Updated: Jan 22, 2019
Written By: Austin Hull
Becoming a successful musical artist isn't just about talent. It's how you brand yourself, if you have a solid release, and if you've made investments into your work. Of course talent is huge part, however it is subjective. Let's discuss why most artist fail and how to properly invest in yourself as an artist.
We've all heard the saying "it takes money to make money", right? I don't think I have ever heard a more accurate saying when it comes to building a brand or business. Investments (wise investments) are key for growth. I think most artists overlook the fact that they are a brand and a business, and for them to really take off they need to invest in themselves, the same as any other new business would. I know it can be scary to invest in yourself, and no one likes talking about money, but fuck it. I think this needs to be said, because for some reason most people I come across don't understand the magnitude of it. Let's hop into this.
Disclaimer: This will not talk about lack of talent. Talent is too subjective to give my honest opinion on how much that actually matters when making it in the music industry.
I think that people forget that when they want to be a musical artist, they want to become a business. Ed Sheeran is a singer, but he is a business. He's a brand. Shawn Mendes is a singer and songwriter, but he is a brand. Now let's break this down. Think about every type of business you can open. Let's use a restaurant as an example. To open a restaurant, a business, it's going to take a huge financial investment. I'm talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. You need a physical building to operate out of, permits, equipment, staff, marketing, you have to order the food up front, etc. This is a HUGE investment and most restaurants will end up failing after a couple years, even if people have huge investments tied into them. BUT, some restaurants do very well, and make back their investment. And they start making a profit, a BIG one, then they open another restaurant, then they merchandise, then they franchise, etc. All of this started with their massive investment into their first restaurant.
Now let's look at someone who wants to be an artist. There are a ton of moving parts in releasing a song. You need the song written, produced, engineered, mixed, mastered. Then you need album art, social media banners, professional photos, a music video, other video content. THEN, you have to pay for PR, negotiate feature rates, distribute the music, and run ad campaigns. All of these steps take money, and a lot of it. I know it seems like it can be overwhelming, and honestly it is a little bit. That is why most people won't make it in music. They can't bring themselves to invest $20,000 in a solid release. And listen, I get it. I wouldn't spend $20,000 on my first release. But let's scale that down. Let's say you pay a producer $1,500 to do production, mixing, mastering. $200 for album art, $150 for social media banners, $1,500 for a music video, $400 for photos, $300 for other video content, $1,200 to PR, $400 to have some blogs feature you, and $1,000 to run ads. This is a realistic independent release campaign. This comes out to $6,650 total. Holy shit, right? That sounds insane, right? Well I don't think it's as insane as you might think. Now remember when I said all of this was an INVESTMENT? That's the key word. Investments have ROI, return on investment. But how do you even get that kind of money to invest, even if you truly believe it is the right thing to do? Open up a business under your artist name, get a business bank account, and take out a small business loan. Taking out a loan seems insane, but it's no different than what a record label does for you. Labels give you a contract with an advance (that you have to pay back) and the money goes into your release. Your release needs to recoup their investment otherwise you're fucked. So if a label is not involved, why would you not fund this yourself with a loan? How much do you truly believe in yourself? If you go to the bank, get your loan, and have the money to get this project off the ground, what's next? How do you get that ROI?
So let's say you put all of this into a good release, on a good song, and you're not cutting corners. BAM, you're already ahead of 90% of other indie artists that might be competing for you. Getting that production, getting that PR, getting a good music video, those will all help you stand out. Let's be honest, the music market is over saturated to hell and back right now. It's more important now than ever to really invest and separate yourself from the mass majority that just make a cool song over a cool beat, release it on Soundcloud, submit it to a couple of playlists, spam the shit out of your social media for 2 months, and then forget about it. Separating yourself from the clutter is how you see your ROI really come. When you have a legitimate campaign and you prove yourself a force to be reckoned with, people will pay attention and become fans. They will buy your music or stream it on Spotify. They will buy your merchandise. They want to feel like they are becoming a part of your success, especially when you're first getting started. All it takes is landing a couple playlists on Spotify to land a couple more, then a couple more, than a couple more. Let's see what all it takes to make that $6,650 investment back. Let's throw out some realistic and hypothetical numbers to find that ROI.
Sales: 1,000 ($825)
Spotify: 1,000,000 [EASILY with some good playlist placements] (4,600)
Merchandise Sales: 100 t shirts ($1,500 net profit)
License to an indie movie: $5,000 - $10,000
Then after a couple of solid releases you can tour. And sell more merch. And get some small brand deals. There is SO much money to be made in the music industry, and sales/streaming revenue is only a super small percentage of that. Think of the big picture. Think of how you can sell your brand to your fans and I promise, you will see your ROI.
I will be honest, there are certain artists that have made it, and can make it with minimal investments. They are extremely, EXTREMELY, talented, they catch a good break, they get lucky, they get an opportunity, and they are prepared so they take advantage of that opportunity. But remember, this is 1% of 1%. For most artists, it's going to take a financial investment. If you saw a chef at a restaurant say "I'm going to start my own restaurant, but I won't invest in it much at first. I'll make a bunch of decent food, but no one will really come to eat it. After a while, we will get tired of serving the same 12 customers and we will close shop," you'd think "what the fuck?", right? That is the mindset that most people have about music and they don't even realize it. At the end of the day, if you want to make it in the music industry, you need to be a brand, and to be a brand you need to be willing to invest. A lot. Don't let this discourage you. Think of this as a way to get a leg up on your competition because I promise you, most people who claim they want to make it, don't want to make it bad enough to invest that kind of money.