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

July 31, 2013

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.