Welcome to the Music Business… Advice from the Cutting Edge

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This post is excerpted from Martin Atkins’ book, Welcome To The Music Business, You’re Fucked. In it, he waxes poetic (in his own twisted way) on various topics as they relate to being an independent music artist, including…

Having a strategy
I know people who spend more time planning Thanksgiving dinner than their careers.

I love Sun Tzu’s quote from The Art of War, “never take your country to war unless you are sure of the outcome.” Well, let’s change that to, “never take your band to perform in Cleveland unless you are sure some people will show up!” Actually, it should be, “never arbitrarily decide to take your band anywhere except where your fans already are and you have demonstrated that there are enough of them to start something (even if its just a hand of poker).” OK?

There are so many ways to track your fans. Bandcamp.com enables you to exchange free music in different quality formats for an e-mail address and the very, VERY important ZIP CODE. YouTube is now the second largest search engine and has amazing tools to help you look at your data geographically. TopSpin amalgamates many of the features that are out there into a new platform. The Orchard has their heat map. MySpace is frantically adding tools to help bands, and there’s also Reverbnation, Nimbit, and add-ons from North Social and many, many more… USE THEM.

Yes, this is a double edged sword. Stay on top of the newest innovations, platforms and tools, but don’t be a slave to them. USE the tools that work for you, don’t let them use and consume you. That’s part of the new requirement of an artist: surfing on top of the storm of innovations, using the ones that work for you to underline and reinforce your vision, not diluting it with pre-packaged templates that are in someone else’s shrink-wrapped, stackable voice.

Premature delegation
This is very simple, if you don’t know YOUR unique business, how can you possibly know the qualities you want in (say) an agent? Or the number and type of shows that work best for your band? If you haven’t done the research (in the form of live shows), how do you know what your most popular songs are?

Sure you can look at your downloads and plays, but it’s in front of a live audience that you can FEEL just how good a song is. Playing a song live is where you’ll find out where it drags, where it works and where it doesn’t. If the audience stands up and walks out – there’s a hint for ya… Push as hard as you can and learn as much as you can before you bring more people in to help.

The first shirt you design and order will be a shirt that doesn’t sell very well in the wrong sizes and the wrong colors. You’ll know as soon as you set it out on your merchandise booth that’s it’s NEVER going to sell, but you’ll keep trying to sell it anyway. That’s natural. You paid for them and you should sell them all before you order more, right? NO!

As soon as you realize it’s a design that no one wants – ditch it! It pollutes the vibe of your merchandise booth, AND it traps you in the past. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was that you realized it was a bad, poorly executed design. It makes no difference whether it was one week one year or one minute ago… it’s time for version 2.0! That’s the value of the first bad shirt – using it as a learning platform for the next one.

Practice this with your songs too!

Performing – not just playing
Stop gazing at your shoes. Put on a show. People go to see a show, not to hear a show. Watch a video of your performance and do more of the good stuff and less of the silly stuff. (Unless the silly stuff is amazing silly stuff then ignore my advice.) Play songs people want to hear, not just your newest ones. The audience won’t know them, yet, and they might not like them. Just because the songs are new to you doesn’t mean jack. Familiarity is important. You are working for the audience, not the other way around.

Practicing for Catastrophe
It’s not about being able to put on a great performance when everything is perfect (monitors, underwear, quantity of whisky, stage height, lights, PA system, dressing room, availability of toilets, crowd response, etc.). It’s about being amazing when you absolutely shouldn’t, and any self-respecting, spoiled artist would have thrown down their instruments and stormed off stage in a huff.

Practice at being great in impossible situations. Laugh in the face of adversity, practice in three inches of water with only four strings on your guitar, piss dripping on your head, being electrocuted by faulty wiring and the microphone cutting in and out while the drummer is angrily throwing lit cigarettes in to your backpack which contains charcoal and lighter fluid in the event of an impromptu barbeque. Give yourself electric cattle prod shocks every time you gaze at your shoes and smile, smile, smile.

Because that’s EVERY gig you’ll ever play. The last thing you need is a plush, luxurious rehearsal space with reliable equipment.

Martin Atkins was a member of Public Image Ltd and Killing Joke. He founded industrial supergroup Pigface, The Damage Manual, and Murder Inc., and has contributed to Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. He is the owner of Invisible Records and Mattress Factory Recording Studios (est. 1988). He is the author of Tour:Smart and Break the Band, is a syndicated blogger, and teaches at Madison Media Institute in Madison, WI. Martin is a producer, drummer, documentary film maker, DJ, and father of four. Whatever the future of music is, you can pretty much bet that he’ll be in the middle of it.

The content in this post was excerpted from Martin’s book, Welcome To The Music Business, You’re Fucked. Click here to download your free PDF copy now.

39 thoughts on “Welcome to the Music Business… Advice from the Cutting Edge

  1. This is scary in a way, but excellent advice. I emailed this to the rest of my band for them to read it too.

  2. This is all well and good. Totally agree with everything. Although, I want an article about how a band goes about FINDING those fans… You can’t play a show without having a fanbase but you can’t find the fans without playing a show… How do you find the fans?? I appreciate the advice in regards to all the tools that are now available to artists. It’s awesome! But how do you find the fans…??

    1. open for other bands, go and see other bands, support your scene and it will (eventually) support you!, work the line at a larger show that you couldn’t get on the bill for – there are more people outside for the first hour than there are in thre venue anyway, busk on the street and gradually accumulate a fan base – 2 people at a time if ALL you get from 4 hours on the street in different places is 10 names a week – thats great – do that for a year and you will have 500 people on your mailing list…….work sweat innovate and realise that no one gives a SHIT about your music – so, offer to exchange stuff – do my laundry and i might listen to your demo –

  3. This is all well and good. Totally agree with everything. Although, I want an article about how a band goes about FINDING those fans… You can’t play a show without having a fanbase but you can’t find the fans without playing a show… How do you find the fans?? I appreciate the advice in regards to all the tools that are now available to artists. It’s awesome! But how do you find the fans…?

  4. Some good advice, good points, but remember that sometimes you just have to do what works for you. I enjoy reading all the articles in here and I keep it in a folder that I go back to once in a while. Keep up the good work, it’s good stuff and you just have to sort through it.

  5. This was amazing To read it really open My eyes To how important IS To be not Just Great,But a listener and observe Your crowd when performing.i have long way To go,Its more than Just me rappin My songs ON stage.thanks Martin.hear My Music at YouTube.com/steelo205

  6. I agree with some of this article (perform don’t drivel, some familiarity in set choice, etc.), however, if we only played gigs where we, as musicians, were expected to put asses in the seats, then why would we give the venue owners all that guaranteed biz and not just promote our own thing? We are musicians. Our expertise is performing really great music, so that the venue’s customers see value, spend money, tell their friends, and return for they know the venue has quality offerings, especially in the music dept. If you are a huge draw band, have concerts in the barn out back, save on gas money, play what you and your fans think is great, and keep all the money for yourself. Not to mention, the days of being wallpaper is over. We still have a basic responsibility to run our own biz, and therefore should post our performances on FB, our website, and an email blast. They are all free, easily accessible, and proven ways to assure fans know where you’re at. Venues should vet all acts to make sure the quality is up to par with the venue’s mission and own quality in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors. We, as musicians, need to understand our own value, and educate the venues on that value so they feel that it will add to their bottom line, which is all they typically care about. I could go on, but I need to go practice …

    1. Venues don.t care about musician.s worth. They care about how much dinero the venue can make. Just say fuk you. This place is gonna be sold out as fuk. Pay me 10k more than any other artist has ever been paid or we gonna go play at your competitors venue.

  7. “Because that’s EVERY gig you’ll ever play.”
    God. Please lose the caps. You do that a lot. It’s bad style and it’s offensive to readers. If you feel the compulsion to use caps, italics, or bold text to make a point, it means you’re not writing well enough. Give up the ornaments and take more time as a stylist.
    I’m not being mean. This is what real writers do.
    —An editor

      1. Nice post i took a lot from this i am a rap artist learning The biz,and thanks To Your article i kno now Its more then Just rappin ON stage you have To be observitive To The crowd..thanks Martin.hear My Music at YouTube.com/steelo205

        a great article,by the way. written about the MUSIC BUISNESS (not about
        proper use of text ornaments)

    1. You are a real writer. This fukstick probally paid someone to edit this and used spell check and grammer check.. Say, my shit is sorta fuked up but it’s me. I ain’t conforming to anyones bullshit made up RULES. I write how I write, Suk My NUTZ FUKKERS

    2. Ed the editor is correct about writing well. Martin, although you have some fairly good advice in your article, you’ll come across as more authoritative and professional if you write well rather than using gimmicks or web-grammer.

  8. “Whatever the future of music is, you can pretty much bet that he’ll be in the middle of it.”

    I frankly disagree, but some good points are made…

  9. It’s a very good point to be able to play when things aren’t right…..they never are……but as a professional solo guitarist it’s also important to know when not to perform…..think about this…if you were an Olympian gymnast going to perform on the parallel bar and they set you up to perform on two saw horses in the Wal Mart parking lot, you’d fail and would be in your best interest to refuse to perform…sounds silly, but I’ve been in situations just as bad.

    To many people who can’t play can play with the new technology….when you invest your life in your art it’s not a joke and you don’t jump into situations where failure is the outcome.

    The new technology has lowered the bar….inexperienced people can now perform solo playing with tracks and electronic enhancement. This is why DJs, Karaoke, and loud flash &.glitter are taking over.

    Jane Rosenbohm
    Guitar Extraordinaire®

    1. when not to perform? never – you dont know the story behind the flat tire or the baaad day someone had on their way to see you (if you are lucky) I’ve found that an audience will always forgive someone making an effort even though the PA just blew up or even though not many people showed up – when you don’t do anything – its difficult to get behind how amazing you should have been???

      1. I’ve played several shows with no PA because of PA bombs or other issues. As a solo artist, I just wander around with my guitar and sing amongst the various bar patrons. It generally turns out to be a good time for me and everyone who’s there.

    2. Pussie ass image fakers. It’s cool to fuk it up.. Say yeah I fucked up real bad. Atleast we don’t play with the original album and lipsynch like all the big time stars. R shit is for realz bitches.

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