It may be your son or your daughter who wants to be on American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, or wants a record deal in Nashville. They want to move to New York to be on Broadway, be the next Academy Award winning actor. It just might be you yourself who has this dream.
In the 15 years that I have taught voice, the most common question I get from my students is how can they get a record deal or be on the many talents shows on TV.
It’s a valid question. As musicians for as long as we can remember, my husband and I have asked those very questions ourselves.
I usually try to talk my students out of seeking a record deal with a label or fame as a musician. Most of them don’t listen to a word I’m saying. Little do they know the very high price they will pay for such fame. First, let’s ask a fundamental question:
What does it take to be a famous musician?
1. Be Extraordinary
To be a professional musician and make it to the big leagues, you have to be above average in your craft, whether it be singing, playing an instrument, or songwriting. There is lots of room in the world for more musicians. But if you want your name in lights, so to speak, there isn’t any room out there for mediocre musicians. Every parent, with a few exceptions, thinks his child is talented or special. The reality is, just because your kid can hold a pitch or play a particular song perfectly, doesn’t mean they are bound for fame and fortune in the music industry. Please don’t misunderstand me on this point. Music is a wonderful part of life and it is what makes the world go round. I would always encourage children to learn to play a musical instrument, sing, dance, act, and create, but someone else besides family and friends needs to validate the kind of talent that is exceptional.
2. Diligent and consistent practice
If you want to make it in the music business, you must be practicing each and every day. Hours a day. There isn’t any way around it. It must be the first priority in your schedule. You will need to make a choice whether you want to succeed or not. You can sit and play video games, waste time on Facebook, binge watch Netflix, or you can be in there practicing your craft. I know plenty of musicians who never get anywhere. It’s not that they don’t have talent. It’s because they don’t work on their music enough to take them to the next level. There are always artists out there who are working harder than you to meet their goals because they are hungry for it.
3. Professional lessons
You must be continually improving your craft, whatever it is. Don’t think it is enough to already know how to play the guitar. No matter how good you think you are, there is always someone better. There is always something more to improve on or learn. Don’t make the mistake of being too proud to take lessons. Even the greatest of musicians and artists constantly meet with coaches to stay at the top of their game. Even when you are very good at what you do, you need an outsider to give you non biased feedback on your technique, your stage presence, your personal style/branding, and your health. It’s one thing to sing once a week at church. It’s another thing to sing every night a three hour set in a strange town. A coach will help you to protect your health, give you more endurance, and help solve any problems that may arise.
I have sung my whole life, since kindergarten, actually. I’ve always been in school plays, musicals, ballet classes, and talent shows. When I went to college, I took formal voice and piano lessons. It wasn’t because I couldn’t sing. It was to improve as a musician. I have been performing as a musician since then, which is about 30 years or so. A few years ago, I went back to getting more voice lessons. I wanted to sing in other genres of music and wanted help with changes in my voice as I am getting older. It was wonderful to learn new things and keep my skills sharp. Was it cheap? No. But I was committed to growing as an artist, and so should you be.
Well, what if I can’t afford lessons? The people that tell me they can’t afford lessons are usually the ones that don’t have their priorities in order. They spend their money on $200 sneakers, buy the latest video games, comic books, clothes, makeup, visit nail salons. Those things aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but let’s be honest with ourselves when we say we have no money.
So, If you are honestly not spending money on frivolous things, and you honestly don’t have the funds, then you must come up with solutions. Babysit, mow some yards, deliver papers, get some sort of a part time job on the weekends. Get creative. If that is not enough, you can also try bartering with someone who teaches music. Exchange a service of value in exchange for lessons. I taught voice lessons to my Sensai’s daughter in exchange for a discount on my Karate lessons. Maybe you know a lot about computers or photography or math. You could exchange those kinds of services for music lessons. Be flexible and creative, but get that in writing whatever you agree on.
If you really can’t afford lessons with a real person, you still don’t have an excuse. There are videos on YouTube and free lessons all over the internet. Try those while you save up for lessons with a real person. You should be recording yourself in some way also. You can learn a lot from listening to yourself.
How to choose a teacher will be covered in a future post.
This goes without saying, but the road to success in the music industry is going to be long and hard, full of challenges and disappointments. Some people make it just because they don’t give up when the guy next to them quits. You are going to get rejected a lot.
5. Be able to take constructive criticism
Being any kind of artist sets you up for all kinds of critics. Some good and some that are just plain mean. You have to have a thick skin and be able to accept the advice that will further your career and reject the comments that will destroy you as a person. If you don’t like it when someone tells you that you are off pitch, then you are going to have a hard time. Simon Cowell gets a lot of flack for being brutally honest with people. I actually admire that. If he says you need to go home and work on your singing, then listen to what he says and do it. Don’t get mad at someone who is KIND enough to tell you the truth.
I know a band that has great potential. I love the kind of music they play. The problem is that the lead singer of their band can’t sing on pitch. The lead singer sings everything in falsetto when it should be in full voice. He does not have the endurance to sing a full 3 hour set at a gig. These kinds of songs are epic songs that everyone knows. No one wants to go hear a band who does crummy versions of cover tunes. I have talked to some of the other band members about the elephant in the room. No one in the band wants to tell the lead singer that he needs voice lessons. The opinion of the group as a whole seems to think he won’t get voice lessons if they brought it up anyway. He doesn’t want to talk with the audience or do any kind of banter between songs. He doesn’t want to use ear monitors. He refuses to learn a song in a lower key that would be easier to sing. That kind of a musician is kidding himself if he thinks he is going to make it as a serious musician. It is not kind to pretend the problem isn’t there either.
6. Business knowledge
This is one thing that makes the difference between making money in the music business and losing your shirt. I wish I had acquired more business and marketing skills along the way. I really don’t enjoy the business aspect at all. I’d rather make music and let someone else do the unpleasant tasks. Why should you have business skills?
- You have to market yourself.
- You have to know laws that pertain to musicians.
- You must know about contracts, and royalties.
- You must know how to protect your intellectual property.
- You must know how not to get sued.
- You must know how to pay your taxes, and do basic bookkeeping.
It’s not enough to just be a musician or artist.
7. You must answer the question “Why?”
Why do you want a record deal?
Why do you want to be on The Voice?
Why do you want your song published and sung by a famous artist?
There is another set of questions to ask as well:
Why do you want to be famous?
Can you do something else to make money?
Why are you choosing a career in the music industry?
Is this what God wants you to do? How do you know?
Have you gotten validation from your pastor, your parents, your coaches/teachers, critics?
Have you really searched your heart and were you honest with yourself about your talent and skills?
Let me elaborate on some of these questions. I ask why someone wants to be a famous singer. The answer I usually get is that he has a gift and wants to share it with the world. That’s great. But did you know that you don’t need a record deal to share your gift with the world? You don’t need to go on a reality show to share your gift with the world. You don’t even have to be famous. Are you surprised by my answer? You can sing all over your local community at events and share your gift. You can start a YouTube channel without leaving your house. You can entertain at parties, nursing homes, camps, coffeehouses, karaoke night, and local talent contests etc.
What I get in response from my students reveals the real truth. They are not satisfied with just sharing their gifts in their local neighborhood. What they really want is attention. They want the recognition. What they want is the money. Let’s be honest here. At least be honest with yourself if you won’t be honest with me. If all you want to do is be an artist or a musician and bless people with your God given gifts, then you would sing or play anywhere that would welcome you. It wouldn’t matter if they paid you. You wouldn’t care if your appearance didn’t get on the local news. The audience size or who is in the audience would be irrelevant to you. I know plenty of musicians, including myself and my husband, who sing and play for the love of the music and a love for people.
I hear a lot of people throw around the word ‘’ministry” in order to put some sort of stamp of approval on what they are doing without any substance behind it. How does appearing on American Idol make singing a ministry? When do you actually give a gospel presentation on a TV show? It’s not likely. What kinds of songs are they telling you to sing? I know most of the songs don’t honor Christ in any way shape or form. I’m not saying you can’t ever sing a secular song. What I am saying is don’t go around telling me you are a minister of God while singing the world’s music. Your purpose should line up with your song choices. If you want to be a rock and roll star, then be a rock and roll star. Just don’t drag Jesus in the middle of it and say it is His idea.
8. You must be knowledgeable about the music industry and its games.
If you don’t listen to anything I’ve said so far, please listen to this: The music labels and the music industry will gobble you up, chew you up, and spit you out – Guaranteed. They are out to make money off you. Period. They don’t care about you, your goals, your integrity, or your retirement account. If you don’t make them money, they will drop you like a hot potato. The music world is vicious, cut throat, brutal, and demoralizing. Just about every band or artist out there has been shafted and cheated by the record labels. You can read their stories just by doing a Google search.
Oh, but Diana, I’m going to do Christian music and get signed with a Christian label.
Nope. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but The Christian labels are no different than the secular ones. In fact most of them are owned by secular record companies. They play the same games and cheat their artists out of money the same way. All they care about is money. Don’t be fooled by the fish symbol or a few scripture verses on the door or wall. They don’t care about your ministry, testimony, or passion for Jesus. If you don’t make any money for them, they will drop you. The music you wrote? Well, it now belongs to the record company- unless you had a lawyer with you when you signed a contract, who had enough sense to make sure you kept 100% of the rights to your songs. Half the artists I know don’t even have lawyers, which is a huge mistake. Get a music industry lawyer– Not your cousin Vinny who is an ambulance chaser (Although that’s better than nothing). And be sure to copyright your songs with The Library of Congress. No exceptions. You have to protect yourself! No one is going to look out for you.
My husband Brian was with a Christian band called Messenger. He has stories about the “Christian” music industry that will curl your hair. One of the pastors in my church was in the Nashville Christian music scene. He moved his family away from Nashville after seeing the corruption there. I have been singing in Christian circles for a long time. I have no interest in being signed by a label or being famous. I like the freedom of being in control of my music, my schedule, my branding, and my success.
Diana, What about a manager? If I had a nickel for every artist who has been scammed by their manager, I could retire now. There are some good managers out there and there are some bad ones. But you’re not going to know if they are good unless you educate yourself on this stuff first.
9. You have to prove that you can market yourself before a manager or label is even going to notice you.
So, what that means is that you have to already be performing regularly and booking your own gigs in your local area. You are winning songwriting contests. You have a website with a social media following. You have an email list with 10,000 followers. You are being featured on radio stations in your area. No one is going to invest in you if you aren’t investing in yourself. If you can’t promote yourself, no one else is going to want to promote you.
So what’s the point? Why would I need a manager or a record label if I am already doing it myself? Bingo. Which brings me to my next point:
10. You can make money full time as an artist or a musician on your own.
Let me tell you a secret. You don’t need them. You can make a living yourself on your music. That is a blog post for another time. Never in the history of the world was it ever so easy to bypass the “gatekeepers”. Why give a huge chunk of your earnings to someone else when you are doing all the work? Precisely! There are multiple ways to make money off your music. Some ways may surprise you. Is it easy? No. You’re going to work your behind off. But in the end, you have creative control. You don’t owe anyone but yourself. You are not a slave to anyone. You write, sing, play and distribute your music the way you wish. You can dress as you wish. Make your own touring schedule. Charge what you wish. Does this mean I am all alone in my journey? No. You can hire your own team to help you do some menial tasks or free you up to work on your music. But you are always in the driver’s seat.
Indie Connect’s website is a great resource for ways to make money in the music industry on your own. They have lots of free articles, local meetings, training and other helpful advice.
I hope this gives you food for thought on your journey as an artist.
Comment below on whether you have had any struggles as an artist of any kind. We would also like to hear your stories of success!