You know the old adage – if you want to make a million dollars in music, start with two million and quit early. I’ll try to be more positive than that because, really, I’ve had a damn fun time playing music for a living. My sole source of income for 13 years was as a touring musician. I still tour part-time today. If you’re just starting out, here are a few points to consider.
Make sure you’re good
I know this seems obvious, but really work on your craft. I don’t care if you’ve played piano since you were three. Learn new techniques. Figure out other people’s songs, tear them apart and find out what makes them great. Get feedback from other songwriters – I’ve been a member of several songwriter’s circles and they’ve been invaluable. Play open mikes and showcases until you can’t stand it. Ask for feedback from other professionals. You want someone who can give you concrete advice, not just a family member who will utter pleasantries.
Have a girlfriend with a good job
At least, have another source of income, whether you’ve got a husband who can cover the bills when you can’t, some savings or another job. Jobs with flexible hours are best. I’ve met professional musicians who were also substitute teachers, web designers or music teachers. (If you want to know more about becoming a music teacher, see my earlier post here.)
Get good equipment
You don’t have to have a vintage Strat, but if you’re playing a beat-up Yamaha inherited from your brother, invest in something better. A small PA is a good idea too because it’ll allow you to play almost anywhere – not every club will have a PA or a backline for your band. I have a little amp with two inputs – one for a guitar and one for a mike – that works well for smaller venues.
Have a web presence
That almost goes without saying, right? Of course, there’s Facebook and Twitter. Don’t forget about the value of a website. You can pay to have one done, then get it hosted somewhere or you can make use of the free sites out there. My band’s site is at ReverbNation. I like their setup. I also know some musicians who’ve done their own sites at places like WordPress.
Do as many local gigs as you can
You need experience. It doesn’t matter how good your songs or your voice are if you get up on stage and sing notes unknown to humankind because you’re so nervous. The more you play out, the easier it gets. After a while, it’ll be like getting up and brushing your teeth, only more fun. (Trouble with stage fright? Read my earlier post about that here.) You’ll sell more CDs and downloads if you perform out. Which leads me to the next topic —
Don’t record and sell every song you write. Recording is permanent, so make sure you’re putting out your best effort. Again, get feedback. Record the songs audiences like best, the ones people often request. Consider a single or an EP first. Just offering downloads first is sometimes a good idea. I love working with CD Baby. They’ll help you sell a physical CD as well as putting it up on lots of download sites.
If you’re not sure you can design your own website or get good photos, if you need career advice or if you want someone to write your bio, there are lots of folks who can help you. Ask your musician friends who they’ve used. Be wary of ads and spam that promises to put you first in website searches or otherwise make you a Big Star.
Conferences and festivals can be great places to network, but don’t blow your year’s budget on one event. Carefully choose the event that best matches what you do. I attended a general music conference once that was a big waste of my time and money. In my late 30’s at the time, I was older than most attendees. Plus, as someone who does a lot of folk music, there was no place for me among the pop singers and rock bands. For me, events like the Folk Alliance conferences were more up my alley.
When you get to the event, make sure you’re playing somewhere, even if it’s the hotel hallway. Showcases are even better, of course. A CD and a stack of paper with a link to your Facebook page is never going sell as well as you playing live.
Press as many palms as you can. Pass out business cards and get theirs. Write down who you’ve met and how to contact them. Follow up, even if it’s a quick, “Great to meet you.”
Don’t book a huge tour right away
Get a solid reputation locally, then slowly branch out, maybe doing a weekend of gigs in a city an hour or two away. Maybe you’ve got a good friend there who’ll host a house concert. (For more about house concerts, see this post.) If you’ve played a festival in a particular town, try to get other kinds of gigs there. Contact musicians you’ve met in different cities to see if you can share a bill. You can do the same for them when they come to your area.
You’ve got to do the legwork yourself. Sometimes you can get a spouse or good friend to help you, but usually, after they find out the amount of work they’re in for, they’ll change their minds. After you establish a good following, then you can approach a manager or booker. Keep in mind, though, that they have to make a living too. Twenty percent of not much is not much. And, if you’re one of many on a huge roster, you may not get the notice you deserve.
Enjoy yourself and most of all, don’t sell the house
Making a ton of money is not the point, although I imagine it might be nice to have Lady Gaga’s income. Whatever you do, don’t take the kids out of school and take up residence in a van by the river. It’ll be uncomfortable and the kids will only end up hating you. Set some goals – for instance, give yourself two years to build a career. If you’re not making a majority of your income playing music then go back to your day job. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that you have to stop doing music. It means you’re smart and your kids won’t end up in therapy when they’re 20.
Did you find this post helpful? Please consider keeping me in coffee and my cats in kibble. And it’s only $2.