How to Build a Successful Career as an Artist

Sam MatlaBusiness & Promotion%s Comments

Want to build the fundamental habits and disciplines that all successful artists have? Check out my book.

Want a PDF version? If you want to read or reference this later, you can download it as a PDF by clicking here.

Electronic dance music is more popular than ever.

It’s not weird to listen to dance music anymore. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Over the past 10 years, EDM has made its way into Top 40 charts, reached millions of listeners through mainstream radio, and had ludicrous amounts of commercial investment poured into it.

Many people, especially those who were brought up with dance music and followed it when it “wasn’t cool” will argue that this rise in popularity is a bad thing. That commercial investment kills creativity and ruins the industry.

I absolutely disagree with this. Yes, dance music has become somewhat generic and in some respects less creative, but the same thing happened with Rock and Roll. The same thing happened with Hip Hop and Rap. A genre or set of genres becoming generic as is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually quite the opposite. Whenever something becomes popular and eventually generic, it creates the opportunity for something new. People like new music and styles of music. People want to be the first out of their friends to hear what might be the next hit song or the next popular spin on a sub-genre.

Because of this, there’s no better time to enter into the industry. There’s never been more opportunity to build a career as an artist in this field. And that’s what this article is about; building a career as an electronic dance music artist.

The reason I say artist and not producer is because they aren’t the same. An electronic dance music producer can be someone who sits at home and makes music for clients (or themselves). An electronic dance music artist is someone who not only makes music, but also makes a name for themselves. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be using the word artist instead of producer.

Although this article is about “making it” in the music industry, it is not from personal experience. I am not a successful artist, which I hope is because I’ve dedicated my time to teaching music production. So if you’re looking for a personal case study, this is not it.

What this article really is, is a result of hours of research, knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, and my own opinions as well as those from others.

There are many concepts and ideas that must be covered in a topic like this. Building a successful career as an artist cannot be put down to one key idea or piece of advice. There are no shortcuts or magic tricks involved. What this means, of course, is that this article is longer than most.

Given the length of this article, and the time it takes to read it, I want to give you a basic idea of how it’s structured.

There are four main sections:

  • Section 1 – The Modern Music Industry
  • Section 2 – Why? (Drive, Dedication, and Goals)
  • Section 3 – Marketing, Image, and Audience
  • Section 4 – Money

Each major section features more specific topics that attempt to elaborate on and further explain the main topic. For example, in Section 4, we look at making money in traditional ways, as well as more modern approaches.

This article does not go over the intricate details involved in label contracts, setting up a tour, writing hits, managing your money, designing your logo, and so on. It’s centered around building a career as an artist (as the title suggests), and any fringe topics that are touched upon may be elaborated on in future posts if there’s demand.

Section 1 - The Industry

Shaking hands

The Modern Music Industry

“The average artist has a naïve, unrealistic, and disconnected view of what the music industry is, how it works, what is involved in “making it”, and what actually is happening behind the scenes. Too many artists take at face value what they see on some TV documentary or read in a fan magazine. Whether you are working with others in a band, looking to connect with a manager, an agent, a label, or an investor, or you just want to work in the industry, it is more crucial than ever to know what you are working for and toward.” – Loren Weisman

The music industry has changed a lot over the last few decades. Major labels don’t have a monopoly on music sales anymore, and you certainly don’t need them in order to build a successful career.

Artists are becoming more and more skeptical of labels whether what they offer is beneficial. We’ll take a deeper look at labels in a moment, but for now it’s important to note that there’s a gradual but definite move away from labels in the modern music industry.

Another key thing to note, in relation to building a career as an artist, is that it’s much easier to “do it alone” than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Back then, you’d come up with a music business plan, get a label contract for your album, find funding for your project, and work with a range of different people in a complicated manner.

Nowadays, none of that is necessary. Yes, a music business plan is helpful and can still be worth doing, but you don’t need the big label contract with hundreds of hidden clauses. You don’t need to prove yourself to key investors. And while it helps to work with different people, you can do it all by yourself if you want.

The other big change is on the marketing front. Traditionally, bands and artists would have significant marketing budgets for their albums and tours. TV advertisements, billboards, you name it. Obviously lavish marketing budgets and traditional forms of advertising are still widely used, but they’re not essential anymore. You can build an audience on the web with little to no monetary investment.

What this essentially means is that today’s artist–should they choose to take the independent path–has a lot more freedom. They can make the music they want to make when they want to make it. They can, more or less, play the shows that they want to play, and be more creative when it comes to making money.

But the modern music industry is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s still a cutthroat business, and it’s still hard to navigate. One cause for complaint is the decline in music sales, which is a very real thing. It’s all good and well to say that music sales will never die because DJs still need to buy music or because your granddad is still alive. But it’s only a matter of time before someone creates a widely adopted subscription platform for commercial users of music (such as DJs) and your granddad… you know.

Don’t believe me? According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the global trade revenue for music sales in 2014 was $14.97 billion. In 2005, this figure was $20.7 billion. In less than 10 years, annual music sales have dropped by over $5 billion.

That may not seem like a massive drop, but we’re talking billions of dollars here. I’m also willing to bet that this downwards slope is not linear but exponential given the rapid growth of subscription services like TIDAL Spotify.

This means that the modern day artist has to find money in other places, and for many, it’s found in playing shows. We’ll look at income generation later on in this post. For now, let’s take a look at labels and whether they’re still a viable option for the electronic dance music artist in this day and age.

Labels

We’re going to look at whether signing to a label is a viable option in this day and age, but before we do that, it’s important to understand how labels traditionally work.

There are two main types of labels: major labels and indie labels.

Major labels (Capitol, Warner Bros., Universal, etc.) have always been perceived as the “golden ticket” to success. They’ll typically give the artist an advance based on how much money they think they can make from them. They’ll also market your releases (single or album), offer support, and find licensing opportunities.

But these are all expenses. Let’s say you sign with a major label and they offer you $150,000 to create an album. This is not free money, it’s a loan. So many artists get screwed over for not understanding this. That $150,000 is paid back through sales and other channels, and if that can’t be done, it’s your responsibility to pay it back.

I know what you’re thinking. $150,000 is a lot of money to pay back, but surely major labels are smart enough to not end up in a position where they need to be paid back, right? Surely most of the deals are successful for both the label and artist?

Not true. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), approximately 90% of releases by major record labels fail to make a profit. 9 out of 10 releases fail.

With that said, there are benefits to major labels that can’t be denied. One of the main benefits is the immense marketing power they have. Major labels will get your music to listeners through various means and will work with you to develop your image. But they’re still risky, because if you sign with a major label and screw up, you’re in deep trouble.

There aren’t many “major” labels in the EDM scene, so I’m going to assume that you’re not thinking of partnering with one. However, if you ever do get an offer from a major label, please read it thoroughly yourself and get a lawyer to read over it. The cost you pay for a lawyer is nothing compared to the potential money you can lose for not understanding the contract.

And failing to understand what’s written in the contract is a surefire way to set yourself up for failure. The contract might state:

  • What you can and can’t say on social media or in interview
  • What type of music needs to be made
  • Specific places you can’t play your music
  • Particular promotion channels you can’t use

And an array of other things that put the artist in a position where they have little say in what they do.

Indie labels, on the other hand, can be a better option for both well-known and upcoming artists. A decent indie label will still have marketing capabilities that go beyond the artist himself, but if you’re a valuable asset to them they’ll often help you in areas such as touring and developing your image. Some indie labels will offer an advance, but most will offer a percentage of the royalties made from releases.

The main question you have to ask yourself, of course, is, do you really need to be on a label?

And when I mean be on a label, I mean having an exclusive contract with one. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with releasing the odd single for exposure to a label’s audience, but if we’re talking about being signed to a label, that’s something different entirely.

The answer to such a question is not a quantifiable one. It depends entirely on you as a person and your goals as an artist. One thing I will say, however, is that you should wait for a label to come to you. There are two reasons for this:

1. When a label reaches out to you (a decent label, not just a spray-and-pray scam label), it’s a sign that your music sounds professional and that they can see potential in you. It means that whether or not you decide to work with them, you’re considered valuable.

2. It gives you more negotiating power. If you’re desperately trying to release your work on a label, you’re far more susceptible to being swayed to the label’s liking. They might sense you’re desperate and thus offer you a lower royalty percentage or something along those lines. If they reach out to you, though, you don’t have to comply. You can negotiate the terms if you don’t like them.

Promo Pools

One key benefit that a labels offer are promo lists. When you release with a label, they’ll send your track/EP/album out to a list of artists/DJs. The artist receiving it can choose to support it and add feedback. Depending on the label and how popular it is, this can put your music in front of very well-known artists. Getting supported by an artist certainly doesn’t mean you’ve “made it”, but it’s a good starting point.

Promo pools are not exclusive to labels though. You can build one on your own. Of course, it takes a lot of work, and it takes a while to build trust. A popular artist is far less likely to listen to a promo from someone they’ve never heard of compared to a label they frequently support.

Let’s say you do want to be signed to a label. How should you effectively deal with them?

If you’re reaching out to a label rather than waiting for them to come to you, you must be professional. This means:

  • You must have a well-designed logo or professional press photo
  • Your branding should be consistent across social media and Soundcloud
  • You should ideally have other music they can listen to (labels like to see consistency in quality)
  • You must position yourself as an “asset” to the label

The more followers you have on Twitter, the better. The more engagement you have on Facebook, the better. Labels are far more willing to put time, effort, and money into someone who’s already working hard to build their profile and improve as an artist. Essentially, it boils down to how much you can help the label. You should always be asking yourself how you can be a better asset. The quote below sums it up well.

“The more you bring to the table, the more demands you can make, and the more you’re seen as a partner to the label.” – Matt Voyno and Roshan Hoover, The New Rockstar Philosophy

Another thing to keep in mind when reaching out to a label is honesty. It’s tempting to inflate your successes and mention a few things that you probably shouldn’t mention. For example, you might have had interest from Label X for a certain song. Label X might have told you they’ll sign it, so you mention to Label Y that you’ve had a track signed by Label X.

Not only are you counting your chickens before they’ve hatched, you’re acting dishonestly and unprofessionally.

I sent out an email recently to EDMProd readers explaining the importance of honesty in relation to you and your career as an artist, here’s what it said…

A few years after I started producing music, I realized that learning to DJ was the next required step in bringing my dream to reality. So I started learning how to DJ, with a pair of CDJ200s (that’s not a typo, there’s no way I could afford 2000s), and a cheap Behringer mixer.

Time passed by, and I had a few gigs here and there, but they were mostly local gigs for youth events and the odd house party. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted more.

Anyway, a manager at a well-known club in the city closest to me was looking for new DJs. People recommended me to him, and I reached out to him directly. We met up, everything went well, and it seemed like I’d just been given a job.

So I told all my friends. I told people that weren’t even my friends. I boasted about it. “Look at me! I’ve got a residency!”

That club manager never got back to me. And I never got the job.

Was it my fault? Probably not, but that’s not the point here. The point is that I was being dishonest, and it affected my reputation. I had bragged about an achievement before it had actually happened.

When you’re an artist, there are times where you’ll be stuck in the early stages of something potentially big. Maybe a label has reached out to you, or a promoter wants to book you as a support act. During this stage, and after the moment of initial contact, it’s tempting to tell everyone about your “success.”

But you shouldn’t, because things can change in an instant in this industry. If you brag about your achievements before they happen, and then something falls through, you’re the one who looks stupid regardless of whether it’s your fault or not.

Keep quiet and wait until things are locked in. Your reputation is crucial.

If a label senses that you’re being dishonest or “trying a little too hard”, they’ll be much less inclined to work with you.

Let’s flip it 180 degrees and say that a label is reaching out to you with a deal that seems nothing short of impressive. How should you deal with them?

By asking questions.

They say they can get your music to thousands of listeners and help you build your audience. You respond with “how?” They say they can put you in touch with industry leaders and other artists. You respond with “how?”

Asking questions shows the label that you’re serious and professional. Sure, they might feel a little uncomfortable being pressed for answers, but your integrity and career is more important than their brief moment of unease. Asking questions also gives you a better understanding of the label and whether it’s the right fit for you. If they come back with unsatisfactory answers, then you know it’s probably not worth signing with them.

Section 2 - Goals and Abilities

section2

“Making it” as an artist is not easy. It’s not for the faint of heart. And it’s not just something you do “for the hell of it.”

You probably started producing because you thought it would be fun or interesting, and it was. You spent every waking hour in your DAW, trying to figure out why things worked the way they did.

Of course, it doesn’t stay this way forever. Eventually, you encounter resistance. You push past it, but it keeps coming back. You realise that making music isn’t as easy as you thought it would be.

It’s at this point where many people give up. They either decide that they’re not born with “the music gene” (don’t have any talent) or make up some excuse as to why they can’t make music anymore, such as not having enough time.

What these people lack is a why.

Why Are You Doing This?

Every successful artist has a reason for doing what they do. If you want to be a successful artist, you need one as well. You have to work out why you’re doing this.

Is it because you want to be famous? Go to parties? Drugs? Money?

These are common goals, and they work for some people, but they’re problematic at the core. They focus exclusively on the end goal (reach fame, get a lot of money, etc.)

For the person who is driven by the above goals, the process will become torture. Making music takes a secondary place to parties or money, and slowly but surely the process of achieving these goals becomes more and more of a “necessity” rather than a passion.

Very few people are content with that happening. It’s similar to the young graduate who takes the 10-12 hour day banking job to earn a lot of money. For the first year or two, he enjoys it. He has a disposable income, the work is relatively exciting, and people are congratulating him.

Years down the track, he realizes that he never sees his family. That money doesn’t mean anything to him. He realizes his whole life has revolved around work that is a necessity rather than a passion.

If your why is something that’s not even closely related to your passion (making music), then you start viewing your “passion” as nothing more than a tool to achieve what you think you really want. You end up treating your craft as a means to an end.

So, as a general rule, it’s better to have a why that is directly linked to your craft. It’s also a good idea to have a why that works with your goal of building a career as a successful artist. Most music related whys will implicitly state that a career is essential or ideal. For example, if your why is:

“I make music because music is my life and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

It’s obvious that building a career from music is the way to go. Why? Because it allows you to make a living from the thing you’re most passionate about. It lets you spend the majority of your time making music.

But you can get even more specific. In fact, the more specific your why is, the more powerful an effect it has, or the more motivating it can be.

For example:

“I make music because music is my life and it brings me the most joy. I also make music so that I can build a career out of it and eventually support my family through it.”

Your why is similar to a vision statement. It’s the overarching reason for everything you do in your field. It’s the foundation for all other goals you set, how you prioritise things, and the driving force behind how hard you work. I can’t tell you your why, that’s something you have to come up with on your own. It may change over time also, as your perspective and life circumstances change.

Here’s mine for reference:

“I make music because A) I absolutely love it, and B) because I want to teach others to do the same. The more music I make, the more I learn, and the more I can teach as a result.”

As you can see, there’s no reference to having a career as an artist in there. However, my why statement does mean I should make music as much as possible so that I can teach more effectively. Teaching music production can bring in a living, and thus I can make more music than I would if I was working elsewhere. It’s a feedback.

Before moving on, spend some time and come up with your why. Write it down on a piece of paper, turn it into a wallpaper, do whatever you want with it, but make sure you remember it. Whenever you’re in a creative rut, or you feel like it’s not worth carrying on with music, read it. Remember why you got into this in the first place, and why giving up is a bad idea.

Goals

Having an overarching reason for doing what you do is important, but it’s too broad for practical purposes. In addition to a why, we need a set of specific goals with deadlines. Goals that we can actively work towards and achieve.

While the number of goals you set is entirely up to you, most people make the mistake of setting too many goals (and not achieving any). I like to set 3 goals, one with a 3-month deadline, the other with a 6-month deadline, and the last one with a 12-month deadline.

For example:

  • Goal 1 (3 months): Release a 3-track EP on label X
  • Goal 2 (6 months): Play a show at venue X
  • Goal 3 (12 months): Double the amount of fans I have

The 12-month goal should take longer and be more difficult than the 6-month goal, and so forth.

Stop reading and write down some goals now. Don’t overthink them. Just write them down and make a commitment.

Did you actually write them down? With pen and paper? It’s important that you do.

Why?

Because you’re going to repeat this process every single day.

It’s easy to come up with some goals, write them down, and stash them away only to forget about them a week or two later. Physically writing the same goals down every day causes them to stay at the forefront of your mind.

Note: I recommend using a spiral bound notebook or something similar to write your goals in. Keep it dedicated to your goals and nothing else. It’s going to fill up quickly.

There’s also an added benefit to this which not many people think about. After a few weeks of writing down your goals every day, they’re so deeply ingrained in your brain that you can repeat them word for word.

Why is this important? Well, having clearly defined goals makes you look driven and dedicated. When you’re out at an event and a key person (artist, industry person, manager, etc.) is talking to you and asks you what your goals are as an artist, you can repeat them without having to stand there looking awkward trying to remember them.

The 4 D’s

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” – Jesse Owens

If you want to build a career as an artist, then you need the 4 D’s:

  • Drive
  • Dedication
  • Determination
  • Discipline

Drive is fundamentally important. A constant drive. A drive that forces you to work harder and faster, to fit more into the day.

Drive alone is not enough. You must be dedicated to your craft. That means spending 2 hours making music instead of watching Netflix. It means that when you go to events, you’re not going just to have fun, you’re also going to take mental notes and study the artists and how they perform and act on stage. Dedication is the highest form of commitment, one that needs to be applied without restrictions.

Dedication also goes hand in hand with perseverance. When you’re fully and completely dedicated to something, the notion of “giving up” never crosses your mind.

Determination is what gets you through the hard parts. Determination is complete alignment with your goals and your why. It manifests itself in the form of absolute focus. Giving you the ability to see a project through till the end.

But perhaps the most important of these is discipline. Discipline goes hand in hand with work ethic. It’s reliable, unlike motivation and inspiration. It’s habitual and consistent.

Here’s something I wrote in response to a comment left on one of my articles that sheds light on the importance of these traits:

“The large majority of producers grossly underestimate the importance of work ethic. The reason behind this could be that it’s such an easy craft to get into – all you need is a laptop and some headphones, really. You could also argue that most people take up music production because it’s fun, and as such, they find it hard to push through the hard yards required to become a success. They shy away from the struggle because that was never part of the job description, they’re just in it for fun.

Discipline and work ethic are both required for the producer who wants to make a career out of their craft. They aren’t required for the hobbyist who only uses music production as a means to relax and decompress at the end of the day (or whenever).

The fundamental question, of course, is where does work ethic come from? What drives a person to sit for 12 hours each day in a studio making music?

At the base level, it’s passion. Work ethic comes from passion, which is what almost all successful producers will tell you. Passion =/= fun, though, it’s what keeps a person sane through the mundane processes and demanding creative challenges.

On top of passion, there needs to be a conviction. An intrinsic drive to achieve what you want to achieve. Some people are born with this (names like Elon Musk and Richard Branson pop to mind), those who aren’t born with it need to cultivate it.

And that’s difficult. If you aren’t predisposed toward achieving goals no matter what, then it’s hard to rewire that part of your brain. This is where a lot of people fall off because they don’t have the conviction or drive to get past the seemingly insurmountable challenges (making an album, working late nights, eliminating all distractions).”

And here’s a quote from Andrew Bayer that sums it up rather well…

“I was producing for 4 years before I signed my first track, and then got rejected by Anjuna for another 4 years after that. Then I signed my first track to Anjuna (Aria Epica), and then got rejected for another 2 years straight! It just takes a lot of work. I live for making music. I spend so much time trying to learn as much as I can.

I don’t think it’s luck, I think it’s just all about going balls to the wall and working as hard as you can. When I was learning about production, every spare moment I had was taken up by obsessing about how to get better. How to get more gear that would inspire me. How to take my writing and my sound to the next level. It’s tough, but it’s so so so rewarding.”

Please note that these 4 Ds are not merely “helpful.” They’re a requirement.

Developing a Thick Skin and Believing in Yourself

In addition to the 4 Ds, there’s another thing you must have. A belief in yourself.

This means two things.

It means that you must believe that you can achieve your goals. You must believe that you have what it takes to become a successful artist. When people tell you otherwise, you just glaze over and ignore them.

It also means you must grow a thick skin. You’re going to have people that will rip you to shreds, either out of jealousy or simply because they can. They will tear apart your music, they will criticize you for things completely unrelated to music, and they will “strongly advise” that you don’t continue with your music career.

Now, if you don’t believe in yourself, these kinds of people will have a significant effect on you. But if you have a thick skin, you’ll be able to take it. It might sting a bit, but you’ll work past it.

Another reason why it’s important to grow a thick skin is that it makes you more receptive to feedback/criticism. If you don’t have a thick skin and someone tells you that your performance was absolutely terrible because of X, then you’ll ignore X (the reason why it was terrible) and focus on the fact that it was absolutely terrible.

If you do have a thick skin, you’ll notice the “absolutely terrible” part and it may hurt for a few seconds, but you’ll pay attention to the reason (X) why this person thought it was absolutely terrible. You’ll be able to work out objectively whether the criticism is viable or not, and whether you should put in effort to fix the problem or improve it.

Section 3 - Marketing

what your style

Note: before I get into this section, I need to recommend Budi Voogt’s The Soundcloud Bible to you. It’s one of the best guides to marketing yourself and your music online in the modern age.

SCB-Second-Ad-Horizontal

It Starts With the Music

Whenever the topic of promotion comes up in producer/musician circles, you hear many people say “it starts with the music.” Or “write good music and the rest will follow.”

The latter of these is evidently not true given the many talented artists out there with tiny audiences.

“It starts with the music.” However, is a correct statement. Yes, image, stage presence, and everything else is important, but your music serves as the foundation for all of it. Deadmau5 didn’t become famous just because of his iconic Mau5head, it was because he made damn good music.

Take Eric Prydz for example. I don’t intend to be mean, but he’s not the most exciting guy. He doesn’t have a fancy mask and he doesn’t do anything unique on stage. Yet he’s incredibly well known and respected for his music.

So, it’s obvious that music is more important than anything else. You need to create songs that impact people, that make them feel something. This doesn’t mean you need to create uplifting trance or some other cheesy emotional genre, though. The most repetitive of all music can still make people feel something if it’s written and produced well.

What it does mean is that you need to hone your craft.

You need to spend as much time as possible bettering yourself as a producer. This means spending as much time possible making music. It also means active learning: reading books, going to conferences, watching tutorials on YouTube, listening to podcasts, and asking other producers for advice. You need to learn as much as you possibly can to make the best music you possibly can.

Usually when I tell people this, they respond by saying “that’s all good and well, but how do I develop a unique sound?”

I’ve written a post on this before, and I still stand behind the advice presented in it, but my perspective has changed a little.

A unique sound is not made up of one factor. You don’t need to design your own presets or use obscure arrangements to create a unique sound. A unique sound is built from a number of things, such as:

  • Musical influences
  • Technical ability
  • Compositional ability
  • Taste (preference of one sound or idea over another)

Beyond that, a unique sound also comes from how you respond to things. For example, you’re working on a track and you drag in a clap sample. Straight away you decide it needs a little notch around 1KHz.

You do this not because it’s necessary, but because you prefer it to sound like that. Another person may create a notch at another frequency, or not create one at all. Given this, and the fact that we all interpret sound slightly differently, I would argue that it’s impossible for one not to create a unique sound unless they’re actively trying to copy someone else’s.

Audience

When I made a commitment to being a successful artist (which resulted in me starting EDMProd instead), I decided to stop making trance and instead make a more popular form of music. After all, there’s more chance for success with a popular form of music, right?

Not necessarily. In some respects, there’s less money in a genre like breakbeat compared to deep house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a living in it. If your goal is to become a multi-millionaire, then sure, it might be a good idea to cater to the biggest audience.

But catering to the biggest audience is more difficult than people realize. It’s saturated. Everyone else is trying to do the same thing.

Obviously it depends on the type of music you love making, but from a marketing perspective, it’s a lot easier to start with a narrow audience and branch out as time goes on. Starting with a narrow audience not only allows you to carve out your own niche, it creates far more opportunities down the line.

For example, let’s say that you really like the groove and dark vibes of techno, but also enjoy classic progressive house.

Why not combine the two?

There’s bound to be people out there who like that kind of style, or people who will like it as soon as they hear it. You’ll build an audience of people who are glad they’ve found a unique artist who combines different elements of music together in a fusion that they can’t get enough of.

And this is where the opportunity lies. You start coming across other artists who make a similar style of music, so you start your own podcast/radio show that features this type of music. Your fans love it, of course, as you’re curating music that they like. Your radio show gains popularity, which grows your brand even more.

And that’s just one example. You could start a label that features the kind of music you’re known for, so that when people hear such music (regardless of who makes it) they associate its style with your label, and naturally you as an artist.

To do this with a big audience right from the start is far more difficult. Why should one person follow you instead of someone else with far more fans? You’re appealing to the same audience. Why should they listen to your radio show when it features the same tracks as the more popular radio show by another artist?

Start small and branch out as time goes on.

Image

Another key element of marketing and promotion is your image.

Whether it’s performance, release artwork, logo or bio, your image needs to be consistent across the board.

People will associate with your image just as much as your music. Think of Deadmau5, and I’m using him again because he’s such a great example.

Deadmau5 has multiple layers to his image. First is the purely visual aspect involving his Mau5head as well his album artwork, and extravagant live performances. He’s also quite the controversial figure on the internet, calling out popular artists regularly for having no artistic capability or anything along those lines. His love of cars is also part of his image.

Now, should you go out and create your own animal mask, act like a prick on the internet, and emphasise your interest in exotic cars? No. But you should spend time thinking about your image. If your music is dark and deep, then a press photo of you sitting on the beach in the sun with a pink shirt on is not going to fit as well as a darkened, black & white photo of you standing in an alleyway.

And if your press photo matches your music, then so should your album artwork and performance style. If you create and play minimal techno, it’s a little bit awkward to be jumping up and down with your hands in the air.

What if I don’t want an image?

You’ll create one inevitably. Every artist has an image whether they like it or not. No image is still an image.

Section 4 - Money

Money

Talk about money isn’t common in artist circles, especially in the EDM scene. When money is talked about, it’s complaints about how there’s no money to be made, how record sales are at an all-time low, and so forth.

There also seems to be a negative stigma surrounding it. It’s as if as soon as you talk about money, you’re considered one of those people who are “only in it for the money.”

That needs to change. Money is the most critical aspect of a successful artist’s career. Without any income, the artist cannot sustain himself. Without money, the artist cannot make as much music as they’d like.

The first thing we need to do is dispel the myth that “there’s no money to be made in this industry, especially in the EDM scene.”

The people who say this don’t literally mean that there’s no money in the industry, they mean that anyone who’s thinking about whether they want to make music their career is stupid because the odds are stacked so high against them. They instead recommend to get a day job and then work on music as a hobby because there’s so little money in the industry or because it’s incredibly difficult to get into a lucrative position.

If everyone thought like this, we wouldn’t have successful artists. Yes, it’s difficult to make money as an artist. It’s also difficult to make money starting a business, but that hasn’t stopped anyone.

There is definitely money to be made in this industry, regardless of whether you want to build a career as a pure artist or something else entirely (engineer, educator, composer, etc.)

The 1000 True Fans Model

To understand how to make a living as an artist, you need to understand what’s known as the 1000 True Fans Model. Here’s a quick summary:

“A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

You’ll realise how important this is somewhere down the line. But always keep it as your focus. Finding true fans is hard. If someone messages you asking for production advice and you’re following the 1000 true fans model, you must reply to them and help them if you haven’t reached 1000 true fans yet. It’s a one-by-one process.

With that out of the way, let’s have a look at how you can make money as an artist.

The Four Traditional Ways of Making Money

In this digital age, there are hundreds of ways to make money as an artist, and we’re going to look at some in a moment. Traditionally, however, there were only a few key ways to make money as an artist. All of them are still valid and have to be considered.

1. Playing Live

Playing live will always be a money maker, regardless of how the landscape changes. Events and gigs are unique experiences that can’t be recreated in the digital world of 1s and 0s. Listening to a song on your smartphone is not the same as listening to it live in a club or massive festival venue.

And as long as this unique experience exists, people will continue to pay for it.

How to Get Gigs

I don’t have any stats on it, but I’m willing to bet that 9 out of 10 producers never play live. I’m also willing to bet that the majority of those people would like to play events, but they either don’t know or they’re too scared.

Your ability to get gigs depends somewhat on the location you’re based in. If you live in the city, you’re more likely to be booked to play a set than if you were in some obscure area or a country where EDM is non-existent. Unless you cover travel costs, event managers will always choose the person who lives close by based on the fact that they’re cheaper to book.

On a global scale, however, location isn’t as much of a problem (as long as you can get to an airport).

Aside from that, the biggest mistake that artists make is waiting to be booked. They think that if they put up their email on their Soundcloud profile (booking inquiries: [email protected]), that eventually they’ll get an email from someone.

That’s downright stupid. There are far too many artists doing the same thing, and you can’t rely on booking agents or venues to find you. Oh, and business cards are just as stupid. Don’t give your business card out to people and expect them to call you. In fact, you know what? Don’t get a business card in the first place. It’s 2015. We have mobile phones now.

What you must do is put yourself out there. You need to pitch people. Send personalised emails that are eye-catching and convincing. Sell yourself and your abilities. Explain to them how you can make the event or venue a more attractive place for people to be when you’re playing. Promise to market the event as best you can, and then follow through.

2. Commercial Licensing

Another big money maker for artists is commercial publishing and licensing. If you’re signed with a label, they’ll typically handle this for you. Otherwise, you’ll have to do it yourself.

There are plenty of video games, films, commercials, and other forms of media that are always on the lookout for music. If they think your music fits, you can receive a healthy amount of money depending on the scale of the project.

3. Merchandise

Though I would argue it’s less effective now than it was 10-20 years ago, selling merch can still be a good way to make money. T-shirts, caps, mugs, and any other inanimate object can be branded with your logo/name/face/tour and sold. It’s also free advertising.

4. Music Sales

Music is still being purchased, and there’s still a market for it. That market is shrinking, though. It’s difficult to make any real money unless you’ve got a truly passionate fanbase or it’s a big project such as an album (and even then you’ll be hard pressed to get a return on your time investment).

Whether free downloads are more effective in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know. But if you’re releasing music simply so you can make money from sales, you might want to reassess your strategy, because it won’t work for much longer.

Four Modern Ways to Make Money

One of the best things about living in the internet age is that none of the above income channels are necessary. You don’t need to play live if you don’t want to. You don’t need to worry about publishing and licensing. You don’t need to sell merchandise. And you certainly don’t need to sell music.

You’d be stupid to ignore these traditional methods just because there are other options. Touring and playing shows is still regarded as one of the most lucrative paths. But in addition to touring and playing shows, you can do other things that will help contribute to your overall income.

I won’t cover all the ways you can make money because the possibilities are endless. What I will do is offer a few tried and trusted ways that aren’t traditional whatsoever.

1. Crowdfunding

“Besides the fact that you can get paid for a project before you even put it out there, crowdfunding is an awesome way to build a passionate community of supporters for your music. My most active fans (who’ve now become my friends) started as kickstarter backers.” – Levi Whalen

Traditionally, making an album or working on a big project meant you either had to get outside funding or take a massive risk by putting your own money into a project and hope to get it back through sales.

Nowadays, crowdfunding exists. With websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, artists can ask their fans for financial support in return for a reward (or simply to help out).

This is great for a number of reasons. One of the most apparent ones is that it provides a level of security for you, the artist. You set a funding goal, and if you achieve it, you know that the time put into your project is worth it.

2. Membership/Subscription

If you prefer to have consistent income and the ability to budget ahead of time knowing that you’re going to receive a minimum certain amount (unlike most artists who never know what they’re going to earn), building a membership platform is a good idea.

The gist of it is to provide exclusive material to fans on a monthly basis in exchange for a small sum of money, say $10. You might offer unreleased tracks early, project files if you have a lot of producers in your audience, educational material, you name it. Whatever it is, it has to be of value. You can’t just charge people $10 a month and then stop offering material.

But Sam, $10 is hardly anything. What’s the point?

Let’s go back to the 1000 true fans model. Remember, a true fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.

Now, let’s say you have a quarter of that figure. 250 true fans. Each fan signs up to your membership site or pledges to give you $10 each month on a website like Patreon. That’s $2500 every month. A figure that’s bound to grow month over month as you attract more fans.

$2500 in addition to a few shows a month and the odd crowdfunded project can result in a very livable income.

3. Teaching

Perhaps one of the most popular ways of making money as an artist outside making music and touring is teaching. There are a few ways to do this, you could:

  • Run a workshop in your local city
  • Release a course and make recurring revenue
  • Run an online masterclass
  • Get in touch with existing educational companies (Pyramind, Groove3, Dubspot, etc.) and collaborate on something

4. Offer a Service

If none of that interests you, or you don’t think you’re busy enough, then you could offer a service. For example, you could:

  • Charge people for in-depth feedback on their music
  • Run a mastering service (please only do this if you have the skills, knowledge, and appropriate studio. There are too many horrible mastering services out there)
  • Tutor other artists over Skype for an hourly fee

I’ve only listed four ideas, but hopefully you can see the world of opportunity out there. All it takes is a bit of creativity and a lot of hard work.

Recommended Reading

This blog post is severely limited in detail. I’ve touched on ideas, but not expanded on them. Part of the reason for this is because I don’t want to put a novel on one page, but also because there are resources out there that already cover that detail.

As such, I’ve compiled a list of resources that I recommend you check out if you’re thirsty for more.

Books

Videos

If you think anything should be added to this list, or you have any questions regarding this article, let me know in the comments.

Featured Photo Credit: Mikael Wills

About the Author

Sam Matla

Facebook Twitter Google+

I run EDMProd. Drop me a line on Twitter or follow me on Facebook.