The truth about ‘making it’ in the music business today
If every idea or plan I ever heard in every conversation I ever had with an aspiring industry professional or musician the music business would be a vastly different place than it is today. I’m not sure that is for the better or worse – depends on the project – but what I do know of from my time working in the industry and my admittedly puddle-deep exploration through its many ranks has become the stuff of legends to myself and anyone who may have been there in that moment those words were shared. Big bands, small bands, PR professionals and startup masterminds. Name a thing in music you could aspire to become and there are at least 5000 people who tell people they also want to do that thing every day, and that’s likely just in North America alone.
I am certain there are a variety of reasons things didn’t work and a number of people who could be, should be, or would be held responsible if things had gone another route, but in many cases it comes down to your willingness to fight, but in many cases it comes down to your willingness to fight and your ability to evolve. Both sound easier than they really are, but they are absolutely essential traits for anyone hoping to make it in this business.
There is one upside: Everyone is fighting this battle in their own way.
Everyone hoping to do anything in this business wakes up with the prospects of going to war. It doesn’t matter whether it should or shouldn’t be like this because the fact of the matter is it is the way things are at this point in time. The boom of access through technology and the internet happened much faster than the music industry was able to adapt. Even if the industry were able to see the changes the internet would present in advance and had ample time to prepare it’s hard to imagine a world where there are anywhere near enough reliable full-time jobs in the creative area you want to work in to allow everyone a place of there own guaranteed. That’s not how life works and it’s not how music works.
The best you can do is to wake up every day and put action to your dreams. Start today. If you want to write the next song that is going to change the world, it’s probably time to take mastering your instrument and songwriting seriously. If you want to manage the next big band, find a band you give a damn about and do whatever it takes to make sure me and everyone else feels the same way this time next year. If you want to pitch Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, XXL, or anyone else, learn how to form a good pitch and start sending emails. If you want to be a publicist, find an artist you believe in and make the rest of us feel the same through any means necessary. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
You’re going to fail, but there’s another upside: Everyone Fails.
Everyone fails a lot, in fact. More bad songs are written every day than future classics, just like more bad press releases are sent than those that make people who receive hundreds of press releases a week actually read what they wrote. It’s not about a single try and it’s not about a single day, week, or month. Building a career of any kind in any field in the music business is an ongoing series of trial and error where you and everyone you know hopes to succeed in some way more often than not. We take our chances and we take our bruises. We complain about the way corporations have devalued music while making billions of the art that musicians create while hoping streaming payouts really do lead to the bright future we were told would come. We claim we found the next best band in the world when we really just heard a good song on the internet. We put our faith in people that turn out to be nothing like we expected and we in turn sometimes surprise ourselves.
Some failures hurt more than others, but that’s okay. You learn to take the good with the bad because you remember that hope only gets you as far as you’re willing to fight in this business and that everyone else has ups and downs too.
Be honest with yourself and others. You cannot do everything. In fact, some things you probably shouldn’t do, and that’s perfectly okay.
To attempt anything is to accept the fact you may fail. Everyone fails, as we mentioned above, but if you find yourself failing again and again without ever finding a sliver of success you may need to take a hard look at your goal and ask yourself whether or not they can be achieved. The hard truth of the matter is that only a very small amount of those who dream and strive to work in music every actually make a career for themselves in this business. If you are not one of them it does not mean you are a failure. You rose above being a failure the moment you decided to try and chase your dreams. You wouldn’t believe how many people never even take the first step towards getting what they want. If things are not working out after a long enough period of time you need to consider the possibility that there may be other fields and areas of expertise where your particular set of skills could be of value. The world needs motivated souls, and you are one. Find a way to make existence a bit better for others and do that thing. Music will always be here, and you will always have it in your life, even if it isn’t what pays the bills.
You are never alone, though it’s going to feel like that sometimes.
When you’re working with others in any capacity you begin to realize your individual performance really does influence their ability to pay their student loans and cover their share of rent in the apartments they more than likely share with anywhere from one to six, seven, or even eight people depending on the metropolis they were forced to move to in order to take their time in this business ‘seriously.’ (You don’t have to do that, by the way. Be the biggest thing you come out of your spot on the map, and don’t forget to thank the internet – and this author – for your success down the line.) You, like them, were once just a kid who really loved a particular band or sound and that somehow turned into a career where you’re now responsible for doing something (or more than likely, many things) in exchange for money. Compared to the way most people approach finding a career in something, that’s crazy! We’re all a little crazy and we many of us deal with the same stresses and bouts of self doubt that you may experience from time to time. We’re strongest when we work together, and that means being open and honest with one another. Recognize that we are all crazy fans deep down inside and we all know of the power music has to impact lives. We are all working toward the same thing, and that is to lift up the art that gives us the ability to wake up every day and fight.
There is power in numbers. Work together.
As much as my individual drive and talent has helped me make a way in this industry, all my greatest accomplishments were the direct result of projects I worked on with people I believed in. Surround yourself with like-minded people who fight for the things they want and understand that real work that lies ahead. This may be the friends you know now or it may be a group of strangers you meet only after you take it upon yourself to start chasing whatever it is you want to do. The bonds you form with these people will last a lifetime, and they will come to mean more than any paycheck possibly could.
There is no denying that finding a career in music is often driven by networking, but even the best connections still require commitment. Music is considered one of the easiest industries to get your foot in, but no one ever stops to tell you everyone and their brother currently has a foot in the door of this business. It takes nothing to do the bare necessities required to claim to have a presence in music and that is a beautiful thing. It’s also a litmus test of sorts to separate the truly driven from those who will eventually turn to a more reliable and suitable (and arguably sane) career. If you want to do anything you have to make yourself known, and it’s both as easy and as hard as committing to working towards your goals every single day. To borrow from Nike, “just do it,” and soon things will begin to fall into place.
James Shotwell is the Digital Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. He is also the Film Editor for Substream Magazine and a 10-year veteran of the entertainment business. James has spoken about careers in entertainment and how to achieve them at festivals, conferences, and college campuses across the United States, and he is currently working on his first book on that very topic at this moment. If you like what you have read here, please make it a point to follow him on Twitter. If you have questions about this or anything else related to working in the entertainment business, please email him: email@example.com.