imagine you (the startup artist) have a burgeoning small business in a small city. Labels want to buy existing profitable businesses with a loyal customer base. A label (today) is not interested in finding you fans or building your business from nothing. They are interested in expanding your business beyond what is already firmly established and proven. They want to grow your business and they are willing to loan you money to do that... at a tidy high interest rate that may take a while to pay back. So while you're enjoying the notoriety, the clock ticks until you can pay back the loan. So, just because you find a label (or they find you) doesn't mean you've made it. In fact, many, many artists get signed to a label and then dropped within a year because it becomes evident that PROFITS aren't going to arrive fast enough for them. They cut their losses and move along.

Myth #2 - If I have enough social media fans / followers / views then I will get discovered.
This one cracks me up. I had the unpleasant experience of talking to the manager of another teen artist who happened to have nearly 250k followers on their social media sites, but they weren't signed to a record deal and really weren't touring or performing live outside their own community. They had amazing online fans, but from an industry standpoint, so what. They couldn't earn a living from it. There wasn't a big label looking to scoop them up. And face it, most of the fans were just supporting the artist because they covered songs currently on the radio. No disrespect to their talent, but to assume if you build a large enough fan base online, you somehow have a leg up on the next artist is a gross oversight. In my discussions with industry executives currently at major labels and other management executives handling currently signed artists, social media is just a barometer used to see if there is interest. It is not a make or break negotiating point for a label to come calling. Fact.

Myth #3 - If I try out for a TV talent show, then I will make it.
This one is simple. Name even 10% of the top 12 American Idol artists from the past 12 years. Most of us can name some of the season winners and a few 2nd place finishers, but what about those who made the top 12? Their career got some buzz for a while, but where are they now? Even so, many artist families I've talked to who made it past the judges on these type of shows, eventually walked away because the contracts were so one-sided that you're basically selling out before you get started. Fame is fleeting in this business and reality TV provides 15 minutes for most of it's cast members.

Myth #4 - If I know the right people, then I will make it.
This is probably the hardest one on the list because it truly does require knowing people to make it in the business. But that's not the only thing to it. For an artist to maintain a career, they have to be committed to work hard and long before they ever earn the trust of the right people. Most of the right people in the industry will ignore start up artists until they've proven they have the will and drive to work hard to keep a career. They need to demonstrate they are willing to live in a van, sleep on a floor, eat a greasy burger at 2am, or perform for an audience of 12 people with half of them being friends and family. The right people in the music business want to see the real deal, not a dreamer who expects their vocal skill to pave the way. They want to see you struggle and fail a while to see if you're going to stick it out. They want to watch you face bad press about your performance. They want to see you forget the words during a song but immediately recover. They want to see you connect with whatever fans give you their attention. They want to help you after they believe in your passion and see it worked out over time. So before the glorious introduction to Mr. or MissRight People in the music industry happens, there's a whole lot of mileage that needs to be on the experience odometer.

Myth #5 - It's all about talent and artistry. That will help me get my big break.
Probably the harshest reality I've seen is the amazing talent and music ability of hundreds of young artists that never get anywhere. They walk away frustrated and confused because they truly believe their ability is better than those that appear to be making it or have made it already. Trust me, the haters of Spencer along the way have been those who have good talent themselves, but don't understand why he is progressing in his career. Much like an athlete, it takes more than skill. There's charisma, personality, character, work ethic, tenacity, attitude, teachability, humility, and the continued belief that you can always get better that greatly affect success in the business. Some artists have amazing music skill, but have absolutely no ability to communicate in a basic conversation. Some have little skill but can entertain an audience that would pay to see them (note Bob Dylan's voice, Bruce Springsteen's voice, etc.) Those two artists built a career around connecting to the mind and emotion of their fans more than their musical genius. So before assuming skill or talent can carry an artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, consider the other 80 percent of what it takes to make it in the business of the music industry. Those intangibles are the reason most artists reach a level of popularity in the music business more than just their musical skill.

So before you become entrenched in a formula your friends, advisors, family or other music industry veterans create with you, be careful not to drink the koolaid that may have worked for another artist at another time. You never know which ingredient may not be good for your career.

If you treat your music career like a small business trying to earn repeat customers, then you're better off in the long run of the obstacle course called the music industry.

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