10 Pieces of Music Industry Advice, Directly From One Artist To Another

Funky DL
Funky DL
Mar 7, 2018 · 24 min read
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When it comes to advice given to budding musicians endeavoring to etch their careers out and make a mark within the music industry as independent artists, such advice comes in many shapes and forms from a hue of people in various industry roles. Whether it’s Record Label Execs or A&R (some of whom were once, or are still in a band), Radio DJ’s, Pluggers, Booking Agents, Bloggers… the list goes on; one thing that comes to my mind is that it’s often difficult for those up-and-coming artists to actually connect with more established artists and get advice that really helps them to overcome their challenges. They have rarer chances to hear the in-depth stories and a gain insight into the business from someone who has actually walked the walk they seek to walk. It makes sense that someone whose journey is likely to be more of an accurate reflection of what to expect and how to best hurdle the obstacles that independent artists have to encounter would be one to take note of. Someone who has had to survive solely as an independent artist for twenty plus years, without the permanent backing or support of a corporate machine or record label investing into their career.

Well, I am one of those artists. At 12 years old, I decided I wanted to become a Hip-Hop Artist and had my heart so intently set on it. By the time I was 17 years old (in 1995), my music was being played on Capital Radio, Choice FM, Radio One and Kiss FM, and by 19 years old, I (without any management or representatives) secured a 5 album deal with Almo Sounds and Rondor Music Publishing and won the best Hip-Hop Act MOBO Award for 1997, and all before my 20th birthday. Although my record deal was all over within a few months, within a short period of time, I took all the responsibilities of an independent artist on from therein and never looked back.

Fast-forwarding to 2018, I am still active as I ever was and have never — at any time since 1995 until now — worked as anything other than a musician. Many of my close friends think this is truly remarkable and that I am extremely fortunate to be someone who decided upon my vocation so young and went off to do precisely that, without ever having to forgo my dream and join the so-called rat-race; and I guess there’s an huge element of truth in their statements. But as with many things, it’s never one-sided and there have also been many trials and tribulations over the years. Therefore, I’d like to give as many artists who’ll listen a chance to gain an insight and some hopefully helpful advice, which can serve useful as they embark into their dream careers as musicians.

I mentioned at the start of this article that advice about procuring a career in music comes from many people in many roles within the industry and I’d like to make it very clear that I am by no means saying that if such advice isn’t coming from a tried and tested musician, its validity is to be questioned. Far from it; but what I do want people to know is that there are distinctions between the experience in these roles and that sometimes the advisor who has already walked the identical path, may be able to offer something that can resonate a little deeper.

1. Why Music?

Lesson: Identify the why. Know why you are pursuing music and try to ensure that the reason is strong enough so that the deterrents — when they occur — are unlikely to cause you to give it up at the drop of the hat just because you’re not receiving what you thought you might.

2. It Is a Process.

At 15 years old, I was going on auditions I found in the back of the Blues and Soul Magazine Classifieds and also trying to perform at local talent events or fundraisers. I called record labels and went to record shops just to meet people and learn as much as I could about the ‘who’s who’ of the business and all the ways in which I could enter, ultimately doing my school work experience in an admin role for a small independent label in London’s Hoxton area. I began to learn how to use the Akai S1100 Sampler my Uncle had bought for himself and at first found it tricky, but persevered. I bought myself a Commodore Amiga computer with a sampling package called Pro-Tracker and started sampling and making beats at home.

At 16, I went to study sound engineering at a Youth Training Scheme in Stamford Hill, North London and had to sit out much of the classes because the teacher realized I already knew much of what he was teaching and wanted to allow other students to have the opportunity to better learn the things I knew. I then went and did work experience at a recording studio in Tottenham Hale, North London, where for the best part of 6 months, they made me make tea and coffee all day and scrub down old electronic equipment parts with these rust removing type of Brillo Pads, or something similar. I’d frequently have metal splinters in my fingers and was furious that the promises of advancing to a trainee sound engineer and getting some studio time for myself would never materialized and was never truly part of the studio owners agenda. He was happy for a 16 year old dogsbody to come in everyday, clean, stay in later than he would to lock up at night and do nothing very creatively practical. There’s so much more in between, but I say this to say, it was never instant or quick for me. From 12 years old to 19 was a 7 year period of trying everything I could to further my ambition, much of that period with a compulsory education to acquire. So my success at 19 was underpinned by years and years of determination, sticking at it, learning, nurturing myself and growing.

Lesson: Understand that it’s only in rare cases that huge results come instantly and that for the most part, it’s a lengthy process before you began to see the results you desire. The music business is not for everyone, irrespective of whether you’re musically talented. You’re going to need staying power, patience and a high level of dedication to being prepared to try again when things do not go right. It could look like you’re on the brink of something great one day, and the next… it all comes crashing down and falling to pieces. It’s always going to be disheartening when things seem slow or stagnant, but it is truly those who are able to push past all of this and endure who stand the greatest chance of surviving in this industry.

3. Should I Make My Own Music or Jump on the Current Trend?

I did a performance in Tbilisi, Georgia early in 2017. Whilst back stage, a local rapper approached me and explained that he was only in his early twenties but felt like he wanted to make music reflecting the 90’s Golden Age of Hip-Hop. It’s what he loved best and felt most comfortable with as an artist, however he struggled with that fact that he was barely born during that era and that for someone his age, he’d get criticism for trying to base his sound on a time he didn’t experience as it was happening. I told him, that didn’t matter. It’s about what’s in your heart and inner core and what resonates with you. I explained that Amy Winehouse was born in the 1983, but sang songs that sound like they could have been recorded in the 50’s and 60’s; and we don’t question her authenticity; she was one of the best to ever do it. When you make music you truly believe in, it will be difficult for other peoples doubts to influence how you feel about your creativity. It’s when you make music you don’t fully believe in that these doubts will more commonly occur. I also talked about a good friend of mine, a recording artist. She had quite some success with her debut album and was catapulted into the limelight from it, but some years later, she disclosed to me that she now finds it impossible to listen to that album. It was made solely to procure chart success and contained very little that was based on her own pure artistic creativity. Having never recorded another album since, the only body of work that exists in the public domain is something she herself will not play.

There’s a misconception that writing a highly commercial song for the radio or chart success is a more proven way to make it. Unfortunately what many forget is that there are many musicians who have taken that stance and after 15–20 years, they still never had that hit.

Lastly, my older brother once told me I should try to make my songs in the style of Ja-Rule. Ja-Rule was huge at the time and my brother wanted my success to be bigger than what it was. I declined on his advice, but a few years later, he came over to my place and was listening to some of my new work from my 2007 album ‘The 4th Quarter”. He turned to me and said, “I’m glad you didn’t listen to me… you’re the best at what you do… keep doing that”. You see, Jazzy Hip-Hop was my thing and still is.. and I’m now considered a pioneer in the scene.

Lesson: Make the music that reflects who you are, what you love and what you stand for. That will more likely always be the best music you make and you’ll build a fan-base that will follow you for years.

A quick anecdote… A classmate in secondary school always used to tell me that MC Hammer was much better than De La Soul because Hammer sold out Wembley Arena, whilst De La were more underground with nowhere near Hammers sizeable audience. Fast forward and Hammer is widely considered a fad and a bit of a gimmick of the past, whilst De La are still recording, still touring and still are as loved today as they were by many of the same fans from when they emerged in 88/89.

Your staying power with your fans in centered in your creative identity. Being an amazing you, always beats being a second-rate someone else. An artist who is completely jumping the trends every time a new one arrives will find that they may acquire fans who themselves jump ship once that trend is over; or once they find another artist in that trend more entertaining.

4. What Will I Get Out of a Career In Music?

  1. Be Diligent.
  2. Be Consistent.
  3. Produce Quality.

Anyone practicing these 3 attributes for long enough may not ultimately get precisely what they desire, but I can be damn sure you won’t get nothing. You’ll get back something, even if it doesn’t quite mirror what you expect. Sounds simple right? Not quite. Each of those 3 components are made from other elements and they all need to be present to see results.

  1. Diligence means hard-working and hard work is founded on a number of things which include quantifiable amounts of discipline and order. Something many artists lack.
  2. Consistency is founded from practice, commitment and follow-through. Something many artists lack.
  3. And quality comes from experience and/or time applied and money applied. Something many artists lack, (beginning to catch my drift?).

It’d be difficult to have anything of any quality if no experience, no time and no money goes into it. You don’t necessarily have to have all these components, because some may at times compensate for others. Think about it… if you needed 4 bedroom house painted in one day, money could get it done. Although time is restricted, you could hire a team of professional painters. If you had little money, but a whole year to get it done, you could still get it done on your own because of the abundance of time available, and you need not be highly experienced. But you’re unlikely to get it done with no time, no money and no experience. So as a musician, it is important to be aware that your success is highly reliant on how well you can apply these traits to what you do.

I am able to survive solely of my music mostly because I have all of the above and I am super consistent. My catalogue is immense. I always kept writing, producing, recording and releasing no matter what. It didn’t matter if the last project didn’t go as planned. I’d do another. Maybe not instantly, but I’d re-up in time. It’s that level of diligence, consistency and quality that made me go from pressing 1000 vinyl records and still having 800 left in my house for ages — to years later selling those same 800 copies, then repressing that same record two more times and selling out completely. This (I believe) was all because I kept releasing music. I kept building, until eventually, the demand grew bigger and bigger and I was eventually able to capitalize from it.

Lesson: Evident.

5. Your Catalogue Is Your Goldmine.

One day I received interest from a Label in Japan to license what was then my fourth album. The advance wasn’t huge, but was still decent. But that advance quickly quadrupled when the label expressed that they also wanted to re-release my 3 previous albums in Japan. I instantly remembered the words of my friend. Not only this, but I can distinctively remember sitting at home one day and going through all the masters of recordings I had made, but that were never on albums. They were cool songs that made B-sides or bonus tracks for singles, but they did not appear on any of my official album releases. I counted 38 songs in total, professionally recorded, mixed and mastered. I then approached a label with a view to release 2 compilation CD’s of 19 tracks each featuring these songs. Again, the money wasn’t magnificent, but I remember receiving just under £10k for an advance for the 2 projects, which to me was great, because it was — as far as I was concerned, “money for old rope”.

See, I owned the masters for these songs and although they’d previously served a purpose, they could be reformatted to serve a new one and at no cost to me. It was then that I further realized the depth of what my friend had said to me about my music being a goldmine. Even now, there’s no one album or song that brings the lion share of my income in. It’s the collective parcel of them all that incrementally work together to financially support me.

Lesson: Understand that your music and the value within is never based on just today and what people feel about it now. It goes way beyond that into how and where it can be exploited in years to come and how it can be repackaged as an appealing project for fans to consume. Your catalogue is your intellectual property and is worth everything, even when you’re starting out and making very little money. If you retain ownership, it may become part of your estate once you’ve transcended this lifetime, but still hold value for someone you love or wish to look after. Do not underestimate the value in your creativity and work to build your goldmine up. One day, once it’s unlocked, you’ll be forever grateful.

6. How Much Money Can My Music Make For Me?

I don’t get many live bookings, maybe 2 or 3 a year if that. My colleague may do 50–60 per year, but does not have many releases. We’d both like a little more of what the other has, but it has worked out that my strength at the moment is in selling music online to make money and his is in performing live to make a living. We both do what we do well and are well respected, but what may apply for one doesn’t necessarily apply to the next. So how you make money in this day and age may not be based on some generic idea or formula of the common rhetoric of “shows and merch”. Of course, I do get some bookings and I get paid for them, but I also have produced tracks and featured on songs with other artists to generate income. If I were to solely rely on show bookings to survive, I’d probably be first in the queue at the job centre. But that’s MY story and not categorically the case for everyone. It doesn’t bother me, because I’ve always been more of a ‘studio head’ than an ‘on the road head’.

Money is going to filter to each artist in accordance with their unique circumstance. How much demand exists for them to get bookings and the cost to put the show together are factors. Are they signed or unsigned and the revenue splits for Artist / Label respectively are factors. How many other musicians or managers are involved in the music and what agreements are in place from income deriving from the recordings is another factor. There are too many factors to determine what an artist will make and it’s only on a case by case basis that the potential can be determined. I can rap, produce, record, engineer, mix and master by myself, so my overheads can be lower than others, because I’ve acquired the skill-set and equipment to make it all happen. That doesn’t mean I make make music at no cost. I still work with other musicians and pay session fees out. I have been fully responsible for CD manufacturing costs and vinyl pressing, I pay graphic designers, MCPS licenses etc, etc, so I still have to recoup costs, but my capacity to earn may supersede someone else in a group or someone else paying out for studio expenses, producer fees or mastering fees.

Lesson: Remember there is nothing written in stone that says you’re capacity to earn is the same as everyone else. Your circumstance is yours. Understand it and build on it. Also remember that commonly is the case that artists are at the bottom of the financial food-chain. Although we create the music, a pressing plant, a distributor, a record store and a record label probably receive their share of the incoming revenue before the artist share funnels through. Do as much as you can to learn how money flows in the industry and see if there are ways to — in some places — intercept the food-chain.

7. Is My Talent Enough?

Speaking of emails, I remember contacting a Graphic Designer from London about potentially doing some artwork for me and needed a quote. I reached out to her via Facebook, Twitter and through email and heard nothing for over two weeks. I ended up using a different Designer based in Las Vegas, but shortly after commissioning the job to him, the London Designer got back to me saying, “sorry, I hardly check my emails”. She then said she’d charge £70 for the job, but was too late. What she didn’t know is that the Designer in Vegas charged me £250, but I paid him £350. You see, I’m never afraid to pay more when the work is excellent, so had she done the work, she’d have probably made more than just £70, but due to her not answering that initial email quick enough, she made nothing. To top that off, the album was very popular and was posted on hundreds of blogs online, showcasing the brilliant front cover. For her, this was a case of a ‘lose, lose’.

As for being on time, one thing people who know me know very well, is that I’m never late. I have a talent in being consistently on time, so much so, that I have coined this saying, “I’m always two steps ahead, so when I’m late, I’m early”. I live by it and am regimental with it.

Talented musicians are ten-a-penny, They are busking on London Underground and playing in the church choir. Nothing to be ashamed of in any of those, but that’s a different ball game from seriously engaging in the music business as a lifelong career. Surviving this business requires a level of professionalism and business acumen many don’t have, nor seem too interested in acquiring. Instead they feel they are so great as creatives, they do not need to be good at anything else; so they expect every other effort to come from elsewhere.

I remember one Friday afternoon, I called an artist I had previously worked with and offered him the opportunity to release his own record. I was prepared to provide the studio time, produce the music and pay for the pressing of the records. I’d have also sorted the distribution and ensured that his product would eventually hit some of the most reputable record stores. He responded by saying, “sounds good to me, cos no one else ain’t offering me that”. So we arranged to meet up on the coming Monday to further discuss how we’d set about doing something together. However, just before the call ended, he said to me, “do me a favour and give me a call on Sunday to remind me that we’re meeting up on Monday”. I never called him again and he didn’t show up either. For me, that was enough to tell me he didn’t want it that badly.

You see, back when I was a teenager, I’d a call recording a studio for an audition. They’d tell me to “call back on Friday at 2pm and we’ll see if we can fit you in on the weekend”. From that moment on, Friday at 2pm was the MOST IMPORTANT day and time in my life, because that call and the possibility of what could come from it was too important to me for me to require anyone (especially the one offering me the chance I was looking for) to have to remind me of the opportunity they may be prepared to give me. I mean, try that for a prospective job interview! No employer would be happy to hear that you’d like them to call you to remind you about the interview they want to give you. But there’s this funny thing with musicians, where some believe they are so talented, that outside of their talent, not much additional effort has to ever exist.

Lesson: Yes, your talent should be celebrated, but you’ll find it difficult to acquire the success you seek if you don’t believe you should also shine in other areas as a musician. Reliability, integrity, conscientiousness, punctuality etc, all show how much you respect what you do and respect others. Your reputation is everything. Many talented people have damaged and broken reputations that no amount of additional talent will mend… Be mindful of this.

8. Do Social Media Stats Matter?

Lets go a little deeper…. Which of these two artists below is more popular?

Artist 1


Artist 2

It could be argued that based on social media stats, Artist 1 is more popular than artist 2 with a higher number of people he/she can reach, but to me, it appears that from a highly ranked and popular music platform such as Spotify, Artist 2’s music is more popular.

So which is more worthy of a shot a becoming the next big thing? And why? And these are the kinds of intricacy of detail hardly ever talked about when artists are being encouraged to play the numbers game and get those figures up.

Again lets go a bit deeper on Spotify.

Artist 1. Has 109k monthly listeners on Spotify with a total of 495k streams per month

Artist 2. Has 217k monthly listeners on Spotify with a total of 244k streams per month

You can see here that Artist 1 has approximately half the listeners as Artist 2, but gets nearly twice as many streams.

See it’s not just about how many people are listening, it’s also about how many times each person listens and how much of your catalogue they engage with. Artist 1’s listeners are lower in quantity, but may be playing 3–4 of that Artist’s tracks, whereas Artist 2 has more listeners, but those listeners might only playing 1 or 2 of that Artist’s tracks. Then who is more noteworthy in their success as an artist of the two? The one with highest number streams? Or the one with more listeners? How much audio does each artist have in their respective catalogues? You see, it’s not as clear cut as some might put it and is often difficult to decipher what’s really going on from a surface observation of just numbers.

Lesson: Social media stats tell you some things, but not everything. They may not be as important as the industry can often make out, and it is crucial that you do not base every artistic decision around what you interpret your stats to mean, as you could be wrong. Don’t get too carried away or invested in measuring yourself against the stats of others. Remember that there’s often circumstances and data that you cannot easily see, that may create a differentiation or indeed a similarity in those stats you’re comparing.

9. No One Said It Was Easy.

I get asked to get involved with many projects and other peoples ideas almost on a daily basis. People come to me with their plans, their agendas and the things they seek to achieve and often want me to provide something that can help them attain it, seeking to use my efforts to get closer. As a younger artist, I used to think about whether some of these things would build on my career or help me financially, or whether I was playing myself, selling myself short or doing something under pressure, or out of guilt, because I felt like I had to perhaps return a favour. Whereas now, it’s very simple. I ask myself, do I actually want to do that thing? Or would I be much happier not to? It’s that last question right there which serves a s my measuring stick.

Sometimes, just the thought of doing something I really don’t want to do can kill my vibe. When this is happening, I’m all out. Of course, I understand that we live in a world where such is the case there are many things we don’t want to do, but feel we have to. But compliance does not automatically mean we agree. So unless there is an absolutely necessity, I will not engage in anything I don’t want to do, especially if I feel it will hamper my happiness. It’s not an easy practice and may come more naturally the older you are, but it has — for me — relieved much of the anxieties and stresses of feeling bound to something that brings little or no joy. The music industry has been known to leave musicians feeling sad, lonely, exploited, unimportant and irrelevant, as well as the financial hardships that can exist. Nothing is to say that you’ll be as big as whoever is currently top of the charts and nothing is to say that you won’t. But it can be a painstaking journey for some, even when they’ve hit the big time; so invest where you can into being happy. In addition seek help when you feel you may need it. Stay close to the people who you know love you and not necessarily to just those who you love. Meaning, sometimes the people we care about the most are not in return the ones who care most about us. So think about who really does care about you and take time to appreciate them for that. Keep in touch and stay close. They’ll be the people who are really there for you if things get too low or more than you can handle.

Lesson: Evident

10. It’s Not Just About What Happens, It’s About How You Feel About What Happens.

Lesson: What happens and how you feel about it is not always the same thing. Try to keep things to perspective and act with the level of rationale and proportionality fitting for the circumstance. It’s not always that easy to do, but work on it. If you’re aware of it, you can always (at the very least) improve it.

I sincerely hope this article can, will and has… helped somebody to gain a clearer perspective.

Funky DL

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