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Everything You Need to Forget about the Music Industry

On my 20-year journey in the music business, I have learned a lot of interesting things. One huge realization I had about the current music industry came to me as I was building this website (and continued as I started to get contacted by musicians that were visiting it).  I couldn’t figure out why many people were glossing over all of the foundational work that is usually required to find great help. Why would people be so divorced from all the work that they have to do on their own, all the time they needed to devote to developing their sound and playing shows? Why would they not accept the real character-building shows, the “don’t forget to tip your bartenders and wai…oh you are the bartenders and waitresses” shows? And why would musicians think that an executive was likely to jump in and partner with them when what they had, at least on paper, was a hobby and not a real business?


For some, a light bulb turns on when they come to a realization. I experienced something a bit more substantial.



I was watching something on the Science channel about the planets, and an astronomer was talking about an asteroid hitting the earth. He said, “There has been more money spent on movies about asteroids hitting the earth than money spent on preventing asteroids from hitting the earth.”


Since then I have never looked at media – the field I’ve been in my whole life – in the same way.


Some of the effects the media has on us are well documented, but studies usually focus on questions like “Does violence in media have an impact on violent behavior in real life?” or “Does the media portrayal of rail-thin models and celebrities impact our feelings about our own body image and confidence?” The latter in particular is interesting and more applicable, because almost all studies on the subject point to the reality that people feel bad about themselves when comparing themselves to media ideals and have unrealistic expectations about what a “normal” person should look like. Essentially, people believe that they are supposed to resemble what they see in mass media.


When I thought about this concept, I wondered, could there also be a message in mass media about musicians and their success and does that affect us? It kept occurring to me that the media was minimizing the work that goes in to most musicians’ stories. I decided it was time to do some research myself.


To me, the definitive chronicle of a musician’s story is VH1’s Behind the Music. I decided since that was such a well known representation of how musicians became successful that it was a good idea to look at what kind of info was being presented there.


I purchased several stop-watches and began to time out the percentages of the show that were devoted to different parts of an artist’s story (removing the commercials, etc). I watched a dozen episodes. It wasn’t hard to get the timing down because Behind the Music falls into a very familiar pattern:


1) Family background. The format is always, “Mom says her musician/superstar was different from other kids or recounts how hard it was growing up in the ‘hood, or how someone in the family was abused, and how these circumstances influenced their drive to be an artist, etc.”


2)    Professional Struggle. This segment of the show highlights artists’ first taste of the business, the “struggle,” how they lived on $50 / week, how their choice to do something so unreasonable for a living upset family and friends alike. This phase covers making demos and meeting other musicians and executives. I even counted getting signed as getting part of the struggle, even though the momentum of the show clearly indicates that the record deal is a clear sign that success is around the corner.


3)    Success. There is always a moment in Behind the Music where the album comes out, and the artist becomes a huge celebrity by creating a genre changing piece of work or a huge commercial success. And the documentary never looks back after that point.  The term “big break” is also used a great deal. Sure, there are some issues, like drug habits, divorces, stress and inner turmoil, but the coverage from this point on is always the artist as a total success, even if there were hills and valleys in their popularity.



Would hearing partial truths affect our expectations and perception of what is fact? Simply put:  Yes. Markus Appel and Tobias Richter’s study “Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives increase over time” even demonstrated that people believe many of the ancillary details presented in pure fiction, totally devoid of any fact.


For example, when you are watching the show Friends, you don’t believe that Rachel is a real person. You are aware that it’s Jennifer Aniston playing a role on TV, and that her character is named Rachel. But you might come to believe that peripheral information is true. For example, you might believe a waitress in Manhattan can afford a two-bedroom apartment near Central Park. Knowing that, if you are constantly reminded of the overnight success of musicians and never told about the work involved in their process, isn’t there a message here as well?


So, what does reality look like? My favorite example of someone who built their own business in music is the story of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the band’s label Daptone Records and the founder of the band and the label, a guy named Gabe Roth.


Until her 40s, Sharon Jones was a guard at a correctional facility. And I played with Gabe in a band for a few years at NYU. Many years later, he agreed to be interviewed on this site. The words, “So, how does it feel to be this overnight success” started to come out of my mouth, but I caught myself midway through, and we laughed about it. Gabe hadn’t done anything different for 15 years; he just got better at what he did and surrounded himself with better people. And it was a breakthrough moment for me when I realized just how long he had been at it. He had worked at the same thing with a narrow focus for 15 years non-stop and was finally at a point where he was making a good living doing what he loved. Persistence and consistency had won out. 


Why aren’t we exposed to stories like this? Simply put, because they aren’t popular news stories. “Man Works for 15 Years and Gets Great Business” is not as compelling as “Justin Bieber puts Video on Internet, Becomes Multi-Millionaire.”


A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth determined that “stick-to-it-ness” is called “grit,” which she defines as “the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal.” And she discovered that this grit is more important than intelligence or talent as a predictor of outstanding achievement. Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time, despite experiences with failure and adversity.


In his interview with me, “The Self Made Musician,” Gabe (a person I believe has real grit) said something that really stuck with me:  “Instead of looking inward and local and trying to create something small that they can build from and concentrating on their craft, [musicians] are shooting for stars. It’s like playing the lottery. It’s fun, and if you win it’s amazing, but it’s not a business plan. You don’t say, ‘Okay, we want to start a business and want $500,000. The first thing we’re going to do is buy $4,000 worth of scratcher tickets.’”


A good music business plan is, first and foremost, specific. People always talk about the “next level,” and it drives me absolutely insane. I don’t begrudge people for wanting to advance their careers, but my frustration is when I hear the term “next level,” I know that 95% of the time the person saying it hasn’t clearly defined what they need let alone what they want. It sounds like they’re looking for a Nintendo cheat code.



Vague goals tend not to manifest. If you want to achieve your goals as a musician, you need to get really specific and write out a business plan. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to write a business plan or if you believe that it’s only for raising money or that it requires fancy number-crunching graphs. Truthfully, a business plan can start off as simply just visualizing where you want your music to take you in the next six months. Most people never do it. And 90% of the people reading this will probably not do it.


Do you really know what you want and what you need? Try this:  Write down a six-month or one-year goal and then work backwards to the present moment. Be mindful that you will need longer-term goals as well, but they need not be as detailed.


Don’t do this because I say so. Do this because several studies, including a study conducted by Palo Alto Software in 2010 that was verified by the University of Oregon Department of Economics states that you are twice as likely to succeed if you finish a business plan.


I can’t write down a plan that will work for every artist, but I can offer a few guidelines if you are devoted to music for life (and not just looking at it as a fun hobby):


  1. Build a solid business foundation. Figure out how money is made in this industry and how publishing works. Register with ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and SoundExchange. Make sure you have a business entity established and trademark your name. 
  2. Get your marketing materials in order. You’re going to need at least a 4-song recording (and one that requires no apologies), a well-written bio, a logo, a professional photo and a video of you performing live (for an actual crowd). You’ll also need vanity URLs on social networks, a website and to make sure all your digital real estate is interconnected.  
  3. Set yourself up for the long haul. You need to engage in long-term planning if you want to work as a musician. Most “normal” businesses are not in the black for three, to five years, so why should a music business be any different? If you are truly in this for life, you should be investing in your business in a way that ensures you are set up to play and record music and get it to people at a moment’s notice over an extended period of time. This could mean building a home studio and getting a P.A. and a van. The point is, you’re going to have to plan multiple releases over a number of years and be prepared to play countless gigs. And you’re going to need to know how to accomplish this as cheaply and easily as possible. Don’t blow all your money on your first release, expecting it will propel you instantly to financial stability. Plan on truly playing and recording music on an on-going basis. 
  4. Build a community and diversify. The music, the money and “the hang” (who you seek out as collaborators and the other musicians with whom you surround yourself on a regular basis) determines which gigs you should take, even if they divert you from your original work – sideman work, apprenticeships, etc. Remember, even Hendrix was a sideman. 
  5. Think about B2C and B2B. It is also important to consider that everyone is talking about direct-to-fan in the digital age – an obvious, unfiltered Business to Consumer strategy (B2C). As they are building their communities, I’m of the opinion that many fledgling artists should also pursue Business to Business (B2B) relationships with like-minded artists. If you convince one band with a 50-person mailing list in another town that you are worth a damn, you can get your music in front of those people and start to break a new market if you’re willing to do the same promotion for them on a gig trade.


In summary, the confusion and frustration you may be feeling about your music career is just part of the process. It just so happens it’s not part of the process that people really talk about. The media is feeding you a steady stream of crap about who, what and where you should be in your career. Try to tune that out along with the hundreds of burnt-out naysayers you will meet along your journey who tried, failed and now want to talk you out of trying, too. Amputate the people in your life with this cancerous attitude, consume less celebrity media, or at least remember to take it with a grain of salt.


And remember grit and what I hear more than anything else about marketing strategies:  “I tried that, and it didn’t work.” No musician succeeds without trying and failing. Try again.

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Reader Comments (14)

This is the best post I've ever read on this site.
I run a Music Business & Management BA Degree on the UK South Coast, and you have distilled our course into one article.
Thank you for this excellent piece. You are now required reading for all my students.

December 18 | Unregistered CommenterMike Pailthorpe

Wow! some of the best advice I have seen out there. You are so write about dream stealers and naysayers. Article after article is such a downer on the creative juices, that tuning it out is becoming more and more difficult.
I have Twitted your article for all the musicians that follow me to read and hopefully take heed to your AWESOME advice.
MusicLuv and keep doin whacha Do!
The "Silver Conductor"
FB,Twitter,Youtube & Linkedin

Great post! So true! True Grit! :-)

Thanks for the input,

Eric John Kaiser
"Portland's French Troubadour"

December 18 | Unregistered CommenterEric John Kaiser

outstanding article !

December 18 | Unregistered CommenterAndrej

Best advice of the year. Great job from a guy who knows what he's talking about because he's worked hard, did not expect instant success and has that grit!

December 18 | Unregistered CommenterLou Plaia

GREAT article. I'm in a different medium (and media) -- I'm a screenwriter -- but the truths here are solid well beyond the music industry details. This is real advice/insight for every creative business and, probably, most professions in general. Thanks for writing this!

December 19 | Unregistered CommenterTantrum

I am not connected with the music business at all, unless you count successful friends who have been working at it all their lives, changing their focus when necessary, but I think your piece could be applied to life in general. The nature of television and movies requires that they portray success as happening very quickly--within a half hour or two hours at most. Life is not like that, but some people buy into that and assume that everyone who is successful is "lucky." That CEO who makes millions is lucky, that actor got a big break, etc., when virtually all of these "overnight" successes have had to work long hours and years through lean times to get where they are. It's just so much easier to think that they are the lucky ones--and it's easier to be jealous of success when you think it's luck and not hard work. Success doesn't just happen; it's the culmination of lots of hard work and failures, and trying again and again. Thanks for a though-provoking article.

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy K

Thanks all for the kind words. It's a strange thing to work in media and yet not be fond of many of the things it does to us.


December 20 | Unregistered CommenterRick Goetz

Amazingly indepth article. Debunking the myth of getting to greatness. Good job!

December 20 | Unregistered CommenterMary Hicks

I really enjoyed this article. As a huge super nintendo guy who used to know all of the codes by heart, I have been searching for the right combination to make my music career a success. I still believe that the right viral music video could help propel any career, but the long strenuous journey of becoming an established musician is the greatest part of this profession. Creating your own hours and having the freedom to go anywhere to perform music is such a blessing. Nothing beats doing what it is you love and connecting with a community of like minded individuals trying to accomplish the same goals in their lives. Writing out your visions and creating short term goals to work towards is definitely crucial to find success. Its also important to have confidence in yourself and in the music you are promoting. Therefore its vital that you focus on the meaning behind your music and the message it is you are sharing with the world. Keep it positive and help to make the world a better place! The more you believe in your music, the more others will too. The longer you are making a living off of your art the more you realize the possibilities of your dreams. I had coffee with the talented piano guru Zach Gill of ALO and Jack Johnson about 5 years ago and the best piece of advice he gave me was say YES to every gig. Each new gig brings new opportunities and expands your fanbase. You want to share your art with as many people as possible. I have been succesfully making a living off of performing music for over 3 years now. My piece of advice to musicians out there trying to make it in music is to keep the music alive even if other people in your band aren't as committed or end up leaving the band. If you have the drive, determination, and passion you will make a success out of your music career. Keep putting yourself out there and making more and more connections. Continue to write new music all of the time, keep learning, and keep improving your skills. To make it in music is similar to climbing down a mountain in the misty darkness with your two best friends and only a little flash light. First and foremost you have to make the decision to start the hike and to climb all the way to the top. If you came this far you have to reach the top even if the sun is setting down over the ocean and you still have 12 miles to go. You have to stick together to fend off the mountain lions (the bad vibes and people just in it for themselves). You have to take your time and move slow as you don't want to fall down the side of the mountain. You have to have faith that you will make it down the path alive and will come out wiser and in better shape then when you started. If you continually move forward, one step at a time you will eventually climb down the mountain out of the darkness. You just have to keep the light burning inside. ONELOVE!

December 21 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Ratowsky

Your article lays it out in easy to understand plain language.. and you're right. Many wont do the first step. I've worked with many small artists in the last two years both doing social media and writing reviews of their live shows, and my motto for the coming year is 'dont want it more than they do'. I also like that you have hit on the same thing I'm finally hearing from many people out there - its not an overnight rise.. it takes 8-10 yrs of hard work to be an overnight sensation. (Even Garth Brooks took that amount of time).

Bookmarking for future reference. And off to read more of your writings.

December 21 | Unregistered Commenterdonnam

Thanks again for another informative and inspiring article, Mr. Goetz and MTT!

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule and Robert Greene (his new book Mastery is highly recommended) talks about the 20,000 hour rule. We're talking about 10-20 years to become successful. Not 3-6 months! The overnight successes do happen but they are very very rare!

Key takeaways- GRIT! (got to have it!), Long term goal setting (great tip on working backwards from a big goal in order to break it down into actions), and taking pride in the grind. I deal with a lot of independent and aspiring artists who have this "lottery" mentality that you mention. Many are so brainwashed by the media and the misconception of how success truly works in the music business.

I've made it my goal to educate these lost souls and thank you for helping to do the same!

December 29 | Unregistered

Positively Spot On advice! Im just getting into this indusstry but understand the concepts you spoke about as being some of the most vital information when it comes to business and success. Well Done and thank you,
Sharon Klima

January 19 | Registered Commentersharon klima

That's a well written piece of work Rick!

Those are some good tips that unfortunately many artists don't think about early on in their careers. I guess that's because many people begin purely out of passion, and don't realise how important it is to set yourself up for the long term. Having an action plan is vital. Just like any business.

I would add that having mentors around you that have been in the game for a while would also be vital for any up and coming aspiring musician

April 17 | Unregistered CommenterPetrie

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