1) The Record Deal
Many unsigned artists still think the holy grail in the music industry is securing that big record deal. Sorry to inform you, but that ship has sailed. Record labels are scrambling to make ends meet, which means if you don’t watch your back, you’ll probably get the short end of the stick (a stick that’s much shorter than it ever was before). When artists do get a record deal, the record labels pay for many of the up-front costs of creating and marketing an album. They end up recouping this money from album sales and other revenue streams where artists hope to profit. Unfortunately, contracts are often setup so you are consistently in debt to the record label, so it’s a never-ending loop where you almost never see a sizeable return. Many mid-level bands are now trying to make due with their own connections in the music industry by doing all the album release work themselves, while still getting some extra help on the distribution side of the business. Some bands like Radiohead are willing to give their music away free, letting fans decide how much they want to pay for their album. Solid record deals are hard to come by, so unless you’re a big-name artist with a lot of leverage, make sure you read the fine print before signing.. Alternatively, don’t sign anything at all.
2) Music sales are down, but touring will pay the bills
To be honest, I actually thought many artists tour so much because they want to make some sort of a living from music. Although there are some artists who make a decent living on the road, many smaller bands struggle to pay the gas bills and the other expenses of the road (click here for a point-by-point breakdown of one band’s touring profits). After splitting merch sales with the venues and record label and living off a small food budget, it’s tough to make a profit on the road. Obviously there are many factors that go into this calculation, including the size of the venue you’re playing and how many people actually show up to the concert, the number of bands on the bill, the price of the merch you’re selling, gas prices, etc. It’s not all bad—for some bands touring is a way of life and they find a way to make things work out. If you’re on tour for most of the year and you don’t have an apartment you’re paying rent for all year long, then touring might mean more profits for you in the end. Make the necessary calculations based around your particular circumstances and try making it work if touring full-time is a goal of yours.
3) Online is the most important place to be
A huge online presence is mandatory for success these days, but sometimes you’re online activity may overshadow the time you spend marketing yourself in the physical world. For many smaller artists, building a strong local following is the most important aspect of beginning success. Just like many businesses start in one city and then branch out (think Yelp, Foursquare), the same is true for artists. You build a following in one place and then use your online activity and a spot on a larger bill to start gaining fans nationally (and then at some point you hopefully go international).
4) If you’re good, they will come to you
If you’re REALLY good, fans will flock to you—even then, it’s no guarantee and probably a long shot at best. The reason we find new and good music every day is that there’s too much stuff out there to discover everything at once. You have to make yourself heard both online and off. Find some of your most passionate fans in cities that you want to tour in and create street teams that will promote your shows and music in exchange for some perks (exclusives, free CDs and merch, etc.). Either all the big names out there in all genres grind it out for years to make a name for themselves or they have some sort of huge marketing force behind them—either way somebody’s putting in the work.
5) Your demo will get you the exposure to record a bigger album
It takes a one-of-a-kind ear to spot gold in a rough demo of a song. If you listen to some of the original songwriter compositions and productions for songs from Madonna and Michael Jackson, you’ll realize it takes a lot of polish to make a hit. Do-it-yourself recording setups are getting better, but an experienced producer in your local area can really help separate you from the rest of the crowd. This advice pertains more towards the rock and pop genres than your average electronic DJ whose main focus is the way they can manipulate sounds on their DAW. For full bands, microphone placement and selection, instrument setup, and the acoustic properties of your recording environment are integral parts of your sound. If you can afford an above average recording experience, the benefits might outweigh the short-term monetary costs. Just make sure everything is within your budget and makes sense for the resources you allocated for your band.