Advice To a Young Musician

I ran across the following this morning while perusing the Craigslist music ads. The headline read “Can Anyone Help Me Get Signed.” (I crossed out the genres and influences to eliminate bias toward any particular genre. The genres are immaterial. Lots of kids feel this way.)

Hey im XX years old. Singer, songwriter, and I play the acoustic guitar. I’m looking for a producer, or manager who can help me get a record deal. My genre is xxxx xxx xxx. My influences are Xxxxx, Xxx Xxxxx, Xxxxxx, Xxx Xxxxxxxx, and many more. If you can help please email me asap. Thanks

The thing is, this could be any musician, at any age, and in any genre. Where to begin? So many problems to deal with, so many misconceptions to overcome.

Let me begin by saying that I hope you make it in this business, young musician. I really do. But you have your work cut out for you before I see your act at Bonaroo, or the Ryman, or Madison Square Garden, or The Iridium.

Now, let’s get down to business. The first thing you need to realize is that the world doesn’t owe you a living, much less a record deal. They’re not given out for free just because you ask for one. You have to pay your dues, and that means writing good music, recording a CD, playing gigs (at which you sell the CD), and building up a loyal fan base. Then you repeat all of that until you get the results you want. That formula hasn’t changed, and there are no shortcuts.

But before you even start, ask yourself why you want to be a musician in the first place. Do you enjoy writing music to the point of being unable to imagine doing anything else? I can’t tell from your post. It sounds like you’re all glassy-eyed over the romance of a record deal and what you think that entails: money, tours, limos, more money, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to get your career vision firmly in your head before you start down that road, not after. How will you know you’ve arrived at your destination if you don’t know your destination?

Read what artist management guru David Lowry has to say about starting a career in music and creating a buzz. Musicians are the product, he says, not the CD, and that you have the sole responsibility of promoting you. Use Twitter and Facebook, but don’t spam your followers. No one wants to follow someone who talks about himself all the time. Engage your followers, and you’ll build a fan base. Managers and booking agents only get involved when there’s a good following built up and there’s something to take to the next level.

Learn about the music business. Read this great article by Christopher Kanabe, and pay particular attention to points 8, 9, and 10. Your post suggests you’ll put your hand in the hand of the first “manager” that comes along, and I sincerely hope you don’t. Never forget that music is a business, and that there are many ways to lose money in this business. If someone offers to represent you, do your homework. Talk to past and current clients. Visit some shows that this person has booked.

Finally, read this excellent blog post by Danny Barnes on how to make a living in music. Then read it again. It’s so packed with good advice that it should be required reading in any university course about the music business. Here’s what he has to say on the music industry (emphasis added):

the main business strategy is to build your own audience. if you have a draw, agents, labels or investors [which i do not recommend] and stuff will come to you. if you skip this step and start trying to talk to industry people and you don’t have a draw yet, you are going to be sorry [unless you are really hot looking or have a famous parent and/or willing to sign away the rights to the whole thing of course]. build your own audience. if you can sell your own records that you make yourself and do your own shows, you can attract the attention of industry folks and get your calls returned.

It shouldn’t be surprising that this attitude about the music industry is so prevalent. Not when American Idol invades our living rooms every year showing talented Nothings becoming Somethings, and everyone getting the idea that he or she can do it, too. It’s America’s annual Hunger Games, only these Tributes can’t wait to compete. Instant music career! May the odds be ever in your favor!

I sincerely hope this article has been of some help, young musician – whoever you are. Keep reading about and studying this business you want to be a part of. Keep practicing your instrument, and try to write something every day. Network with other musicians. Post your music on YouTube. Play out, and do it often.

And take the advice of Sir Winston Churchill:

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.

And you’ll get your record deal.


3 thoughts on “Advice To a Young Musician

  1. “writing good music” – good content (music, literature, art, blog posts, whatever) is critical. While quality may not always prevail in the marketplace, the lack thereof never will. That was probably too subjective a statement now that I think about it, but the concept holds…
    The Piano Guys sure got it right, didn’t they?

  2. You’re right on the mark Robert. Lots of the musically-inclined in the American Idol audience only see the fast ascent of the nobodies and believe that “making it” is that easy. Oh, if only. If wishes were horses, I’d ride a fast one – and so would most of my musician friends too.
    Thanks for the written voice of reality; I’m sharing so my niece can read it!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Leslie! Yes, you are correct – shows such as American Idol entertain us, but they don’t show all the work and sweat the artist put into his or her career just to get to that point. That isn’t entertainment, however, and so future artists are left with a warped view of how it’s really done. But tell your niece not to give up and to first define what success means to her. Only then can she aim for it.

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