Have you recently decided that you want to pursue your passion for music, but have no idea where to start? If you’ve been doing music as a hobby for a while now and you want to get more serious, you’re in the right place.
In this blog, I cover all the major pieces and beginning steps you will need to think about when setting the foundation for your music career as an independent artist. Although this guide caters more towards performing artists, singer-songwriters, bands and rappers, I feel a lot of this can still apply to producers and instrumentalists as well.
Even if your end goal is to sign with a major music label, I think you still need to apply these steps. Just know that in the current climate of the music industry, thanks to the internet, you are no longer dependent on music labels to make a career in music, especially the majors. You have the freedom to do it yourself.
Signing to a label definitely has its benefits as they can provide resources, connections and expertise that allow you to focus more on the creative aspects. However, it may come at a cost that I don’t think many artists want to pay, like them having ownership of your music. This topic could be for another blog, but just know the approach that I advocate for is a fully independent one where you’re in control of every aspect of your career and creative output.
The downside of pursuing music as an independent is that it’s not easy, and it takes a lot of work. Not only are you responsible for the creative, but you also need to run the business side while being in charge of your own artist development. It can be overwhelming, but I hope this blog will be a good starting point for you and serve as a road map for laying the foundation of your path towards a career in music.
1. Make sure you have a way to make a living (day job)
In popular culture, we romanticize the idea of leaving everything behind and head to the big city to pursue our passion. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s more fantasy than reality.
It’s probably not smart to drop everything and try to make a living off music right off the bat. If you’re financially well off or have built up a strong following through another industry then maybe this doesn’t apply. But for the rest of you, your priority should be to do something that pays the bills to keep you afloat while you do music on the side.
Some might like the idea of going all in without a backup plan because they feel the pressure to survive will help motivate them to make it doing music full-time. Hey, it’s your life, but not what I would personally advocate.
Before the internet, if you wanted to pursue music, your best hope was to move to a big city and try to get the attention of A&Rs (artists and repertoire) in order to get signed by a label. Fortunately, those days are basically over as you no longer need labels. However, this also means that just about anyone can try to pursue music, creating a noisy and competitive environment.
Since we all have bills to pay and other adult responsibilities, don’t feel like having a day job is a negative. I know artists who work a 9-to-5 and then do music and perform at shows in the evenings. While some were fortunate to be able to jump straight into music without having to work a day job, everyone’s situation is going to be different. Success in the music industry has many different paths so embrace your unique journey. This transition into a full-time musician is a process so make sure you have ways of sustaining yourself.
You can put a day job to work for your future by interning or working in a position related to music (venues, labels, music schools, etc). Even teaching music as a side gig to supplement income could help as well.
Lastly, while you still have a day job, learn the different cash flows and opportunities involved in music. The main ones are live performance / touring, selling merch and music licensing. Understanding and maximizing these options improve your chances of transitioning from your day job to doing music full-time.
2. Have goals and a plan
Do you have a good idea of where you want to go with your career?
You really need to understand what you want to do and have a good idea of how to get there. If you don’t, you need to research and ask people. Set goals and have a plan so you’re not wasting time.
Some people may want to just make music to get sync licensing deals for commercials or movies. Others want to be a performing artist who tours the world as an independent. Maybe you just want to produce tracks for other artists. Maybe you want to be signed to a major label. Or do you want to create your own label, band or collective?
Not everyone will have the same goals or aspirations. It may take some time to realize what your long term goal is, and it may even change as you gain more experience. But once you have your end goal, you gotta reverse engineer it.
Keep in mind, the purpose of this blog is to broadly outline the different elements you need to think about to be an independent, performing artist and songwriter, but of course, most of the points still apply.
We live in a massive, globalized world where we can communicate and interact with just about anyone anywhere on the planet through the internet. This means you no longer need to make a name for yourself in your local area first or move closer to a certain city or music scene to make it. However, I still think it helps to do those things if you can to optimize your chances of success.
3. Treat your music career as a business
Whether you like it or not, being a music artist is like starting a new business. Part of the artist development process is learning how to operate your own business and hopefully turn your passion into a sustainable living.
In a traditional sense, your music is your product, like physical copies of your music. But even that is changing. Your brand has now become the commodity you monetize through your merch and tickets to see you perform.Regardless of the form your product takes, you need to operate as a business entity. There are different music business models you can implement, so it’s important to be aware of what they are and find what works best for you.
This means, at some point, you will need to:
- Develop a marketing strategy
- Identify your target audience or niche
- Understand and apply branding
- Allocate a budget for marketing expenses (social media ads)
- Hire an accountant to handle financials and file taxes
- Protect your assets (music)
- Build a team around you
- Map out a business plan
- Consult with a lawyer to help with contracts
If you plan to pay others to handle parts of your business and marketing, it is important you still educate yourself in these areas and know what to expect from them. You may hate the business aspects, but you still need to be informed and educated to make the right business decisions for your career.
Even if you know you have skills to excel in the business side, it may not be the best use of your time, as it takes you away from focusing on making music, so you will still need to surround yourself with a strong supporting team.
For bands or music groups: You will need a band agreement to decide on things like splits and percentages for copyrights over original song compositions and gigs, etc. This will need to be done in writing. You should use contracts and written documentation to detail copyright ownership, band operation agreements, payment expectations, rules, decision-making processes and other important procedures.
4. Keep making music and improving your craft
It sounds obvious, but it can be quite challenging in today’s music climate.
To combat the oversaturation of content and competitive climate for attention, speed has become a huge factor when it comes to making music. By speed, I mean how often you can release music consistently to stay top of mind and keep fans engaged. It may be challenging to balance the business and creative sides to produce quality music, but that has become the cost of entry.
Your success in the music industry ultimately starts with how good your music is. A good song can help jump start your career, but you need to keep pushing out music to build off that momentum.
Don’t fall into the belief that talent alone can sustain you, as there are other more important factors, like work ethic and promotion. Talent matters to a point, but if it doesn’t translate into “good” songs that gain exposure, then it won’t take you far.
Promoting your music is arguably as important as making the music itself. Your priority is to make quality music, marketing it through various channels is second. The good news is that you can keep pushing your songs to new audiences, even if it’s an older release because it’s always going to be new to someone.
With that being said, don’t get complacent. Keep refining your talents and skills. Whether it’s singing, rapping or producing, keep practicing and learning. Never stop developing as an artist!
Russ, who has a record deal with Columbia Records, is an Atlanta based rapper known for building his fan base from the ground up by basically releasing a free song every week for 2 years on Soundcloud. In addition, Russ produced, mixed, mastered, engineered, written, and perform the songs all by himself.
It is a bit extreme to do all that yourself, so this doesn’t mean you should try and copy what he did as it’s not feasible for most. However, if you want to improve your chances of making it in music as quickly as possible, that’s the route you may have to take. My recommendation is to go at a pace that you’re financially, emotionally and physically comfortable with.
Lastly, make sure the music you do put out has good sound quality (unless the style of music you create is meant to sound raw or unpolished). Although I don’t know much about the technical aspects of making music, I do know mixing and mastering your songs matter to make it sound good in different speaker systems. We have the ability now to record music easily using personal laptops with quality equipment in the right acoustic setting, but make sure to have someone knowledgeable and skilled handle the rest if you don’t know what you’re doing.
5. Network and be community oriented
Your network is your net worth. More often than not, it’s all about who you know in life, and the music industry is no exception.
One of your first goals should be to develop relationships in your local community and music scenes. You can network in your neighborhood, city and school by knowing the different music venues and establishing relationships with other local artists and people involved in music.
You can also think of it as building a local support group to help you stay motivated.
Of course, you should be doing this online as well as in person. The internet isn’t just a place where you find fans. There are networking opportunities, but you just need to know how to approach it. Don’t just put up music and going around spamming people to listen to it. Instead, find relevant online communities to be active in and support artists similar to you. This way you can meet other artists to collaborate with and possible industry connections that may help you in the future.
The goal with networking is to build relationships, meet artists to potentially collaborate with and find possible people who may be a good fit for your team like a manager, photographer or even booking agent. You will need a team, but chances are you’re not going to be able to pay people early on so you need to work with others who at your same level and believe in what you have to offer. I was that person who needed to find artists to help. In fact, the first artist I started working with was an artist I met through college.
Remember, relationships are key to success in this business, so start developing them locally.
6. Establish your online presence
There’s a difference between making music as a hobby and making music as a profession. Just like in business, presentation is important. Part of treating your music career like a business involves presenting yourself as an artist to take seriously. If you come off as amateurish, people can subconsciously associate you with lower quality and someone not worthy of attention. This is why having good quality visual components (photos, graphics, videos) is key to a strong online presence.
When starting out, invest in a professional photographer to get high-quality photos of yourself, or band, that you use for your bio, website and social media. If you’re lucky, you might have a photographer friend that could hook you up. Make sure to communicate with them and plan out how the specific shots are going to be used ahead of time.
It’s important that the photographer captures different compositions (close-ups vs long shots with white space) and orientations (portrait vs landscape) so that you can use photos in the right places. For example, a close-up portrait style shot may be great for a bio. But if you need to use that photo for a Facebook or Twitter cover photo that requires a landscape (widescreen) composition, parts of your face may be cut off when you have to crop the photo to fit.
Another area is graphics. Early in your music career, you might not have money to pay a graphic designer so you’ll have to do things for yourself. For graphics you might need like album covers, merch designs, flyers and even logos, I highly recommend this FREE app called Canva. (Affiliate Link)
Canva is a great tool because it’s easy to use and you can basically create anything you’ll need in their free plan. However, if you do want to try their paid plan to access even more template designs, they have a free 30 day trial. I personally use Canva when I don’t want to use Adobe Photoshop for certain things.
In addition to setting up your social media accounts and optimizing them, you should also have a clean and professional website. I personally use WordPress and Squarespace for my clients, but there a lot of different options out there.
If you’re not tech-savvy, then something like Squarespace (Affiliate Link Disclosure) is what I highly recommend over Wix and Weebly. Plus, they offer a 14 day free trial with no credit card needed if you wanted to try for yourself. Use my affiliate link with code PARTNER10 to save 10% off your first subscription of a website or domain.
Start by registering for a domain name, ideally something that is the same as your social media usernames for consistency. Here’s a great tool to use to check for available domain names:
Can you get away with just using social media? Sure, anything is possible, but I don’t recommend it. The way I look at it, it’s all a numbers game. There are things you can do that are not required, like having a website, but they will improve your chances of being successful.
There may come a point where you need to get publicity or coverage. Remember, people or organizations with large audiences tend to get a lot of requests, so they need to have a system to filter out who they write about or promote. Creating a good impression with a website and a strong brand can help. Only having a SoundCloud account as your main online presence just doesn’t put out a good impression.
7. Know yourself well to establish your artist/brand identity
You need to establish who you are as a brand to make it easier for people to identify and distinguish you from other artists.
This may be hard for some, but a good way to understand who you are is to establish who you are not. You need to know this to market your music to the right audience. Often times, you’ll want to reach people who are like you, that’s why I say you need to know yourself or have self-awareness. Establishing your brand and identity helps potential fans decide if your music resonates with them. Remember that your music is not for everyone.
Is your brand a static entity? No. I believe your brand or artist identity can evolve and change, just as we normally do as individuals. But it’s important, especially early in your career, to start with something that is authentically you to build around and commit to it.
Think about your story, angle, hook or nugget (as Ariel Hyatt of Cyber PR Music says) that helps you stand out and makes you different. It should be an authentic part of yourself that makes it easy for people to associate and connect with you.
The tricky part is to try and sum up what you’re all about in a short line or sentence. Identifying yourself as a ‘female rapper’ or ‘guitarist from New York’ is too vague. What can people expect to hear from you? What kind of scenes, subculture, hobbies, lifestyles or interests are you into aside from music?
All this boils down to communication and clearly stating who you are through your brand, so that you can hook the fans who resonate with your story and music. Identify and communicate that one ‘thing’ that someone can latch on to and reflects a part of your fan’s identity.
For more help on branding, I recommend checking out my Branding Guide for Musicians eBook. I took my ‘Basics of Branding for Musicians’ blog series, rewrote parts of it and combined them into one convenient guide. I also included a branding workshop section to provide further help in establishing your brand that you can only find in this eBook.
8. Build leverage through value to get what you need
Sometimes it can take that one popular tastemaker, blogger, playlister or influencer to get you the publicity and exposure you need to get your career going. These are basically people who have a large audience of followers and can get your name out there to accelerate the growth of your fan base. Assuming, of course, that you have really good music that is worthy of attention.
For most artists, a random request to these individuals asking for promotion will often get ignored. So how do you get their attention? Think about what’s in it for them. How does talking about you or promoting your music benefit them?
Unless you know them or have connections, industry people are less likely to do you any favors just out the goodness of their hearts. No matter how good you think you are, don’t ever feel like you are entitled, especially if you haven’t proven yourself yet.
It’s important to understand what value you possess as an artist and how you can leverage it to get others to talk about you and promote your music. If you’re just starting, you won’t have leverage so you will need to provide value first.
In today’s music industry, value usually starts with offering your music for free to build a following.
The value you possess could be that you have really good music that makes influencers look good in front of their audience for discovering you.
Maybe you have a large, engaged social media audience that can get the blogger or popular playlist additional exposure.
The same goes for the local press. The media entities have an audience as well that they need to engage, so if your story is unique enough, it can fill that need.
I think it’s important to think about this perspective and not just about what you want. The music itself and the audience you’re able to build from it is your leverage, and not solely your talent. Your story can also be leveraged.
This concept even extends to potential team members, managers, booking agents, promoters and even labels taking notice and wanting to work with you. It also governs the relationship that you have with your fans.
9. Know the basics of music copyright laws
One aspect that can get easily overlooked is protecting your music. To avoid this, you want to make sure you properly copyright your work.
I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t offer much more advice, but do your research. Technically, your music is copyrighted when it is created and made into a tangible form (written or recorded). However, registering your music with the copyright office can offer further protection and help provide evidence that you are, in fact, the originator of that work.
Copyrighting your music prevents you from becoming a victim of copyright infringement (intellectual property theft). I was told by someone who used to be an A&R for a major label that they would scout for songs from lesser-known talent and check to see if the songs were copyrighted. If they were not registered, they could essentially steal it. This was a long time ago so I imagine it would be much more difficult to actually take someone’s song as their own in the digital age. But, the main point is to take precautions and know your basic rights as a creative.
For producers, if you make beats and use samples to create a derivative work, be sure to know what you can or can’t do to avoid potential legal action.
If you’re in a band or group, you will need to figure out how you want to split ownership over the musical compositions you create together.
10. Find opportunities to perform live
Unless you want to be someone who solely produces music behind the scenes for other artists or for licensing, you need to find opportunities to perform.
Live performances are more important than ever as an income source while record sales continue to decline.For upcoming artists, it’s an opportunity to convert people who may have not heard of you into paying fans in the future.
The idea is to get practice performing for others live, be comfortable in these live environments and improve. Just like with any other skill, you need practice and experience to get better.
Feedback is important too, so you know what to improve on. If possible, record your live performances to watch later. Also, watch live performances of your favorite artists and study them.
If you’re not at the level where people pay you to do shows yet, start developing your performance skills at family gatherings or open mics in your community, schools, churches and local businesses.
Eventually, you’ll want to hire a booking agent, but it’s safe to say that you’ll need to be able to get shows on your own first to show promoters and talent buyers that you have people who want to see you.
11. Think about building your team
I touched on this in a few of the previous points. If you really want to take your music career seriously, you will need a team. You may be one of the few artists who love running the entire business operation and manage to do it well in addition to all the creative, but it would be difficult to grow this way. You will need to find competent people you can trust and hand over control to in order for your music career to flourish in the future.
Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re just starting out so I wouldn’t focus too much on this yet. I feel you still need to be hands-on and know how to do certain things yourself. The idea is to eventually outsource jobs or tasks that you’re not the best at or would take away time from focusing on your strengths.
In the back of your mind, you want to assess new people you meet or even those already in your network that could potentially be a part of your team as you grow. Ultimately, you want people who are willing to grow with you, grind it out with you and not just trying to take advantage of your successes.
Here are some people you need to consider on your team as your career grows:
- Booking Agent
- Marketing Strategists
- Photographer and Videographer
- Entertainment Attorney
12. Know how to distribute your music online
You can begin gaining traction for your music career by posting your music on Soundcloud and Youtube, but you’ll eventually need better distribution, especially if you want to be taken seriously. To get your music into major outlets like Apple Music, Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music and many others, you need a music aggregator (music distributor).
Popular online music distributors to consider are:
- DistroKid – This is what my clients use and what I recommend for others. Use my affiliate link to get a 7% discount when you sign up. Why affiliate links?
These are sites that allow you to get your music on the major streaming and digital sales platforms and don’t require going through record companies. They will vary in costs, fees and tools, so do your research before deciding which to use.
Not only do these services help get your music onto selling and streaming platforms, they offer admin publishing services that help with collecting royalties. This is covered below.
You’ll probably want to get physical copies of your music pressed as well. Although I’ve had a CD made of my own mixes I did for fun once over 10 years ago, I don’t have much experience in this area. However, CD Baby has grown to become a one-stop shop for many artist services so you can check them out.
13. Understand the various ways you earn royalties from your music
This is an area that can be confusing and complicated. I did my best to simplify music royalties in this blog here.
As a recording artist, music producer, songwriter and/or music composer, you may have various income streams you can collect from your music (assuming you own the copyright to the songs) when it’s played or used in different situations. For example, if you put your music on places like Spotify, Pandora and Youtube, you are owed money or royalties from those platforms when someone streams your music.
Different types of royalties include:
It may not seem important early on when you’re just starting out, but you will need to look into joining a performing rights organization (PRO). A PRO collects publishing royalties generated from your music when performed live, which can be an important income stream to help sustain artists. You only need to sign up with one PRO.
For those in the United States, it’s either ASCAP, BMI or SESAC for traditional performance royalties.
- SoundExchange (for digital performance royalties)
The difference between ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and SoundExchange.
Different countries have their own organizations and processes, so you’ll have to Google to find out how it works in your area.
Lastly, you should know that there’s a service you can pay for called publishing administration that helps collect all your publishing royalties on your behalf. Technically, you can do it yourself, but it can be a tedious process that is probably easier if someone else handles it. It’s important to research and find what works best for you.
Here are some places to start:
- SongTrust ($100 one-time setup fee + 15% commission)
- CD Baby Publishing Admin (15% commission)
- TuneCore Publishing Admin ($75 one-time fee + 15% commission)
14. Be prepared mentally for the long haul
Don’t get discouraged. It’s a tough industry that, in my opinion, got even tougher. Just because your first song received 25 streams on Youtube, all of them from your friends and family, doesn’t mean you won’t one day be in the thousands. It really does take time and work to get your name out there and build momentum. Don’t worry about others are doing or have done. Go at your own pace that you’re comfortable with.
You will get turned down, won’t get a response, ignored, rejected…maybe even ridiculed. It’s part of the journey. I’ve been to shows for artists who I work with and it’s sort of embarrassing at times, but it’s a humbling process that makes the wins much sweeter.
It will be challenging. It’s a juggling act between the creative and business side while trying to make a living and, for some, getting an education.
But you don’t have to do it alone. In addition to being active in your local music scene, you most likely know at least one musician friend or family member you can reach out to them for advice.
Remember, the best way to be prepared is having the right mindset.
15. Be ready to invest in yourself and learn
Part of starting a music career is realizing that it starts with investing in yourself first. Whether it’s time or money, you have to be willing to put in the work to learn and get things done.
In order to build your career, you will need money, whether it’s to have someone build your website, pay for studio time, get CDs pressed, hire a designer for your merch or transportation to get to venues to perform. Again, it’s just like a business. You have to be willing to put up the capital and bet on yourself. If you can’t even invest in yourself to make sure you come off as a professional or ensure your music is high quality, how do you expect fans or anyone else to invest in you?
Not only financially, but also be ready to invest time into learning.
As they say, time is money. If you’re not investing money, you’re investing time into the creative aspects of music production or learning the business. You will be doing a lot of learning so prepare yourself. Unless you have a lot of disposable income and you can pay a bunch of people, you will have to do things yourself.
This is one of the big challenges of being independent because the responsibility of artist development is in your hands. No matter how talented you are, most musicians who have been doing music as a hobby will not have the full package needed to make it as a full-time professional. Because a music career encompasses so many areas, it takes education and experience to develop. You won’t need to be an expert in marketing, entertainment law or accounting, but you need to know what to look for in others and what to expect from their services.
One option is to take online courses to help with artist development. A site I recommend is SkillShare (Affiliate Link) which offers all types of courses (including music and business) for as low as $8 a month. They are offering a free 14 day trial to take as many premium courses as you want within that period. If you cancel before that, you don’t pay anything. If you’re interested, sign up now to start your free trial at SkillShare. Read my full disclosure to learn more about affiliate links.
Hopefully, everything outlined in this blog gives you a big picture perspective of what you need to do to get started in your music career. I provided links and additional resources for you to explore in some of the sections, so be sure to check those out.
This is a very thorough list and I hope it’s not discouraging. With all this in mind, take things one step at a time and start setting the foundation of your career. The best advice I can give is just create as much music as you can, release it and have fun with it.