If you’re fairly green in the music industry, knowing how to spend your money is challenging to the point of overwhelm. Everyone tells you to spend it in different ways, and everyone is more than happy to take your money.
It’s become extraordinarily clear to me that if you want to pay someone to do something, you’ll find a way. Hiring a publicist, for instance, is easy. But as far as the results they deliver, there are no guarantees.
Obviously, I’m not saying you shouldn’t hire a publicist. There are plenty of fantastic publicists in the world, and some of them will do real career-building work for you. My point is that there are many, many people who will just take your money.
It goes without saying that money tends to be in short supply with indie artists. There are so many ways to spend your money, and so few ways to earn money. It’s imperative that you be aware of how you’re spending your money and the effect this has on your career.
In this guide, I want to lay out a few ways I see artists wasting their money and a few ways I personally have wasted money, in the hopes that you will put your money to better use.
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1. Hiring Bogus Promotional Services Or Paying For Views/Likes/Followers
The number one way I see inexperienced musicians wasting their money is on bogus promotional services that won’t do anything positive for them.
This is sad to me, because it’s usually people who are keen and have ambition and drive, but lack experience and/or intuition. Some artists are naturally a little savvier (or just have been around the block a few times), and won’t fall for cheap promo tricks.
There are so many awful “promo companies” that will happily take your money and deliver very few results, or deliver results that are not worth having.
The music industry can feel so overwhelmingly complicated, people without experience see services offering “quick fixes” and end up paying dearly for them.
Often, this manifests itself in the form of buying Facebook “Likes”, YouTube views, or Spotify followers. This is an awful idea. Having 10,000 Facebook fans who never interact with any of your posts looks a lot worse than having 600 fans who are always liking and commenting.
Not only does it look disingenuous, but social media platforms are cracking down on this behavior. YouTube videos with thousands of bot views are being taken down, bot pages on Facebook and Twitter are being removed, resulting in you losing followers, etc.
Don’t fall for services claiming to provide Facebook likes, Twitter followers, YouTube views, or anything similar. If they say they provide real people, they are lying.
Similar wastes of money include: Email blasts. These don’t work unless you’re hiring a real publicist that you’ve actually met and seen work. After all, what do you do with emails that are sent en masse to your inbox? Delete!
If they make a bunch of promises (like getting you a record deal), it’s bogus. There are no promises, no guarantees.
If they have a “buy now” button or seem to accept all clients without any criteria, it’s bogus. A good company will only take on clients they can help.
Don’t waste your money on bogus services. If something seems fishy, it probably is. If you are worried about wasting your money, it’s always a better idea to keep the money in your pocket.
2. Hiring Team Members Before You Are Ready And Without A Plan
At music conferences, people often say that when you are ready, team members will present themselves to you. This is true. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hustle to present yourself to industry people, but you don’t need to rush into hiring them.
Publicists, radio trackers, and to some extent managers, agents, and labels need a band to have reached a certain level of success before they can do anything with them. Once you’ve achieved independent success, you’ll have people begging to work with you.
Now, it can still be useful to hire publicists and radio trackers independently, you just need to have a plan.
For example, I hired several publicists and a radio tracker before I even had a plan in place to release an album. This turned out to be a total waste of money, because there was no story, and nothing for these team members to push.
That said, they were still happy to take my money and put in some hours. It’s just that it ended up being a waste of time.
Again, if you are unsure about hiring somebody, just don’t. There is so much to learn by doing the work yourself, and then you’ll be able to work with these people so much more effectively when you’re actually ready to hire them.
On that note, when you hire a team member, you have to know what you want to accomplish. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will accomplish your goals, but you must be able to give them direction.
Know which stations you want your radio tracker to target. Know what kind of publicity will work for your fan base. Plan accordingly.
It’s rational to rely on the expertise of professionals to some extent – and good team members will tell you if you’re being unrealistic – but it’s equally important to know what you want.
3. Hiring Somebody To Do Work You Should Be Doing Yourself
Learning how to work in different areas of the music industry is never a waste of time. You just need to have realistic expectations of what you can accomplish by yourself, and a good work ethic.
For example, I don’t think anyone should hire a publicist or a radio tracker without first giving it a try independently.
I have a friend who successfully promoted herself for a couple years by creating a “fake” publicity company and a pseudonym and promoting herself that way.
Similarly, many bands will track to college radio completely independently and achieve respectable success.
If you can do this, you’re not only saving money, your creating your own relationships in the industry, and making yourself way more appealing to all kinds of prospective team members.
For those of us who are somewhat business-inclined, trying to learn how the industry works can give you a much better handle on things when it comes time to actually hire someone to do this work.
Now, all that being said, I value time as much as money. If you’re spending all your time on publicity that is ineffective, forget it. Focus on making music first. The business will come naturally if the music is amazing.
Because I value time so much, I’m also in favor of delegating certain menial, tedious tasks to assistants or friends who will happily work for $15/hour. If you can make better use of your time and have someone do the work for you, go ahead!
4. Not Negotiating On Rates
Another huge mistake I see artists making is settling on the first number that a company gives you. I’ve most often seen this in artists that actually have a lot of money to spend, but I’ve also fallen for it, and certainly did not have a bunch of extra money lying around.
This applies in literally every corner of the industry.
For example, if you’re in the market to hire a somewhat big-name producer, you’ll probably have to go through their management. This means that their management is going to tell you their rate – it may be per day, or per song, or whatever.
This rate will sometimes be extraordinarily high. Here’s why: If they tell you it’s going to cost $5,000/song, and you agree to pay that, who would say no? It costs them nothing to start high, and some people will just spring for the extremely high price.
The truth is, these rates are always negotiable, and you’re the one that has the money, so you actually have power in this situation.
You can negotiate based on the amount of songs you’ll be doing, you can negotiate based on the fact that you are independent and don’t have label support, or you can simply negotiate based on what you actually have to spend.
This applies with everyone. Publicists, graphic designers, videographers, disc duplicators, merchandise, etc. Everybody is going to start high, and they literally expect you to negotiate. If you accept their first offer, they will be ecstatic.
Negotiating is not a skill that comes naturally to everyone. If you want to read a great book on negotiating, read Secrets of Power Negotiating by Roger Dawson. It will change your life.
5. Spending Too Little On Your Merch
This one seems a little counter-intuitive. Why spend more than you need to on merch? Buy the cheapest shirt, stick your logo on it, and sell away. Right?
Wrong. People hate cheap garbage and they won’t want to buy it.
Merch serves two purposes: Making money and promoting your brand. You want to make a lot of money on merch, but you also want to sell a lot of it, because you want people wearing your shirts.
In this case, it’s worth spending the money on nice shirts, nice designs, and a good merch set up, because a) you will sell more merch if people want to buy it, and b) you want your brand to look good, not cheap.
Of course, I’m not saying you should take their first offer either. There is always room to move on shirt prices, and you should get them as low as you can. All I’m saying is that sacrificing quality will result in less sales and a worse looking brand.
6. Buying Unnecessary Gear
Many musicians have a bad gear buying habit. G.A.S. (or Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) is a major money pit for many.
The fact is, you can spend a basically unlimited amount of money on gear and most of it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.
In my opinion, you’re better off using whatever you have to make as much music as possible until the things you have become a true impedance to your music making.
And then, when it’s time to buy a new piece of gear, carefully consider what you’re buying. For example, if you know you want a nice compression pedal, why buy the $300 one if you have a feeling that what you need costs $500? Just make the investment so that you don’t lose money reselling it for less.
Always keep in mind that great gear does not make great music. Gear is fun and it can certainly improve your sound and even provide you with creative inspiration, but it will not make or break your career.
7. Paying To Play Shows
Paying to play shows can be a tough and contentious issue, because sometimes pay to play opportunities are actually legitimate.
That said, I feel like it’s usually pretty easy to tell when a pay to play show is just a rip-off, and when it’s a legitimate opportunity.
Showcases like SXSW or CMW don’t advertise themselves as being pay to play, but they are. You’re usually not paid a fee, you usually don’t collect ticket or door money, and you have to cover all your own expenses. So yeah, you’re paying.
BUT! These showcases can actually yield real connections and real opportunities. Especially if you’ve already worked up a bit of a buzz and/or have a team working for you. Lots of industry people congregates at these conferences, and they are great places to play for a room of influence.
On the other hand, paying to play in your hometown or paying to play a show where you could otherwise be selling tickets and making money – not a good idea. You are entertainment and you are worth something.
There are also showcases that are literally money grabs. LME is an entertainment company in Canada that puts on pay to play showcases with no real benefit to the band.
Always Err On The Side Of Caution
Everyone wants your money and nobody cares about your music like you do. It’s a bit cynical, but it’s good to keep in mind.
If something feels fishy or you’re having doubts about how effective your money is going to be, keep it safely in your pocket.
Or, spend your money where it really matters: Music and content. Having more pictures, more videos, and more music never hurts.