It’s every musician’s dream to be able to quit working 9 to 5, quit answering to someone else, and to finally make some “real” money with their music. Most of these musicians tend to think of themselves as artists first and professionals second. With that mentality, it’s no wonder most never make it in the music business – key word being “business.”
Before you can start out on your own, you need to know what you’re getting into. Musicians could well take a lesson from writers, designers, and other professionals that have been working in freelance-friendly fields, since you will in fact be a freelancer. For starters, they’re rarely looking to sign their lives away like musicians are with a major label. Instead, most freelancers work directly with clients on a per project basis, in your case the venues you play for, and writers sell their work one piece at a time, and never lose their rights to it. Before you think the only way you’ll make money in music is to get “discovered” by a label, follow these 10 steps to help you get on your way to making a living as an independent musician.
Do Your Research – Take time to really understand the music industry, familiarize yourself with legal issues, and decide if you think label backing is really worth selling your soul. And don’t just research music! Research other freelance fields. Research ways to start a small business in general. (Check out www.entrepreneur.com, www.ideacafe.com, and www.allfreelancework.com.)
Save Your Money – This should go without saying! Before you quit your day job, you need to know that you can pay your bills while you’re starting out. A bare minimum is to save 3 months’ pay. It may sound like a lot, and you may think it’s impossible, and it’s certainly not going to happen overnight. But look at it this way: Is complete freedom worth a few sacrifices and putting up with your boss another year? Or would you rather keep spending now, and be stuck in your same rut a year from now?
Create a Financial Plan – It’s not enough to have some money saved up. You need to know exactly what bills you’re going to have to pay, any added expenses (like getting your own insurance when you leave your job – so don’t forget to get your last medical and dental exams), and figure out what you’ll need to be bringing in. Add the totals together for all band members, and you now know how much money the band needs to make every month. Don’t forget to factor in at least 10% more than your total expenses to cover anything unexpected. Although now you know how much you need to make, you’re not finished until you can outline a realistic plan to achieve it. Don’t forget to add show revenue, CD sales, and merch sales. Also, don’t exaggerate your potential earnings. Keep them conservative, as you’re more likely to be realistic. Never look for gigs and ask a venue what they’re willing to pay you. You know what you need to make. Be realistic, but set a rate that you can live with, and never work for less, unless it’s for a charity show or something that you’ll get good publicity from. You’ll be in business. You’ll be supplying the talent that keeps these places open. Don’t allow yourself to get suckered by cheap venue managers. If they still offer you too little? Figure out what their suggested pay amounts to, hourly, for each band member, and ask the manager if they could live off of that! If they say other bands would be happy for that pay, let them have it! You’ll never get anywhere in this business by de-valuing yourselves. Then, find someone who appreciates what you’re worth, and build a good relationship with that venue so you can try to get regular sets. Also, try to think of other, less common, income sources for your band. Maybe band members could give music lessons. Maybe the band members can form a partnership with another form of music business, such as an indie label, promotion company, or doing graphic and web design work exclusively for other musicians. The possibilities are really endless!
Network! – The key to most businesses is knowing the “right” people. Start building your contact lists with members of the media, promoters, managers, other musicians, venue managers, or even small record store owners. Anyone that can potentially help you in your music career is worth getting to know. Do it before you quit your day job.
Act Like You’re in Business – Like it or not, when you’re on your own, you really will be in business! You’ll need to pay your own taxes, because they won’t be held out from your paychecks. You’ll need to take care of your own insurance for your health, your family, your equipment â€¦ everything. Start taking care of the legalities of going into business for yourselves before you quit your jobs. Contact an entertainment lawyer. Draw up a partnership agreement between band members. Look into any permits you may need (some states require general business permits), and make sure that wherever you’re running your band’s business is zoned accordingly. You don’t want to start off with legal hassles. Get them out of the way early!
Have Shows Line Up – Here’s a simple step. Don’t quit your day job thinking you’ll then have time to set up shows. If you don’t have at least 2-3 months of shows lined up, you’re asking for trouble. Book your show dates as early as possible. And remember, you can’t afford to just work weekends. Start booking shows at least 3 nights a week, preferably 4 or 5. Being a musician isn’t a slacker’s job. It’s hard as hell, and you have to be willing to put in the time, even if it means pulling late nights to get on that show schedule before you actually have the opportunity to quit your day job.
Be Ready for 24/7 – Speaking of hard work and late nights â€¦ you’ll need to spend enormously more time working on your music career than you are in your 9 to 5. Don’t think for a second that quitting to focus on the band is going to leave you loads of free time. If it does, you’re not doing something right. Playing shows will only amount to 10-20% of your time working. Your main focuses will be on promotion or “selling yourselves” to the fans, maintaining your image, pushing CD and merch sales, writing new material, recording, meeting with store owners about distribution deals, designing and creating merch, album art, and any other creative elements you’ll need, practicing, maintaining your band website which should be updated at least several times a week, and very importantly, you’ll be spending at least a third of your time working on the “business” – dealing with paperwork, managing your finances, taking care of the band’s vehicle, taking care of your equipment, paying your taxes, reviewing contracts, and planning out the rest of your show dates and your career in general. Just like with any other business owner, in the beginning, it really will be 24/7.
Work on Your Music EVERY Day! – Even while you’re still working full-time for someone else, you better be prepared to spend at least an hour or two every single day working on your music career. If you can’t stick with it, or if you can’t find enough to do, then you really don’t know what it takes, and you’ll never make it on your own, so get comfy where you are.
Always Think About Your NEXT Project – You can’t spend your time thinking about the here and now. If you’re not thinking about what you’ve got going on a week from now, a month from now, or even just a day from now, then you obviously don’t have anything important going on! Successful people don’t watch their feet, they keep their eye on their goals and every step they still need to take to reach those goals. While you’re playing one show, think about how you can make the next one better. While you’re in the studio, be thinking about how you’re going to promote the hell out of this album so sales skyrocket. If you’re not completely focused on the goals you’ve set, maybe you need to rethink them, and make sure you’re focusing on something you’re truly passionate about.
Have Fun! – As simple as this sounds, it’s probably the most important thing you can do. You certainly have to take yourself seriously. But that doesn’t mean you have to be serious all of the time. You’re doing this because you love it, and the moment you forget that, you’ve lost everything that you’ve worked for. If you’re not enjoying your music enough now, while you’re still working your day job, you’ll absolutely hate it when you’re eating, sleeping and breathing it later.
The most important thing you can do is to be prepared for anything. Not everyone will support your decision. You’ll probably struggle a little, or a lot, for a while. Just keep your head up, eyes on your goals, and you’ll eventually find your own way to make a living with your music without even thinking about label backing, big name promoters, or anything else that’ll take more from you than it’ll give. Good luck!