11 Things Millennial Musicians Just Don’t Get

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Justin Higuchi

1) Spotify Plays Don’t Equal Fans

I can’t tell you how many artists I see on Spotify with hundreds of thousands or millions of streams, but can’t get even 100 out to their local (or any) shows. Or get anyone to back their crowdfunding campaign. Or support them in any way whatsoever. These listeners are not fans of the artists, they are fans of the playlist these songs got included on. You must understand this new world of streaming we are in. 10 million plays ain’t impressive anymore. Know what is impressive? Bottom lines.

2) You’re Not Going To Jump Out of a Day Job into a Million Dollar Advance

The days of the big break are pretty much over. Labels don’t sign unproven acts with nothing going on. Labels want a sure thing that already has built it on their own. Oh and labels don’t offer million dollar (or six figure) advances anymore to new acts. If you’re waiting around to be discovered and aren’t taking your career in your own hands, you will be waiting till you’re dead.

3) Your Branding and Story Is More Important Than Your Music

This is a hard pill to swallow for every artist. But the ones who not only accept this reality, but approach it head on are the ones who jump leaps and bounds past their counterparts. People judge you based on your aesthetic, story and image long before they hit play on one of your songs – if they even make it that far. Your branding (which includes your image, your story (!!), and really your overall aesthetic) are what non-musicians (bloggers) talk about. They ain’t talking about your drum tones, syncopated rhythms, plugins or mix techniques.

4) Your Follower Numbers Don’t Matter As Much As Your Real Life Numbers

Oh really, you have 100,000 Instagram followers? Cool. Oh, you can’t pay your monthly bills? Not so cool. Everyone knows followers AND engagement can be bought. Follower numbers aren’t as impressive as CONVERSION numbers. How many people are actually backing your crowdfunding campaigns, showing up to your shows, buying your merch? Just because you got bots to Like (and comment) on your shit means nothing. Well, it means you’re desperate and have no desire to make a living with your music. Bots don’t come to shows. Bots don’t buy your merch. Bots don’t back your crowdfunding campaigns. Bots don’t support you in any way financially. Bots don’t help you become a full-time musician.

We are now living in a post-follower count reality.

Don’t tell me how many followers you have. All I care about are how many fans you have who are willing to support your career.

5) Making It No Longer Means Superstardom

It is the most exciting time to be a musician in the history of the music business.

Never before could you have a successful career as an original performing musician without the help of a record label. There are more ways than ever before to make a living as a musician. For some reason to many, music seems to be the only industry where the sole definition of ‘making it’ is superstardom. Don’t waste your time with people who think that. If you are making a living, supporting the kind of lifestyle you’d like to have, doing something you love then you are making it. Anyone who tries to belittle your success is unhappy with their own. F*ck em.

6) You Don’t Have to Follow Musical Trends to Make it

Don’t make music you think people want to hear. Make music that is meaningful to you. You can find your audience. Or rather, the audience will find you if you market it properly.

You don’t have to be a pop musician if you don’t want to. Yes, if you want to be a pop musician, then it’s a lot easier to follow musical trends. But chances are, by the time you’ve put out your record that trend will have shifted and you’ll be behind or simply a “me too” act which will be tired and boring. Make the music that moves you and makes sense to you BUT make sure you know where to find that audience. You don’t need 100 million people to listen to your music. You only really need a thousand or so true fans to support you for life. Go to them. Find them. Nurture that relationship. Respect them. Build your community.

7) You Don’t Need To Have An Online Presence To Make a Living as a Musician

There is no one way to make it in music anymore.

There are musicians who make six figures getting their songs synched to films, TV shows and ads with no Instagram or Twitter to speak of. There are people who make good livings touring colleges or house concerts with very little to show online. There are composers scoring for TV shows and films. There are freelance musicians who aren’t on any social platforms. There are producers who have recently been labeled as ‘fake artists’ because they don’t have an internet presence anywhere outside of Spotify (where they have millions of plays) and are getting paid by a production house to pump out these highly playlistable songs.

There is still a physical world out there where money can be made. You have to find what makes sense for you and how you want to structure your music career.

8) The Goal Is Not To Get Signed The Goal Is To Make a Living Doing What You Love

“How do you get a record deal? Don’t try to get signed. Try to become popular first.” – Avery Lipman, President of Universal Republic Records

You know how cool it is to say you just signed a record deal with Warner records is? Kinda cool. But that coolness wears off very quickly. You know what is less cool? Three years down the line still signed to Warner with only one song released to your name and no tours, no growth and no money to speak of. But hey, you’re signed to Warner! Sometimes record deals can help tremendously. Sometimes they can hurt. Sometimes they’re right for an artist. Sometimes they’re not.

If your goal is to get signed, then you’re going to miss. If after building your career on your own to a level where labels are begging to work with you, then, and only then, should you decide if it’s the best move for you.

9) You Can’t Trump Talent With Tech

Yes, 18 year old Steve Lacy produced a song (and played on) Kendrick Lamar’s new Platinum record DAMN with just his iPhone, but that doesn’t mean all you need is an iPhone to make a Platinum record. You, of course, need talent. Just because you can make an entire record on your iPhone doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good or compete. Whether you’re working out of a giant, state of the art studio or in your bedroom, never settle for ‘good enough’ and attempt to cover up your lack of chops with tech. It may fool your parents, it ain’t gonna fool your musical peers who matter.

10) You Don’t Need a Big Studio to Record a Big Album

And the flip side of that, of course, is that if you have the talent you don’t need all the bells and whistles of a gigantic studio. Know who cares that you tracked Neumann U47s through the same Neve console as John Lennon? You do. Nobody else. All anyone cares about is what your record sounds like – not what studio it was recorded in. Not what amps or mics you used. Stop wasting your money.

If you can get the sound you need from your bedroom, there’s no need to drop $1,000/day just for bragging rights.

11) If All Your Eggs Are in Instagram You’re Doomed

Yes, Instagram is the hottest social app out right now (sorry Snapchat). But that doesn’t mean it always will be. I’m sure you’re too young to remember Myspace, but at one point the only online presence that mattered for musicians was Myspace. Those that didn’t grab their fans and transfer them to a database they owned (i.e. email list) lost contact with all their fans when Myspace died.

You rent your fans to social sites. You own your fans email addresses and phone numbers. Get them.

Don’t ignore the social sites where your fans exist, but also have a way to keep in touch with them that isn’t dependent on the whims of the latest hot social app.

26 Responses

  1. Andrew James

    In the middle of reading your new book Ari. Very… VERY helpful.

    I’m a full time musician (day job being playing covers for events) supporting me and my family and your tips are helping me ‘tip’ the balance on day job to original work.

    Thank you.

  2. Mark Jarasek

    Wise words. Ari is on a roll here!

    I really hope more musical artists out there who want to survive start paying attention to this amazing insight to today’s reality in the industry.

  3. Will Buckley

    Unfortunately, pure talent doesn’t carry you today. The majority of successful (?) new artists today have to be great marketers as well, which contributes to the observation made by many that much of what’s successful today is dumbed down entertainment.

    While. you don’t need a professional recording studio to make a record, if you have great material, the money and a great engineer it does make difference.

    The real tragedy in today’s music business model, it allows only the few the time and the money to do exceptional work, while the real money goes to the distributors. Real money that doesn’t appear to be enough to make them profitable.

  4. Davidson Yeager

    Clear cut reminders of what really counts!

    Point #7 in particular jumped out and was mind opening for me because I’ve been so heavily conditioned with the mantra about “online presence.”

    I also just purchased your book. A lot of realistic and creative ideas opening up my mind in new ways. Thank you so much :)

  5. LDonCD

    Wonderful! What you wrote really spoke to me, helped give me hope and addressed some aspects I was feeling low about, pointing me back in my own direction. Thanks!

  6. Roger B.

    Did anyone else notice that the guy in the picture is not Justin Higuchi, but is Will Ferri from Against the Current?

  7. Versus

    “3) Your Branding and Story Is More Important Than Your Music”

    Perhaps you are only referring to mainstream pop with this statement, this is surely not true in all other genres, where audiences – and reviewers/critics, including bloggers – care about such things as the creative process, production techniques, musical chops, etc.

    If it is the case in pop and some other genres, why do we accept this fate passively? We should work to change this, starting with a movement to bring back music education in schools.

    • Becca

      No way. 100% true in punk and hardcore. Music is a people business. Being the band that talks to their fans, who wants to hang out at the merch table or in the parking lot with fans and other bands is vital.

      It’s not enough. If your band is bad but are nice people, people will see you once, maybe twice.

      But talent alone is not enough. 90% of people at a show (unless it’s bands 4 bands, which is worse) have never played a musical instrument after a recorder or the xylophone in elementary school.

      One thing that has been true over the last 5 years, is showing you care about your fans on social media matters. On a local scene level, showing you care about other bands in the scene by going to their shows matters.

  8. David Bentley

    Don’t care much for the third paragraph. As a blogger, I’m interested in the music, not in the singer’s false leg.

  9. Kelley

    Title should probably be “11 things WE THINK millennial musicians just don’t get”
    Or simply, “11 tips for the current landscape of the music industry”

  10. Santiago Sanmiguel (@zoordo)

    Great post!
    Always a pleasure to read you Ari.

    I will add. to the list: Your copyrights and sound-recording rights are your assets. Don’t waste them. Learn to manage and exploit them. Don’t sign every contract someone puts in front of you.

  11. Mistercheez

    I agree with all this, but the title of this article is wrong. Don’t underestimate millennials – alot of them are smarter than you

  12. D. Daniloff

    Sound advice, not just for Millennials but applies to the slacker generation, grunge revolution survivors, narrow market genre benders and Myspace veterans alike.

  13. Antinet

    I don’ think millenials need as much advice in the music industry as the older duffers, who could still get out there. Ms are up to date on tech and besides, young people have the best word of mouth. They know that.

    Nothing’s really changed except that the money is less and being hijacked like it was before. Playing live is all that matters along with word of mouth. Same shit essentially.

  14. Cardeo

    It’s a sad day when image is considered more important than music. Probably explains why there isn’t anymore generational bands making their way.

  15. Ray Symmes

    I’m not a musician but have been involved in parts of the $$$ side of it, and can offer NO ADVICE on how to make money in it. But Joe Walsh says to any musician who will listen, “play live as much as you can”.

    Even if you can’t get a guarantee at a spot, I and the people I respect will always throw a few bucks in the hat for a performance that has quality and heart. And that can keep you in the game.

  16. Oded

    Obviously, continue to create, perform, and play live in front of people.
    Do quality worthy music, and stay in touch with the public… but it is critical to remain online for exposure. continually.

    #OdedFriedGaon #OdedMusic #OdedInformation #Audioded

  17. Lindsay

    I couldn’t agree more. There is no recipe but there are key ingredients to work with. I really like the following points in context of the South African (SA) music scene:
    3) Your Branding and Story Is More Important Than Your Music
    4) Your Follower Numbers Don’t Matter As Much As Your Real Life Numbers
    6) You Don’t Have to Follow Musical Trends to Make it
    10) You Don’t Need a Big Studio to Record a Big Album

    In SA there are so many niche cultural markets and genre segments, than I would guess most other countries have, that if for example artists connect with the people their music speaks to through their story they create a connection that can’t be replicated in the global market. Some of our local music will never fit into global trends and we should own that. Especially grass roots musicians. There is so much room to explore here.

    The messages in this post are really challenging and at the same time really encouraging. Thank you.

    • Lumes

      What your wrote about SA is true about the Nigerian scene also. You made great points, in relation to a great article.

  18. James Forest

    Hahaha- how ironic (and ass-backwards), that for anyone making music, there are things other than music that are more important than the music they make. And, even more bizarre is that people react to this assertion with such seriousness and treat it as a given for those who wish to succeed in the so-called “new music business”. Maybe if the overwhelming majority of music people are making these days wasn’t so utterly disposable and if people making music actually tried harder to invest themselves in their work, this would not be the case.

  19. Colin

    I have long been spouting my 1% theory to anyone who will listen.
    1% of FB likes= the number of people that you can get out to a live show.
    300 FB likes? 3 people. 3million? = 30,000
    I wonder how long the formula will hold up? I haven’t created one for Instagram. :)