Being a musician sounds so easy. Play good music, get “found,” get rich and get famous. It seems to have happened so many times, with bands emerging almost overnight with no effort or planning.
Well, according to a recent survey, only 5 percent of full-time musicians are making a living with their music; 23 percent have gone into debt to pursue their musical dreams.
What many of these often-hardworking musicians don’t understand is that being successful takes more than just following dreams; it takes careful planning and strategic thinking. Many could have avoided lost time and resources by understanding the common misconceptions that those who have gone before them have learned through trial and error.
1. If you can play an instrument well, you can become rich and famous for it.
“Before committing to a particular career path, musicians should be rigorous and clearheaded about how their plans will collide with reality,” said Andrew Maxfield, a BYU adjunct professor who teaches a class in the music program called Entrepreneurship for Musicians. “I wouldn’t discourage anyone from trying, but I would advocate for over-preparing.”
Maxfield is a musician but makes his living doing marketing consulting for businesses of all types, musicians included.
He refers to “The Hedgehog Principle” in his class, a diagram taken from the book “Good to Great in the Social Sector” by Jim Collins. It is a Venn Diagram with three overlapping circles labeled, “What can you be the best in the world at?” “What are you deeply passionate about?” and “What can you make money doing?” When determining a career, of any type, one can determine if their skill or talent is enough to support them.
If, for example, a musician is passionate about accordion performance, is the best in the world at it but realizes there are not a lot of people willing to pay accordionists a living wage, she won’t want to turn her talent into a career. Or, if a passionate guitarist could find high-paying jobs as a studio musician but was not talented enough to get the positions, he may want to consider himself a hobbyist rather than a professional.
“For anyone to think that they can make a career out of their art when they don’t meet the three qualifications of ‘The Hedgehog Principle’ is delusional,” Maxfield said. “The person can still continue to do art but should either improve their skill to become the best at their trade, shift their focus to something more profitable or keep searching for that medium that they’re most passionate about.”
2. If my music sounds cool, it will sell.
Music has to be genuine to be successful. If a band bases its style of music on the trends of the day rather than what the band is passionate about, the music will sound forced and fake, and the audience will see that.
“Music that isn’t authentic won’t pass the sniff test,” said Randy Blosil, a longtime music lover and musician. “It simply won’t sell.”
Blosil owned and operated his own record label for seven years in the 2000s. He produced dozens of albums for artists large and small, including an album for the beloved Hawaiian LDS guitar and vocalist Kalai. As groups come in and out, he saw that those who were honest in their music and didn’t try to cover up their weaknesses were the most authentic and, in turn, most successful and influential.
“Being authentic is finding your voice,” Blosil said. “It’s not worrying about any flaws you might have as an individual. It’s those flaws that make us unique. Once you can accept that, you become fearless. And having no fear is one of the great liberties of creating your art and creating great art. And it’s great art that sells and influences others.”
3. Rock ‘n’ roll is a constant party without any commitments.
Utah native Ammon Chung has been part of a successful folk-electronic band The Fellows, based in Provo for the past two years. The band released two EPs, sold out shows at local venues and gained a good following before breaking up earlier this year.
“You have to be on the same page about the amount of sacrifice that goes into it,” Chung said concerning commitment to a band. “Michael and I were ready to go all in, and the other guys weren’t when the time came to go to the next step.”
Determining the level of commitment that each band member wants to give is key to avoid moments when a band could potentially fall apart. There’s nothing wrong with a band that is not committed, as long as everyone in the band is equally so.
But to make a living as a musician, it requires a full commitment of time and energy.
“You have to be willing to sleep on floors,” said Collin Sellers, guitarist for local musician Mimi Knowles. “You have to take the time to rehearse. You have to be willing to work hard. Without that, you won’t be able to be financially stable.”
Sellers attributes the band’s recent success to each member’s clear commitment to the whole.
“Half of our band lives in Salt Lake and the other in Provo, so we meet in Lehi. It’s a sacrifice. It’s gas. It’s time. I’m not home until 10 or 10:45 at night. But that’s what you have to do. You have to have the willingness to work hard and to be committed. Everyone in the band does.”
4. Starting a band with buddies is a good idea.
As it turns out, just because someone is a good friend and even a good musician doesn’t mean they’re the right musician. Before picking out a lineup of people for a band, first determine who is needed, based on the sound, the style and the implementation of the music. Determine what instrument to add, and then go about finding the right person to fill the gap.
“The people that you bring into your band will make or break it,” said Sellers, who has spent more than 10 years of his life in various music groups. “When you want to do music professionally, unfortunately sometimes your friends are not going to be good enough, or they don’t want to be professional musicians. That’s okay. But you have to be willing to sever those ties sometimes.”
Maxfield teaches this point in the manual for his class, saying that musicians and businesses alike should “hire slow and fire fast.”
“It’s weird to think of forming a band as a hiring decision, but you’ll be stuck with each other,” Maxfield said. “The band has to be someone’s baby. Someone has to make the hard calls. Find ways to learn a lot about each other when the stakes are low, but don’t be afraid to ‘fire fast’ if it’s the right thing to do.”
5. A band needs to raise a lot of money and record an amazing album as soon as possible.
It would seem that in order to get its name out there, a band would need a high-quality set of recordings that will awe record labels and radio stations to the point that they would pick the band up and play its music.
“Even if your band has $25,000 at hand, it might not fix any problems,” said Stuart Maxfield, lead singer of local band Fictionist. “That money might actually complicate things. If, for example, you used it to create a five-song EP and only one track turns out ok, you may have just wasted $4,000 of it on nothing.”
Stuart has been making music since his first band at age 13, Cosmic Frog, which made two covers and played two originals before it broke up. During his time there and in the numerous music projects he’s done since then, he’s learned the importance of making music and learning from it. He suggests recording a lot of music at first to figure out the right sound and style for a band.
“It really helps to make a whole bunch of cheap demos at first. Maybe make 13 tracks and then narrow it down to two best after listening to them all. Use this to help you learn what doesn’t work in your music.”
Colin Rivera, a local musician of the Empire Kings and a graduate from the commercial music program at BYU, has learned the same thing.
“You can think you have a really good idea because of the situation you’re in,” Rivera said. “But if it doesn’t relate to other people and they don’t resonate with it, it might not be that good of an idea. Or it could be a good idea but just needs a lot of improvement.”
6. You have to sell out to make it big.
Many will say money comes when an artist signs with a record label or agrees to having producers change and manipulate the music to make it more palatable for a wider audience. But nowadays, artists don’t have to give up their authenticity to be successful.
Macklemore, the rap artist whose song “Thrift Shop” hit number one on the Billboard charts and won a Grammy in 2013, said he and Ryan Lewis, his producer, have never “sold out” but rather have produced and distributed all of their music themselves via the Internet and social media, enabling them to define everything about their music and image themselves.
Similarly, Fictionist has decided to take creative control of its sound entirely, leaving a record label that was originally going to record the whole album. The band plans on releasing the album independently later this year.
Stuart explained why he feels he needs to be authentic in his music.
“If I’m not playing something I’m genuinely interested in, the recordings just don’t come across. I can’t perform that night after night. You have to be excited about what you’re doing; it’s not a day job. I think you need to be genuinely happy to be there.”