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What A Career In The Music Business Actually Looks Like

What A Music Business Career Actually Looks Like

A career in the music business sounds like a ticket to a lifestyle of the rich and famous. And if things go well it can be that and more. But what does that lifestyle actually look like?

We’ve probably all been there. We’re either:

  • watching a live performance on tv, in a club or at a some concert venue somewhere,
  • listening to a song on the radio or CD player (is that still a thing?) or on your phone

and hits you…

I know what I want to do with my life. I’m gonna be a famous singer.”

And with this declaration begins a journey into that vast unknown void known as The Music Business.

Your dream starts out with visions of stadiums filled to capacity, and continues on with an enormous stage filled with props and synchronised dancers all lit up like the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

“Johnny! Cue the F15 flyover in 3..2..1..”

The performance has everyone singing every word to the songs you sang. As you say your goodbyes you hang out backstage smiling as the deafening chant renders everything else inaudible…

“We want more! We want more!”

After an spectacular 15 minute encore, you’re finally whisked away by an army of bodyguards to a nearby limousine. You're then taken straight to the luxurious hotel where you quickly shower, change and make your way to the roof where your very own private helicopter waits. To take you where? Why to the private jet now fuelled and awaiting your arrival at the airport of course.

... And that’s just a regular Tuesday for you.

It’s hard not to smile as I write this and it’s quite likely that as you read along you immediately inserted yourself into the narrative and smiled too.

But if you do decide to follow this path and pursue a full time career in music what will your life actually look like?

Well I can tell you from personal experience that, while there have been moments almost identical to this for many of us, and while there probably are those who do regularly have days just like this (Beyoncé I’m looking at you girl), for the most part this isn’t a typical “day in the life” scenario singers and musicians experience. And that includes the superstars.

There is so much more going on in a successful career in music and for the rest of this article I’m going to pull back the curtain and show what to actually expect.

1. This is a Business

Let’s get real for a second. What we see on tv is not the full picture.
Read that again. It’s important.

To put things into perspective you have to remember what it’s called:

  • The music business
  • Show business
  • Music industry
  • Entertainment industry

Did you notice there’s no mention of fun, easy or even friends in the title of this industry? These things can all come into play at various points during your career but this is primarily a business which only survives when income exceeds expenses.

In spite of the fact that you’re in a business driven by creativity and art, you will still be expected to earn more than you spend if you have any hope of surviving for any length of time.

What You’re Aiming For

Unless you’re incredible rich and merely create music for your own enjoyment, whenever you go into a recording studio or a writing session your objective should always be to crank out a hit song so you can generate enough money to cover the expense of recording and leave you with some money to actually carve out a decent life.

You want to do all you can to be seen all over the place. The plan here is to build your brand awareness and get people so excited to buy your music or see you in concert that it drives it to #1 before they even hear it.

Because of your hard work you become a recognisable face whose popularity is so great you may even need security just to move about.

All of this is ultimately to put you in a position where you (or your band) are able to command higher appearance fees and exponentially increase your income.

(BTW for those of you paying attention, that is the success formula every successful singer, group or band from the last few decades has been using to launch and maintain incredibly successful careers in music) 

What To Watch For:

It turns out our parents were right when they said “money doesn’t grow on trees you know!”

The money invested in recording costs, promotional costs, transportation (air, car, boat), music videos, hotel rooms, clothing etc has to come from somewhere.

If you’re spending a record label’s money you’ll need to make very sure that you’re on track to making way more than you’re spending. Otherwise the label will eventually decide that you are not a viable investment and just drop you.

It gets worse if you’re the one footing the bill. Things become real much more quickly when you find you’ve spent all of your money on an album and tour that ended up losing money and rendering you (and your family) broke.

While I didn’t bankrupt myself completely (thank God!), this is a lesson I learned the hard and very expensive way.

2. This is Actually a Lot of Work

Working Hard In The Studio

When you get caught up in the dream it’s easy to miss just how much work you’ve taken on. It’s easy to miss because as an industry we have a tendency to give the general impression that it’s all wine and roses on our end.

I once told a family member I couldn’t talk on the phone right then because I was working. She seemed to think I was just trying to get her off the phone so I ended up having to explain all that happens in a typical day for me before she grudgingly agreed to let me get back to my “work”

What You’re Aiming For

Once your music starts to gain popularity you can suddenly find yourself being in demand all throughout the year and even all over the world. Believe me when I tell you - things can change pretty fast and this is one of those “get it while it’s hot” kinda deals so there’s rarely much if any time to get your ducks in a row when it happens.

You may get a chance to visit and perform in places you hadn’t even dreamed of before.

Fans will start asking when your next album is coming out. This is an amazing compliment because it’s basically a way of saying that we love your current material and we can’t wait to get more

What To Watch For:

Creating hit music in the first place is a very time consuming and painstakingly tedious process.

Expect long hours and little or no pay in the beginning.

Performing all over the world is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. Keep in mind though, that this means you’ll be travelling constantly.

Actually seeing and enjoying the places you’ve visited can often prove challenging. Time constraints and the often long list of items to check off in each city are usually the culprit here.

I sometimes joke that although I’ve been to Venezuela, I’ve never seen it in the daytime. We literally flew in one night, went straight to the venue, performed, went to the hotel, showered, ate, slept and got back to the airport before the sun was up so we could fly to the next country and do it all over again.

Planning vacations and making it to your kid’s piano recital will become WAY more difficult largely due to the fact that you can usually only plan a month in advance. And even then if a song suddenly hits, all travel plans can change.

It’s a great thing when fans want to hear more of your music. It’s actually a huge compliment and an excellent motivating factor to keep putting new music out.

Just know that keeping up with the demand for new music may mean that when you’re not travelling you’re locked away in a studio hammering away at what you hope will be your next hit songs.

You have to careful not to end up alienating your family and missing important milestones in their lives even although you’re literally in the next room.

Since songwriting can be a bit of a numbers game you have to do all this knowing that some songs will come out great and others just won’t.

You should always put your best effort forward but just do so knowing that, due to any number of factors including tempo, timing and even current events, an otherwise great song can just flat out fail and any time and money invested is now gone.

Want A Shortcut To Making Money From Your Music?

Watch the Music Industry Expert Interviews below

3. The Music Business Isn’t For Everyone

Music Business Problems

When done correctly, being a song creator and/or live performer is actually quite a prestigious career to pursue.

Before you make any money though just come to terms with the fact that to everyone else you’re just someone who write songs or makes beats or does that music thing. What’s interesting though is once you find some success you’ll suddenly be introduced as a songwriter, a record producer, a music industry professional.

It’s funny how now that I can pay my mortgage this “music thing” has somehow found legitimacy. Love you naysayers. I really do.

What You’re Aiming For

It’s quite a magical thing to stand in front a group of total strangers, hold out a microphone and have them sing the words of a song you wrote.

I typically do this every time I sing “It Wasn’t Me” and the feeling of joy I get from it simply never gets old.

Of course if you’ve never had this experience yourself it’s pretty impossible for me to describe what it’s actually like without sounding like I’m bragging. (I’m so not a bragger it isn’t even funny.)

What To Watch For:

To help you understand this (and not be discouraged by the negativity) you need to realise that most people outside of our industry typically see either the process or the end result of many years of hard work.

And nothing more.

When you’re starting out you’re still a couple stages before you get to the point where this particular joy I mentioned above even becomes a possibility.

Unless you happen to be related to the Jonas Brothers you probably won’t be taken too seriously by friends and family when they find out you’ve decided to make a career out of music.

It makes no sense to them that you could do something you love so much you forget to eat and still manage support a family.

“Yea sure I’m not Mick Jagger now but one day I will be. You’ll see!”

I remember in my early days, before I’d made a dime from my music, my friend’s mother pulled me aside after a graduation we were attending and express her concern about what I’d chosen to do with my life.

From her comments it really seemed like she pictured me broke, homeless and strung out on drugs as she presented her strongest case to save me from this wasted life I was about to subject my poor parents to.

She didn’t get it. And while I did my best to reassure her that I was still the same morally solid young man she always knew, I’m sure there was nothing I would have been able to say to convince her that things would be fine.

I can only hope the 2 Billboard #1 hit songs and #1 album that I helped create did the trick to put her fears to rest 🙂

4. This is a Relationship Business

Relationships & Teamwork

When you’re climbing your way up the ranks going from unknown to fairly popular and all the way up to superstardom, the one thing that remains the same is the fact that you will be required to deal with people.

The music industry is actually much smaller than most people assume and you will see a lot of the same people as you make your way through.

What You’re Aiming For

That small time club owner who gave your band a chance to play an opening set before anyone knew (or cared) who you are is the same guy who will keep you going when you’re trying to release a new single that radio isn’t ready to play yet. So be nice.

With the advent of social media it’s now pretty impossible to be mean to your fans without some sort of backlash. If you treat a fan poorly and it has no effect on your career then it’s quite possible you’re nowhere near as big as you thought you were.

Ever had someone threaten to blow you up on social media?

“Ooh what ever will I do if you bad mouth me to the 17 followers you have on Instagram?“

The best compliment I ever received from a tour manager was something he didn’t even tell me directly. He told another colleague that I was a pleasure to tour with - I never complained, I was always on time and was just a nice person to be around.

By being an easy person to work with I significantly increased the chances of being called upon to perform again. Simple things like this can do wonders for your career without you ever realising it. And it costs nothing to just be cool to be around.

I watched an Ed Sheeran interview not so long ago when he explained that the people at the top are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Be nice or be obnoxious and unbearable. You’ll reap what you sew either way. Trust me.

What To Watch For:

I’ve seen singers get moderate hits and suddenly grow an ego that made them impossible to deal with. This never ends well and the broken relationships always damage (or even destroy) careers

The repercussions can be surprising when you rub the right person the wrong way.

I won’t name names but I did hear about one artiste who was invited to perform at a show being put on by a radio station. Before he went on stage he was warned not to use any indecent language because there were a ton of kids in the audience.

He ignored the warnings and proceeded to let ‘em rip. The result? His songs weren’t only removed from that station’s rotation, but also from the 100’s of other stations owned by the same parent company.

Needless to say it was devastating to his career.

5. Even Success Isn’t What It Seems

Music Business Success

Most of us (and I include myself) are quite surprised when we take a look behind the curtain and realise how the music industry actually works. It’s nothing like we assume.

It’s actually a lot more like a factory than any of us expect.

There’s manufacturing, PR, marketing, sales, customer support, competition, legal considerations and of course everyone’s favourite… taxes.

What You’re Aiming For

When you’re starting out you need to do all you can to get your name out there in front of your potential market and investors.

When you land a meeting with an artiste manager, publisher or record label A&R your sole objective is to make such a great impression that they decide they want to work with you and build what they’re hoping will be a long and profitable relationship.

They’re never called investors but that’s exactly what they are - people you’re asking to give you money which you will then do your best to return with interest.

"It’s a business transaction and the product you’re trading is well… you."

You need to be seen, heard and known for being someone who puts on a great show that audiences enjoy. That’s not enough though, because you also need to be someone who shows up on time, with a great attitude, ready to put in the work to pay these people their money back.

Other than a huge paycheck, the best outcome you can hope to get from a live performance, a recording session, an interview or a meeting with some other music industry professional is simply this: an invitation to return

Like any other business, success in the music business is often found in happy, repeat customers. Whether they’re music consumers, concert attendees or label execs, the happier you keep them, the happier your bank account will be.

What To Watch For:

Once you find that elusive hit song you need to be prepared for a whirlwind of travel, live performances, interviews, promotion, more travel and of course exhaustion.

As glamorous as it may look to the untrained eye, endless interviews, 18 hour flights (even in business class) and photo shoots (don’t even get me started) can be incredibly draining. But this is the nature of this game.

There’s no way around it unless of course you’re at the stage where you can kick back, retire and enjoy the spoils of your long and successful career (think Madonna, Celine Dion and Lionel Richie) you’re going to have to put in a ton a work to have any of this make any sense.

If you live in the US and one of your songs ends up taking off in Europe somewhere guess where you’ll be spending a lot of your time for at least the next few months?

This definitely isn’t a life of leisurely kicking back and doing nothing all day while the money pours in. At least not in the beginning.

It takes a lot of hard work and persistence to keep the money coming in. And there are many people depending on you to do just that.

Managers, musicians, label employees and let’s not forget your family members all have bills to pay. Diapers ain’t free and that car note ain’t gonna pay itself my friend.

You have to be strategic when planning out the kinds of songs you create. Wherever possible you want to aim for timeless classics. Songs that fit the daily narrative no matter how many years it’s been since they were originally recorded.

This is tough to do but it can be life changing when it happens.

These are the songs that will fund your retirement

The songs that are so closely tied to the events of the week that they seem completely irrelevant the following week are great at capturing some attention in the short term but it’s the classics that determine whether or not you end up in a nice home on the beach with your own wait staff.

6. Sacrifices Are A Huge Part of The Music Industry

Missing Puzzle Piece

A career in music is basically a deep dive into a life of delayed gratification. No-one wakes up one day, records a song and then watches it become a hit song the next day.

There is an entire process in between that takes time to flesh out.

Successful artistes (who understand this all too well) are often the kinds of people who have no time for a social life because they’re burning the midnight oil trying to finish the latest album before the label’s deadline hits.

What You’re Aiming For

They’re often the ones leaving a hotel at 5am to drive an hour to catch a flight to the next city so they can do the morning show interview, the afternoon performance for a TV show and the late night performance at a local club.

There’s a ton of work that goes into setting this all up too.

Managers making deals with promoters and labels, marketing & promotions people reaching out to their contacts to ensure everyone knows you’re coming to town, band members studying your songs so they’re ready for the upcoming rehearsals, vocal training, fitness training etc etc

This is not a path for the weak or lazy.

What To Watch For:

If you have a family of your own then you’ll need to be especially careful

I’m going to assume I don’t need to tell you about the perilous effects of an absentee parent on children no matter their age.

You being absent can have a profound effect on those you hold dear. So don’t get so caught up in your dream and the sacrifices you’re making that you forget their sacrifice.

In many cases the family you leave behind makes the biggest sacrifice by suspending their own dreams to support your pursuit of yours.

This is the kind of industry that can easily lead you to believe the world revolves around you. Just so you know… it doesn’t.

Ultimately if your dream doesn’t enhance the lives of others it’s quite frankly not a dream worth pursuing. You always need to remember to keep first things first.

I think that's enough food for thought for now.

No-one is more surprised than me that this post ended up being so long but I must say I’m proud of you for making it all the way to end. Hopefully this little walk through a musician’s life didn’t scare you away. That wasn’t my intention at all.

In fact, if you have some great music to share with the world then it’s your responsibility to buckle down and get it made already! This is especially true if you don’t like what you’re hearing on the radio right now. “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

Now over to you. Whether you’re already in the music industry or thinking about taking the plunge, I’d love to hear what you think…

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