Music and the Business of Music: Thoughts For the Aspiring Musician

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.

In fact, I think as Americans in general, we are addicted to self-help books and formulas for success. What is missing in our day-to-day lives that demands such lofty goals from us? Is there a difference between the attitude of successful, well known acts and the attitude of upcoming acts? Why do some musicians make it big, while other equally talented people 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.

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 who know how to spend the money to push their acts into the hearts and minds of the public, right? Well let's 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.

Think about it. Today there is a lot of what some observers call 'shallow and immature' lyrics and disposable pop music out there on the charts - and 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 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. Enough somebodys coughed up $15 each to prove your tastes are not always the most accurate barometer for what other people may enjoy.

What other thing is it that successful artists and bands have that separates them from those who struggle? My answer is business savvy. Yup - that's it. Somebody somewhere in every successful act's history had enough business savvy people behind them to make them the stars that they are or were.

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 plan.

There are no short cuts to success, and there just isn't enough room at the top for everyone who makes music to make a living from their music. But there is a balance that can be obtained in ones life. With the tools available on the Internet, and the technology of downloadable music now an every day reality, no musician who writes great songs should have that much problem realizing modest successes with their music.

Be careful of the "10 Steps To Musical Success" and the "What Every A&R Rep Is Looking For" articles and books. I have written some articles with such titles, only because they are my way of getting the attention of an ever growing group of music star 'wannabees'. Once I get their attention, I try to give them proven tactics and strategy tips that are time-tested ways that record labels and industry professionals work.

In reality, there are no 10 steps to anything! There is the conscious involvement, and commitment to your music and the business of music. That, and relentless dedication to the art of making music.

Remember that 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.

I teach a history of popular music course, and it never ceases to amaze me how often history repeats itself when it comes to the question of artistic achievement and music business savvy. Most 'artists' in the truest sense of the world are narrowly focused people who never take no for an answer. No matter what challenge comes their way, they have no recourse but to turn to their creative side and get lost in their music as a way of staying alive, in the truest sense of the term. Then, along comes a business person who either is or is not ethical, but knows the music business inside out, and hears the magic in their music, and does what it takes to get that music heard. More and more as the decades unravel however, those people are becoming the artists themselves.

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 and realize that no artist has to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of their music to make some money with their music.

Being a musician/business person means you have to be able to write and perform great songs, and then produce them with a contemporary sound, and you have to take the time to read Billboard and other music business trades and tipsheets, and also find time to call club bookers (over and over), read bad and good music reviews, stay in touch with your fans on a regular basis, and still put on a great show when you're exhausted or sick.

Do you know what 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. It seems to me that artists who are able to 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 '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.

When an upcoming artist finally 'makes it', the pressure to keep producing sellable music is huge. So the 'artist' has to be healthy and ready to create on demand. You may be asked to hit the road for nine straight months, then make a world class album immediately following the grueling tour.

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. First 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.

Then, make a plan. 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. Make sure you keep your artist side healthy and creative. Take days off, take walks in nature, take time to noodle around that 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.

Being a famous musician is not a "normal" life. To survive and thrive requires a special set of skills. The good news is those skills can be learned and developed. Every bit you learn now will benefit your career plan down the road. Believe in yourself, and never stop improving. Your hard work will pay off, if not 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.

Throughout his fprty year career in the music business, FourFront Media & Music's Christopher Knab has shared his experience at many industry conventions and conferences, including the New Music Seminar and the Northwest Area Music Business Conference.

Knab was owner of a San Francisco music store, co-owner of the 415 Records label, and station manager at KCMU Radio in Seattle.

He currently provides a unique consultation and education service for independent musicians and record labels. His new book is entitled "Music Is Your Business".

Christopher Knab