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Redefining Success In Music

Success in the music Industry has long been measured by landing a recording contract, but with the ever-increasing digital distribution outlets available, and the shrinking physical market, the goal posts have certainly shifted.

In reality, as 90% of those who had the (mis)fortune to find out first hand will testify, securing a record deal was never an indication that you had actually “made it”. It was a temporary influx of much needed cash, but any perceived luxury came with insurmountable overheads. With every limo ride and big city showcase offering free booze, your ever-expanding expense account would ensure that your musical career was never going to be a viable long-term business.

A re-evaluation of what actually defines success in music is much needed. Especially as new artists take steps to build a working business model in the constantly changing digital world.


Keeping a diamond in your mind is important to help positively focus your goals, but for anyone embarking on a fledgling career, a realistic timeline needs to put in place.

The first step for any artist is to make your musical career self-sufficiant. This does not mean it is your only source of income, it simply means that it pays for itself. And this does not include investors paying your bills either - you need to be self-sustainable. If you have found enough fans to regularly invest in your product, and your monthly overheads are covered, from guitar strings to website and mailing list costs, then you can class your business as doing pretty well.

More importantly it is an indication that your business has legs, that what you are doing is connecting in the right ways to evolve and grow.


True success in music should be measured like any other business, if you can pay the rent, the bills and put food on the table, then you can consider yourself having “made it”. That’s not to say you should rest on your laurels and get comfortable. On the contrary, it means you have something very special going on that needs to be nurtured and grown even further.

At the stage when enough people are investing in your product that you are able to sustain, not only your musical endeavors, but also full time employment, then you are more successful than the vast majority of artists that were ever signed to a record deal.


This is where goals need to be set in the new music business. Visions of selling out arenas are still achievable, but they will come after 10 - 15 years of grinding it out and legitimately building your career, bit-by-bit, fan by fan. If you are not in it for the long haul then this is no longer the business for you. You may pick up investors on the way, but only because you have already proven to be a worthy business model to invest in.

Music has become an industry built for those who love music, not fame and money. If you are looking for instant recognition then go clog up the reality TV market, if you are looking for money, go back to school and get a degree, put the hard work in somewhere else.

However, if you love music and are dedicated to it, then success is just as achievable as it ever was, as long as you keep the quality high and the goals realistic.

Robin Davey is a Musician, Film Director and Producer born in the UK and now residing in Los Angeles. He was inducted into the British Blues Hall Of Fame at the age of 23 with his band The Hoax. His current band The Bastard Fairies achieved over 1 Million downloads when they were the first band to release an album for free via the internet in 2006. As a director he won the best Music Video award at the American Indian Motion Picture Awards. His feature documentary The Canary Effect - an exploration into the hidden Genocide of Native Americans, won The Stanley Kubrick Award For Bold and Innovative Film Making at Michael Moores Traverse city Film Festival in 2006. He is also head of Film and Music Development at GROWvision - A full service media, management and production company

Reader Comments (24)

'At the stage when enough people are investing in your product that you are able to sustain, not only your musical endeavors, but also full time employment, then you are more successful than the vast majority of artists that were ever signed to a record deal.'

Record deals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some will provide an advance big enough to buy a Harley and a huge bag of coke that will get you off for a year-long trip round Europe (a DJ's deal based on one remix - name held back for obvious reasons). Another deal will buy you a house. The crucial thing about these deals is that they are only recoupable via your royalties received by the record company you are signed to at the time.

Success, financial success, is easily quantifiable and where the money comes from is irrelevant. The fact is, there are very few examples of those who have achieved even the basic success Robin describes above (paying the rent) without a major financial investment from a label or publisher.

His hopeful statement, that music is 'now' an industry for those who 'love music' ignores the fact that, first and foremost, when you're talking about money, it's a business, where some people love music but many others love the money music makes for them.

It's just dishonest to dismiss the record companies, as many do nowadays. It doesn't help musicians in any way and it's contributing to the mindset that music is, literally, a devalued product. By continuing the myth of the new, level playing field we allow the majors and the new, major players (Apple/Google/FB/Spotify etc) to piss our music away for 0.0006 a shot, if we get paid at all.

If you are making pop music, in its broadest sense, then the major labels (including the major indies) are still, unfortunately, the best way to success.

June 23 | Registered CommenterTim London

Agree, that success may come in different ways in the music business these days. Some may still get a record deal of some sort while others will develop their career on their own with the access that the internet and digital tools have made possible to be more self sustaining.

Behind all successes there has been a development phase. Even Tiger Woods, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber worked for a few years building their careers. Granted they were young, but they had parents who helped guide them, and they still had to put in the time and effort to get to where they are today and find good people to help them as they built their career.

The key to any entrepreneur is that you have to remember that your passion will still involve creating, developing, and maintaining a business. I see too many good musicians who disregard this fact and either stay where they are in their career or start to decline at some point.

To all, I'd suggest finding a mentor or two that can help you think through these ideas and how to implement for yourself. A mentor can be an invaluable person in your career. They don't have to necessarily be in the same career path you are.

Thanks again !

June 23 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Brent

In reply to to TIm:

I have to disagree with you statement "there are very few examples of those who have achieved even the basic success Robin describes above (paying the rent) without a major financial investment from a label or publisher."

There are many many musicians and bands I know that pay the rent from music, without anything but the investment of their own dedication and time.

Nowadays a record deal means a 360 deal so again your remarks that they are only recoupable against royalties is simply not true either, they are taking a percentage of everything you do in order to recoup.

Then you go on to say that people love the money that music makes for them. The crux of my article is that music doesn't give those opportunities to make the big fat advances anymore, in fact it is very tough to even pay the rent. If you want to make money do something else because you are not gonna be able to make a fast buck from music. Of all my musician friends the only ones making money are the ones who stuck it out because they love music, any who were in it for the money got out when things started to tank.

This is why I framed the article redefining success in music. It does not contain hopeful analysis it is taking a realistic approach to the new musical environment. The romanticism of the music industry is fading, only those with a realistic vision will survive.

June 23 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey

The Tiger Woods analogy is a good one. A few golfers are zillionairres. Most people play cause they love it. My path is to spend what I have to on music and make my $ form my job. It's a hell of a lot easier than trying to make music (or golf) pay for it'self, and the music doenst have to suffer if the fanbase is low. (Hey, I wanted to go to a real recording studio, but it wont pay for it'self... guess i'm stuck with the 4-track)

Major labels never keep costs low and hope the artist will grow fan by fan, slowly. They dump cash into a beginning career. As your own artist, you can trim the excess, but why would you try to run a business using only the pittance that you are already earning?

June 23 | Unregistered CommenterFreddy


You might well be right that there are numerous jobbing musos who play sessions, or in orchestras who get by. Do you have stats? I don't - only anecdotal evidence plus who the top selling recording and live attractions are (overwhelmingly signed up).

As ever, a few examples of 'your' successful artists outside of the normal culprits would be appreciated. To weigh against, say, the top selling artists in the UK or USA, for example, who are mostly either on, or were on a deal with a sizable label and/or publishing company..

Re: 360 deals - if you leave the company, or are booted off, you don't pay back your advances. Again, any examples of artists who have to pay back their recording advances with sales of recordings subsequent to their deals would be appreciated. I haven't heard of it. Maybe it's a new development.

The big fat advances do sometimes come up, but more likely a development deal or just something with much less money than days of old is realistic if you're a new artist. What you do get though, as well as your recording/publishing/merch/live advance is a marketing budget, worth thousands. Which means you can compete with other artists for publicity, which means you might sell some recordings or T shirts. You don't have to pay this investment back from subsequent sales, either.

If you are being realistic you HAVE to take into account the biggest slice of the musical economic pie: the big companies. Otherwise you are only telling a very partial story.

Quite often on this site I feel like I'm having to defend in some weird way the strange and corrupt antics of the record companies and I want to make it clear I don't think signing a 360 deal at some measly percentage is better than you owning your music and getting 100% for it - in an ideal world. When I see that as a definite possibility for most of the more dedicated artists around I would shout it to the winds.

But it's not a definite possibility, it's only a very slim possibility and, on the evidence that I've seen you're better off keeping your mind open towards a deal with a large company, even as the deals get tougher on the artist, even as bands get wiser and more net-savvy, than setting yourself up as a small business and deciding not to sign, out of some noble stance which disregards the satanic deals you are making, meanwhile, with Apple, Google and FB and possibly ICANN (that latter one is a little tickle of a worry that I have about the fact that the totally unaccountable body in charge of domains is funded by the USA government...)

It's all a long shot, of course it is. So maximise all the possibilities.

June 23 | Registered CommenterTim London

Tim I feel you are arguing with yourself here and jumping to conclusions. If you read my article again I think you will find that I talk about finding investors along the way.

I say you might pick up investors on the way but only because you have proven to be an investable business. In other words before anyone comes along offering you a deal you need to already be standing on your own two feet, for the benefit of your own career and not just those signing or investing in you.

Record deals still are recoupable on the product you have provided them during your contract, and they own all the rights as well. Lose the deal and the advances then you are left with nothing unless you have built up a viable business which can continue on without the dollars they input. Another reason bands should not consider the deal the golden nugget, but just another step along the way to building a business for themselves.

Like I said read the article again - it is all in there. It is only your preconceived interpretation of it that you are arguing with - not the article itself.

June 23 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey


This is more to do with a fundamental difference of opinion about what the main event is for an artist. I understand what your point is completely and I think you're basically wrong. Although...

I can see your point - indeed some record companies are nowadays looking for artists to have somewhat proved their 'business' sense before and are probably happier signing artists who already have management who can take on some of the 360 duties. Witness the apparent frenzy around Tyler The Creator who had created a nicely wrapped up package and the current frenzy around Wu Lyf who have done similar.

And, of course, if an artist has established themselves they will make more money if they are part of some kind of business structure (probably) whether they are completely independent or signed.

I just don't think that should be the main focus of an artist, or even part of the main focus, or even a consideration. Tyler and Wu Lyf have created an aesthetic, not just a business.

And I don't agree you have to put aside ten to fifteen years of your life in order to grind out your career. It's just not true and there are plenty of examples of artists who are playing major tours in major arenas after much less than that.

Your piece is full of holes. Here, I'll nip back and forth across what you've written:

True success in music is a combination of things, not just paying the rent. True financial success is something else. Which do you mean?

You state the first step for any artist is to become self-sufficient. Why? It's totally impractical. Your first step should be to try to create amazing music, play a few gigs, learn how to look the punters in the eye etc

The 'insurmountable overheads' that you think come with record deals - what are they? How come so many artists surmount them? If you've got a good manager and sympathetic A&R why would the overheads be any more insurmountable than those you encounter as an indie?

The whole article is weighted in favour of the internet guru who has been trying to convince everyone that the 'old' industry is dead in order that they can sell their 'new' industry services to artists.

Perhaps there needs to be a 'new' new industry, one that lives in the real world.

June 23 | Registered CommenterTim London

I fully agree with this post. The old idea that "getting a record deal" is the end goal is wrong. But that doesn't mean you should forego a record deal. Labels have the business sense, connections, money, and resources to fund the band for the long-haul. So getting a record deal is a big step, but it should, like anything, be used wisely.

June 23 | Registered CommenterRiley Smith


I am not dissing a record deal, but simply stating the fact that they were never a key to success and have become even less so. Hence the need to redefine what constitutes success.

It is a very simple proposition. I am confused as to why you can't grasp that.

You are again seeming to create points so you can continue arguing with yourself in a bid to discredit my words.

Being able to pay the rent is a signifier of success. Being in debt is not. Being in debt on the way to finding success is sometimes a needed position to take (which like I say I address in the piece above). However if your business is reliant on being in debt to a third party (the record label), it is not a long time workable model.

This is why I say, become self sufficient so no matter what deals you get yourself into you will always be able to sustain a long term career and continue to pay the rent, long after the record deal falls by the wayside. Which as I note 90 - 95% of the time it does.

I am sorry but I think I have made my point quite succinct and clear, I have nothing to add.

June 24 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey


It seems you can't grasp what I'm saying. If you are going to make bold statements like record deals never being key to success you need to back them up. For years and probably even now having some kind of deal is absolutely key to success. Where else is the investment going to come from? The bank? Google? Even the legendary Public Enemy struggled to achieve some basic fan-funding in order to make a new album.

At no point do you say that 'being in debt... is sometimes a needed position to take' - you actually say self sufficiency should be an artist's 'first step'.

And, actually, plenty of businesses run on 'debt' - which, in the case of a record deal is actually an advance - but hardly any have the proviso that you can leave the deal without paying the 'debt' back (unless you become bankrupt).

If you think I'm arguing your points for the fun of it then think again. The music biz is almost completely unpoliced - anyone can set themselves up to sell services on the basis of a little chutzpa and a smidgeon of experience. (We seldom hear from anyone who is actually 'self sufficient' in the business side, I've noticed) You don't need a certificate of expertise.

These comments are an opportunity to place these services in context.

June 24 | Registered CommenterTim London


OK I see you are attacking me because you think I am offering a service? That is why your point is so confusing, your are just trying to make out like I don't know what I am talking about because you feel I do this for monetary gain. Now I am able to see your confusing arguments far more clearly.

Your attempt to make appear that I am contradicting myself or leaving out information is nullified by a reread of the original article. Every point I made in my comments was just a reiteration of the original piece.

"It was a temporary influx of much needed cash" & "You may pick up investors on the way" Cover pretty much every point you were trying to discredit.

I write all these articles for free, I have 20 years experience as a musician (18 professional) including signing major record deals with Atlantic, Warner and Interscope and a plethora of independent labels. I now run 2 profit making completely independent labels. It is with that experience I offer the advice I do.

In that time I have successfully worked to be a self sufficient musician and film maker and I continue to do that, it is how I pay the rent. My words come from experience and not the taradiddle you appear to spout.

As it clearly states on my website I do not charge musicians for advice, as I prefer to give it for free through the articles I write.

It is clear you have made it a point to discredit me for some bizarre reason. I remember you doing it before on other pieces I have written. Sadly when your argument is based not on the words actually written but some predetermined projection of me, then it is only yourself that you discredit.

Your comments have left a rather disturbing taste in my mouth, it is a shame that such a positive forum as music think tank is tainted in this way.

I apologize to Bruce and the other readers for embarking on this exchange of words and marring the otherwise constructive conversation.

June 24 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey


Well this is getting silly.

I'm not attacking you. I'm commenting on your article and your subsequent comments. I've included your own words as quotes and paraphrased and commented directly on what you wrote. This, being a forum, is what happens. No one's trying to discredit you, personally, although I may want to discredit some of what you've written.

Just because I don't agree with you doesn't make it personal. It's entirely possible I might have disagreed with you in the past (examples?), if you have written similar broad brush statements in a music biz post. What do you expect?

If you are offering advice then it needs to be accurate. Lots of people offer advice. I offer advice, but I expect to be pulled up when the advice is based on inaccurate info or is too generalised to figure out. It's happened. For instance, you say I spout 'taradiddle' (I looked it up and it's pretentious nonsense, which is, frankly, insulting) but you don't specify. Go ahead, argue the point. What's pretentious about what I've written?

In this case, you think success in music is one thing, I think it's another. I ask for proof and you patronise me by suggesting I'm too stupid to grasp your simple argument.

Honestly, if you don't want anyone to disagree with you, don't post.

June 24 | Registered CommenterTim London


Robin was kind enough to list a few of his credentials as a musician for anyone following this thread. Have you got any?

June 24 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

99% of musicians won't ever be signed to a major record label. 95% of musicians who are signed to a major record label won't be successful.

June 24 | Unregistered CommenterSam


Although I don't feel I need to list credentials every time I comment (it's different if I post, with a link to my own site), for what it's worth: I've been working in pop music since 1977, have signed on the line with Warner, ATCO, Virgin and Universal, amongst others, as an artist, have been nominated for an Ivor Novello, whatever that means, been MD and composer on numerous theatre shows, made soundtracks for films you've never heard of, written or co-written hit singles in the UK, USA and Japan, sold a lot of records and not sold even more. I've made a zero-budget feature length movie and a bunch of shorts, including pop videos. I currently work as producer with and help out artists, Her Royal Highness, Boy Next Door and Young Fathers, all based here in Edinburgh and I've just finished my second novel, called How To Zero.

Not sure how successful that makes me... but, without the money from the various deals, a whole lot poorer, that's for sure.

How about you?

June 25 | Registered CommenterTim London

@Sam Yes exactly, I am surprised Tim cannot see how those factors deem that paying the rent is a sensible and constructive goal to set as career perspective. If Tim wants to believe that his acts are good enough to snag a major deal, or even any deal in this current climate, then the odds are simply stacked up against him, and the percentages would suggest all his acts are doomed for failure. However with reasonable goals outside of the label system, utilizing self distribution, and creative content, then you have an achievable platform to base the rest of your career on.

No matter how I keep re-framing my argument, to me it remains a positive and sensible proclamation to make, certainly when the alternative is to set your goal on something burdened with such insurmountable odds.

Like I said though, I don't think his argument is based on the facts, but on some preconceived righteous indignation towards people who achieve note for their writing and opinions.

June 25 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey

@Steven, I thought the credentials that backed up my opinions were listed pretty conclusively at the bottom of the piece, but Tim seemingly chose to ignore those. In fact he seemed to take me posting links to my websites as a reason to attack my opinions. Though I would like to point out that in previous articles by TIm, he chose to put a link promoting his blog in the very first paragraph of a MTT piece.

I post a short bio at the end of my articles so people who want to investigate, get a sense of where my point of view come from. However Tim obviously thinks that it is a means to self promotion. I can however dispel that myth by the simple fact that I see the click through rates to my site via the wonders of Google Analytics, and that rate is very small compared to the readership of the blog.

June 25 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey

Not wanting to enter the "my CV is bigger than yours" argument, there's no way the first album available for free on the internet was in 2006... The idea itself is preposterous.

June 25 | Unregistered CommenterMerankorii

@Merankorli You would be surprised how far things have moved in 5 years, we were ridiculed at the time for doing so, and even with 1 million downloads record labels did not see it as a serious promotional tool. I would be very interested if you can prove it otherwise, we were not aware at the time of anyone who did it before us and subsequent research has not proved any different.

I am happy to be proved wrong but I feel your assumption is the preposterous statement here.

I really would rather not turn this into a public pissing contest, if you want to email me privately with your concerns about my credentials I will be happy to engage in conversation by email and lets keep this an on topic forum. robin (at)

June 26 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey


Obviously some of my comments have struck a real chord with you. But instead of answering them you've made it personal. Let's just get back to the question, shall we?

The percentages, actually, (to use your word) would suggest the majority of all acts are doomed to failure, not just 'mine'. Which is why it's sensible to keep your options open and understand the whole picture, which includes the (admittedly) slight possibility of a deal with a major label during which you will hopefully be given an advance which you only have to pay back from the dismal royalties you will receive on recordings made during or as part of the deal.

If you sign up with a decent sized label you will then, hopefully, be able to utilise the company's marketing budget and departments to promote what you do.

FYI: I don't have any services to sell and I post and comment here for several reasons, none of which are to promote what I do. One of the main reasons I comment on posts that discount the biggest section of the music industry is because I have personal experience of and have seen hundreds of artists benefiting from being signed to major labels or indies. I never, ever say it's ideal. I will always add the pitfalls. But I have an inherent distrust of people who eulogize the independent online possibilities whilst dismissing the still current realities of the music biz, some of which are listed above.

At some point most artists will need a variety of services, from PR to photography, from music production to video production and, if they are lucky enough to have secured a deal these come without the risk of financial ruin, even if you have to sacrifice an album's worth of royalties to pay for it, eventually.

June 26 | Registered CommenterTim London

Even artists who are signed to major record labels are admitting that we now live in a very changed music business paradigm. Here's an article (lengthy but well worth reading) by OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash:

June 26 | Unregistered CommenterSam

@tim I am sorry but I have already answered everything you just asked in your last post. Just reread my posts and you will see. I am not going to reiterate my points using different wording just to try and make you see everything that was in the original piece.

June 26 | Registered CommenterRobin Davey

Intense! camping.

June 29 | Unregistered CommenterMinh

Robin wrote: "I am happy to be proved wrong but I feel your assumption is the preposterous statement here."

Mate... 2006? Here's a great net label you should know about: . FYI, a net label is a record label that releases albums for free on the internet. This one is releasing stuff since 2001. And it is surely not the first...

November 22 | Unregistered CommenterMerankorii

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