6 Keys To Independent Music Success
The impossible dream.
When I first decided to make music for a living it was as much an act of passion as it was an act of defiance. I grew up in Chile, a very small and conservative country at the bottom of the world, listening as much to Michael Jackson and Madonna as to James Taylor and all the folk greats from the 60’s and 70’s. I was born in the 80’s and grew up during the 90’s, and before the MP3 in a country far away, stardom felt like an impossibly distant dream, and my knowledge of music artists consisted of only what was readily available on the radio or on MTV.
In my world, it was almost unheard of for someone to become an artist or to make a living making music. The industry in Chile was, and still is to this day, very small. In terms of opportunities, all eyes were set on what was happening outside the country rather than inside the country. As such, my greatest aspiration was to leave and pursue an elusive dream, knowing full well that there would be absolutely no certainty, no sureness of success, and on the contrary, more chances of failure than achievement.
So I decided, in an act of trust, a bit of lunacy and a lot of defiance, that I would prove everyone who ever told me that this was a dead end, a bad idea, impossible to do or that I should go to law school instead and study something much more socially acceptable, that they were wrong. At 17 I applied for a scholarship to the only place where I wanted to study: Berklee College of Music.
For a South American girl like me, the mere idea of leaving my home country to pursue music was disruptive and ambitious, so when I received news that I was invited to audition for a scholarship in Argentina, I told my parents matter-of-factly that I would be traveling in a few weeks. I hadn’t sorted out how I would get there, but somehow and for a reason I am still not sure of to this day, I knew I had to go, whatever it took, and was determined to make it happen. That scholarship had my name on it, it’s just that others didn’t know it yet.
To my parents’ credit, out of all the adults around me who believed I was insane, including my teachers and everyone else within my parents’ circle, they supported me and didn’t doubt my choice or my path. They traveled with me to the audition and celebrated with me a few months later when I received the news that I got it.
When you make a choice that goes against the norm there will be those who are inspired by it, and those who feel threatened or challenged by it. This is something I have encountered over and over again at several points in my life and have come to realize that this is usually the case for most artists, and something that we all at some point need to become comfortable with.
Berklee was an incredible experience. I met people from all over the world and my music taste and knowledge grew exponentially. I had a chance to play with musicians from different backgrounds who were a lot better than me, form several bands, and write and record two records.
Music school and music business
Music school certainly made me a better musician, but it did not teach me how to make a living making music. I realized years later that this happens in most professions. School educates you in your chosen career, but learning how to earn a living from it kind of happens on the job. The issue with a career in music is that it has no defined path or form to follow. Everyone pretty much makes up their own way.
When you graduate from a traditional school, say law school, you know that if you find a job at a law firm and you are good at your job, in a few years you will make partner. If you are really good several years down the road you may even become name partner or possibly be recruited by a larger firm. There is a corporate ladder to climb.
In the music industry there’s just a lot of mumbo jumbo, not a whole lot of direction, several different stories (everyone has their own) and usually within those incredible success stories there is always something missing from the official account which leaves out an essential component of how it all happened.
How the heck does Jane Doe from small-town-Louisiana all of a sudden become such a huge superstar? There’s a part of the story that we are never privy to, that happens undercover and behind a silk curtain, and young aspiring artists and musicians are left to the wolves to fend for ourselves, figuring it all out without much direction.
Coming up in an industry that was going down
At the time that I decided to make music for a living, the industry was pretty much falling on its head. The MP3 had just come out. Napster had been shut down. Apple was coming out with its first iPod. Record labels were frightened. Nobody knew where this was heading and big companies were reluctant to invest in new acts, because you know, the industry was crashing.
I had several friends signed to major labels at the time, and I would often hear all these horror stories of how they got signed and then the label never released their record. They were stuck in a deal unable to get out. They had no support from the record label and couldn’t release their albums, because the masters didn’t belong to them anymore. I didn’t want this to happen to me. So I made a decision then and there to stay independent for as long as possible, to own my masters, my publishing and my career and see how far I could take this thing on my own. And I did.
Owning your own career in the middle-class music economy.
There’s this idea of the struggling artist and then there’s the idea of becoming a huge star, but in reality there is a whole world in-between, a world where artists are making a living making music, on their own terms, at their own pace, creating their own market, without anyone breathing down their throats.
Is it hard? Absolutely. Impossible? Not really. It takes an incredible amount of dedication, strength and certainly a high tolerance for risk. It is not for the faint of heart, especially today.
The digital revolution has brought with it many great things. It is more affordable and more accessible than ever to make music. You don’t need huge budgets to make a record. It has also made getting your music out there a lot easier. Anybody can release music online and reach a global audience through social media and online-specialized media, blogs, Internet radio, etc.
However, the digital age has also made it a lot more challenging to get heard. There is more music out there than ever before, which creates a lot of noise. How do you cut through the noise so that your voice is the one that’s heard?
Successes and setbacks.
In my 15 years in the music industry as an independent artist I have had many successes and also many setbacks. It is difficult sometimes when you devote so much time and effort to pursuing your goals, to savor the fruits of your labor, precisely because it has taken so much work to see any fruits at all, but looking back I have a lot to be proud of.
I have toured and traveled to many places in the world as a solo artist, with my band and with my kids as a family (I am a mother of two) and I’ve played some of the largest music festivals out there (Lollapalooza, SXSW, Sziget). Music has taken me to places such as Cuba, Argentina, Australia and Germany, and I’ve had the chance to write with amazing songwriters from several countries, getting songs cut in Australia and China (even translated to Mandarin!).
My songs appear on TV shows, movies and adverts in the US, UK, Korea, Chile, and Macedonia, having been licensed to TV shows like Teen Mom, Private Practice, Parenthood, Reign and The Rain and adverts for brands such as Blackberry, Massimo Dutti, and Ralph Lauren. They also play at retail stores I don’t even know, in places I have never been to. Friends often send me videos of them in random situations with my music playing in the background while on hold with Jet Blue, while shopping at a chain store in Panama or while sitting at a Starbucks in London.
I’ve won awards both as an artist as well as an entrepreneur (somewhere along the road I ended up building and heading my own independent record label, sync company and publishing house), and I’ve been featured in some of the most influential magazines and music outlets out there (Spin Magazine, KCRW, PASTE Magazine, Relix, the LA Times etc), while securing several government grants to fund both my businesses and my career.
However, for every success there have certainly been many more defeats. For every one door that has opened before me, there have been another 99 that closed before that very one opened, sometimes opening just enough for me sneak in before it closed again. I’ve had many setbacks and frustrations, and encountered more than my fair share of rejection.
Learning from the lows.
Yet setbacks, as painful and frustrating as they are, are never in vain; they form a big part of what it means to be an entrepreneur, no matter your chosen profession. As clichéd as it sounds, every failed experience gives you knowledge you didn’t have before, enabling you to get further ahead the next time around. Still, many times along the way I have wanted to quit.
I read once a line attributed to Banksy that said: “If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.” I also heard someone say once, “The ones who make it are not the most talented ones, they are simply the ones who didn’t give up.”
I try to remind myself and other artists of this, so when the grind gets too much to bear, I remember to take a step back in order to continue moving forward. No matter how many accomplishments or how much experience you have, you will always need dedication, strength and a high tolerance for risk to open new doors and reach new heights.
Tapping into that same fire that fueled me to pursue a music career almost 20 years ago is key to continuing to pursue the many dreams I have yet to accomplish and the many things I have yet to achieve. After 15 years of doing this on my own, on my own terms and through a lot of trial and error, I’ve gained a wealth of information that now allows me to begin each project from a better standpoint every time around.
So if I can give anybody any advice, it would be the following:
1. Educate yourself on the music industry as much as possible.
Today we have the Internet and there is no better tool out there to become educated. Nowadays there’s no excuse not to learn something if you are truly interested. So take courses, reach out to musicians you admire and take them out for coffee, ask them questions, learn from their experience.
Pick 1-2 artists you admire and learn as much from their journey as you can, read books, interviews and watch documentaries. Go to music markets and conventions, meet people in the industry, talk to everyone, take their cards and follow up. Don’t be a nag, but be polite and perseverant.
Stay curious, be voracious and soak up as much knowledge and experience as you can.
2. Become a better entrepreneur, not just a better musician.
If you want to make a living making music you must really treat this as an enterprise, not just a job or a career. This is your own start-up and you must think of yourself as the CEO. As such, educate yourself on entrepreneurship, marketing, business and leadership.
Building solid teams and finding people to work with that complement your strengths and weaknesses will be key to developing a successful business. None of us are good at everything, but we are all good at something, so know your strengths and make sure to find people to work with who are great at those things you are not.
Write a solid business plan and break it into small achievable steps so that every day you are working towards the goals you want to accomplish. Do at least one thing every day that brings you closer to where you want to go.
3. Be proactive.
Every now and then you will get a lucky break, but for the most part not a lot will be handed to you on a silver platter. So be proactive and seek out opportunities.
Like I said before, reach out to people you admire. Most may not get back to you, but some will. Ask questions. Always ask questions. If possible, find a mentor, someone who has gone down this path before and can trickle down some wisdom.
Remember to be resilient. Many doors will close before you. It will be hard not to be deterred by this, but if you remember that every door that closes leads you one step closer to the one that will open, you will be able to move on from disappointment much quicker and continue moving ahead, looking for the next opportunity.
4. Fuel your fire.
Remember why you decided to do this in the first place. Continue to fuel the inspiration, motivation and joy de vivre that sparked the fire within you that pushed you to pursue this dream.
There will be times when your energy will wane and inevitably you will want to give up, so it is important to find things that keep inspiring you and motivating you when you don’t feel you have it in you. Whether it is listening to interviews by artists you enjoy, going to live concerts, rehearsing with your band, playing live shows or maybe taking time off to take a step back and become re-inspired by life, do what you need to do to fuel your fire.
5. Stay defiant.
There will always be naysayers and people who will try to deter you from your path or convince you that it is too hard, or impossible. What you think is much more important than what anyone else thinks. So as long as you are not hurting anybody, keep walking your path, which is yours and only yours to follow.
6. Fail a lot.
There’s simply no way around this one. You must fail a lot in order to succeed. Failure ain’t fun, it’s annoying and it’s frustrating. But remember, when you were a toddler you fell on your bum many, many times before you learned to walk and you did it with a smile on your face. Now you don’t even remember the many times you fell and walking eventually becomes second nature.
The best learning experiences come to us by trying and failing. Most successful entrepreneurs had several failed business before they hit the nail on the head. Failure is simply part of the journey to success. So embrace the setbacks, regroup and continue moving forward.
..and lastly, above all, don’t give up.
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