What You Must Know About Pursuing A Career In Music

While the idea of working in the music industry holds significant appeal for good reason, there are some important things to be aware of before going all in on such a career.


Guest post by James Shotwell of Haulix

You’re not crazy for wanting to work in the music business, but there is something you should know before your journey begins.

I know you because I was you. In your mind, music is more of a religion than an art form. You know everything about the artists you love, and you understand the basics of the business more than any of your friends. You get excited by crunching the math behind a tour routing as you do the artists on that tour. In short, you spend every free moment thinking about music, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you’ve shared your passion for music with friends or family, they probably expressed concern. “Music is cool,” they may say, “but it’s no place you should want to work.”

Such criticisms are not entirely unfounded. Music is not the right industry for most people. Working in music often means long hours, low pay, limited benefits, and no clear path to professional progression. Some may start in the mailroom of a big label and rise to the top of the executive ladder, but far more do a little bit of everything they can until something takes off. Most music professionals are really good at one thing and adequately qualified to do a dozen other things, some of which may or may not relate to their current role.

Furthermore, music is often thankless. For every bit of appreciation you receive for your contributions, there will be countless hours spent toiling away on a project that is never attributed to you. It is very easy — not to mention entirely possible — that you will work yourself to the bone on something the world disregards almost as soon as it’s made available to the public. That happens far more often than the other, the more glamorous outcome of working in music. For every team of professionals that helps a superstar reach the heights of popularity, there are thousands of similarly qualified teams of professionals duking it out for even the slightest amount of success. That, as they say, is just the way it is.

I say none of this with the hopes of crushing your dreams or pushing you to other pursuits. After all, I’m now in my thirties and still working in music. If I thought this industry was evil or somehow unscalable, I would have quit and started teaching as my parents asked me to do no less than one-hundred times before writing this open letter. I honestly do not know if I could survive outside the industry at this point. Music is my life, and I would prefer it to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes I’m invited to speak at conferences and schools about working in the industry. Inevitably, someone in the audience will raise their hand and ask for advice on how one goes from being a person who is passionate about working in music to someone who has a job in music. The same information that applies to virtually every career path applies to music as well: Work hard, learn as much as you can, network often, and treat everyone you meet the way you wish to be treated. It’s all the same no matter what you’re trying to become, but it doesn’t help.

What I have to share today might not seem helpful at first, but those who are truly meant to be in this industry will understand why it matters.

When it comes to working in music, the best way to start and build a career is by doing the work. Pick something you’re interested in, do it as much as possible to the best of your abilities regardless of the money you make, and in time you will become an indispensable part of the music business.

Let me rephrase. The best way to have a career in music is to keep your hopes high and work to do the things that interest you as good as you are able.

It seems simple, right?

If you’re upset that this big reveal wasn’t some trick that helps you skip over the difficult early stages of professionalism where you balance multiple jobs to make your dream possible, I’m sorry. I understand your frustrations, as does everyone else working in music because we were once where you are now. We were all lost beginner, trying to find our way toward prosperity while desperately wishing to be taken seriously.

I started booking and promoting concerts when I was fourteen. I was playing shows with my own music by sixteen, and while walking across the stage to get my high school diploma, there was a box of CDs in my trunk that I needed to distribute as part of my role as a record label street team member. In college, I studied music business during the day and ran a music blog at night. I also promoted for more labels, hosted a radio show, and promoted for local venues. I didn’t see a dime in compensation until I landed my first job in music roughly six months after graduation, and I didn’t make enough to cover my bills until a year after that. Was it hard? Yes. Would I do it all again if I knew it leads to the role I have no? Absolutely.

In music, there are no shortcuts. A degree won’t get you a job, nor will knowing the right people. The only path to a career in music is by doing the work that needs to be completed. The long hours, thankless efforts, low pay, and downright frustrating hurdles to complete even the most seemingly simple tasks are all part of the journey. It’s a litmus test, in a way, that helps separate those who love music from people who are passionate about the business of music, and it never fails.

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company’s podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.

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