Nine years ago, I left college with a Bachelor's Degree in Music. Untested and honestly, quite naive, I spent the next three years using money from designing websites freelance to ineffectively tour as an artist around the country, gigging myself into over $6k of high interest credit card debt. Embarrassed and defeated, I stopped writing, I stopped playing music outside of my home, and my answer to "what do you do?" begrudgingly changed from music to websites.
Fast forward to today and I've been debt free for over 3 years. Within that time, I self-funded my own full-length record from cash and started a music marketing agency to promote independent artists. I took 3 months, wrote/recorded and shot a video for one song a week about anything my blog readers submitted and released them all for FREE, and I'm currently in the process of launching a new Social Media App called Visualive all while working remotely from the road.
How did I do it? I want to show you and show that you can too with 5 simple rules.
About every six months, I use this system to revitalize and redefine my goals and work-flow as an artist, as a business, and as a human being. Most of it is common sense, and perhaps that's why many people never use it; they don't realize they already have the tools.
Here's what I've learned:
RULE 1: Minimize
Chances are, if you're in your 20's or 30's, you're doing too much. You have a Twitter, Facebook, 4Square, Tumblr account, and maybe more. You may not even realize it, but you find yourself wishing you'd start that business, try for that dream job, or make that record… and you don't because of "obligations" or "responsibilities", or worse yet, simple "lack of time." I'm with you. I've been there. Unfortunately for us as humans, this doesn't get easier as we grow older and add families or children to the mix, so it's best that we learn how to handle it now. No more excuses. It's time to trim the fat.
In my early 20's, I found myself devoured by a freelance design business that demanded constant attention with little return. My assumption that making my own hours would instantly give me the flexibility to do music wasn't exactly true, as the constant search to find work became a full-time job of its own. My solution? Take a 9-5 position at a local design firm. While this might sound counter-intuitive, it actually freed up a large majority of my time by eliminating an entire proposal and client management side I no longer dealt with, and provided me with the means to invest in my music career for the first time. I had time to write better songs and money to get things moving.
While this may not be the exact first step for everyone, I believe minimalism is key. I challenge you to examine what you do on a day to day basis, and ask yourself (a) do you actually like doing those activities and (b) what would happen if you just STOPPED doing part of it. What are the consequences? What is the worst-case scenario that could happen if you just dropped that activity today? What would the benefits be? What if you only used one social network and built your audience there? Would you suddenly find yourself with blocks of time available to dedicate to your passion or audience? I certainly did.
This rule applies to people as well as activities. You know those friends I'm talking about; the ones who seem to disappear until they have a favor to ask of you. Though removing yourself from unbalanced friendships may have its difficulties now, the rewards in time and creative energy down the road are exponential.
RULE 2: Delegate
While the term "independent" in the music industry generally refers to running your own career, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to do it alone. This is one part of the puzzle that I find many creatives miss. I know I certainly did. The beauty of being an "independent" artist is that you're suddenly the boss of your own career; the CEO and founder of your music, and it's your job to build a team under you.
So how do we do this? If you've followed rule #1, you should have already eliminated anything that isn't necessary to do. With what's left, ask yourself if it's necessary that You specifically do the task, or if someone else could do it for you, possibly even better than you. [side-note: I don't generally suggest delegation of creative work. That's what you enjoy, remember!?] If it's work that you personally need to do, [for example, communicating with your fans] I move it onto the next rule. Otherwise, I find a way to delegate it.
Real life example: I dread cleaning my house. Because of this, it takes me twice as long as any normal person to perform the task. However, if I hire someone to clean my house for me, it costs me money. Here comes the magical logic: I use a time vs. money ratio to make most of these decisions and apply it to everything from life tasks to music business work. First, I take my last year's income and come up with a (rough) hourly wage for myself. Next, I'll take the amount of time it takes me to do a given task, multiply it by my hourly wage, and come up with a task price. If I can find someone else to do the task cheaper than my "price" I consider it a matter of savings! In the end, time is money, and what we're looking for are ways to stream-line the busy work and free more time for connecting with fans, other creatives, and doing creative work.
"But I'm a starving artist? I can barely pay my rent. How do I find the money to pay someone else to do something for me?"
Do you have a parent / friend / significant other who believes in you and wants to see you succeed? Can you ask them to take on a very small task part time to help you get a leg up? What about a college intern? Do you have experience you can offer up or teach them in return for some "free work"? You don't have to go from starving artist one day to cash-flowing business the next, and taking small steps like this will teach you how to better delegate before you start paying for it.
"Okay Michael, I get your example, but do you really weigh this for everything in your life? Even Music Business?"
In the last year alone, I've hired two Nashville based assistants, a Los Angeles based Virtual Assistant, and a Virtual Assistant from the Philippines. These people have helped me book entire tours, gather contact information, build websites, schedule meetings, run my finances, make phone calls, and even plan strategies for creating new music. By taking time to find the right people and trusting in their abilities, I have been able to almost double my creative output, and the cost to me has been negligible once you factor in how profitable they have allowed my music business to become.
What was the tipping point for me? If you haven't yet read "The 4-Hour Work Week" by Tim Ferriss, pick it up now, today, this second, and read his chapter on outsourcing. Think what you may about the rest of the book, but this chapter alone has invaluable strategies for creatives on how to get out of your own way.
RULE 3: Prioritize
"The key is not to prioritize your schedule but to schedule your priorities."
~ Stephen R. Covey from "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"
Our society, and partially our school system, has ingrained in us that busy is better; that multi-tasking is a necessity, and that Facebook deserves your constant attention. It doesn't. What does deserve your attention are your goal-driven, well-defined priorities. It's time to separate yourself from the noise.
If we've already dropped the collective mass of unnecessary items from our lives and delegated out anything that doesn't specifically require our input, then all we have left are things that actually need our attention. You are now the CEO of your life and artist career. Congrats! Now to act like one.
This is the rule where I see most creatives lose focus. I personally suffer from the "do-it-all-now!" syndrome, so I can relate, but doing what deserves your attention at the right time creates momentum, and our goal is to feed that energy.
I start this process by taking a pen and paper and writing down all of the tasks that I need to do [Actually, I usually do this starting at rule one and make columns for "minimize", "delegate" and "prioritize"]. Once I have my list, I'll give each task a weight based on its urgency, my desire to see it to completion, or the length of time it's been on the list [longer gets higher priority].
Now, the magic comes in making these priorities actionable. For each item with the top priority rating, I break it down into small steps. For example, if I have "Finish Co-write with Kenny" as a priority, I'll break it down into:
1. Call Kenny for writing meet-up
2. Follow up and put it on the schedule
3. Refresh on material we wrote previously
4. Write with Kenny
Suddenly, I've got easy steps to reach each of my priorities. Next? Do step one TODAY. Setting your priorities in motion is the easiest way to guarantee they stay a priority. Then, continue in sequence scheduling up your week or month with these actionable steps to accomplish your goals.
Also, as a general rule, I try to give myself no more than 3 "to-do's" per day. Seeing a giant list of things that need to get done tends to send me into a coffee drinking panic, and in general, is not super conducive to freeing yourself creatively. Savor the coffee. Make time for your priorities.
RULE 4: Automate
Does anyone still pay with cash all the time? Do you remember having to thumb through a stack of bills and change to find the right amount, then possibly receiving change back and having to count or organize it? Along came Debit and Credit Cards, and with them slews of systems to make the process of a transaction more efficient. What if you could use similar automation to get out of your own way? Well you can, and I do every day.
By running myself through this "5 Rules" process numerous times, I began to notice systems develop each time a similar priority was identified. Perhaps all co-writing appointments could be setup in the same 4 steps. Maybe all my reoccurring payments could be pooled to one credit card that I auto-pay once a month? Could all my booking emails be funneled to an auto-responder that followed up for me and sent a press release? As these systems began to develop, I would ask myself one simple question: Does automating this task make it too impersonal? If the answer was no, I'd set the system in place.
So far, I've done this for my finances, 90% of my email, my processes for scheduling and communicating with my assistant, and a custom process I've developed for passively finding targeted fans [this one I'm super excited about. Hit me up here to find out more]. The results? I have more time to write, make music, and live life than I ever have before, and I find myself far less worried about "did I do that?" I don't have to think. It's already set to go.
Now, I can understand some people being a bit wary doing this with their finances and I could probably write an entirely separate blog on how to do this. However, for a great run down of how to do this successfully, I'd suggest Ramit Sethi's "I Will Teach You To Be Rich." Don't let the unfortunate title fool you, he's not full of crap. In fact, the book's a New York Times best seller, and is full of very plain and simple financial advice that even a scatter-brained musician like myself can understand. I've used common sense from this book along with Dave Ramsey's "Debt Snowball" plan to automatically budget for my goals and make it near impossible to not get them funded. Also, previously mentioned "The 4-Hour Work Week" by Tim Ferriss contains a good amount about personal automation.
RULE 5: Create
This is it, folks. This is what you've saved up so much time and energy to do. In my personal opinion, this should always be priority and rule #1, even if you do use the first 4 rules to clean out everything else. This is what drives and motivates you. As an artist or content creator, this is what will actually make or break you in the end. This is what you should be funneling the vast majority of your time and effort into as it feeds your authentic ability to connect and engage your audience.
My personal favorite metaphor for this comes from Bruce Warila's article about a 3 legged table. It's a quick read and worth your time, but in summary it suggests that your career is built on 3 legs: Songs, Magnetism, and Business… and that out of these, Songs is the one leg that can bring down the entire table if it isn't strong. Take this to heart. Spend your time developing your talents and creating quality material. While it may not be the first thing that brings you financial success [via digital downloads, for example] it is the strongest piece that connects you to your fans, and builds a relationship that can last your entire career.
And personally, I think that should be quite a long time.
*BONUS ROUND: Take Big Calculated Risks
This last piece I include as a small tidbit to chew on.
At least once a month, I challenge myself to take a big risk with my career; to do something that scares me or toss a Hail Mary with no real assurance that anything will come of it. Though sometimes these amount to nothing, they've also accounted for some of my greatest successes and built relationships that I would've never dreamed possible.
Real life example: Being in Nashville, I'm often close in proximity to some of the greatest music industry veterans of all time… but proximity only matters when you do something with it. As a long-shot, I reached out to the Grammy Award Winning engineer for one of my favorite records of all time [Tom Petty's "Wildflowers"] to master my most recent record "Learning How To Live." To my surprise, a few days later Richard Dodd responded back to me happy to work with me and within my budget. My Hail Mary turned into a superb collaboration and I couldn't be happier with how the record turned out.
The easiest way to motivate myself to take these risks is merely to consider the worst-case scenario. What is the absolute worst thing that could happen by taking this risk? Often, I find even the worst scenario lands me only mildly out financially and more often than not, only back in the place I started.