5 Tips to Survive in the Music Industry

5 Tips to survive image

Most people producing new music (that we speak to) are interested in taking their music projects from a local level to a national level. Having met so many amazing new artists I am prompted to ask:

“Is drive, talent and ambition enough to get you through – or could you be wasting years of your life on a wild goose chase?”

Personally I never, ever think that running a band is ‘wasted time’ or this big ‘risk’ that old-school parents and careers advisers make it out to be. Those guys are projecting their own fears about the world onto you and (well meaning as they may be) they are wrong to suggest a more traditional career choice is necessarily more dependable. The feeling of ‘security’ that is supposed to come with a salaried job is largely just an illusion. History has shown that bosses and owners of companies will most likely look out for themselves when the chips are down. So many of my friends have been made redundant multiple times or are on zero hours contracts, with a pay check one month being no guarantee of another pay check the following month. To add insult to injury, people and companies that employ you seem to want to own your soul as well. Unless you’re very lucky, your boss will begrudge and withhold the time and flexibility we need to pursue our music and do what needs to be done.

No, we must be in charge of our own destinies. We need to be free to create. This is the essence of Rock n Roll: living life more on our own terms and building a wealth of experiences, skills and knowledge as we go. We must fight for the right to design our own lives in music. But we do, however, need to acknowledge the dangers and not rush blindly into the unknown.

Specifically we have to stop going about things in a traditional way, hoping that somehow against the odds you can make the old approach work today. The sad fact is that the five or more people in a Rock n Roll band, touring the country in a splitter van and putting albums out, are probably going to find things difficult. Not to say they can’t be successful on a lot of levels, but that apparent ‘success’ is the root of a much bigger problem; as the band grows in today’s market, their costs tend to increase much faster than their income does. So with the old fashioned way of doing things – more effort equals less return. This can feel a little like banging your head against a brick wall.

Of course it shouldn’t be like this, but margins are cut to the bone at every stage; from the manager, to the promoter, to the agent, to the venue… and everyone wants and needs as large a slice of the pie as they can get. It’s not the fault of venues, promoters or agents – they have to survive too. It’s just the way it is.

That sounds pretty bleak, right? So what can we do about it?

Well you’re a creative – so why not put your skills to some use and look at how you can innovate your musical and business models so they will work financially? There are bands and solo artists making it work and we can do this if we face up to the challenges of today.

So, here are 5 tips to help you survive and prosper in today’s music industry:

1. Make the band line up and touring crew as lean as possible.

This cuts costs all round. The White Stripes / Royal Blood two-piece model is becoming much more commonplace on the touring circuit. Think of The Graveltones, The Pearl Harts and Henry’s Funeral Shoe who are all killing it using variations of this format, and the solo artists who are going it alone whilst still making a big noise, such as Jack Garratt.

The limitations of a smaller band will force you to do things differently with octave pedals, loops and samples, or whatever it takes to sound just as big as anyone else on the big stages. The difference is that by the time you’re playing the big theatres, you’ll get to take home a pay cheque, rather than a bill!

2. Build your band or solo act online and tour less (or even not at all).

You can use Facebook live to stream live gigs, build a brand on Instagram, and converse with your fans across various platforms. Using social media, you can reach a far bigger audience from your home base than if you were on the road. Musicians in the know are now finding ways to get paid from streaming and mail order rather than selling T-shirts from a merch stand. Of course, we will still gig – it’s in our blood. But it would be silly to bankrupt ourselves doing it.

Make no mistake however; building an audience online is a huge commitment of time and effort. It’s almost a full time job to do this well and involves developing a strategy that works for you and plays to your strengths. This will challenge you enormously creatively, as you create daily videos and content and engage with your growing fan base. That’s why it’s such an amazingly quick win – most bands will never put in the effort required to do this properly.

3. Accept the fact that to survive in music long-term, we all have to have multiple income streams.

This statement applies to at least all of us that normally operate below headline festival level. When the chips are down and we have bills to pay, we might have to simply take on some other work or even get a day job. That’s perhaps the inconvenient truth of our industry (and to be frank, it’s high time that music colleges admitted this fact and were more open about it).

But take heart. Rather than being some big chore, this is an opportunity to make the most of the amazing skills you will have developed alongside your music activity. Maybe your band doesn’t make much money, but if you have an impressive audience, what better advert for another income stream or service that does? Your skills might be in greater demand than you realise.

If you can run a band, you could run a business. If you can run social media well, you could run social media for a business should you wish. If you have the confidence to get up on stage, you could be a great public speaker. If you do the artwork for your band, why not do it commercially for other bands? What you are doing is developing transferable skills and my view is that you have an option to ‘cash in’ on these skills at anytime in your life. You are developing a versatile and flexible approach to earning a living and a healthy self-reliance that comes from a self-employed mindset.

At all costs, we must avoid the musician’s curse of harbouring anxiety about a future that comes with the ‘all or nothing’ high stakes approach of yesterday. If we do, then even when we’ve reached the very top of the mountain, we’ll feel as if we’re teetering on the precipice, looking down at an awfully long drop…

If we combine innovation and flexibility with low cost business models and multiple income streams, we are set up for a lifetime of music.

4. Make a plan!

Where are you now?

Where do you want to get?

How are you going to get there?

Think very carefully about the answers to these questions, as they will form the very foundations of your actions. Remember, your actions are determined by where your focus is. If you don’t focus on the right things, your actions will not be aligned with what you really want. Once you’ve established clear targets, you can start thinking about developing a realistic and achievable strategy to achieve them.

5. Get help whenever you think you might need it.

Everyone needs help and advice sooner or later and that shouldn’t be something negative – quite the opposite. The stakes are too high not to make use of quality help and advice that’s available. Drop me and the team at WaterBear a line anytime here. if you think we could help you. We’ll respond with some feedback on your music and give you some ideas to get you going.

We can also help you to use your band and creative projects to gain a BA(Hons) Degree or even a Masters, online or onsite in Brighton – because letters after your name will give you even more career options and control. This is how we trained ourselves.

It’s not going to be plain sailing to get to where you want to go. What worthwhile goal is ever easy anyway? But it’s entirely possible to design a career so robust that no one can ever take it away from you. You will be playing music for the rest of your life. Together we can do great things. We can make this thing work.

If you follow these regular blogs we’ll give you the foundations to take charge of your own career. We are truly excited to be on that journey with you.