Endurance Race vs. A Sprint

This post is in response to a popular question: “What else should I be doing to ‘make it’ in the music industry?”

Without getting caught up on what it means to “make it,” usually my answer is, “do more of what you are already doing. If it’s great, eventually people will notice.” This goes for beat-makers, producers, engineers, rappers, singers, painters, photographers, directors, or anyone else with a creative passion.

A career in the arts requires a lifetime of dedication. As described in my previous articles, the music industry is increasingly competitive due to the digital revolution that took place in the 90’s and the transformation that ensued in the 21 century. Talent is important, but in most cases, success is determined by persistence. I have been producing music for over 12 years, and even though I earn a living creating music, all my paying gigs are temporary. Just like everyone else, I am constantly working to expand my business and accomplish larger goals.

It seems tough at times, and we all have moments where we question whether to put everything on the line for our passion. I still have these moments, but I am optimistic because they occur less often each year. Here are a few points designed to guide and inspire artists during these moments of doubt:

DON’T BE AFRAID TO SUPPLEMENT YOUR INCOME

It is important to dedicate yourself to your craft, but also be realistic. Don’t depend on music for income until you are already earning money from it. It is tough to feel creative when your stomach is rumbling, you’re freezing because your heat is off, and you are about to be evicted from your apartment. You have to figure out a way to balance it all. Working a non-musical job will not make you less of a musician. It just means you have to work double shifts (once to earn income and once in the studio). The key is finding a job that allows time for both. Until 4 years, ago, I waited tables to supplement my income. Even though I graduated college with a business degree, I knew that if I worked behind a desk it would consume too much of my life. I found that waiting tables required less of my time than a regular job, and still helped me make ends meet. There are many no-experience, part time jobs that can help ease the financial burden of an aspiring artist.

BE FLEXIBLE

In this category falls three examples of being flexible. 1) Work odd hours 2) Be willing to record music that isn’t “yours,” and 3) Be open to multiple streams of income.

Working odd hours is necessary for aspiring artists. As I mentioned in the previous section, most artists have to work two jobs, which certainly leaves little time for sleep. Also, it is important to never say “no” to a gig, even if it’s at a strange time. If you want to win at this, you are going to have to get used to making sacrifices and always saying the word “yes” until you can afford to say no.

Working on music that doesn’t necessarily move your heart and soul is another example of being flexible. This could mean recording rappers over beats that are not yours, or making styles of music that you are not a fan of. If I only ever made music that I was familiar with, not only would it be boring, but I would not be working as a professional sound engineer. I know this sounds counter-intuitive to some artists out there, but refer to my article about emotionally separating yourself from your craft ( http://www.indabamusic.com/artists_in_residence/joshglazer/blog/15059-emotionally-separating-art-from-business-in-the-music-industry ). The variable in this concept is whether you want to be an artist or a business. Usually it is best to be a little of both.

Additionally, don’t let your ego get in the way. Working with a talentless or inexperienced artist provides the opportunity to practice your craft. If you can make a terrible singer sound good, just imagine what you’ll be able to do when you enter the studio with a superstar.

Earning multiple streams of income is another aspect of being flexible. Sometimes it is necessary to step away from your favorite skill and wear other hats. I wish I could tell you that I only sell beats for a living, but I do many odd jobs. I record and mix vocals (often over other people’s beats), record and produce cover song remakes for licensing companies, edit ring tones of popular mix-tapes, play keys and trumpet in bands, and finally, compose and produce original songs for artists in my network. I feel blessed that all of my jobs revolve around music, but there are certainly some tasks in that list that I would prefer not to be doing. Its all good though, because not only am I happy to be working in a studio, but these jobs help me live the lifestyle that I am accustomed to. Most importantly, these jobs help me practice my craft. Only about 30% of my time is actually spent creating my own music.

Being flexible helps you grow. For example, if you are an aspiring producer that is engineering more than you would like to, pay attention to the beats that rappers are bringing you. Soak them in and let them inspire your own music. If they aren’t buying beats from you, it is because you haven’t showed them the right tracks yet. Build relationships and gain the trust of as many people as you possibly can. When the time is right, you will have their confidence and simultaneously have the right inventory to fit their needs. That is when you will start selling tracks.

DON’T GIVE UP

I’ve been producing music since before the year 2000. The first four years of my “career” consisted of making beats and recordings my best friends in my bedroom at my parents’ house. After four years of practice, I finally had product that I was proud enough to show the world. From there I went on to my first studio internship by networking at radio stations. I learned from experienced veterans, and after working for free for a year or so, slowly started selling tracks and studio time. Over the next 4 years, I supplemented my income by waiting tables. It wasn’t until 2008, eight years after beginning my career, that I was able to sustain a living off music alone.

This career takes a long time to cultivate. Unless you have been making competitive recordings for over 10 years, you still have a considerable way to go. Don’t get discouraged by minimal signs of progress. Try to remember, often times the reward is in the journey.

ENJOY THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION

If you entered the music industry because you thought it would be fun to make millions of dollars and be world famous, your motivation is wrong. Of course, fame and riches are a perk to being a successful musician, but most importantly, you have to enjoy the process of making music. If you don’t enjoy spending at least 80 hours a week in a studio, you’ll never make it to the next level. I’m not saying you have to spend 80 hours a week in a studio. For most people that is unrealistic. But I am suggesting that the desire to spend the time needs to exist. When I hear unestablished artists/producers complain about how many hours they invested into a project that yielded disappointing results, I immediately know that this person is doing it for the wrong reasons.

Practicing trumpet is one of the least lucrative ways that I choose spend my time. But I don’t add up all of the hours and say, “hmmm I’m not making enough money at this, why do I play so much?” I just keep playing because I enjoy the act of practicing trumpet.

CREATE MORE CONTENT

Like starting any small business, volume is key. Don’t give up just because you haven’t seen results from a handful of tracks that you published on soundcloud. I have literally made thousands of beats, and didn’t start receiving financial compensation until probably after my 500th track. I know a lot of artists/producers that get frustrated because nobody is feeling their 20th track. Creating enormous catalogs of music serves two purposes. First, people will take you more seriously during a meeting if you have an impressively diverse catalog. Secondly, and most importantly, it will serve as practice in perfecting your craft.

Similarly, if you are an engineer who has recorded two clients and are unsatisfied with the financial gain, try recording 50 artists before questioning your progress. This is a numbers game, and referrals from previous clients are huge. Its not just important to work with a lot of people for the sake of working with them, but it is also necessary to do an amazing job, so when people hear your work they ask, “Who did that mix?”

If no one is paying you yet for your services, keep practicing. Thanks to technology like the internet, if you are outstandingly good at something, eventually people will find out. The only problem is that in this competitive industry, you’re going to have to keep demonstrating your skills. Even to this day, I am constantly proving myself to new clients and potential investors. Sometimes I get the gig, and sometimes I don’t. But what is most important is that I can listen to my work from five years ago and hear that I’ve grown. For me, THAT is the reward.

BEING DIFFERENT IS A GOOD THING

Just because your sound isn’t mainstream today doesn’t mean you won’t have your moment in the limelight. Many people that place a track with a popular artist cannot spiral that into a career. But if your sound is new and unique, you will have better chance at having a long shelf life. If you live in the south and everyone wants “dirty south” type beats, maybe you are better off making old school hip hop tracks and carving out your niche as that guy. Even though certain trends are certainly more popular than others, there are always exceptions to the rule. Check out a group called “Little Brother” based out of North Carolina if you disagree.

BE VERSATILE

Don’t be hesitant to open yourself up to different styles of music so your palette will expand. Just because you live in a market where Waka Flocka type beats are popular, it doesn’t mean you have to make identical beats. It might, however, be useful to figure out what it is about these tracks that makes them popular, and put your own spin on it. Don’t shut yourself out of a genre just because it isn’t your particular flavor.

SPECIALIZE AND BUILD A TEAM

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a great promoter, salesman, graphic designer, rapper, singer, or marketing rep. But I am good at music, so I specialize in production and have formed relationships with a team of people around me that are great at the other jobs. No one can do it all. Figure out what you are best at and do it until people take notice. Find people that have something to offer you and build a long term relationship. For me, it was finding artists that not only help my beats come to life, but also have their own fans, marketing teams, and networks in place for me to latch onto. Also keep in mind that 90% of my business comes from referrals from the people that I first started making music with 12 years ago.

LITTLE REWARDS GO A LONG WAY

Some producers believe they can hang a sign outside their window that says, “studio” and customers will come running. Building a brand in music, like any business, requires years of hard work. One thing that helps me push through slow times is getting a little reward that keeps me optimistic until my next moment of doubt. It is important to remember these positive reinforcements and be confident that another is right around the corner. Ideally, they should occur more frequently over time.

For me, selling my first beat for $300 when I was 19 really lit a fire beneath me. Even though I was only making a few hundred each month from music, it was enough for me to see the potential. Knowing that somebody valued my sound gave me enough confidence to push on to the next milestone. Appreciate the baby steps and view any growth as a positive gain.

Instead of thinking about how daunting the race will be, focus on the feeling of being in the race, and keep moving those legs. If you’re good, you’ll keep running, and rewards will follow.

To quote a song I produced for The Higher Concept, “It’s less about the victory and more about he hunt, you’re not in it for the sport, you don’t deserve to run.”

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2 Responses to Endurance Race vs. A Sprint

  1. A few words about the music industry and capitalism as well. We thought we were buying the music of our peers to peer into their humble and enlightened souls, when in reality the holy hallowed pop star was but the visible portion of a massive iceberg of professionals who recorded, edited, produced, and distributed their smiling shining face to a lumpen proletariat that lapped it up.

    A capitalistic pyramid based on Machiavellian corporative values marketed this (always young, always attractive) puppet-figure as if it were our confidante and comrade, its sincerity pasted on with personability and polygrip. In fact, tthe entire Hollywood star system is based on this concept of one monarchial figurehead basking in glory, while a battalion of unsung promoters, producers, and agents labor to map out its public persona.

    Like all capitalistic heirarchies, the one at the top made millions while millions on the bottom made butkes. This kind of imbalance had to redress itself–since NAPSTER, the idea of paying for music has come into serious question–why buy music when there’s a staggering amount of stellar material downloadable for free? Everyone and their mother can record, edit, and distribute music with the technology that is now available to everyone at reasonable prices.

    The old Communist bylines of “Art for the People,” and ” Technology for the People” has become a reality on the new level playing-field of the internet. THIS COULD BE A GOOD THING! People with “expertise” reign in a capitalist herarchy and their services always come at a premium. But why should a lawyer, a doctor, a sound engineer, rake in the bucks while waiters, sanitary workers, and fieldworkers struggle from paycheck to paycheck?

    We’ve all been brainwashed with the old bourgeois bromide that certain jobs are better, higher, and more desirable than others. This is simply not the case. ALL workers, all musicians, all PEOPLE, in fact, are equal and deserve equal attention and praise. We have to be weaned from the idea that life is a race for the biggest toys and brightest spotlight and stop buying into the “star-making machinery of the popular song,” as Joni Mitchell aptly put it.

  2. Angel B says:

    Great article, I think you provide a lot of excellent advice! Thanks for taking the time to put this together and share your real world experiences. I look forward to reading more of your work!

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