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Thoughts for the Aspiring Musician
by Christopher Knab - Fourfront Media & Music - May 2002

Back to Music Business 101

I have been watching, studying, and analyzing why some musicians ‘make it’ and others don’t for a long time, and I have given up trying to come up with some magic formula that every up and coming musician can follow on some imaginary road to success. It doesn’t work out that way. Today more than ever there are countless advisors like myself who offer tips to developing acts and ‘struggling musicians’, and all too often we try to inflict some ‘step by step’ process on musicians that will help them become tomorrow’s superstar.

Magic Formula?
In fact, I think as Americans, we are addicted to self-help books and formulas for success. What is lacking in our day-to-day lives that makes us run out to buy the latest personal improvement manual? Could it be that there is a difference we detect in the attitude of successful, well-known people, and the attitude of the average working Joe?

When it comes to music, why do some musicians make it big, while other equally talented songwriters and musicians never get their music heard by the masses? What specific skills and/or inherent talents do the successful artists embody that so many ‘wannabees’ do not? Is it charisma? That special something that many artists seem to exude the minute they walk into a room? I think that is part of it, but many successful acts have as much charisma as a pitcher of milk, and yet do quite well for themselves.

Deep Pockets?
How about a lot of money? Yeah that seems to be the one sure thing behind every star. There are always major labels with deep pockets that know how to spend the money to push their acts into the hearts and minds of the public. Well lets talk about that for a moment. Money can only push something out to the public for their acceptance or rejection…that’s all it can do. Nobody reaches into their wallets and purses and spends their hard earned money on anything….unless there is some real value in what is being offered to them.

Today there is a lot of what some observers call ‘shallow and immature’ lyrics and disposable pop music out there on the charts… yet, no one who bought that music would cop to that criticism. The people who buy the latest sounds on the pop charts bought that music because it gave them some kind of pleasure. It meant something to them.

I think it all comes down to two essential things…creating and performing great songs, and a having a savvy business mind that can figure out clever ways for people to hear your great songs. Lets look more closely at these two observations.

Music That Fulfills
First, we should look at what sells and what is successful from this standpoint; music fulfills the needs, wants, and desires of any group of fans because they identify with it. and they like a song because they can hum it in the shower. The one thing that all successful acts have in common when they cross over to mass appeal is great songs! This is true as well for the more edgy artists who seem to eek out a living from smaller fanbases. They still write compelling songs that touch the hearts and minds of their fans. (Whether or not you personally ‘like’ hit songs or not has nothing to do with it.)

Secondly, what other thing is it that successful artists and bands have that separates them from those that struggle? My answer is business savvy. Yup…that’s it. Somebody, somewhere, in every successful act’s history had enough business savvy to make them the stars that they are or were.

That Certain Something
NOW….listen up! It isn’t as simple as you think. Historically that business savvy may have been solely the talents and skills of a weasel-like manager, or record label executive. It may have been the unscrupulous business practices of shady lawyers and booking agents, as well as greedy club owners, or money hungry publishers.

My point is that no matter what the behavior of a particular music business gatekeeper may have been…they got a certain part of the job done…they broke on through to the other side of the competition, and got their act’s song into the ears of the thousands of music fans. And to do that, I can assure you they had a business plan.

There are no short cuts to success, and there just isn’t enough room at the top for everyone who makes music to a living from their music. But there is a balance that can be obtained in ones life. With a combination of old school ‘analog’ marketing, and the new ‘digital’ marketing tools available on the Internet and through the technology of downloadable music, no musician who writes great songs should have that much problem realizing (at least) modest successes with their music.

10 Step Programs
Be careful of the "10 Steps To Musical Success" and the " What every A&R Rep Is Looking For" articles and books. I must admit that I have written some articles with such titles, only because they are my way of getting the attention of an ever-growing group of celebrity ‘wannabees’. Once I get their attention, I show them proven strategies and tactics that record labels and industry professionals use to promote and market popular music.

Remember, in reality, there are no 10 steps to anything! There is however, your conscious involvement with, and your personal commitment to making the greatest sounding music you can, and committing to learning as much about the business of music as possible. The world of commercial music is a world of dollars and cents, whether you like it or not. But that does not mean that art and commerce cannot walk hand in hand…they must do that.

The Driven Artist
Most ‘artists’ in the truest sense of the word are narrowly focused people who never take no for an answer. No matter what challenges come along, they find a way of staying alive. More and more as the decades roll by, these artists are entrepreneurial musicians who grab a hold of the business reigns and find away to get the job done.

We live in a capitalist, consumer driven society. The successful musicians of tomorrow will be those people who either attract dedicated, knowledgeable business men and women to do the marketing and promotion for them, or take that responsibility on themselves. Give it a try. You may learn, as many are learning, that success can be defined in several different ways. You don’t have to sell millions of records to be considered a successful musician. You just have to sell enough records, concert tickets, and merchandise to pay the bills…do that, and I think you are a very successful musician.

Being an entrepreneurial musicians means you have to be able to write and perform great songs, and produce them with a contemporary sound, AND you have to take the time to read about the music business and stay on top of the evolving marketing and promotional opportunities popping up all around you. Read the music business trades and tip sheets, (Billboard, Radio and Records, Hits, CMJ etc.) Cruise the internet for the tons of free information at sites like
www.musicbizacademy.com, www.musicdish.com, www.4frontmusic.com and many others. Also, find time to call club bookers (over and over), read bad and good music reviews of contemporary releases, stay in touch with your fans on a regular basis, AND still put on a great show when you're exhausted or sick. (The show must always go on, you know.)

Entertain Always
When it comes down to it, being a professional musician is really all about entertaining people. Entertaining the public as a life commitment involves getting yourself into a deep sense of personal commitment to your art, and the business of your art. It seems to me that artists who are able to do that have come to grips with the notion that success is more an internal experience, and not necessarily one that will be satisfied by a money-hungry music industry that defines success only in dollars and cents calculations.

Looking at the work habits of most big stars, I think they all have an entrepreneurial entertainer inside them. That's what allows them to succeed in all areas of the business. That is what keeps them going during the fifth press interview of the day, and all the other crap that has nothing to do with music and everything to do with the business of music marketing.

Should the day come when you sense you have made it, know that the pressure to keep producing sellable music is huge. So you need to find a balance inside yourself. A sense of timing that lets you know when you have to take a break, or eat and sleep right. Successful musicians have to be healthy and ready to create/perform on demand. For example, you may have to hit the road for nine straight months, then make a world-class album immediately following the grueling tour, followed by endless media encounters along the way.

On Top of Your Game
What it all boils down to is that stars have to be on top of their game, both artistically and business-wise. It is essential to create a balance between music and business early on. Make sure your psyche is in the right place. You know, screw your head on right! Be honest with yourself regarding what things you are and aren't willing to do to be successful with your music.

Map out how you will improve your skills in both business and art. Put it on paper. Try living the 50% business - 50% music rule. Make sure you honor your business commitments and always act professionally. Again, make sure you keep your artist side healthy and creative. Take days off, take nature walks, and take time to noodle around that new song idea that just popped into your head. Such activities will help keep the artist inside you healthy and able to nourish your creative juices.

Should you ever become a successful musician (by your own definition) making money strictly from your music, remember that being a famous musician is not a "normal" life. To survive and thrive in the public eye requires a special set of skills. The good news is those skills can be learned and developed. Every little bit you learn now will benefit your career plans down the road. Believe in yourself, and never stop improving.

Your hard work will pay off, if not always at the cash register, at least with a sense of personal satisfaction for having done the best work creatively and business-wise, that you could.

Rock on!


Christopher Knab is an independent music business consultant based in Seattle, Washington. He is available for private consultations on promoting and marketing independent music, and can be reached by email at: chris@chrisknab.net

Chris Knab's new book,
'Music Is Your Business' is available NOW from the Music Biz Academy bookstore.

Visit the
FourFront Media and Music website for more information on the business of music from Christopher Knab.

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