|'Making It' in the Music Business
An Alternate View for the Independent Musician
by Graeme Kirk - Spaced Out Sounds, April 2002
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As an independent musician you will find that many experts in the music industry will be more than happy to feed
you great morsels of advice. Often they will present this advice as a “reality check” or a “wake-up call” to dispel
any naïve misconceptions you may have about establishing your career. Unfortunately this advice can sometimes
be exactly what a budding musician does NOT need.
When We Were Young...
I formed my first band as a teenager. We were never very good but we had fun. Like most young bands we reached
a stage where reality reared its ugly head. “Get some good equipment”, we were told. “Practice every day…”, “…get
a good manager…”, “…learn about the business…”, "..learn to write catchier songs...". All seemingly good
advice, but the effect on us was demoralizing. We had other priorities. The thought of spending all our time and
money on a potentially dead-end career was not something a bunch of middle-class kids with alternative career prospects
were ready to contemplate. Music was a passion but it was not our life.
The band broke up and we drifted off into boring day jobs.
“So what?” you may ask. “You just didn’t have the commitment to make it in the music business”. True, but only
because we didn’t realize that there can be many different definitions of “making it”. The problem is that most
people who were giving us advice don’t realize it either. If we had only been told that there could be more to
being in a band than the hard slog, paying your dues, waiting for record companies to notice you path that everyone
assumes is the only way to succeed, things could have been much different.
It all comes down to how you define success – how you define “making it”.
"Making It' - Redefined
The truth is that all around the world, wherever you look there are people making music who are successful without
ever “making it” in the conventional sense. They can do this because they have realized that, in the immortal words
of Ricky Nelson “You can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself”. They may never make enough out of
music to quit their day jobs but they are appealing to the only audience that really matters – themselves. The
lucky ones have even discovered that once they start making music they can be proud of a broader audience suddenly
If you listen to the advice of the industry experts they will always be pushing you in certain ways. Managers,
producers, promoters, they all want to shape your sound. What they are trying to do is make you more marketable.
This is all very well if you are primarily interested in making money, but take a listen to the music on the charts.
How much of it, in your opinion, sucks big time? And this is the stuff that is successful! If you spend all your
time trying to be marketable then you’ll be stuck in a downward spiral towards mediocrity. To be successful on
your own terms you need to take risks, and taking risks will inevitably lead to a vast majority of people labelling
your music as crap. As an independent artist it makes more sense to be true to yourself, and then try and seduce
people around to your way of thinking.
Of course if your goal is to be like Britney or *NSYNC and sell millions of records then follow all the expert
advice you can get, and good luck to you. But don’t try and call yourself an independent musician.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not telling you to ignore expert advice. What I’m saying is that only you can judge whether
the advice is good or bad. Just because it comes from an “industry expert” doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
Make music to please yourself - then find an audience for it. The music business is all about seduction. In the
end it all comes down to self-belief and marketing.
Practice Makes Perfect?
Another piece of advice you will hear often comes from professional musos. “Practice whenever you can. Hone your
live act. Become a master of your instrument”. Again, seemingly good advice but not always appropriate.
Nothing beats the buzz of playing live. To be on stage entertaining a crowd of people is one of the great thrills
of a musician’s life. But it has its downside – hard work, unresponsive crowds, months spent on the road touring,
unscrupulous promoters. For many d-i-y musicians it can all become a bit of a drag, particularly for those electronic
musicians who spend all their time creating music in home studios but don’t actually have a band to play live with.
These days it is possible to have a successful career without ever playing live. You will probably want to at some
stage, but putting in the hard yards in the studio developing your sound over a period of years can pay dividends.
Many electronic acts release album after album without ever appearing on a stage. Their first live appearances
occur AFTER they have already had commercial success. Much of their success comes from being plugged by DJs or
via the Internet. In fact, it is becoming more and more common for non-electronic musicians to follow the same
path to success.
It is true that live performances are a powerful promotional tool but the Internet has opened up global opportunities
that render such localized promotional activities irrelevant. Even non-electronic bands have embraced the global
reach of the Internet and are successfully marketing their studio recordings internationally without any need for
live gigs. If you look hard enough you are sure to find an audience for your music somewhere in the world.
Another problem with expert advice from musos is that often they are terribly elitist. If you don’t have the best
equipment, or can’t tell the difference between a solo played in the mixolydian scale and one in a pentatonic blues
scale then you run the risk of being branded an “amateur” – which you may well be, but this label should not be
used to belittle your musical accomplishments.
This elitist attitude is so outdated it is laughable. What the world needs now is MORE amateurishness as an antidote
to the homogenized pap that infects the music industry. Being a virtuoso is fine if you want to be a session muso
but it’s not always the pathway to creating interesting, unique and personal music. Many is the time I have sat
watching awe-struck as a brilliant technical guitarist run his fingers lightning-like up and down the fretboard
yet I have remained totally unmoved at an emotional level. On the other hand I have a recording I made of my 4-year-old
nephew banging a cheap organ and singing nonsense words which I find incredibly intense. Maybe I’m just a little
strange but I’m not totally convinced of that yet (despite what my wife says).
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being a master musician. I just don’t think it is a necessary prerequisite
to creating great music. It can sometimes make the whole process easier, but it can also stifle true experimentation.
These days it’s possible for music producers to do great work with little more than a computer and a bunch of samples.
I guess you could argue that the computer has now become the instrument and you need to master it like any other,
but I’m not sure that too many “musicians” would accept this argument. Once again experts can be too narrow in
their definitions – what makes you a virtuoso is not technical brilliance but emotional involvement.
So, What I'm Saying...
I guess in the end what I am saying is that there is no one path to success because there is no one definition
of success. The music industry may think otherwise but who says we have to be part of this industry to be successful?
I believe that independent musicians should educate themselves so that they can use the services of the music industry
to achieve their own form of success. If you subscribe to the industry’s definition you must either become a part
of the machine, or a victim of it.
So do I regret being demoralized by all that advice when I was young? Not really. The story has a happy ending.
That boring day job has actually given me quite a comfortable existence, and now I can focus on making music without
financial pressures. If I had to live on the proceeds of my music I’d be destitute, but I am now making music I
am truly proud of. Modern technology has made it easier to be a part-time musician and still produce music of a
professional standard that is heard by a wide audience. And whether I make five million dollars or five cents from
my music it really makes no difference. It’s taken me the better part of 20 years but I have finally learned to
define success on my own terms.
Kirk is an independent musician and label manager from Sydney,
Australia. He has produced a number of independent CDs and can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can find out more about Graeme’s work at www.spacedoutsounds.com or www.circleofwillis.com.au
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