There’s something glamorous about being a musician, isn’t there?
Yet the road to fame and fortune is rarely easy, and if you aren’t prepared for what’s ahead, you could easily get knocked off course.
Perseverance is important, but it’s not just about that – it’s also about knowing what steps to take to get to where you want to go. And, it’s about working smart and not just working hard.
Let’s look at the steps you’ll take to become a professional musician.
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Develop Your Skills
Prior to creating CD Baby, former founder Derek Sivers was looking to become a professional musician.
He says he set up his schedule so that he could spend the entire day in practice, every single day, so that he could become the best possible musician he could become.
Becoming a hermit and practicing like mad is how many musicians begin their musical journey.
Depending on where you are in life and what you’re up to, you may not be able to do as Sivers did and dedicate 10 hours per day or more to practice.
But this will be a crucial part of your development, so as much as possible, you’re going to want to free yourself up to work on your instrument, voice, songwriting or otherwise.
Author Scott H. Young recently launched a book titled Ultralearning. In it, he talks about several ways you can rapidly improve at your craft.
Here are some of the ways you might apply this to your practice regimen as a musician:
- Sign up for lessons from a qualified teacher, or even multiple teachers and take several lessons per week.
- Buy relevant books, magazines, online courses and so on, and devour them. Likewise, find instructional videos on YouTube.
- Record and film yourself weekly and then listen to/observe yourself with a critical eye. Come up with ideas around how you could improve.
- Get feedback from your friends, family members, musicians, teachers and others around how you’re improving.
- Practice with a metronome, drumbeats and backing tracks. Try playing in a variety of styles with varying time signatures.
- Keep a practice log and be strict with yourself around what you’re practicing and for how long.
It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t get talked about a lot, but this is exactly how a lot of musicians get started. So, don’t be afraid to practice, practice, practice!
Build Worthwhile Connections
In his book, Outliers, Malcom Gladwell proposed that it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft.
Once you’ve put in your 10,000 hours, it’s time to come out of the cave and start getting yourself out into the world again.
If you’re thinking about starting a band, then you’ll want to start meeting other musicians.
Even as a solo artist, it’s always nice to have a few musicians in your Rolodex. You never know when you might want to hire them to play on your album or join your band.
If you’re planning to record, then you’ll want to book a few studio tours and get to know producers and engineers. You might even want to get in touch with home or project studio owners.
If you’re planning to start performing, you should build connections with local promoters, bookers, venues, event planners and the like.
Having industry connections can also be incredibly helpful, especially when you’re ready to take your career over the moon.
Most people aren’t natural social butterflies, but since you’ve got a lot of great tools right at your fingertips, there’s simply no excuse.
You can Google venues, look up the people you’re trying to reach on social media, scan entertainment magazines, check the classified ads and more.
There are many channels you can use to establish the connections you need, so take advantage.
Here are some specific tips on how to establish connections with the various categories I mentioned:
Finding Band Mates
I’ve already talked at length about how to find band mates in another guide, so I won’t be spending a lot of time on it here.
In summary, you can find band mates by attending a variety of events, like open mics, jams, local shows and workshops.
You can also post or scan classified ads, hang out at music stores, go to school, tap into your extended network, search social media, play shows, pursue your hobbies and more.
Don’t forget to introduce yourself when the opportunity arises. If you want to meet people, get into conversation with them.
Finding Producers & Engineers
This is another subject I’ve covered in a previous guide on finding music producers.
Basically, you can Google producers in your area, search online databases and articles, ask for referrals, talk to the staff at music or instrument stores, use social media and so on.
It can take time to build the right relationships. I’ve worked with producers who I thought were trustworthy but ended up sabotaging some of my projects.
I don’t mean to scare you. Communication is a two-way street and musicians sometimes make mistakes too.
But I would suggest getting to know someone and hammering out all the terms (i.e. make a contract) before you agree to work with them.
Finding Promoters/Event Planners/Venues
This is relatively easy to do.
As with other connections, you can find and establish quite a few connections just by Googling and utilizing social media.
Here are a few other smart/sneaky ways to find promoters, bookers, event planners, venues and more:
- Keep tabs on local artists and bands. Visit their website to find their performance schedule and check out the venues listed on their website. Also check their booking page, footer and the like to see who they’re represented by (if anyone).
- Pose as an event planner and call venues directly (letting them know that you’re interested in booking an event) to find out who is responsible for booking and what their booking process is. Call back when you have a solid plan for your act.
- Visit the venues in person and talk to the artist or bands who perform there. Politely ask who they talked to, what the booking process was like and whether/how much they’re getting paid.
- Pick up a copy of your local entertainment magazine and make note of venues listed inside.
- Visit and subscribe to a dedicated musician jobs platform and include filters to get immediate notification of the type of auditions and gigs that you are looking for.
- Go to local festivals and events. Find a volunteer or staff person and let them know you’ve brought coffee and donuts for the team (don’t forget to bring coffee and donuts). You should be escorted to the volunteer/staff tent, where you can quickly make some connections and find out who’s responsible for booking the acts and what their process is.
You can sit at home and Google all day, but I think it pays to be shrewd and to connect in person, so take some initiative and create a strong reputation while building your connections.
Connecting With Industry Figures
Music Industry How To staff writer Liam Duncan has written some great guides on how to connect with industry people, such as his post on how to send emails to music industry professionals.
And, by the way, how you communicate with industry is crucial to your success, so you should take some time to learn the proper etiquette and procedures for contacting industry.
As far as meeting people in the industry is concerned, Industry conferences and events tend to be the best places.
Performance Rights Organizations (PRO), music distributors, A&R companies and others often host events that are worth going to, so check their websites for details.
It should be noted that the connections you make may not be of any immediate use to you.
At the same time, you never know when they might come in handy – when you’re ready to seek representation, vying to perform at an industry showcase, booking a large-scale tour, putting together a national media campaign and the like.
Record & Release Music
If there’s one thing we can say about the process of becoming a musician, it’s that it’s not a clear-cut, step by step process.
First, the steps will likely overlap, and second, some steps may not even apply to you.
Not all career paths include recording and releasing music. Like wise, not all career paths will include performing. But most will.
As I already shared in the Developing Your Skills section, I would encourage you to record yourself regularly as you’re developing.
You may never use those recordings as official releases. But they should give you plenty of practice playing with a metronome, keeping your tune, developing your tone and more.
Either way, recording is a great way to gain some valuable experience, and you may even choose to go into the studio while you’re still honing your craft.
Your first recording project probably won’t be perfect, and that’s okay.
If you happen to have a killer band with a killer sound, awesome. But that’s not the scenario most musicians will find themselves in for their first recording project.
Perfection, incidentally, shouldn’t be the goal. Many musicians get so fixated on trying to achieve perfection with their recordings that they ultimately paralyze themselves in creating good material.
I like to think of your first couple of recording projects as “getting the poison out of your system”.
You’re probably going to have all these “great” ideas you want to try in the studio. And they will bomb. Spectacularly.
But that will cause you to grow. You’ll learn from your mistakes and you’ll begin approaching songwriting and recording in a new way. It’ll prove to be an important part of your development.
Artists and bands should always spend plenty of time in pre-production before going into the studio to record.
Pre-production is where you figure out instrumentation, arrangements, the need for session players, specific tones and the like.
The ability to record from home is especially valuable here (you don’t need the best quality gear), as you can layer your parts and hear whether they’re going to work when your tracks are fully produced.
Choosing Where To Record
These days, getting a home studio set up isn’t costly or complex. If you have the technical skills and patience necessary to record yourself, this can be a good way to go.
Most musicians will likely end up working with producers and engineers who own their own studio or work at a more prominent studio.
If you’re just getting started, and you’re on a tight budget, you might consider finding home or project studios whose rates are low and/or reasonable.
If you’ve got more of a budget, and you’re ready to capture some amazing material, you should consider recording at a professional studio.
There are plenty of other options in between, whether it’s recording at a church, school, music store, community hall or otherwise, depending on the facilities and gear available.
You could rent any gear you don’t have and still record on the cheap.
Choose based on your budget, the quality of recording you want to capture as well as fit (e.g. you get along with the people you’re thinking about working with).
Copyrighting Your Music
We’ve looked at the step by step process for how to copyright a song in the past.
It is recommended that you copyright all music you record and intend to publish.
The short version is that you can register your songs with the U.S. Copyright Office. It costs about $40 per submission, so registering more songs at the same time is more economical.
Distributing Your Music
You can distribute your music to popular platforms like Spotify, Apple, Amazon, TIDAL, Deezer and others using a music distributor.
There are plenty to choose from, whether it’s CD Baby, Ditto Music, DistroKid, TuneCore or otherwise.
I recommend CD Baby or DistroKid, but that’s just one man’s opinion.
Joining A PRO
More than likely, you’ll want to collect performance royalties on your music. So, you’ll need to join a PRO like ASCAP, BMI or SOCAN.
SoundExchange collects digital royalties, which are separate from performance royalties, so you may want to sign up with them, too.
Although there are some who disagree with me, I believe there is no practice like live performance.
I understand that many musicians want to put on a great show every single time they play.
But you must realize that you’re only able to do this to the extent that you’ve developed your craft.
Playing live tends to shed light on your weaknesses. At first, this may feel disconcerting.
But once you’ve identified what your weaknesses are, you’ll know exactly what you need to work on to make your next performance even better.
In this manner, you can keep iterating until you feel 100% comfortable on stage and craft an amazing live show in the process.
But as I’ve already hinted at, live performance in the early stages is typically about gaining experience.
You’ll learn about:
- Set up and teardown.
- Mixing your own sound (especially if there aren’t any techs around, which there typically aren’t at coffeehouses and even some bars and pubs).
- Putting together a set list that flows and keeps the audience engaged.
- Performing in front of an audience and remembering your parts.
- Stage banter.
- And more.
When it comes to marketing your music, there is nothing quite like live performance. And, that’s something I’ll be talking about in more detail shortly.
But the above is a good overview of what performing will be like early on.
Again, perfection is not the aim, and at first, you should be getting out there just to gain some experience.
Branding Your Music
You’ve spent 10,000 hours developing your craft. You’ve recorded and released singles, EPs or a couple of albums. You’ve played dozens or even hundreds of shows.
Now you’re ready to move onto the next step, which is critical to building a profitable and sustainable music career.
To this point, you may not have given much thought to your branding – sound, lyrics, image, logo and so on.
If you have, and you have a good handle on it, great. It’s entirely possible you have a growing audience already, which is perfect.
But don’t skip over this section, because you might pick up a thing or two that you’ll find helpful.
Here’s what you ought to know about branding:
Ensuring Your Music Is Commercially Viable
Now, as you were in the practice closet developing your skills, you probably tended towards certain genres and styles of music. You got better at certain techniques and skills.
So, whether you’re a solo artist or in a band, you might already have a specific sound.
If you have a solid following that just keeps growing, you don’t have much to worry about in terms of ensuring your music is commercially viable.
But if it doesn’t seem like people are connecting with your music just yet, you’re going to want to put some thought into this.
I’m not talking about selling out. I’m talking about validating your ideas.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine whether your music has commercial potential:
- Can you name any bands or artists that you sound like? Do they have a large following?
- Who is your current audience? Can you amplify your marketing efforts to reach more people like them (I’ll be talking more about marketing in a moment)?
- Is your growth as an artist or band stagnant, slow, consistent or exponential?
If you can back up your gut instincts and anecdotal evidence with data and research, all the better.
So, don’t be afraid to dig into your stats – Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, Alexa, SimilarWeb and the like.
Here’s a brief explanation of how you might go about using these tools:
- Google Analytics. Install the tracking code on your website and monitor your audience/demographic data as well as the most visited pages or posts. Knowing what pages or posts your audience visits most gives you a better idea of what they’re interested in. Make note of this.
- Facebook Insights. As with Google Analytics, Facebook Insights gives you plenty of demographic data (gender, age, location, etc.) as well as your most viewed or engaged posts.
- Alexa. Use Alexa to browse top sites. If your music was inspired by Metallica, then look up metallica.com. Alexa will then give you data on the top keywords the band is ranking for, traffic sources, audience interests, audience geography and more. Use this data to flesh out your audience profile.
- SimilarWeb. Like Alexa, you can use SimilarWeb to look up popular artists and gain a better understanding of who their audience is. You can also uncover what their biggest traffic sources are, which social media sites they’re using to get traffic, what their audience is interested in and more.
As a counterpoint to this, guitarist and 15-time Grammy Award nominee Joe Satriani is known to have said there’s an audience for everything – you just need to find them.
Note that finding them in the manner Satriani suggests will prove a much longer process versus getting in front of a viable audience that already likes the kind of music you play.
Coming Up With Your Unique Selling Proposition
Great, so you sound like Nirvana. But what makes you stand out?
As Accidental Creative founder Todd Henry likes to say, cover bands don’t change the world.
Musicians often begin their journey idolizing certain musicians or wanting to sound like someone else, when they should be focused on trying to sound like themselves!
I can’t tell you how many millennial female ukulele players I’ve seen perform that sound exactly like their heroes.
And, regardless of their singing or playing skills, I’m rarely impressed. Artists like that are a dime a dozen. I wouldn’t sign them to my hypothetical label.
Going back to the rise of grunge, I get that it was the right place and right time for bands who already had that sound – Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and the like.
I bet many of those bands were glad their time had come.
But you wouldn’t say Soundgarden sounded exactly like Nirvana, would you?
That’s why the listening audience tended towards their favorites.
If you’ve worked your butt off to this point trying to sound like Ed Sheeran, maybe it’s time to branch out a bit. Consider what you could add/take away/change to find your own unique sound.
Determining Your Purpose
Many artists and bands tend to think branding is a confusing and difficult topic. But it doesn’t need to be.
The main thing you need to know is your purpose. Your vision. Your mission.
Why do you exist? What are you about? What change or impact are you trying to make in the world?
If you can answer these questions with vivid clarity, you’ll have discovered your brand.
Once you’ve identified your brand, you’re ready to move onto marketing.
Marketing Your Music
You probably won’t get anywhere in your music career if you don’t market your music.
And, if you don’t know what your brand is, your marketing won’t be terribly effective.
Now that we’ve gone over these topics with a fine-tooth comb, we’re ready to get into the exciting area of marketing.
Many musicians don’t particularly like marketing.
But once you realize you can apply your creativity to your marketing as much as you do to your music, you’ll begin to see how much fun it can be.
Here’s what you need to know about marketing:
The Difference Between Strategy & Tactics
It’s important that we distinguish strategy and tactics as separate entities.
When it comes to marketing, you should only have one strategy.
You may have strategies around songwriting, recording and other areas of your career, but each area should only have one strategy.
This is because the strategy, from a high-level view, is your plan of action. It describes your brand/purpose, who your target audience is, how you’re going to connect with them and so on.
Even though you should only have one strategy, you can use as many tactics as you want.
Email marketing, social media marketing, blogging, advertising, radio, TV and so on, are all examples of tactics. These are the channels you’ll be using to get your message out into the world.
These tactics should be tied directly to your marketing strategy.
In other words, based on your purpose, audience and what you know about them, you should be choosing tactics that are matched to your audience.
You should be showing up in front of your audience where they like to hang out consistently, instead of counting on the fact that they’ll find you (they may not).
It's like spending all your time trying to get your fans to listen to your music on Spotify when the majority of them are hanging out on TIDAL.
So, the key is this:
Your strategy and the tactics you use should be informed by your audience and branding.
While I could spend a lot of time talking about marketing channels and which ones to use, this should be determined by the research you do and the data you gather.
So, I won’t get into that here, especially since I’ve covered it elsewhere. Here are 10 marketing tips to help you get started.
Sharing Your Music
Here are the top things you need to know about sharing your music with the world:
- Avoid being overly self-promotional. The occasional call to action is okay, but don’t constantly bombard your audience with messages like, “check out our music”, “vote for us”, “subscribe to our YouTube channel” and so on.
- Use a launch strategy. Build up to every release or tour. Don’t just post about it once the moment your release has gone live or the day you start your tour. Create excitement around your projects.
- Get your audience involved. Have them vote on lyrical or song ideas, give them a chance to play an instrument on your album, recognize your superfans on your website… whatever you do, find a way to make your audience a part of your launch.
As I mentioned earlier, performing live is an important marketing channel for most artists and bands.
If you’re an aspiring stay-at-home musician, you may never perform live, and that’s quite alright.
But for the rest of artists and bands out there who want to build the career of their dreams, gigging and touring will prove essential.
Every time you perform, you get to:
- Share your purpose and message with your audience.
- Play your music and create memories with your audience.
- Earn a guarantee, ticket sales, percentage of food and drink, or whatever you negotiate.
- Sell your music and merch.
- Uncover new opportunities. Someone in the crowd might be a venue owner, for instance.
If you do these things well, you’ll be able to make every gig count.
Identifying As A Business
The music industry is the big machine – the labels, the distributors, the PROs and the like.
The music business, on the other hand, describes the smaller players – independent musicians, small businesses, lesser known blogs and so on.
To be successful in today’s climate, you must begin to identify as a business.
You already are, whether you know it or not. It’s just that some of you don’t like the thought of merging your creativity with business.
Taking a business-based approach to your career is essential.
You must think in terms of vision and mission, revenue and expenses, assets and liabilities, strategy and tactics, unique selling proposition, target audience and so forth.
The industry will only work with businesses. They will not work with hobbyists.
And, even if you have no desire to partner up with the industry in the future, you have nothing to lose by thinking of yourself as a business. It’s only going to help you get to where you want to go faster.
Reinvesting Into Your Business
Once you’ve gotten your head around identifying as a business, you must act as a business would.
What do businesses do when they have a surplus in profit? They reinvest in their future.
Similarly, you must reinvest in your future as a musician.
Stop trying to cut corners. There are no shortcuts to success.
If you’ve got a good amount of money coming in, you should put that money back into serving and engaging your fans – recording better quality albums, playing at better venues, planning album signing sessions and so forth.
Again, whether you want to partner up with industry is up to you, but these are the same steps you would take if you were interested in being signed one day.
How To Become A Musician, Final Thoughts
A music career is made up of many smaller components.
To avoid overwhelm, we must identify what those components are and what’s involved at each stage.
Some components are moving targets, while others don’t change a whole lot. Knowing that can help you take a load off.
Once you establish your branding and marketing strategy, for instance, you will only ever need to fine tune. There shouldn’t be too many drastic changes.
Aside from that, it’s just a matter of working hard. Making music. Promoting and touring the music. Rinse, repeat. Stick with the process and adjust as necessary.