Hey friend! If you have the crazy dream of wanting to make a living in music, I'm glad you've landed here. This article is all about helping you really hone in on how to build a lasting career in music, specifically as an independent artist.
The goal today isn't to get you to find quick “success” by going viral on TikTok, added to the biggest playlists, etc, but rather help you find true and lasting success, financial stability, and personal wellbeing by building a BUSINESS in music.
We are not going to give you a step-by-step list of specific things to do to make it big – because it doesn't exist! Everyone's path to success is different – because every artist is different! Anyone who tries to tell you that X/Y/Z actions is the magic bullet to success is full of crap. The only thing that works is learning the principles and big-picture strategies and figuring it out for yourself.
With all of that out of the way, let's dive in…
Part 1: Ask Yourself Why You Want to Do Music
Time for a good old-fashioned gut check. I want you to get BRUTALLY honest with yourself about WHY you want to pursue a CAREER in music.
- To impress people?
- To party all the time?
- Just sounds more fun than “real work”?
It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to say these are TERRIBLE reasons to pursue music as a career. It’s ok if you have some of these tendencies in your ego – we all do! BUT, make sure they are not your main motivators.
Music is a TON of work. The creative side of music alone is near impossible to master – let alone all the business elements that are required to find success. Law school or medical school are without a doubt easier and much smarter options to pursue.
Beyond that, music is a rollercoaster. You will have the highest highs followed by the lowest lows. Even if you find overnight success, there is always some correction after.
If there is ANY part of you that wants a nice stable career path, just go do that. You will be happier and healthier! It’s just the nature of the music business.
BUT there are things we can do to make sure that we are approaching the music business in the most healthy and financially stable way possible by aiming for TRUE and LASTING success. We’re going to do that by helping you not just find fame, but build a business based on timeless principles.
Is it Even Possible to Build a Career in Music as an ARTIST?
Yes! It’s possible to make a career out of music as an artist. It may not look exactly like the idealized rockstar image you had growing up, but it’s possible to have a real adult career by building a BUSINESS. We’re going to examine the principles of that over the rest of this guide.
Just as a hint, the business model does not involve things like “getting discovered,” going viral, or landing a couple of huge deals. If those things happen along the way – that’s awesome! But we can’t hinge the whole success of your future on LUCK.
We’re going to focus on the things you CAN control rather than hoping success comes to you. It will take some strategy, grit, and a desire to take control of your future.
- What is your main PERSONAL reason for wanting to do music as a career?
- We all have unhealthy tendencies. What are some of the more EGO-driven reasons for pursuing music you could easily fall into? Be mindful of these so you can keep them in check!
- At THIS POINT in your career, what do you envision your long-term gameplan to be? (It’s ok for this to change over time – we're going to talk more about this in the next section)
Part 2: Defining Success and Goals For You
What is Success?
Often time people just say they want to “make it” in music. That’s a nice concept, but the problem is that it doesn’t really mean anything. And if anything, it sounds like you’re just dreaming of arena tours with pyrotechnics.
Making it “big” is not the only path to success in music. For example, your local coffee shop may not be Starbucks, but they have a good business that supports their family, employs cool people, and makes a difference in the local community. Are they any less “successful” than Starbucks? Of course not! They’re doing what they want and making a living!
In the same way, redefine success for yourself as getting to do what you love for your one shot at life.
What Do You Want in LIFE?
There are a ton of different paths you can take as a musician, and a million different directions you can take within the path of an ARTIST specifically.
Two general principles:
- There are no rules (the internet is an incredible place)
- Success is different for everyone
You can basically make any dream you have work. The trick is to solidify what that looks like so you know how to pursue it.
Let’s start by defining what you value in life on a grand scale. What kind of lifestyle do you want? Are you a homebody? Do you want to prioritize travel? Do you know you want kids at some point? All of these are important to know about yourself so we can develop a plan.
For example, if you’re a homebody, 200 touring dates a year will be a living hell and death to trying to start a family (at least at the start) – you might be better off in production or being a co-writer for other artists. If you know you live for travel, being an artist who lives on the road might be a dream for you.
All of these paths and definitions of success are 100% valid. It just depends on what you want for your life.
You may not know exactly what you want in life or the specific path you want to take just yet – that’s ok! Just be mindful of what you learn about yourself so you can focus in when you can!
Let’s Get Specific
Once you have an idea of what you want your life to look like and what path you want to pursue, let’s start breaking it down into specific goals.
In business school, they teach an acronym called SMART for setting quality goals:
SPECIFIC: Just means the goal shouldn’t be vague. A specific goal is something like “record a 5-song EP” rather than something like “idk man i just wanna have some stuff out at some point”
MEASURABLE: Can you clearly say “yes this happened”? A good goal is “sell $10,000 worth of merch” rather than “bring in more money”
ACHIEVABLE: Can this goal realistically happen? An achievable goal is “book a west coast tour” rather than “start a music festival on an oil tanker with Taylor Swift”
RELEVANT: Does this actually advance your overarching goal?
TIME-BOUND: Assign timeframes. Give specific deadlines for yourself.
With the definition of a quality goal above, let’s write down 6 things:
- What is your big vision? What does success mean for you?
- What will things look like 1 year from now?
- What will things look like 2 years from now?
- What will things look like 5 years from now?
- What will things look like 10 years from now?
- What will things look like 15+ years from now?
Get as specific as possible. We want to break down what the vision is into smaller achievable goals.
NEXT, repeat the process for some specific goals for the next year so that you can reach your 1-year goal from above. I like making goals on a quarterly basis. What is the main goal for the next 3 months?
- How will you define “success” (big picture) going forward?
- We believe in designing life you want. What are some lifestyle things that you value in WHATEVER your career ends up looking like?
- With those lifestyle goals in mind, how much money do you need to make? It’s ok if you don’t have an exact budget – if you don’t know now, just write down what big-picture expenses might look like.
- After asking yourself these questions, follow the guide above for creating SMART goals for 1, 2, 5, 10, 15+ year goals.
- Ask yourself how will you start working toward each of those goals starting TODAY? Write that in your todo app for tomorrow.
Part 3: Talent Does Not Equal Success
Unfortunately, music is not a fair industry. Talent is only half of the equation. You can't expect to just release a few killer songs and instantly top the charts.
In the bars and music venues of every city, there are drop-dead brilliant performers and songwriters. Yet most of them aren't anywhere near having “made it” (whatever that means).
Yes, you need to be amazing at your craft, but it also takes hard work, business savvy, and a willingness to invest in yourself.
Nobody is going to hand you a golden ticket to fame just because you're brilliant… even if you get signed (which probably shouldn't be your main goal).
Even if you happen to get lucky and a song of yours goes viral, that doesn't mean
- You'll continue to have success after that blip of fame
- You're ready to capitalize on that brief moment of an expanded audience
Furthermore, hoping your song just happens to pop off isn't a business model – it's waiting for luck (which as I said won't mean anything if you haven't worked to build a foundation to support it first).
Everyone Has to Work Hard. Don't Get Discouraged.
Maybe you're familiar with the concept of 10,000 hours. Don't take it too literally, but it's a nice shorthand for “put in your time to become a master.”
Not only do you need to put in your “10,000 hours” honing your musical craft, but you also need to spend time developing business skills, organizational skills, marketing strategies, relationships, and building your core audience.
All of these things take time! Don't get discouraged because it seems like some people find overnight success. They probably didn't. You're seeing the highlight real and the end results on social media.
For instance, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas didn't just decide to make music one day and land at the top of the charts the next. They were making music for YEARS before they blew up – during that time they honed in their musical craft, developed a sound/brand/personality so that when the stars aligned, they were ready.
And I guarantee to this day the superstars like Taylor Swift work their butts off.
Last Word on Talent
Don't expect that fame will come if you're more talented than everyone else. Work hard, develop your skills, and THEN you'll be ready to find success.
This quote has been attributed to a bunch of people, so I'm not sure who to credit, but I'll leave you today with this:
“The harder I work, the luckier I get”
- Be honest with yourself. Do you have a tendency to view your success as rooted more in your talent than your work ethic?
- Success in music requires many things including music skills, stage presence, business/accounting skills, big-picture planning, forming relationships, connecting with your audience. Which of these are you strongest at?
- Which of the things listed above needs the most work for you? How are you going to address that?
Part 4: Are You an Musician or an ARTIST?
One of the biggest things I see new artists struggle with is not fully understanding what it means to be an artist.
Artist is not just a synonym for a musician. Being an ARTIST is something that is developed. It's about creating a brand/style/experience that people connect with on a deep level.
Just having a good voice doesn't make you a good artist. It means you're a good singer. This is why a lot of contestants on The Voice or American Idol struggle after the show (and the ones who continue to have careers beyond the show have the strongest artistry developed). Similarly, there are brilliant performers in every bar across the world who struggle because they haven't developed their sense of artistry.
What Makes an Artist?
You need to have some sort of X factor for people to connect with beyond just a good voice. You need a strong brand (which is more than just your look), a sense of who you are, overall uniqueness.
To achieve this is up to you. There is no formula. But it's why people do things adopt stage names, mesh unrelated genres, or wear helmets on stage. Don't be generic but also don't be contrived!
To be a successful artist, you almost need to be ready to lead some sort of “movement.” What do you stand for? Not like literally Greenpeace or whatever, but have you developed your artistry into something where people feel like you get them more than anyone else (aka superfans, stans, etc).
The key to this is to be 100% you and true to your influences. Embrace what makes you unique. The world is in love with interesting people.
People don't connect with good voices or tones inherently. People connect with personalities, emotions, ideas, and movements.
Examples of ARTISTS
Here are some fantastic examples of ARTISTS.
- The Beatles (probably the greatest ARTIST of all time)
- Taylor Swift (has diehard fans and reinvents herself in every era)
- U2 (developed unique sound and passionate about causes)
- Lana Del Rey (was an obscure blues singer going by her real name of “Elizabeth Grant” before rebranding to Lana Del Rey and her iconic sound)
- Nirvana (the leaders of the grunge movement)
- Billie Elish (the gen-z Nirvana)
- Michael Jackson (The King of Pop)
- Bob Dylan (not a conventional singer but an icon of the 60s social movements)
- Johnny Cash (The Man in Black)
- Dolly Parton (a musical and branding genius)
What do all these have in common? They've all crafted something bigger than just the music. They are not just singing nicely, but creating a mood, movement, idea, or experience. They have PERSONALITY.
Don't like one of them? That's ok! But NONE of them are forgettable. They each changed the world in their own way because they figured out who they were and built a brand around that.
Artistry takes time to develop. That's why you've heard that labels are “developing” artists.
- Who you are
- What makes you special
- What you want to say
- What you want people to walk away feeling from the expereince you provide
Then own being 100% you.
- Give an honest assessment of yourself. Are you an ARTIST or mostly just a musician?
- What is the thing that is MOST special about you as a person/artist that nobody else has? This can be musically (like singing style), topically (do you touch on topics that others don't?), or branding-wise (do you have a unique persona/image?).
- List your biggest ARTISTIC influences and what you like about them.
Part 5: How to Make a LIVING as an ARTIST
Time to get to the topic everyone wants to know more about: how to actually make money as an artist.
People who say there is no money left in music are dead wrong. In fact, this is the best time ever to build a career as an artist.
We've all heard the naysayers say things like:
- Spotify and Apple Music pay like crap
- Piracy is still a thing
- Few people buy physical media
- Most people don't care about merch
- COVID has screwed up the touring/venue business
Guess what? These are all TRUE!
BUT it doesn't mean you can't make a real, adult-level living as an artist.
In fact, I tell people they should embrace giving music away for free and embrace a business model used by the top content creators on platforms like YouTube.
The Business Model Used by Content Creators
If you pay attention to how most successful content creators operate, it usually follows a general pattern of:
- Free public, discoverable content
- Free private content
- Paid content/products
- Paid hi VIP content/products/experiences.
It's a general misconception that YouTubers make most of their money from ads. This is not the case. The smartest YouTube creators view ad revenue as a side benefit to selling premium content and access to them (like Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution will tell you when I interviewed him for our podcast).
They focus on
- Converting viewers into subscribers ($)
- Converting subscribers into customers ($$$)
- And converting customers into VIPs ($$$$$$$$$$$$)
They get 80% of their revenue from the top 20% of fans. It's about going deep, not just wide.
So I propose that you start viewing your music business in the same way that other online content creators do. Which is why I encourage you to view your music as more of your free content than your premium product (at least from a revenue standpoint).
David's Heierachy of Leads
Before we dive into the specifics of how to approach music from a content creator's perspective, let's lay some psychological foundation.
It's a mistake to think that all fans are the same. Some fans will spend way more money on you than others. It's way more profitable to give superfans premium content/attention/experiences than to try to get the masses to do something.
I've come up with a framework to think about the levels of fandom called David's Hierarchy of Leads:
- Casual Fans
- True Fans
Non-Fans are self-explanatory. They either don't know about you or don't like you. Your goal is to get people's attention with your music, YouTube content, etc so that they become Casual Fans.
Casual Fans are people who like you but aren't actively invested. Maybe they've saved a couple of your songs. Maybe if their friends are coming to your show they'll tag along, but really they don't care beyond the surface level. At this level, you'll get a few pennies from their streams, but it's foolish to spend your time and money to MONETIZE them at this point. Your goal should be nurturing them into True Fans via special content, talking to them after gigs, etc.
True Fans are the people that actively care about you. They will come to shows, buy merch, donate to your crowdfunding or Patreon. They want to see you succeed and will step up when there is an ask from you. But if you do your job well, they can graduate to Superfans.
Superfans are the truest of the True Fans. They will do ANYTHING for you. They will drive states away to see you. They'll donate $5000 to fund your next album. If they're well off, introduce you to their business network and help you get cool opportunities. They'll go to your fundraiser parties where there's no point other than to hang with other cool fans that care about you because they freakin' love you.
This isn't magical thinking. I developed this framework after spending a number of years on the road with The Talbott Brothers and witnessing this phenomenon firsthand. It freakin works. For instance, their last Indiegogo for an album, they asked for $35,000 but ended up with $60,000. This is 100% because they understand it's way more viable long-term to nurture fans into more serious of fans rather than just chasing fame.
A Better Business Model
Spamming Instagram or paying for playlist scams isn't a business model. Maybe you get a nice bump in your vanity metrics (like Spotify or Instagram or TikTok), but those things don't mean that you have a career or are bringing money in. Don't be like the fashion influencers that have high follower counts that can't even sell a $20 T-Shirt.
So at the casual fan level, ask yourself what can you do to nurture Casual Fans into True Fans? It's different for everyone, but it has to go along with all the things I talked about in yesterday's email: showing your personality, brand, what you stand for, building a community, etc.
Don't just spam the generic fluff posts everyone else does. Be unique. In fact, tune out what everyone else seems to be doing. Go deep rather than wide. Most of your social fans are casual anyway, so get the ones who are more committed off of social media and onto an email list and focus your sales there.
The Math Behind $100,000/Year
Let's assume you want to make $100,000 a year as an artist. On average, all it takes is 1000 people giving you $100 directly.
Obviously, this won't end up being literally $100×1000, but it at least gives you a goal to shoot for (one new true fan a day for 3 years).
$100 is not that much for people (especially if they're giving $10 a month via something like Patreon). People live for music. They want to give to artists. Will you build the relationship and provide the opportunity to support you?
This goal of $100 from 1000 people is in direct support – Patreon, NFTs, tip jar, digital merch, whatever. Then when you play shows, sell physical merch, get stream money – that's just a bonus!
Super Revenue from Superfans
The 1000 True Fans concept doesn't even factor in crazy stuff the Superfans will do. Maybe you throw a fundraising dinner or VIP album release party. Or some crazy NFT. It really depends on what works for you. Don't try to mimic what you see others doing because you think “oh I guess that's what you gotta do now.”
The point is that this level of fan will pay for unique experiences and memories all while getting warm fuzzies about supporting you. So build the relationships and create opportunities and excuses for people to support you!
How Do I Pay The Bills Now?
Great question. Obviously building deep fans takes time, but today's bills are a reality.
Whatever you find yourself doing to pay the bills, always remember that the point of the job is to fund the growth of your career.
The name of the game is flexibility and weekend availability. If you find yourself saying “I wish I could play this show, but I have to work,” it's time to find a new side gig!
This is why driving for Uber or Lyft or Doordash is a great option. It sucks so you won't get comfortable! There are no set hours and you can leave for tours at any time! Need more work to pay rent? Drive more!
- How much are you making from your music business? Breakdown how much you get from each avenue. If it’s below what you want to make, how much more do you need to start bringing in?
- Let’s say you never make a dime again from your album sales, streaming revenue, etc. Come up with a few ideas making money as an ARTIST while still putting out music:
- Do you have True Fans and Superfans? Are you doing enough to nurture them? Brainstorm a few ways you can give those level of fans MORE value than the casual fans.
Part 6: Marketing 101
What is Marketing?
Marketing is not just promotion. In fact, that's only a quarter of what marketing is.
Marketing is all about creating, capturing, delivering, and communicating the value you provide. Basically, developing your product, figuring out who it's for, how you're going to get people to buy it, and how you interact with people. In my marketing 101 class in college, we talked about “The 4 P's of Marketing” to help remember this:
We want to pretend that Marketing exists in a vacuum. Like you switch into “marketing mode.” But rather Marketing is EVERYTHING in your business. Imagine a company spending millions of dollars on a Super Bowl ad or no website/email to take orders. Or worse – a product that is still early on in the development process that won't ship for YEARS.
Yet that's basically what I see artists trying to do when trying to launch a career by going viral when they don't have many songs out, have no website, no community, have never played a show, don't have a community of fans for people to get plugged in with. There's no process to turn non-fans into true fans and superfans!
Where Does Social Media Fit Into The Marketing Mix for Artists?
For some reason, people seem to think that just popping off on social media means you can just convert that to success. I don't agree. Let's be honest about what going viral is – it's brief, fleeting attention. It won't get you success – it will just get you eyeballs – and those eyeballs mean nothing if you don't have the other 3 elements of Marketing figured out first!
Don't get me wrong you need eyeballs – but you need eyeballs after you get everything else figured out. Eyeballs mean nothing if you have no way to capitalize on it.
If social media is your method of getting eyeballs and plugged into your ecosystem, then great! But just being another voice in the noise of social media that's not actually adding anything is a lot of pointless work and stress. This is why the advice of “post every day no matter what” is pointless.
Trends are not Marketing
I'm sure you've heard “influencers” talk about how you HAVE to do X, Y, or Z because it's the big trend right now. The problem with trends is that they're… well… trends. Trends come and go. To me, it's exhausting to try to keep up with the latest gimmick on social media or whatever.
Do you want to be like everyone else? Or do you want to do the things that work for you? You are unique as an artist and person. The things that you see someone else doing successfully are only successful for them because it works for them and their brand! One size does not fit all!
Rather than being on the lookout for trends, be on the lookout for OPPORTUNITIES. Sometimes they do overlap. Don't do something because you're desperate to be one of the “cool kids”… but ask yourself if it's a genuine opportunity that advances your goal and can help you achieve your goals while fitting your brand and personality.
- Let's say for some reason you go viral on TikTok tomorrow. Is your business in a place where it could capitalize on that attention?
- What is your REPEATABLE method for turning non-fans into true fans should you find some attention?
Wrap Up – Now Go Forge Your Own Path
I hope you found this guide useful. I hope I helped you get thinking of things in a little bit of a different way (and maybe even disagree with me!!).
Ultimately, your path to success has to be up to YOU and your ability to figure things out for yourself. There is no one right way to make it work for yourself. So take EVERY piece of advice you get with a HUGE grain of salt.
If you have any questions, please comment below or email us!
David Ryan Olson
Hey I'm David. I'm a mix engineer and I run Evergreen Records. Thanks for reading this article and feel free to contact us with any questions about persuing music that you have.