Best music business advice anyone can offer [Op-ed]
Here, James Shotwell shares how one conversation transformed his idea of what success in the music industry looks like, and how it is achieved.
Guest post by James Shotwell of Haulix
How one conversation with a close friend completely changed my idea of success in the music industry.
A few years ago, I worked with an up-and-coming artist that I believed could be the next big name in alternative music. The artist only had a few songs out when we first met, so I was fortunate enough to be working alongside them as they prepared the release of their first proper EP. We spent a ton of money on branding, packaging, designs, and three great music videos. We had everything we needed to make the record successful on paper, but I could not stop fighting this feeling that I wasn’t ready enough.
I began sending the songs to my friends in the music industry. As much as I wanted to know they liked the music, I was more concerned with whether or not they thought it was as good as I did. I feared that I overestimated the quality of the band based on personal preferences. I didn’t want to invest much time and energy into a project that I thought would take the world by storm only to see it fizzle out.
One of the people I contacted, A publicist at a famous punk label, hit me with a response that I did not anticipate. They said:
“It’s good, James. But you should know by now that being good doesn’t matter. Most artists are good. Some may even argue that most artists are great to the people that like what they create. Even being great is not enough. We sign artists that we believe are great only to see them fall flat on the public stage. Talent alone is no longer enough, and it probably never was in the first place.“
“The only way this project becomes what you want it to be is if you do everything possible to make it that. You and the artist you’re working with need to plan and commit to doing everything in your power to make this release a success. You will need to make sacrifices. You will need to spend late nights and early mornings replying to messages and sending new ones. You will probably need to spend a little money on advertising. The band will need to perform often, and they will need to maintain constant contact with their audience. You need to be creating content, scheduling content, and posting content regularly. You need an email list. It would be best if you had all of these things, and doing every single one still won’t guarantee that this will become what you want. Breaking through on any level in this industry is a mix of preparation and luck. Sometimes, people succeed without planning, and it goes poorly. The people who succeed and then continue having success are the ones who prepared themselves for the moment when they were allowed to show the world who they could become. They did all the things I’ve outlined here and probably more, all on the hope and the far-fetched chance that they would be the next group or solo performer that the world wants to embrace.”
Some may read this advice and feel defeated. We all like to believe that if you do everything right, then things will go your way. That may be true for many things in life, but it is never the case with the music industry. Countless performers believe they deserve to be the next big thing. Most of them are doing everything in their power to position themselves for success. They are reading articles like this, watching videos, attending conferences, reading books, consuming podcasts, and constantly working on their craft. They are spending untold amounts of money to create the highest quality content possible. I would argue that most believe success is right around the corner, and in a way, it is, but they never know which corner.
You see, what my friend was trying to tell me and what I now know to be true about the music business is that the best any of us can hope to achieve is to position ourselves for success. We have to do the work hoping that one day the rest of the world takes notice while accepting that such a day may never come. It’s not a matter of “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Artists should “Prepare for the best and the worst.”
When I work with artists now, I always have them create a list of goals that get increasingly small. Most have big ambitions, like reaching number one on the charts or selling out a large venue. That kind of success is excellent and entirely possible for many talented people, but there are countless smaller steps you must take to reach that point. Rather than focusing on the big goals, I like to work on the little ones and slowly build up momentum for my artists. We work on hitting the next listener milestone on Spotify, the next follower goal on social media, and writing the next great song. We focus on the little things that position us for big success, and while the process takes time, it’s far more rewarding than holding out for overnight success.
Can you be the most prominent artist on the planet? Sure. Is it possible for you to sell out a stadium tour? Maybe. I believe you can take your career as far as it can go in the music industry as long as you do everything in your power to make it great. It’s not about doing one thing well or acting like you deserve to a rockstar. Those who reach the highest echelon of success do so by constantly refining their craft. They focus on the minutia of entertainment, and they find joy in doing the work. That approach is the only one that can lead to long-term success. Everything else is scattershot, messy, and headed for disaster.
Everyone needs friends that will tell them the truth. It would be best if you had people in your corner who will tell you when you were doing wrong or less than average. People who will fight for you, criticize you, and uplift you when the time is right. You cannot buy that kind of reality check. Only authentic friendships provide the type of clarity you need so that you understand whether or not you’re on the right path. Even then, you alone can decide what to do next.
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.