Yes, there are more ways than ever to connect with your potential audience, and it’s never been easier to record and distribute. But it’s also easier than ever to starve as a musician, thanks to unprecedented levels of media saturation and an extremely hostile environment towards content creators and performers. Which means success starts at the point where you’re not starving.
And with that, here are ten ways to minimize the chances of starving, and actually surviving as a working musician.
(1) Fire your band and go solo.
Here’s another reason why DJs are making millions: they don’t have to share. And the overhead is way lower: support staff are paid a salary, and negotiations are made with the individual. Not only that, you can’t break up with yourself (unless you decide to quit).
That’s not to say there aren’t Arcade Fire-style success stories, but you have to make a lot more money to make it all work. And even then, there are more dangerous variables and moving parts.
(2) Accept that you’re getting screwed on the recording.
Activists like David Lowery are making critical headway on issues like Google-sponsored piracy and Spotify screwy-ness. But that’s not going to help you right now: instead, artists like Pretty Lights are offering music for free on mass-distribution platforms like BitTorrent, and making it up in monetizable places like touring and premium physical (like double LP vinyl releases and USB drives).
(3) Understand your leverage (you don’t have any).
Thom Yorke can pull his content from Spotify and people will notice. But sadly, that sort of stand only works for established, massive artists. Everyone else basically gets ignored. In the end, Spotify will screw you and you will like it because (a) you need the distribution and (b) you don’t have a choice.
(4) Be unbelievably proficient and skillful.
Yes, even jazz musicians can make money these days, if they’re in the top 0.01% of performers. There’s always a small sliver getting by, and usually, an even smaller sliver living quite comfortably.
(5) Get really, really, really lucky.
The lucky ones often believe that they willed their success, but the reality is that almost every successful artist is replaceable. We mythologize our musical heroes, and pretend that we could never adore another. Nonsense: there are thousands, even hundreds of thousands that are just as good and innovative, and willing to work just as hard or harder. Yet, fate tossed them into the harsh dustbin of obscurity.
So this boils down to maximizing the chances of good luck: recording as much as possible, practicing as much as possible, taking as many collaborative opportunities as possible, innovating as much as possible, and these days, staying sober (more on that later).
(6) Paying rent and eating = success.
If you think 99.9% of all musicians aren’t making any money, you’re wrong: 99.999999% of all artists aren’t making money. Which means, if you can pay your rent, pay for clothes, pay for health insurance, or any combination thereof, you are winning this brutal game.
(7) Work a day job.
Even Tim Westergren tells artists to work a day job (yes, he makes $2 million a month, but that’s a separate article entirely). And as much as it sucks, he’s right. The reason is that the chaos and complication of having zero money will crowd your ability to be creative, make music, connect with fans and stay on the grid. And if you can squeak by on touring, you’re winning (see #6).
(8) Consider a major publishing, label, or management deal.
It’s an incredibly difficult decision, but money really, really helps. Yes, you will lose lots of rights and probably get screwed in the end. But you will also drastically increase your chances of getting traction and acheiving some degree of fame (which can be worth a huge amount of money).
Remember: Amanda Palmer was initially built by the considerable resources for Warner Music Group – and it’s questionable whether we’d even know her name without that startup investment.
(9) Be a ruthless f**ing asshole.
Fire people that show up late and drag you down. Fire back at promoters that try to stiff you. Then, put on a nice smile for your fans.
(10) Prioritize your very precious time.
Every second you’re tweeting is a second you’re not recording, performing, or making money. That’s not to say you can’t do both (just look at Amanda Palmer), but please consider that there is a limited amount of time in every day. And your twenties will go very, very quickly.
(11) Have another large source of income.
There’s a funny saying in the venture capital community: “The secret to making a small fortune is to start with a large one.” And when it boils down to it, music is an expensive hobby that will most likely lose you lots of money (starting immediately). Just like other things that rich people enjoy, like wineries, yachting, and circumnavigating the globe in a hot air balloon.
So if you have a big inheritance, enjoy it. If you made $3.2 million off your last startup, use that to do what you love.
(12) Success= stress (and attracts crazy people), so embrace it (and ignore the bulls**t).
Lauren Mayberry bitches about misogynistic commenters and deranged fans. We should all be so lucky.
So take the advice of William Randolph Hearst, who once said, “if a dog barks at me, I don’t get on all fours and bark back.” That was true 100 years ago, and it’s true now.
Oh, and… Stay sober.
Sorry, but riding a non-stop high is a very expensive luxury these days. Because it’s easier to screw a stoned artist, every single time. And, it makes it a lot harder to meet the very impressive demands that even modest success requires.