The Music Industry Facts Every Musician Needs to Know

a silhouette of musicians at a rock concert
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Working in music is more than just a nine to five job—it requires a lot of commitment, often for not a lot of compensation or recognition. It doesn't help that there is so much misinformation out there about how to get into the music industry and what to do once you're there. 

So, here we have a few truths about the music biz. While intended for musicians, they are useful for those on the business side of things too. Some are encouraging, and some fall into the category of a reality check. They all, however, are pretty important to understand.

Knowing Music Doesn't Mean You Know the Music Business

Nailing the pub music quiz, going to tons of shows, being able to rattle off a list of labels—these sorts of things don't automatically make you able to book the shows, run the labels, and so on.

There are practicalities, financial and otherwise, in the music business that are simply not apparent until you actually have to, say, make sure the CD run is on schedule and the review is really going to be published when promised. Even if you understand the relationship between labels, distributors, and retail, for example, you don't really "get it" until you experience the process from the inside rather than experiencing it as a fan. The two worlds are VERY different.

Make no mistake: Loving music and knowing a lot about it is required if you want to do well in the music industry (well, not really REQUIRED; some people running music businesses don't know much about music and are just skating, but they eventually end up falling through the ice). However, don't enter the music industry with the idea that a lifetime of music nerd-dom has made you a music biz expert. Not only will you annoy people, but you'll also be dead wrong and miss out on the chance of really learning what makes things tick.

Reviews Don't Translate Into Sales

At least, not always. Getting reviewed all over the place may be good for getting your name out there, but even if you can point to 50 reviews that all say your album is the pinnacle of music-making and no one should even try to record again because it's so impossible to beat, the percentage of people who run out and buy your record based on those reviews is going to be surprisingly small. Radio play is much more effective at selling music than print reviews.

Reviews are only part of the picture. You can use them to generate interest from labels and to book shows and so on. But even if you get reviewed in all of the top publications and sites for your genre of music, don't assume it's time to go out shopping for the fancy new car. If you don't work to leverage those reviews into something else, they'll just be a minor blip on the screen.

You Can Still Make Money Selling Your Music

Now, here's a controversial one. There is a big debate going on in the music industry about free music, and some people believe that all music must be free and that the only way to make money is merchandise and live shows. That's a little extreme. Yes, music sales are decreasing. Yes, free music is widely available.

The fact remains that your fans want you to keep making music and they are willing to pay you for your services so you can keep it up. The trick is striking the right balance between enticing your fans with free goodies and offering them the chance to buy quality music at a fair price in the format that they want.

There's no blanket answer here for what will work for you. Trends in terms of releases and release formats are different in different genres of music. If your fans want vinyl, save up your pennies and give it to them. If they're all digital, all the time, then give it to them. If they want CDs, give them CDs. (And, yes, people still buy CDs. Really.)

You have to know your fanbase. It might take some trial and error to find out what works. The one thing you can do, however, is dismiss the idea that your music is nothing but a promotional item created to sell T-shirts, coffee mugs, and concert tickets. Merch IS important, and it should be part of your plan. It just shouldn't be THE plan.

You Can't Repeat the Past

You can probably think up a long list of musicians and labels who have pulled off great stunts, from getting discovered on a social networking site to a kitschy marketing campaign that exploded like fireworks. These sorts of things are inspiring.

However, they're not so great for copying. Just because you can list 25 bands that were discovered on Facebook does not mean you should expect it to happen to you, and just because band XYZ ended up being profiled on TV for their off-kilter ad doesn't mean you can repeat their plan with the same result.

There just isn't any rule book about how to be successful with your music, and past success is no indication of what will work in the future. You're best off learning from what others have done but coming up with your own road to your music goals. Don't let anyone sell you the idea that they know how to repeat these kinds of past successes either. Beware PR people and others who want you to pay them to show you how to do what some wildly successful band did.

A Record Label May Be Able to Help You

Since the music industry is in flux, there are a lot of people out there promoting the extremes, like the idea that record labels have nothing to offer talent, period. Although there are more tools and avenues than ever for musicians to release their own music and manage their own careers, that doesn't mean it is the right choice across the board.

Not every record label is run by frothing morons who want to steal your money. The vast majority of labels are run by music lovers who want to make sure people hear your songs and who handle some of the non-creative things that may be tough for you to do yourself.

Some musicians really like taking care of the business side of their careers, and they really have a knack for it. Others simply want to be able to focus on the artistic part. That's where a record label can help. Labels also bring a wealth of knowledge of the business, contacts it takes years to build up, and a budget you may not be able to swing by yourself.

The DIY route is perfect for some musicians. The idea that it is for everyone is ludicrous. You need to filter out the background noise and decide which route is the one for you.

The Basics Still Matter

These days, there is so much attention placed on this app or that social networking tool for musicians. These tools may have a place, but they are secondary to the basics. Writing good songs and playing shows still form the foundation of any real music career. You can make it in music without the special marketing software, but you can't make it without the music and the shows. At least not for long.

Further, no one has ever said, "I'm not that into the music, but wow, I really love this group's thoughts on social networking and music promo. When are they playing?" Now, that is not to say that you shouldn't educate yourself about the issues facing the industry or that you shouldn't actively be involved in shaping the direction your chosen industry should take.

It is to say, however, that a good song is more powerful than a blog, a blog comment, a headline, a new software program, or a new social networking website. If you're a musician, your priority should be your music, every time.

Social Networking Is Not Going to Save Your Musical Life

Social networking can be a handy tool in connecting with your fans and keeping them on board and interested. It can also be a huge distraction if you don't give it the right place on your list of priorities. Now, probably you can think of a lot of musicians who have gotten something going on a social networking site. Go ahead, see how many you can list. Now, what percentage of the total number of musicians who are in the cloud does your list represent? Exactly.

Don't neglect the other parts of your music career in favor of being active on social networking sites. Ever. Also, don't ever pay anyone to "teach" you how to use social networking sites effectively. There is no magic formula. None. The best way to be successful on these sites is to be yourself and figure out what feels right for you.

You don't need to pay someone to tell you how that's done, no matter how much some people may tell you that you do. It's not rocket science. Just jump in. You'll get it. If you need some advice about what works and what doesn't, there are more free resources dedicated to offering advice on this kind of stuff than you could hope to read in a lifetime. 

Making a Living Is Possible

Let's finish off on a positive note. Not everyone working in music will be looking at a life of swimming pools and private jets, but making a living in music isn't as crazy as your mom might tell you it is. From labels to distribution to promotion to booking to manufacturing and more, there are lots of music-related jobs (in addition to performing) that allow you to pay the bills. Patience and hard work are a must, but you can get there.