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Why You Must Treat Music Like A Business

Money_bagsIt’s the least sexy part of being an indie musician: making money. Mostly because when you’re still in the early stages as an artist, you’d much rather talk about the thousands of listens you’re getting on SoundCloud than the few hundred dollars hitting your bank account every so often.


Guest Post by John Steen on

You take “working for free” to a whole new level by literally making like zero money. Yet you’re continuously dreaming about “doing this for a living” and being a “full-time” musician. To add to this, you are competing with the thousands of high-school and college students who are hungry for exposure and are still on mom and dad’s budget, so they can and do work for free. How can you compete with free?

The industry is so competitive that it’s one of the few industries where you pay for your own internship. I did three internships in the music industry and ended up making $0 and paying thousands for rent, travel, etc. And these gigs paid just as much as 99% of the other available music industry internships out there.

So you’re competing with people who charge $0, people who are younger than you, and those that are chosen like a green alien by the Claw in Toy Story that is the major record labels. So how the heck are you supposed to make a living?

Well, Option A is that you can throw your instruments in the air, tear your shirt in two and scream in agony at this dying industry. Or Option B is that you can realize that this is business, and you’ll have to think like a businessperson and an artist at the same time.

Guitar-Music-Art-lThis means that you have to not only be comfortable with a thousand rejections, but that you should purposefully seek them out. If you are a beginning artist, you should realize that you are starting out with absolutely no credibility, probably not many connections and a bio that probably looks like every other shmo trying to send A&R’s their material.

How would you expect to stand out like that? Would you hire or give money to someone with those credentials and background? Didn’t think so.

BUT, who is consistently making good money? Who is standing out? Well, it’s not:

  • People that sound like what’s already on the radio
  • People who have crappy recordings
  • People who write crappy, generic songs
  • People whose music is really well-produced but really freaking boring
  • People who are selfish and the only thing you ever hear from them is “buy my stuff” or “share this song”
  • People who all sound the same

The artists and producers that are actually making and sustaining a good living generally do seem to be:

  • Hustling like crazy to pursue every opportunity imaginable. Benny Blanco used to call record labels pretending to be a lawyer and ask for the President of the label, only to get hung up on when he said “listen to my demo.”
  • Making stuff that doesn’t sound like anyone else. Mumford and Sons? Lorde?
  • Spend countless hours honing and learning their craft
  • Treating people with respect and humility
  • Giving away more than they are demanding
  • Placing the highest priority on exposure and allowing this to lead to monetization opportunities
  • Doing the above but also seeking ways to fund their journey along the way like licensing, performance, studio work and teaching
  • Working within their means and not spending more than they’re making. Up and coming band LANY made their recent buzzworthy tracks with a Windows computer and two synths. They played some of the hottest showcases at SXSW and have been blowing up recently.

Despite all of the negativity and hopelessness that’s in the air regarding artists making money, there are several people who are getting it right. It takes a shift of mindset to move away from passivity and towards a mentality of intentionality, hustle, business-mindedness and reality. The only way I’ve seen artists create satisfying, financially-sustainable careers is by being incredibly pragmatic about their finances and the business side of their careers, while maintaining the curiosity, boldness and creative edge of an artist with their music.

John Steen is an artist, blogger and producer in Dallas, TX. He runs Sound and Substance, an online resource & podcast for indie artists and producers.