Why do musicians always feel disappointed about their career?
5 out of 6 reasons are THEIR fault. Time for retrospection.
I was at a gig last night and I saw three amazing bands rocking out the stage and making people dance very hard. Note: it’s London, normally people don’t dance that hard.
The sad realization I made is that none of these bands actually makes money. Isn’t it sad? The band entertains you, makes you feel great, you pay the bar for drinks, but the musician gets nothing of monetary nature.
That brought an avalanche of thoughts and I started jotting them down! I quickly came down to 6 main reasons of failure, which you’ll definitely relate with (if you’re a musician).
Note: this order IS hierarchical. In other words, if you haven’t solved issue #1, don’t try to solve #3.
1. Lack of focus on a specific goal and vision.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Lewis Carroll
Instead of blaming the system, musicians should blame themselves for not knowing where they’re going and having ambivalent goals.
A solo artist needs a long-term goal to focus on and a grander vision to accomplish. A band — to make matters more complicated — needs to maintain a mutual and clear route for all the 3-4-5 members that constitute it. Everybody needs to agree.
If you don’t, don’t blame the audience when you hear the phrase:
“You’re good, but you sound/look like (name other — probably well-known — artist)”
That is, you don’t stand out. Because you haven’t spend any time to refine what art means to you, who you are and why you’re different from the others.
And I don’t mean you need to be enormously ambitious to have focus on a goal. It’s good enough to say: “I will be the busker that all the people of Camden (neighbourhood of London) will talk about.”
2. They suck at communication.
Ok, let’s not hide behind our fingers. If you do have a vision, I guarantee that nobody will know about it if you haven’t communicated it properly to the world.
You can communicate a message in two ways: with words and with actions.
Speaking about actions, let me just drop some food for thought (and the hungry Musicpreneurs will get it):
The quality and nature of one’s vision is appraised according to the perception created by the context, the consistency and the progress of the visible bit of the vision.
All three must be present. In humanese: how do you expect someone to be convinced of your grand vision when you keep playing in bars and open mic nights all the time? Nobody says you don’t have a great plan behind it, but if people don’t see the signs to keep up with it, you’ve lost them forever. And that’s because of the bad communication on your part.
“Always try to build a bond and relationships that go through YOU, not through your band’s name or profile.
Everyone might be able to ignore a band’s music, but nobody can ignore the fiery passion and vision of a PERSONALITY. This is what you should sell them. Everybody’s got good music.”
In other words, if you’re a charismatic communicator, this quality will rub off on your artistic profile as well. If you don’t have this inclination, work on it and become a great verbal communicator.
3. Has anyone heard of persistence?
The vision is there, you feel confident and you got some great people supporting you. But you are on the verge of giving up.
Persistence is the key. Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?
You constantly consider giving up because you haven’t tasted the corn yet after months of harvesting. It’s alright, keep harvesting. Adding value is not a race. It’s a life-long process.
The rewards will come sooner or later. It seems you still have steps to do, you’re not there yet. How can you expect to reach the goal if you haven’t executed all the steps? That’s unnatural, dude!
An example (for you to face reality):
What would the value of Ferrari be without years of persistence to build a luxury brand, which is valued according to its durability in time? Wouldn’t it be stupid (and funny) for Enzo Ferrari to say ‘it’s too hard, I quit’, while building something that exceptional?
An advice (for you to feel better):
Do you want to feel better and quit less often? Keep following the vision you have in mind, but slice it in small, measurable and attainable sub-goals, which will help you be accountable to yourself, boost your confidence and will give you shots of gratification to keep going.
And do you want to hear the harsh truth?
Nobody owes you a living and you need to go after it. With persistence.
4. Tools are there. Know-how isn’t.
Yes, I’m saying that most musicians don’t know how to use the vast majority of tools available to them. That’s sad, so much potential goes to waste.
I’m not implying that all tools out there are relevant and useful to every musician. But when you combine strategically and skillfully some of them, you can effortlessly and cheaply create a system that will vigorously work on your behalf. Think beyond Bandcamp and Soundcloud, this is not all there is.
This is the power of the web, it shouldn’t go wasted. Especially if you have laid a coherent plan, talent and persistence on the table, the next step is the investment in knowledge. Knowing how and why.
You won’t get far without having a clear overview of the media world and the related industries that comprise it. You need to be sure where you stand in this map, and that only comes with knowledge. Some of the tools that I found most useful have nothing to do with musicians. And this is where the treasure is hidden, you cannot spot it unless you’ve build a media world map in your head. Oh Lord, how creative can this process be! You can’t imagine.
Investing in bodies of knowledge indirectly connected with the music industry is the way to go.
What kind of knowledge? A few examples: how startups work, psychology of copywriting, neuromarketing, design, how perception is formed and so on. A musician in the future will need to know about all these topics — why not invest in the future today?
5. Business model: what’s yours?
Here’s where most heads will get scratched. But this is where the root of all evil lies.
Most musicians have no business model at all or just — badly — clone existing ones. (Because this is what others do)
What a business model is NOT, to begin with:
A business model is not how you make people spend more money on what you do.
What a business model is (my favorite definition):
A business model describes how you create, deliver and capture value (economic, social, cultural or other).
In other words, you might not sell anything, but you need to have a business model! Even non-profits, whose purpose is to deliver value, need a business model. This way, they organize how they deliver that value to the world and survive in an economic environment (because everybody needs some money to sustain what they do).
What happened here? Did the hateful attitude towards the word ‘business’ reverse? Yes it did.
Business is any operation that requires some form of transaction to progress. As a musician, you’re transacting (a lot): emotions, music, experiences, products, money.
Read the Business Model Generation (a book worth buying) to get a full idea of how you can organize your assets and activities, offer more value, balance costs and revenue to make a profit. Organize, offer value, make profit. Splendid!
Having a solid vision, knowing how to translate it in words for the real world, knowing how not to quit and arming with knowledge. Assemble all that under the umbrella of a business model.
This is your part. Lots of things to sort out. You’re alone up to that point. But soon you’ll need external help. #6 it is.
6. Everyone needs some budget to get things done.
This is the #1 excuse of a musician, but in reality it’s the least important factor when it comes to building strong foundations as a band-business.
Money will be used to scale up, not to build something exceptional. I’m a big fan of bootstrapping and experimenting, just like the lean startup framework suggests. The more you experiment and play small, the more chances that you’ll create something truly exceptional.
Money is not a part of this equation. Despite the fact that most musicians think it is. Money will bring money (aka it will be used to scale up something that already makes money).
So, stop thinking about how you can fund something, start building something minimal that stands out instead. Cliché? Hell, can’t be truer.
Money is a multiplier, not a foundation.
What will you need money for?
To create a team around your project and compensate them for their time, to develop some concepts that require a budget, to use publicity services.
Where will you find that money?
- Kickstart the well-defined project you’ve planned. You must have created some traction and gained some fans, right?
- Find an angel investor to fund you. You’ll be accountable to them and that’s an extra motivational force. Your ‘product’ needs to be investable and scalable for Angels to be attracted.
- Borrow that money. You believe much in your project, don’t you? That means you won’t be afraid to get in debt to pursue it.
What do I do next, Tommy?
Alright, hopefully you’ve read the whole article. What do you do now? How does this translate in the real music world?
Re-evaluate who you are and why you create art. What is the outcome you want: legacy, money, fame, freedom? Prioritize things and mainly focus on the number one. You can’t have it all (or at least focus on all of them on simultaneously). I focus on freedom and then legacy.
Arm yourself with knowledge. It has never been so fun and easy to learn and pursue what you want. But the good resources of knowledge are floating in a vast web. Some free, high quality knowledge sources can be found in Coursera, Udacity, edX, KhanAcademy, ArtistHouseMusic, while great paid courses can be found on Udemy and Skillshare.
Start transforming from a hobbyist to a Musicpreneur. Start with this course on how to build a Band as a Business and a more advanced on How to Build a Startup (both are free). Follow my updates on Think Beyond The Band and read my extended report about the Musicpreneur. Watch the videos of Darker Music Talks.
Stop thinking about money. Release yourself from those thoughts. Money for scaling up comes last.
“The best way to maximize profits over the long term is not to make them the primary goal of the business” John Mackey
Go lean and experiment to find the perfect business model! The reality is I cannot give you specific advice on how to become successful and make money, because there is no universal solution yet. That’s good, only the serious Musicpreneurs will make a living, nobody owes you one! Start learning about the lean thinking and create a business model that suits your integrity. Again, this book is a must and a foundation.
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I’m Tommy Darker, the writing alter ego of an imaginative independent musician. I started ‘Think Beyond The Band’ because I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished so far and I like helping other fellow musicians that struggle with the same problems.