1. Are you truly talented?
You would be amazed by how many people have little idea of their own talent, good or bad. Just one viewing of the X Factor audition stages will confirm that. Do you do what you do uniquely, memorably and brilliantly? Ask for honest, objective opinions (probably not your mum though – too biased). Have you got a talent that is different and marketable enough to build a career on or – honestly, now - do you just wish you had?
Making it in the music business takes huge amounts of commitment and effort. If you aren’t willing to invest the time needed, don’t expect to get far. It is very unlikely to happen by luck. Your hard work makes your luck. Dedicate every moment you can to your music and this will inevitably mean giving up on a social life, maybe even a family life or full time work. Ask yourself for how long you are willing and able to make these important sacrifices. Decide on a cut-off point. Perhaps you do not have star potential, after all. But you could still make a fulfilling career as a backing singer or session musician. Explore every avenue.
3. Understand how the industry works
You’d be amazed by how many people want to work in this business and to become stars, without an idea of how it works or, even more importantly, how to make it work for them. Study the practices and systems of the music industry; not just the record companies, the managers, producers, promoters, publishers and successful musicians too. How do they all do what they do? How do they interconnect?
Understanding this will help you understand what motivates record companies, publishers, producers and managers. Once you understand that, you can begin to fulfil their expectations.
4. Build your performing presence.
First and foremost, it’s essential to get your act together.
- Perform in front of audiences wherever and whenever you can find them. Start at nearby venues. Perform for nothing, if necessary, to prove your worth. Build your visibility locally. As you begin to attract an audience and a following, take note of who is turning up to see you and how they respond to different elements of your repertoire and performance. Respond to their responses by adjusting your repertoire and performance accordingly.
- Hone your stage presence. Check out how the most successful acts in your genre perform on YouTube. How do they command the stage and interact with the audience? Copy what you love about their performance and adapt in response to your own audience.
- Consider your image too. Lots of performers underestimate the importance of this. Today’s music business success is about being able to present a seamless package offering music, image and performance. How you look should be a seamless part of your act whether you’re more a casual Ed Sheeran or a glossy Beyoncé. Having the same style as the audience you attract obviously builds a strong sense of empathy and connection. But, dare to be different too - stamp who you are on what you do, with your style, your design and your identity. But always remember, how you present yourself should flow from your character and your music, not the other way round.
- Once you are a confident and responsive performer, enter respected competitions such as Open Mic UK Once your performance rocks, connect with and invite local promoters, DJs, venue owners, journos, even people working in local music shops to come and see you perform. Make a genuine personal connection to these people.
5. Collaborate your way up
This is a slick trick if you can do it. Once you have built a respected local reputation, your next step up could well come from teaming up with someone a rung higher on the success ladder than you. Look around at the most talented musicians in your genre and tag them on how big they are. Approach the acts closest to you and ask to collaborate with them. This gets you in front of their audiences, thereby building your own and it helps you move yourself up the exposure ladder. Keep doing it, each time with a band slightly more successful and known than the last.
6. Ruthlessly promote yourself
If you don’t sell yourself to begin with, who else will?
- Create a stand-out brand and use it consistently. And, unless you know what you’re doing with a Mac, find yourself a talented designer to help you achieve things you never could alone. Find a like mind at a local art college, if you can’t afford a professional designer.
- Create an online and social media presence. Devise a marketing plan designed to reach the maximum number of relevant people. This should include Twitter, YouTube Channel, and Facebook. Also upload your music to sites like Soundcloud, Myspace, Bandcamp, ReverbNation and the BandPage app on Facebook. Stick to a regular posting schedule for each to keep fans informed of upcoming shows, pics, videos and any other newsworthy info. Set goals for increasing your fanbase and truly engage with them. Always respond to questions and comments. With your designer, create a website too, with links to all these platforms.
- Talk to the tastemakers. Thousands of bloggers write about the music they love and may be delighted to host an mp3 of one of your tracks. Find the right like-minded bloggers for you on the Hype Machine. Get yourself seen on music forums such TrueGroovez, UK Music and Indie Rock Talk too, to reach new fans and fellow musicians.
- Create a professionally branded electronic press pack with your designer. It should include your contact information, (very) short biography, professionally taken pics, positive quotes about your work, any press coverage, gig information and links to your website and social media, plus, of course, samples of your work.
- Contact labels who deal with acts in your genre. Music credits should provide these contacts. Aim to correspond directly with particular names in specific positions, rather than just anyone in the company. Websites like The Unsigned Guide, Showcase and CMU Directory can help you identify your targets. After a week, follow with an email to see whether they’ve listened and what they think. Never hassle or appear desperate. One polite email a week tops should not be annoying even to the busiest exec.
7. What’s the hook?
OK, now you’re covering all your bases, what can you do to really give yourself unique standout? Never underestimate the power of playing locally. The ideal is that a record company hears the buzz you’re creating in your home town and comes a-calling to you. That’s how Elbow did it; just through the sheer power of their live performances, word spread all the way up to the bigwigs with the cheque books. So too did The Horrors and The Ting Tings.
What is going to make people remember you? How are you going to stand out? How are you going to create buzz? How will you get people talking about you? Tinchy Stryder and Florence of Florence And The Machine fame design their own clothes, which incidentally, expose them to a whole new fashion audience. Pulled Apart By Horses memorably invited a select number of invitees by text to a secret set. Little Comets played flash-band gigs around Newcastle on trams and in university lecture theatres.
What will your creative hook be?
8. Don’t trash hotel rooms
We’re slightly joking with the heading but record execs are looking for mature, together acts who are cautious with their money and professional about handling it. They will be impressed by a high quality demo and you will have to pay for that. So, be careful with your money, however un-rock and roll that sounds. Have a dedicated bank account and use it for band expenses such as demos, better equipment, practice space, photography, designers and so on. These days, being rock n roll is being solvent.
9. Know when you need a manager
Once you’ve honed your skills as a performer, can sell out the best club in your home town and have grown your fanbase, it’s time to take it to the next level with a manager. After all your hard work, he or she has a worthy product to sell. A manager’s job is to take over what you’ve been trying to do for yourself up to now: handling the business aspect of your musical career; getting gigs, record and publishing deals, dealing with contracts and intellectual property law, royalties, booking, touring, accounting, marketing and business planning.
Here are some pointers to finding the right person:
- They love your music.
A manager’s job is selling you so they need to truly get you, believe in you and love what you do.
- They know their way round the industry.
You’re a novice. Best not to hire one. Look for someone who understands how the industry works. Your potential manager should have a degree in music business, an MBA, or years of experience. Look for a detailed understanding of the industry and an office wall lined with awards of the current or recent artists he or she represents. They should have a detailed plan of how they aim to get you from her to hero, within a set amount of time.
Excellent artist management companies include 19 Management,
Aire International (Air), Big Life Management and CMO Management International Ltd. Google and research artist management companies to find a manager appropriate to your style and genre.
10. Be ready
These days, record labels aren't looking for promising. They’re looking for proven. And that means slick, professional individuals and groups they can immediately see how to profit from. They will be much more likely to invest in you and your music if you can demonstrate, not just your ability, but your professionalism and your commitment through every effort you have made up to this point (i.e. numbers 1 to 9).