What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles:
Pop Star, Frontman, Frontwoman
Career Overview: A Rock Star is the performer in the band who commands the most attention onstage, plays a key part in writing the band’s songs, and serves as the group’s spokesperson.
Average Annual Earnings: Millions of dollars
General Earnings Range: $100k-$1 million+ per gig
Become a Rock Star
A Rock Star is any member of a rock band who becomes the group’s focal point. Usually, this is the Frontman or Frontwoman, although it can really be anyone in the group who presents him or herself as the band’s spokesperson and contributes a great deal to the band’s public image. (See Mick Jagger vs. Keith Richards.) A Rock Star’s main duty is to write songs and to perform, but he or she must also serve as the band’s mouthpiece during interviews, etc. A Rock Star works with Agents, Publicists, Managers, Producers, Concert Promoters, Tour Managers, Recording Engineers and sometimes Backing Vocalists and Session Musicians.
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The sky’s the limit with this one. A potential Rock Star can start off his or her career playing free shows in the middle of nowhere, working at a low-paying job on the side because it’s flexible and lets him or her tour. Says Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, “This is a hard life. It is especially difficult in the beginning. There are no tour buses and nice hotels. Many groups break up in those early years because the conditions they encounter are just too tough to overcome. Unless you are doing this for the right reasons, the grind of it all will separate you from the pack and definitely test your resolve. If you aren’t suited for this business, you’ll find out quickly when you start touring. Whenever anybody asks me if they should pursue their passion for music, I tell them don’t be a musician just to be one. Be a musician if you have no other choice, if it is the only thing you know how to do and it fulfills you. Don’t do it if you think it will lead you to some lavish lifestyle of fame and fortune. That is more the exception rather than the rule” (1). To get a scope of how long it takes for a band to succeed, consider that Imagine Dragons has toured basically non-stop since 2008 and only broke out with the release of their debut studio album in 2012. For most bands that make it to the big time, it’s a similar path: tour relentlessly for years, self-release a few albums, and then after several years, get media exposure. People think bands become successful overnight, but this is almost never the case. There’s a lot of hard work that the audience doesn’t initially see.
Education & Training
School is not a requirement, but for those who can’t just pick up any instrument and start playing, music lessons are important. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons says, “For me, I have always been an artist who created more by ear. I took drum lessons, piano lessons and I taught myself the guitar when I was younger. I picked up a few more instruments along the way. However, I have never written a song where I wrote out a chord progression on a piece of paper and transferred it onto an instrument. Instead, I create chords on a piano that weren’t typical but felt right when I played them. Then I made a progression that sounded right in my head. Afterward, I used whatever instruments I felt the song needed to complete what I was hearing.“ (1) Of course, higher education not only can help an aspiring band member learn more about music but also meet like-minded individuals. Many bands such as Vampire Weekend (Columbia University), MGMT (Wesleyan University), Imagine Dragons (Berklee College of Music) and Alt-J (Leeds University) were formed by friends who met in college.
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Experience & Skills
Experience performing and writing songs is the main requirement for this career. Most people start in smaller bands or on a local touring circuit before making it big. For example, Vampire Weekend recorded songs in their dorm rooms and performed at campus events before anyone knew who they were (2). Imagine Dragons self-released three EPs and toured relentlessly before signing with Interscope, honing their stage skills by competing with slot machines in noisy Las Vegas casinos. (It also probably didn’t hurt that singer Dan Reynolds has written basically a song a day since he was a teenager.) (1) The sisters of Haim started early. Their dad taught them how to play drums. Piano lessons soon followed. As kids, they were all in a family cover band together (3), a good way to learn classic song structure and how to play an instrument. Business acumen and marketing skills can also be useful. Arctic Monkeys built a huge following by being one of the first bands to really connect with fans through the internet, via filesharing and social media sites. This fanbase led to the band getting signed by Domino Records. Says NME editor Conor McNicholas, “This is the first generation for whom the internet has always been there. While the record industry has struggled with online piracy, bands such as the Arctic Monkeys are using it to their advantage, communicating with fans almost daily on their forum and posting tracks and lyrics.” (4)
This job is right for someone who loves to perform and express him or herself onstage. It’s not right for those looking to get rich fast or get famous. It’s a tough, uphill climb to go from being the Frontperson in a local bar band to headlining stadiums, and it’s necessary to have a good head on one’s shoulders. If you want to be a Rock Star, music has to be your number one love in life. You have to enjoy late nights, and be able to deal with being on tour and away from home for long periods of time. And, if fame does come, you have to have a good sense of self so that you don’t turn into someone else.
Despite the glamour, this career can be demanding, especially for those who are just starting out in bands. Rockers perform late at night, and are often on the road touring. For a Rock Star, this can mean tour buses and fancy hotels; for a rocker in a small to mid-level band, it usually means a cramped van and strangers’ couches. Imagine Dragon’s Dan Reynolds says, “It’s hard being a musician. You’re in a new town every day, you are traveling, and you’re really living off of nothing in the early years, absolutely nothing. We were all scraping by, playing cover gigs on the side, so it was hard on us. (1) Performances can be both physically and emotionally demanding, as can extensive touring. (Being on tour is basically a 24/7 job.) Recording sessions can last well past a normal worker’s standard eight hour day. However, for those who “make it,” there’s also the chance to do what you love, make a lot of money, and spend the rest of your time cavorting with models, staying at fancy hotels, and basically living the dream. Needless to say, however, it takes A LOT of hard work and more than a bit of good luck to get to that point.
The most important component of getting started as a band is to just play. Play shows, meet other bands, network. Play dingy bars, house parties and campus events. Mumford & Sons started off playing very small venues, such as the west London pub with a maximum capacity of forty that became a center of the city’s burgeoning folk scene. Ben Lovett says that when Mumford & Sons first started playing shows, they “were awful. But we were energetic, and ambitious, and gave everything we could, and that got us a long way.” (4) Once the band has written enough songs, record the best ones and make them available online. After all, filesharing and the use of sites like MySpace to preview tracks are what made Arctic Monkeys famous, and got them signed to Domino Records. When they were just getting started, Vampire Weekend recorded a self-titled CDR in one of the member’s dorm rooms, which ended up on file-sharing sites online. Their reputation also steadily began to build as a result of all the online buzz (5). Imagine Dragons started off by touring relentlessly, and regularly playing gigs at casinos in their hometown, Las Vegas. “A year ago we were playing for, like, 40 people,” lead singer Dan Reynolds said. “Before every gig, we were peaking behind the curtain like, ‘Oh man, it’s only half-full tonight.’ We’d been living on people’s couches and just scraping by. Now we’re at the point where everything is sold-out beforehand. We can actually breathe and enjoy the music. It’s the best feeling ever.” (6) So what’s the best way to even get a show? Become friends with other bands and ask to play a show with them or get added to an already existing lineup. Once Talent Buyers see that a band gets people out to their shows and has a few performances under their collective belt, they’re more likely to give said band a shot.
In general, Rock Stars make money in three ways. They earn money from album sales, live performances, and merchandise. The money received from album sales is usually the smallest piece of this puzzle, as bands don’t receive any profit from sales till the record label has recouped the money it spent on marketing, production, etc. Agents and Managers also take a cut from a Rock Star’s earned income. By far the biggest source of income is live shows and merchandise. Bands receive a portion of all ticket proceeds, so payment is on a show-by-show basis, with the majority receiving a guarantee.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Many famous Musicians are members of the American Federation of Musicians, but it is not a requirement, and not every Rock Star is a member.
- Record a demo and post songs online. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Potential fans and Talent Buyers just want to know what you sound like.
- Connect with other musicians and organize a show together.
- Make sure to publicize the show, especially to friends. Bookers want to see that your band has a draw.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Build a fanbase at home, then go out on the road.
- Get an online presence! You need photos, a bio and music. Make it professional.
(1) Dunn, David (2012, October). Imagine Dragons: Word Play at Its Finest. Frontman Dan Reynolds Speaks with Jam Magazine. Retrieved from jammagazine.com/mf201210-imagine-dragons-interview-dan-reynolds-writer-david-dunn.aspx
(2) Ellen TV (2014). Vampire Weekend. Retrieved from www.ellentv.com/artists/vampire-weekend/
(3) Weiner, Jonah (2013, November 12). How Haim’s Three Geeky Sisters Became the Year’s Coolest New Band. Retrieved from www.rollingstone.com/music/news/how-haims-three-geeky-sisters-became-the-years-coolest-new-band-20131112?page=2
(4) Lamont, Tom (2012, November 15). How Mumford & Sons Became the Biggest Band in the World. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com/music/2012/nov/15/mumford-sons-biggest-band-world
(5) Carew, Anthony (2014). Vampire Weekend: Artist Profile. Retrieved from altmusic.about.com/od/artists/a/Vampire-Weekend-Artist-Profile.htm
(6) Gomez, Luis (2013, March 10). Interview: Imagine Dragons Singer Savors Flight on the Wings of Success. Retrieved from articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-03-10/entertainment/ct-ent-0311-luis-20130310_1_movie-trailer-nellcote-chocolate-cake