Music Is Everywhere: How the Hell do I Break Through?

By Seth Keller

We’ve heard both sides argue (over and over again) about the beauty and the tragedy of today’s music landscape: Anybody can make and release their songs.  No matter what side you’re on, it’s no use fighting either. Instead, you should focus on doing what’s in your control to have the best chance of breaking through.  As a manager who has worked with big pop artists, baby bands and those in music’s “middle class,” below is my advice on how you can do that.

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Before we get into it, let’s get this out of the way: Despite the promise and capability of the Internet and New Media, the quickest way to “the top” is still to get signed to a major label and be one of the handful of pop stars on which that label spends millions of dollars.  This is a route that’s available to very few artists, works for even fewer, and may not even be appealing to those who could go that way.  Even if it happens to you, it far from guarantees any sort of career.

Now, if you’re not Bieber or Rihanna, what can you do?

1. Start with a song.  If you’re a straight-ahead jazz musician, in a jam band or maybe even a DJ, this doesn’t necessarily apply.  In those cases, you’ll break through with your live performance.  For everyone else, being great live will be very beneficial to your career, but getting noticed on a breakthrough level as an original artist typically requires a great song.  Does it have to be a “radio hit?” No.  And unless you’re a pro songwriter, I wouldn’t advise trying to write for the radio.

The song simply needs to be what I call “one listen great” to the audience for which it was intended.  Basically, someone hears the recording, immediately loves it and wants to tell others.  That is really hard to do, but if it happens on a large enough scale, you will break through.  How big that breakthrough is depends on a number of factors, but a significant one is your music’s genre.

2. Know your niche.  Many new artists are hesitant to classify themselves or compare themselves to well-known artists for fear of seeming unoriginal.  Even if you’re the “kind of rock, soul, electro but with a singer-songwriter bluegrass vibe” artist, chances are someone else has done it, and it’s probably not as original as you think…and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with derivative as long as it’s really good.  I’m not advising you to copy other artists or not to put your own spin on a type of music, but I am advising that you choose a genre you love (the love is really important) and make music that fits in it.

Unless you are that major label pop artist, you’re not going to be “mainstream”—whatever that really means these days. By fitting into a niche–whether it’s country, metal, rap, folk, or indie rock–you’re more likely to reach actual music fans who will be excited about what you’re doing and help you build a career through the networks and communities that every genre has.   Sometimes after establishing fan bases within certain genres, artists do “crossover” to capture the mainstream.  There are many more artists, though, who have never had crossover success but have still built healthy, lucrative careers simply by appealing to the core fans of their music.

3. Establish an identity.  Once you decide on your niche, you need to mold your identity as an artist to fit the aesthetic of that genre.  This means developing your visual presentation online, in person, and with your artwork (including video) to reflect how you want to be viewed as an artist and to allow yourself to be relatable to your genre’s community.

This doesn’t mean dressing up like a rock star; but it does mean crafting an image that is appealing to your genre’s culture.  You might say, “Whatever, bro. It’s all about the music.”  I would counter with it’s mostly about the music, but image can make the difference in how you’re perceived and accepted by fans.  Even if you’re in a “jeans and t-shirt” band, wearing American Apparel and Levi’s sends a different message than Hanes Beefy-T and Wranglers.  Don’t be someone you’re not–simply be an enhanced version of yourself.

4. Be persistent and patient.  One of the biggest issues I’ve encountered with younger artists in particular is that they quit too soon and too easily. Usually this occurs a year or so into the life of their project.  This happens because being an artist–any kind of artist–is freaking hard!  If you’re talented and receive accolades early on, you assume that the big record deal or world tour is just around the corner, and you’re on your way to being the next big thing.  This rarely happens.  The cliché is true. It’s typically the “overnight success, 10 years in the making.”

There are very few artists—even famous ones—who’ve had a career trajectory that goes up consistently and quickly and stays there.  Any type of artistic endeavor has ups and downs—often to the extreme in both directions.

There are times when you’ll know things aren’t working (particularly in bands when relationships go south), but if you’re generally moving in a forward direction, you need to keep at it because you never know when you’ll reach that tipping point which will take you to the next level and to real success.

5. Be ambitious.  There’s nothing wrong with ambition. I’ll argue that without it, you won’t succeed as an artist. This doesn’t mean you have to manipulate people or steamroll them to get what you want.  It does mean you need to be willing to do what it takes to make it. This definitely means sacrificing your free time and time with friends, family and significant others. It means networking, practicing your craft, and learning everything you can about the business.  I would highly recommend that it include learning how to record and produce your own music so you don’t have to rely on anyone else to do that.

In short, it means making your career your priority to exclusion of everything else—including another career. You’ll probably have to work a day job, but that’s all it should be.  If you’re doing music “on the side” or “when you can fit in,” it’ll never be anything more than a hobby.  There’s too much competition out there.

6. Work with a manager you trust and get a good lawyer.  This may happen early in your career or somewhere down the road after you’ve had some success, but having both of these people on your team is really beneficial, if not essential.  The specifics of what a manager does for an artist are too numerous and varied to cover in this post, but a manager’s overall role is to advise an artist and be her representative in business dealings—essentially the artist’s proxy voice and face of the artist’s business.

The music business can be shady. There are a lot of sharks trying to takes bites out of an artist’s career for their own gain.  Having a manager who has in-depth knowledge about the business and connections is really, really helpful.  But if your manager is smart and dedicated, he or she can learn the business and meet the right people.  If your manager is not trustworthy and does not put your interests first, to put it bluntly, you’re screwed.

The music business is littered with stories of managers who have ripped off artists and derailed their careers.  A good manager can’t make you successful without a lot of other factors coming into play—including luck. But a bad, untrustworthy manager can torpedo your career pretty quickly.  It should be noted, that some successful artists don’t have managers.  In those cases, they usually have trusted employees to handle business affairs.

When it comes to lawyers, get one who works specifically in the music business and knows music contracts inside and out. Just because your uncle is a real estate attorney, doesn’t mean he has any clue about music law.  For a lawyer, I’d say experience is most important. If you were thinking about using someone who’s new to the business, I’d recommend an associate at a firm versus a sole practitioner.

7. Get out of your own way.  I’m not trying to be snarky here.  In my experience, many artists have this amazing knack for self-sabotage.  I’m not saying this to belittle or disrespect you as an artist. Artists can be emotional and sensitive, many times insecure and vulnerable.  All of the above allows them to make great art.  Without artists, there is no music business, which many in the business tend to forget.

That being said, those same artistic strengths can be business weaknesses. You’re not going to change your personality or who you essentially are. And that’s OK.  My advice, though, would be to focus on the big picture.

Don’t let emotion or ego drive your decision-making.  Try not to let fear of failure stop your forward progress.  Don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes.

If you’ve surrounded yourself with a good business team, don’t abdicate decision-making to them but listen to their advice regarding business transactions and negotiations.

When you’re dealing with people in the business, don’t be a pushover but be gracious and appreciative. If you encounter some jerks that screw you over, learn from the experience.  You’ll see them coming next time. Becoming successful will be your revenge.

This business is a rollercoaster, but try to stay positive as much as possible both within yourself and with your public dealings. People like to work with others they get along with and see as assets. Negativity typically won’t get you what you want.

As I mentioned before, luck is a big part of success in the music business. There are a lot of moving parts to any successful career—many of which you have no control over.  What you can control is your own dedication, perseverance and attitude. Don’t be the reason you don’t make it.

Seth Keller is the principal of SKM Artists, which he started in 2001. His management clients have included Grammy-winning and Tony-nominated artists and songwriters as well as independent bands. As a marketing and consulting company, SKM Artists has experience working not only with artists but also with producers, media companies, live events, booking agencies and record labels.

New Music Tuesday: July 30, 2013

TuneCore Artists are releasing tons of new music every day. Each week we check out the new TuneCore releases and choose a few at random to feature on the blog.

Is your hit next?


New Rock
Buffalo Daughter


All Is Calm


Dylan Jakobsen


The Dead End
Lil Rue
Hip Hop/Rap


American Illusion


Perfection Is Lifeless
Five Years Further


Alone in the Sky


One Love
Hip Hop/Rap


Amanda Havard


She Come First


Tirame Un Beso
Mariel Mariel


My Heart Is Open (feat. Brenda Thompson)
Syleena Johnson

#TCVideoFridays – July 26th 2013

Discover some new music by checking out a few music videos from TuneCore Artists…

Kid Karate, “Two Times”

Adam Dunning & Tash Parker, “Holiday”

Corey Paul, “Grace Love Mercy”

Justin James, “Last Puzzle Piece”

Emma Blackery, “Go the Distance”

Travis Tritt, “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough (feat. Tyler Reese Tritt)”

The Green Children, “Dragons (Part II)

Leftover Cuties, “One Heart”

Kyle Andrews, “Crystal Ball”

Zervas & Pepper, “Buffalo Crow”

Do you have a video of a song you distributed through TuneCore? Tag us on Twitter (@TuneCore) and use the hashtag #TCVideoFridays with a link to your video.

TuneCore Artists Score Big on iTunes July Charts

TuneCore Committed to Supporting Artists and Their Music

New York, New York,  July 25, 2013

TuneCore’s commitment to support the artist is just one of the reasons artists, month after month, choose TuneCore to distribute their music worldwide. The month of July has been no exception with over 7,000 new releases, including several TuneCore Artist releases ranking high on iTunes’ music charts.

Ben Rector, working with TuneCore and iTunes, secured the coveted Single of the Week feature in iTunes for his track “Beautiful” for the week of July 23. His single is driving his new album Walking in Between (currently in pre-order) to be #1 on the iTunes Singer-Songwriter chart. Additionally, Young British YouTube star Emma Blackery released her debut EP Distance on July 16th, and it is a hit, holding steady at #3 on the iTunes UK charts.

“It’s not unusual to see TuneCore Artists have great sales success reflected by their high ranking on the iTunes music charts or secure coveted featured artist promotions. In the end, it is iTunes’ editorial decision which artists are selected to be spotlighted, but TuneCore provides ongoing support, including our tips for getting featured on iTunes,” says Chris Mooney, Senior Director of TuneCore Artist Promotions.

TuneCore often works directly with artists and labels to assist them in areas such as pre-orders or getting their music released on a specific date to coincide with marketing efforts. Such was the case with Ms. Joseline, “The Puerto Rican Princess” and star of VH1’s “Love and Hip Hop”, who needed her track “Shotz” to go live in iTunes in time for the July 22 episode of “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta.”  Also, Grammy-nominated R&B star Syleena Johnson chose TuneCore to ensure her track “My Heart Is Open (feat. Brenda Thompson)” will be live in iTunes in advance of its being featured during the premiere episode of “Fix My Life” (July 27) on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN TV.

Other TuneCore Artists Charting on iTunes for July

Comedy Chart: Doug Benson is #1

Christian Chart: Kim Walker-Smith & Skyler Smith’s Home has been the #1 album since July 16.

Electronic Chart: Lindsey Stirling is #1 and has been in the top ten for months.

Jazz Chart: Etienne Charles’ Creole Soul is in the top 15.

Metal Chart: Oh, Sleeper’s The Titan has been a top 20 album since July 2.

TuneCore was founded to provide the opportunity for all artists to get their music heard around the world. TuneCore congratulates the many TuneCore Artists who are gaining widespread visibility and recognition on iTunes.

About TuneCore

TuneCore is the premiere digital music distributor with one of the largest music catalogs in the world. Since its launch in 2006, over 3 billion TuneCore Artists’ music units have been downloaded or streamed, generating over $300 million in revenue earned by TuneCore Artists, ranging from indie artists to high-profile performers.

For an annual flat fee, TuneCore Distribution provides an easy-to-use, affordable digital solution for artists to get their music distributed worldwide to iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify, Rdio, Google Play, and other major download and streaming sites. Artists keep 100% of their sales revenue and all their rights.

TuneCore Music Publishing Administration gives songwriters worldwide the ability for TuneCore to license and register their compositions globally for a one-time flat fee, collect royalties from over 60 countries and deposit the royalty revenue directly into their TuneCore accounts. Driven by in-house Creative, TuneCore actively markets compositions for synch licensing agreements for music placements in TV, film, commercials, video games, and more.

TuneCore continues to support the international artist community with the launch of TuneCore Canada in 2011 and TuneCore Japan in 2012.

10 Questions to Ask When Selecting a Digital Music Distributor

When it comes to choosing a digital music distributor to get your music on sites like iTunes, Amazon MP3 and Spotify, you want to feel confident in your choice.  If music is important to you, you want to know who’s handling your music assets, the quality of the service and the value you’re getting for the distribution fees you’re paying.

Here are 10 questions you should ask any digital music distributor before you entrust your music to them.  Choosing the right distributor is just as crucial as picking the right guitar (or microphone or drum set or, well, you get the point).

1. Is music distribution their primary business?

Many companies provide other products and services in addition to distribution.  That’s not a bad thing, but you want to make sure that they equally support and invest in the distribution portion of their business and are not using it as marketing “hook” to build other parts of their business.

2. Do they take any portion of the sales revenue your music generates from distribution?

Different distributors have different business models.  Some distributors will take a cut of the distribution revenue you earn from the downloads and streams of your music.  Other distributors, like TuneCore, believe that artists should keep 100% of their distribution sales revenue.

3. Do they have a dedicated Customer Care team? 

Let’s face it. We all need a little help sometimes.  If you run into trouble during the distribution process is there a team that can answer all of your questions quickly and get your music back on track and headed to stores?

4. Do they have an online help tool so you can easily find answers to questions you might have?

Many of your distribution questions can likely be answered very quickly, and without the help of a living, breathing human. An easily searchable help section can often get you the answers you need to get through a few minor hiccups.

5. Do they provide guidelines on how to format your release so you have smooth distribution to stores?

The digital stores have very specific requirements when it comes to the format of your release (audio files, artwork, and release information). You’ll want to know these details ahead of time so you won’t experience any holdup on distribution.  Does the distributor monitor the assets being delivered to double check that everything is formatted correctly?

6. Do they support their artist community?

As an artist, you want to feel like you’re part of a large, creative community.  The distributor you choose is lucky to have you, and should provide you with the kind of support you deserve.  Are there opportunities for you to increase your fan base?  Or do they give you tips from other artists to help your career move forward?

7. Do they offer iTunes trend reports so you can see how your music is selling in stores soon after it goes live?

When your music goes live in stores you’ll likely be very eager to see how it’s selling, so you want to make sure the distributor offers iTunes trends reporting. Ask them if the reporting is updated daily or just weekly.  Do you view the data in csv files? Or do they offer a dynamic web-based tool so you can sort and view sales by release, track, geolocation and more, right from your account?

8. How transparent and detailed is the sales reporting?

It’s important for your digital distributor to be completely transparent with respect to your digital sales and streaming revenue from all the stores you sent your music to. You should know exactly which songs/albums were downloaded and streamed where, and for how much (to the penny).  Do you have access to your sales information 24/7? Is it presented in a way that is easy to understand, filter and sort?

9. Do they offer Publishing Administration to help you collect your worldwide songwriter/publisher royalties?

If you’re a songwriter, you earn additional royalties from the sales, streams, and use of your music around the world.  When a distributor offers a publishing administration service, there’s a built-in audit trail that lets the distributor make sure you’re receiving the correct amount of songwriter royalties.  Also, ask them if the service is in-house or if they use a third party.

10. Do they offer Ringtones?

Ringtones are a great way to make more money from your music by turning a 30 second snippet of a song into a ringtone to sell in the iTunes store. Why not make a little extra money and let your friends hear your music whenever someone calls?

Obviously there’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing a digital music distributor.  Getting your music for sale online is a big deal!  We urge you check out our help site for answers to all these questions and more, and always feel free to reach out if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Did we forget some critical questions to ask?  Let us know in the comments.

New Music Tuesday: July 23, 2013

TuneCore Artists are releasing tons of new music every day. Each week we check out the new TuneCore releases and choose a few at random to feature on the blog.

Is your hit next?


The Green Children


Brighter Than the Sun
Kyle Andrews


The Spark & the Fire
Leftover Cuties


Slide on Over
Due West


Lights Out EP
Kid Karate


It’s a Wrap
B. Pumper
Hip Hop/Rap


We Can’t Stop
Ashleigh Brown


Ducky Chix


Hot Reason
Rare High


The Johnson Brothers