You’re Doing It Wrong!

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Don’t Run Your Music Career with a Busted Playbook

By Michael Molenda

It just keeps happening. Music-business seminars, songwriting roundtables, sell-your-music strategies, and other such tutorials continue to parse out so-called knowledge as if the global pandemic never happened, as if streaming didn’t pay less-than-peanuts, as if social-network algorithms weren’t constantly kneecapping audience reach, as if technology wasn’t perpetually rewiring consumer expectations, and on and on and on.

These forces (and others) have drastically changed how the music industry operates, and COVID-19 alone was a huge old nail in the coffin of conventional wisdom. When fabulous celebrities and not-so-famous artists share the same dilemma of not getting significant pay for their art, revolutionary thought would seem to be in order.

But it’s not.

In the past two weeks, I dropped into six different online music-career forums. Each one was taught by either an industry veteran or a marketing professional. The presenters possessed varying levels of charisma, believability, real-world knowledge, and speaking skills, but all of them offered the same, lifeless suggestions for music makers seeking to monetize their artistry and/or expand their fan bases. Join a streaming service! Identify your audience! Work your socials! Blather, blather, blah, blah, blah.

Let’s change up a moldy truism to exemplify what such uninspired thinking represents: “A musician is someone who does the same thing over and over but expects different results.”

Yeah. Funny not funny.

Now, you can follow “comfortable counsel” that seems smart but is mired in the beautiful fantasy land of the past, or you can kick your own ass and start paying attention to the world as it is now. Want some suggestions?

Old-School Isn’t Dumb, But It Ain’t Always Smart
I’m of the view that knowledge is never truly wasted. So if you want to adhere to old-school views on “making it in the music industry,” I’m sure you’ll find a few tiny morsels of value. But keep in mind that many of the music-business seminars of today continue to follow ’70s wisdom—even in the era of social networking.

Getting your music in a tangible form (a recording, a video, etc.) is necessary. Finding distribution is key. Developing a nurturing creative and business team is essential. Acquiring an audience is what points you towards success. All of this was pounded into hopeful artists’ heads back in the ’60s and ’70s. The business model was different than today—record labels and commercial management held most of the cards—but the methodology is pretty similar to what is being sold to many musicians right now.

Too bad it’s not 1979.

Puttering along with intel from decades ago is not the most brilliant way to achieve success in 2021. Don’t feel like you have to jettison everything the past has taught ambitious musicians, but do not stay solely on a path that is no longer relevant to future success.

Perhaps it’s time for a little bit of a punk-rock-hippie attitude:

• Question Everything. If the expert hasn’t become much richer than you by selling his or her music, then why would you seek their counsel? You should seek out people far more successful at doing what you want to do. The “doing what you want to do” is critical here. For example, an industry executive might be a great person to network with—and they would certainly have insider info to share—but if that executive isn’t also a musician earning significant revenue by producing and selling music, then their counsel likely won’t help you put money in your pocket via producing and selling your music. You want guidance from people who have traveled the same road as you, and slayed it.

• Research the Now. Are you truly aware of all the music industry pitfalls during COVID-19? Do you really know how streaming services work? Are you up-to-date on social advertising, marketing, audience development, and engagement? Don’t bullshit yourself, and don’t look for an easy way to play. Unless you’re win-the-lottery lucky, building a career is super tough. Do your homework and gain explicit knowledge of how the music business works TODAY, and how it might look tomorrow. Be smart.

• Cheerleaders Can Be Dangerous: Everyone appreciates good news and positive reinforcement. But don’t mistake cheery, upbeat psychobabble as actual business strategy. Hey, I love to hear, “You can do it!” as much as the next person, and I dig encouraging people and being encouraged. But if smiles take the place of tangible action plans, then you may be doing your career a disservice to absorb the hugs, unicorns, and rainbows.

Streaming Woes & Wins
You’ve heard all the stories of artists getting millions of streams and earning practically nothing. That should be a warning sign. And don’t get me started about the fact musicians have surrendered their content to provide streaming services with free programming from which to monetize themselves. (Yikes!) Whatever the streaming CEOs and streaming disciples and marketing consultants promise about giving everyday musicians a venue for selling their music, most musicians will not even make enough revenue to pay for their weekly groceries. That ain’t no career, kids. That’s a hobby.

To be fair, this bastion of super-low earnings isn’t a drag for everyone. I’ve had a guest on the Kingdom of Rock Podcast that I cohost with Matt Gibson who makes six figures annually from streaming. His claim is basically true, although the bulk of his revenue is not directly tied to streaming itself. (Ah ha!) In fact, the audience he has built through streaming has been supporting his merchandise sales, online teaching endeavors. music licensing. and other ancillary revenue drivers. And, man, he works hard to promote his music to open up these commercial venues. He gets himself on tons of other people’s playlists to expose himself to new audiences, he does savvy advertising to build his brand, and lots of other stuff many musicians simply don’t have the time and/or temperament to accomplish. In his own words, it’s almost a 24/7 gig to keep the paydays coming.

So, if you take one of those seminars that simply advises you to get your music on streaming services and promote yourself in order to monetize your career, you’re probably looking at failure.

Let’s be clear: Chances are you won’t even make tiny bucks from streaming alone. Don’t fall for the conventional horse poop. Be vigilant. Be smart. Use streaming as a tool to grow other revenue-generating initiatives, and you’ll at least be on the road to doing something productive.

Don’t Be a Face in the Crowd
It has always been a tough go getting a vast audience interested in what you do. Don’t make the process even harder by doing exactly what the assembled multitudes are doing. Even a slight left or right turn might get you noticed, and you don’t have to stress out about coming up with a totally original idea, because all you are trying to do is diminish the crowd taking up space in your lane. And yet, so many musicians dive right into conventional methods and choose to fight it out with colossal hordes of other conventional thinkers for listeners’ attention. That’s a fabulously bad idea, you know.

Any Marketing 101 course will tell you much the same thing, but, for some reason, scores of musicians didn’t get the memo. They will stop at uploading their releases to streaming services or offering CDs on their websites, and think, “Hey, it’s out there. Time to see what happens.” That strategy is kind of like opening a winter coat store in a tiny space at the back of a mini mall in Palm Springs during the summer, and expecting customers to not only find you, but thank you very much indeed for providing them warm-clothing options in 107-degree weather.

Instead, why not deploy slightly sideways promo strategies that add value to your release—even if people aren’t aware of your music or your band?

Below are some things to think about. None of them are particularly world-changing or guaranteed to shower you with success, but they will hopefully fire up your promotional creativity.

One thing is certain—if you don’t try something/anything to hover above the surging mass of music you’re competing with, you’ll likely be paying good money for digital tracks that sit unheard, and/or self-financed CDs that rest undisturbed in your bedroom closet. (This is one of the dirty little secrets that some music-career evangelists might forget to mention: “producing work” does not equal “selling work.”)

Oh, those schemes to ponder…

• Jettison the extremely crowded digital-download and CD market and join the slightly less congested vinyl-release gang. You can do cool artwork, colored vinyl, gatefolds, personal signatures/messages, and other stuff to make the release special.

• Don’t stop at a single vinyl record—produce your own “box set” by offering tons of value-adds. Include photos, posters, picks, little games, keychains, a link to “VIP-only” videos and performances, collectibles, and anything you can imagine, afford, and deploy to seduce a potential buyer.

• Maybe even go totally mad and offer an exclusive, socially distanced live performance within a specific (and close to home) area. It could just be an unplugged house concert. These can be cheap and easy, and there are typically no worries about noise abatement or lugging tons of gear. The promotional possibilities are pretty excellent, and depending on who hires you to do one of these gigs, they could expose you to more potential fans through their friend network.

• Merchandise can still be a revenue driver, but you may need to visualize a bigger picture. First, if you’re one of those artists who doesn’t offer merchandise to your audience—well, what the heck is the matter with you? Second, don’t devise a kinda crappy band logo and then go to CafePress (or any other merch-on-demand company) and place that not-awesome logo on every product they offer. Many people are visual buyers, so if the logo on your t-shirts and coffee cups looks like boiled offal, you’ll probably lose a sale. The hippest strategy is to envision something so eye-catching and cool that anyone will dig wearing it—even if they have absolutely no idea what your band sounds like.

For example, my content website is called Guardians of Guitar, and designer Patrick Wong came up with a pretty marvelous logo. Thanks to that, my potential audience is now anyone who digs guitar—not just players or gear geeks or music-content readers. I mean, if you love guitar, why wouldn’t you want to promote “Guardians of Guitar”—whether you care about the website or not (or are not even aware it exists)? Look beyond the obvious—that you are selling merchandise for your band—and aspire to something bigger such as developing your own casual fashion imprint. Why limit your earning potential?

Look Ahead
Let’s assume that streaming is done. Hey, most of us aren’t going to make huge paydays from streaming anyway, so what’s the harm in pretending it’s gone like the dinosaurs?

So what’s next?

Envisioning the future is where the rubbers hits the road for ambitious moneymakers, and, yes, it’s a bloody pain in the ass attempting to get it right—or even almost right. Few of us are true prophets, so all we can do is study trends and hot business investments, and take a shot at what products are coming down the road that might present themselves as burgeoning markets for musical content. Figure it out and get there first, and you will be a shiny happy people—even if thousands have the same idea as you. (Competing with thousands, after all, is much nicer than competing with millions.)

Here are some clues you may wish to investigate:

• Spatial Audio. Apple’s AirPods Max headphones could be gamechangers. They are definitely a big step towards getting more consumers aware of how audio could be incorporated into AI or Augmented Reality. Worth finding out all you can about how music content might be exploited for spatial-audio devices? I think… yes!

• Augmented Reality. Soon, creators may be able to take a film of the Beatles recording in Abbey Road, and, once you don some goggles, they can place you right in the action. Walk behind Ringo and experience how he would hear his drums. Or saunter over to John’s guitar amp and hear how much louder he played compared to George. Or step way back into the studio and get a George Martin perspective of the band bashing out songs within Abbey Road’s lovely acoustic environment. Some forward-thinking artists are already developing virtual concerts where you can truly get inside the music, and/or experience sound in new ways. Could you partner with someone in-the-know to develop content for these upcoming and very exciting performance “venues.”

• AI and Self-Driving Cars. What will the cockpit environment of an autonomous vehicle be like? Will musicians be needed to develop music to keep passengers calm or alert? Will certain musical “alarms” be required? (“Danger, Will Robinson!”) When people can sit back and let the car do the work, will they blast AC/DC during a trip to the mountains, or will they desire more atmospheric soundtracks to make time breeze by? Will automakers reach out to the music community to devise signature sonic landscapes for their vehicles? Could happen.

Attack the Music Needs of the Near Future. Ultimately, keeping an eye on how music can be served tomorrow can be productive—if not immediately in a commercial sense, the practice will, at least, keep you from following the same old unsuccessful mantras that echo lamely in the minds of the fearful and unimaginative. Be bold. Seek new territories. Make mistakes. Think dumb-ass thoughts. And, if you keep watching the sky, you may discover something astounding.

Go Where the Money Is
Let’s make a Lifetime Channel movie together. Gabriel has 90 days to earn $1,000, or his family’s almond farm will be repossessed. He’s a musician, so his savior move is to release his new album on Spotify, promote the heck out of the release on socials, and rake in the bucks. Gabriel loses the farm. But he meets a nice girl who brings him to a Grant Cardone seminar, and Gabriel starts making real money through real-estate investments.

Okay, you knew Gabriel was doomed, because he trusted a market where money ain’t exactly sticky. Duh. But YOU trust that same market, don’t you? (Be honest.)

Having big dreams is part of the journey of being a musician, and those dreams sometimes prevent us from looking at making music as a business. Fair enough. But if you finally get sick of watching your loss column overwhelm your profit column, you might want to consider exploring business opportunities that excite investors. THEY go where the money is, and perhaps you should follow them.

Diving into the big money pools doesn’t mean you’ll have to put music on the backburner, but you may need to adjust your thinking from making tracks towards developing apps or other disruptive content.

For example, I’m one of four founders of a startup called Neural Tunes that is exploring music as medicine. The app we’re developing will deploy AI and biometric data directly from an individual to determine precisely what type of music will alleviate PTSD and other behavioral-health conditions for that person alone. It’s focused treatment with no drugs or side effects. Although this is a brand-new endeavor for me—I was never much into the Silicon Valley tech world—it’s kind of like a band, and I’m all about collaborating with band mates. My co-founders include two musicians (Matt Gibson from the Kingdom of Rock Podcast, and HELL YEAH guitarist/producer Christian Brady) and a renowned tech strategist (Bryan Talebi, CEO of Ahura AI). We’re in the midst of the initial round of funding at the moment, and everything is very exciting.

Whatever ultimately happens with Neural Tunes, I’ve already learned tons from dealing with venture capitalists, potential investors, tech wizards, business geniuses, and other brainiacs. The money that this market plays with is like Godzilla enormous, and it’s a whole other galaxy away from worrying about negotiating a $500 payday from a music venue, or counting pennies for streaming plays. Nothing is easy, of course, but sexy ideas can become marketable and profitable pretty quick when VC sharks are swimming around the tank.

My Neural Tunes partner Matt put it out there very plainly during a meeting of musicians on Clubhouse: “Why are you sitting in this room when there’s no money here? Why don’t you leave right now and hang out in one of the VC rooms and learn something?”

Go. Where. The. Money. Is.

Turn Disasters into Opportunities
Listen, as tough as I’ve been on the old-school music industry in this article, I’m not going to say it’s done, or that it has no value. I’ve also condemned traditional music-business strategies that are regurgitated time and time again by people who should know better, but I must admit that sometimes those trad tactics do work out quite nicely.

But if you’re frustrated with where you are in your career, or if you think the chance for income and success in the music business is illusory, or if everything “the experts” have told you hasn’t moved the needle on your aspirations even one micron, then STOP ABSORBING SHIT THAT AIN’T HELPING YOU.

Really. Just stop. Nothing is going to change. Don’t waste any more time embracing methods that have flopped.

If you can muster the guts to kick bad habits and bad data to the curb, I just know you’ll free yourself to develop some innovative and creative ideas that could bring rewards. Give it a shot. It’s not like what you’re doing now is working, so the only thing you have to lose is failure.


Author: Michael Molenda

Founder of Guardians of Guitar. Longest-serving Editor in Chief of GUITAR PLAYER (1997-2018). Long live Link Wray and Mick Ronson!

One thought on “You’re Doing It Wrong!

  1. Excellent piece Mike. I love the coat store analogy. This needs to be read more than once

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