how to start a music career

Artist Entrepreneurship: Maximizing the Value of a Music Industry Education

(Note: This is the first installment in a 2-part series. The second installment will follow next week.)

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” — Andy Warhol

Music Is a Business

Andy Warhol was one of the founders of Pop Art in the 1960s and when he died was one of the richest artists alive. He started out as an commercial illustrator for a shoe company but embraced the business of art, as expressed in the quote above. Andy called his studio in New York City “The Factory” and he worked in a variety of mediums from there, attracting many celebrities to his space. He invented the term “15 minutes of fame.” He was the founder and manager of the 1960s band The Velvet Underground. Though he was not without controversy, his life as a highly successful artist exemplifies the use of creative faculties to succeed in the business of art.

Some artists view the business side of music as being something separate from the music. They hope or expect that someone else will manage the business for them, so they can be free to just create. In the current environment of direct-to-fan and viral social media marketing, that may be an outmoded model. The artist is now fully responsible for the business side of their artistic career. I call it “artist entrepreneurship” — the artist as entrepreneur.

The Artist-Entrepreneur

In this article, I will address the kind of entrepreneurial thinking I believe is crucial to career success. When I use the term industry education I am talking about every kind of major, diploma or degree, because music is an industry, and your degree or diploma is supposed to help prepare you to succeed in the industry. Even if you have a performance, composition, or education degree, you are preparing to enter the industry. It makes sense to identify a set of “best practices” and then to apply those to advancing your career, both during and after your time in a college music program. It’s also important to stay current with trends in the rapidly changing business environment.

Once you’ve earned your college degree in music, what comes next? Of course, this question likely has been foremost in your mind for some time, perhaps from the time you decided to attend school and earn your degree. But as graduation nears, the anxiety you feel might be palpable, as it’s now time to put your skills to the test in the professional world. Hopefully, you’ve been testing the waters and working professionally in some capacity already. Your career doesn’t start when you get your degree or diploma; it started when you got out of bed this morning.

Musicians are ideally suited to an entrepreneurial approach in the gig economy because we have learned to be ultimately flexible in our approach, working together as a team to reach shared goals, maneuvering through a rapidly changing environment, while thinking on our feet.

Pay Attention to Your Thinking

The standard advice to pursue internships may or may not apply to you, depending on which part of the music or entertainment industry you plan to work in. (I’ll address the topic of internships separately in a future article.) Whether you plan to work in a large or small company, or independently as an artist, the most important determinant of your success will be how you think about what you do. Being in school is supposed to teach you to think critically, meaning you should not accept everything you hear and read at face value. College should also prepare you to be a good citizen and to make a positive contribution to society with all the skills and knowledge you’ve picked up.

The most important thing to know initially is the skillset needed to DO a job is not the same skill set needed to GET the job. The good news is we can use our creativity as musicians to advance our careers, as long as we are willing to apply that creativity to the sphere of business. After all, music IS a business, and we need to keep this fact foremost in mind. The students who are most successful after leaving college almost always have focused at least a portion of their efforts on understanding how to succeed in the business of art.

Be A Lifelong Learner

Perhaps the best advice for a graduate would be to accelerate your learning after school is over (more on this in the second installment of this article). Finishing college tells the world you have learned how to learn and have certain marketable skills. It’s understood you will be competing with others in the search for gainful employment and will likely still need additional training for any future roles you will take on. This is normal since those in professional careers need to keep learning and growing as professionals. Of course, there are many areas to keep learning about and many ways to do so.

One of the best ways to do this is reading books. Fortunately, there are many terrific books about strategies for successful careers and the specific requirements of various industries and roles. Some people choose to attend graduate school or take courses for additional certifications or micro-credentials. Seek out the resources most relevant to your professional interests to help advance your career continually. Now that you aren’t spending hours every day in classes and doing school work, you should use some of your freed-up time to accelerate your learning.

Gig Economy, Think Like A CEO

You’ve probably heard the term “gig economy” and understand it to be the nature of most employment today. In fact, the term “gig” comes from music, originally called a “gigue,” which meant an event where musicians would play for dancers. (Later during the classical period it referred to a musical form used for dances.) Nowadays it refers to the way people are hired: not as employees, but as independent contractors. This means workers need to set themselves up as sole proprietors of their own business. Musicians are ideally suited for this. Even if you work in a salaried or hourly job, it’s useful to think about the value you bring to your employer in terms of an exchange of services for payment from a client. It’s also important to understand the tax, financial, and lifestyle implications of being self-employed earning your living.

Musicians are ideally suited to an entrepreneurial approach in the gig economy because we have learned to be ultimately flexible in our approach, working together as a team to reach shared goals, maneuvering through a rapidly changing environment while thinking on our feet. We have the perfect models for global success as artist-entrepreneurs, understood through the concepts of improvisation, group performance, team leadership, and more. I’ll elaborate on a few of these concepts in the following paragraphs. The core thought for now is you will be in business for yourself, delivering your products or services to clients or audiences.

Additionally, we need to consider current trends in the music and entertainment industry such as social media (viral) marketing, crowdfunding, mobile connectivity, e-commerce, emerging markets, and social entrepreneurship. We must learn strategies to define our market, differentiate ourselves from competitors, and create an image identity that tells a story and resonates with fans. We need to master techniques such as effective networking and learn how to best leverage our networks. In short, we must begin to think like a CEO. Being the leader or music director of a band is outstanding practice for executive leadership and provides a useful frame of reference for artist-entrepreneurship.

We need to master techniques such as effective networking and learn how to best leverage our networks. In short, we must begin to think like a CEO.

Image Identity For Artists

One of the first steps to being an entrepreneur has to do with branding yourself, your product, and your service. This includes your name, logo, pictures, video, website, social media, fonts and colors used, and so forth. There needs to be a backstory that fits you, is memorable, and helps to bridge the gap between your creative works and the target audience. Marketing professionals will consider the characteristics of the target consumer (fans), such as age, location, education, ethnicity, and preferences; this study of populations and their characteristics is called demography, or demographics.

The upshot is as an artist you will figure out who your ideal fans are and how to reach them. With this in mind, you will create your portfolio, or electronic promo kit (EPK). We may rely on other creative professionals on our team in creating our EPK: Graphic Designers, Photographers, Web Designers, Stylists, Producers, musicians, etc. Along with Managers, Agents, Lawyers, Accountants, Publicists, and others whose job it is to help artists succeed, we call these people intermediaries.

The EPK will naturally change as it evolves with your growing career over time. We should apply all our creative skills learned in music in designing and executing the EPK in support of our image identity. Your EPK will serve not only to acquaint intermediaries with you, your music, and your brand but will also be important to attract your other team members while defining your strategies for marketing your music. You should be consistent with all your image identity materials across platforms, using the visual elements to unify and reinforce the image you wish to portray.

(This concludes the first part of this two-part article.)

Daily Music Career Info! Follow Us.

Jobs. Career Articles. Quality Blog Posts. School Info, & More.