Telling People You’re Broke Won’t Help Your Music Career

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Music career killer

The starving artist routine can help derail your music career, so focus on the positive

As indie musicians devoting ourselves to the demands of a music career, we know that many (most?) musicians are always broke. Like Ramen broke. PB&J broke. Rice and beans BROKE.

You know who doesn’t know that musicians are broke? Non-musicians. And let’s keep it that way.

Music lovers (your fans) don’t want to hear how you are a "struggling/starving musician." It’s not romantic. The starving artist thing is romantic to reflect back on (once you’re successful) and you can talk all about it in interviews with Rolling Stone in five years. But don’t talk about it now.

Building a grassroots fan base is about showcasing that you’re on the up and up. No one wants to be a fan of a failing, starving, broke-ass band. They want to support bands who have their act together, have a budding music career, and are about to take over the world. They can then say "I knew them when…"

There is a difference between talking about how broke you are and being humble and (for the most part) transparent. I see bands post all the time on Twitter and Facebook about how broke they are and can’t afford to eat so "buy my music." Big no no. Guilting them into buying your music never works. You’ll be sure to get an "unfollow" rather than a sale.

You can, however, post about how you’re looking for a crashing pad. Just because you need a place to stay doesn’t mean you’re broke. It could mean that you’d rather spend that $100 on gas, inventory, blow, whatever. Or that you just want the comfort of a friend/fan’s hospitality. Amanda Palmer STILL crashes with fans all over the world and she raised over a million bucks on Kickstarter!

Your fans are living vicariously through you. All of your successes are their successes. If you keep talking about all your music career failures, they’re not going to be so excited to be your fans as they already have enough failures going on in their own lives and don’t need any of yours.

Also, I made the mistake when I first moved to LA by telling everyone I met how tough it was to make ends meat in LA (vs. Minneapolis). I thought people would empathize and we would share in our collective misery. The thing I soon realized was that most people thrive on positivity and enthusiasm out here (not misery — go figure). I lost a few early connections because I revealed too much struggle and not enough inspiring drive.

Sure, misery loves company. But you know what also loves company? Awesome. Be awesome and you’ll attract awesome people.

STAY POSITIVE and keep the uplifting, exciting success stories (as seemingly small as they are to you) coming. That keeps people inspired. Talking about how you lost a gig, can’t pay for gas or food, and are thinking of quitting music because it’s too expensive is just a bummer. Don’t bum people out with your negative tweets, posts, or in person conversations. Leave that for your music.

Music career adviceSince quitting his day job at Starbucks in January 2008, Ari Herstand has played over 500 clubs, colleges and festivals in 40 states, opened for Ben Folds, Cake, Eric Hutchinson, Matt Nathanson, Joshua Radin, and Ron Pope, and had his music featured on popular TV shows like One Tree Hill and various Showtime and MTV shows. Ari relocated from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in the fall of 2010 to begin the next phase of his artistic journey. This year he landed two co-starring roles on 2 Broke Girls and TOUCH, as well as a lead role in feature film. Check out his independent music business advice blog, Ari’s Take.

Check out his independent music business advice blog Ari’s Take, follow Ari’s Take on Twitter, and on Facebook, and sign up for Ari’s Take newsletter.

Read More
Music Career Killers
My Job Is Better Than Yours — aka The Starving Artist’s Silver Lining
Are You a Beggar or a Rockstar?
10 Great Tips to Help You Fail as an Independent Artist

48 thoughts on “Telling People You’re Broke Won’t Help Your Music Career

  1. Greetings I am so glad I found your web site, I really
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  2. Bobby Borg Unsure what the point of the article really is? Is it — don’t whine and get busy moving your career forward to the next level and find a part-time job or other creative funding to survive? if so, I agree 100 percent. Or is the point — pretend to have money even when you don’t because the fans don’t know that your struggling? If so, I disagree. First, no one is going to be shocked when a young punk band pulls into a venue in a beat up station wagon (Marilyn Manson did in southern Florida when first starting out), no one is going to be shocked when they hear a young DIY band crashed at their fans’ houses while on tour instead of at the Four Seasons Hotels, and no one is going to be shocked when a young band gives away their CD for free but asks for a small donation to cover expenses. Fans appreciate authentic artists, not posers.

  3. I don’t necessarily agree. I don’t think artists should go out of their way to whine about the fact that they don’t have money and make fans feel obligated to donate to their cause, but I don’t think that they should pretend that they don’t have money and that everything is great either. They should be who they are — real — honest — and transparent, and bust their assess to make sure they get heard, seen, and eventually, if the deal is right, get signed.

  4. This article keeps coming back to my mind… so many things I read both in it and in the responses that don’t quite click right with me.

    Gays off to Chairman Ralph, I stand next to you.

    Forget the comment I made before about neediness, even though I stand behind it… in this comment it is the notion that today artists are in the business of giving away music in order to sell clothes that just puts a sardonic smile on my face.

    Doesn’t anyone here feel like we lost our minds in the desperate attempt to hold on? How about the notion that if we stood together the “standard” would be in our hands instead of corporations’? That’s idealistic, you may say, but open the history books and look up what happen to labor during the industrialization era in the twentieth century.

    At the end of the day you get what you deserve if you are not willing to stand up for your rights.

    Can we at least try not to be the promoters of our own overlords’ tyranny?

    With a lovely smile, truly yours,
    Thinking AVERAGE Joe

  5. I think FarePlay’s post has it nailed — the problem isn’t people airing their dirty laundry, as a mis-perception of what artists go through to earn a decent buck for what they do. Personally, as a punk-indie-DIY guy, I’d rather see the nitty-gritty put on the table, so we can lance the boil, and finally make some progress on the crap that musicians complain about. I, for one, have had enough of people dispensing mindless happy-talk. That’s not doing anyone a service.

    There’s a reason why “Mercury Poisoning” remains one of Graham Parker’s best-known songs — it’s certainly as relevant now, if not more, than when he first put it out back in ’78. I suspect it’s more likely to make the list of Top 10 GP songs than, say, his mid-’80s stab at grabbing the lowest common denominator dollar (“Wake Up Next To You”) — but I digress.

    Let’s try it from Column A: the p-word (piracy). I know lots of well-educated people who have no compunction about regularly downloading their music from all these “get-your-own-free” sites because they think that the folks involved aren’t working a day job, so therefore, they’re living large, so therefore, it must be OK, and there aren’t any implications…yes, it’s wrong, but that’s the mentality I’ve seen firsthand. How we can say that it’s not an issue?

    I’ve experienced this issue n a different realm. My book, UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE LIFE+TIMES OF DANNY GATTON, also seems to pop up on these pirate sites. One time, when I did some checking, I found that 1,000 copies had gone the way of the free download button. Even at a reduced price — since the book is now a decade old — you do the math at $8 or $10 per theoretical pop.

    On one hand, it’s a blip; I made more money off the advance, and selling copies on eBay, than I did from any of those sales. On the other hand, it still pisses me off, because somebody has taken it upon themselves to do something without even asking whether the talent in question thinks it’s OK. It’s not the technology that’s the issue; what’s more relevant here, whether it’s my example or anyone else’s, is that the relationship between artist/content provider and audience changed…but not necessarily to the former’s best advantage.

    There’s nothing wrong with fighting your corner, especially when it seems obvious who’s really working for your best interest, and who isn’t (notably, the tech companies, who — as Will Lowery has so eloquently stated — expect us to change our morality for them, not the way around). I, personally, don’t want to pretend that everything is OK, because it isn’t. Reminds me of another GP song that might work well here (“Passive Resistance”), but I’ll save that for the next post.

  6. I’ve always felt better about the artists who are voice their gratitude that their fans enable them to make a living doing what they love, than those who complain and beg. Complaining is unbecoming; plain and simple. What you can do, and what my personal strategy is, remind people to support local and show gratitude for their support. Remember, when people take time out of their lives to see you, they’re supporting you. Even if there’s no cover and they got in free, better to build a positive relationship than to leave a sour taste in their mouth.

    And it’s not about being transparent, necessariliy. Your relationship with your fans is like your relationship with anyone else. Would you meet a stranger and just complain about your life to get to know them? No, you would save that for only your closest friends. Maybe you do have a few fans that are that invested in your life, but have those discussions privately.

    I’ve been around some musicians who are more bitter than not. Maybe things they say to me are in private, but when they carry those attitudes to live shows, it’s just kinda miserable to watch.

  7. Hi – I’ve been a self employed musician since 1990. With that said, I think the music industry becomes more of a joke every year. There are so many “wanna-bes”, that everything from the amatuer bands trying to get gigs locally, to self tought musicians trying to teach, to smucks with just a little home recording gear running “studios”, etc, etc. The talent pool is so piss poor than ever before. That’s right, it’s not about talent at all. It’s about that social net working. So keep trying to post your web sites,etc on blogs and the like in the hopes people click on the links. Ah the digital age. People don’t care about quality (High end audio, CD packaging, great songwriting,etc). One would think with all the technology (24 bit audio & higher, high def video, big screen tvs,etc) that quailty would be embraced..but no…listen to the flotsam & jetsam of the talent pool on low end mp3 devices and the like where compressed audio and HD Video are viewed on small cell phone devices. Maybe people embrace this method to help disguise the piss poor musicianship and songwriting. Then again, the audiences don’t really know what is “good” anymore, so keep writing those sub-par songs with your limited musical abilities and maybe you’ll make some money. Till then, keep investing what little money you have into your web sites, hosting costs, Taxi services (and the like), hiring people to write your press kits,etc. The vast sea of the world wide web.

    1. Music is an ART FORM and I believe anyone who can pick up an instrument, tap a key or two, blow into a reed, make sounds in Garageband or bang a drum should digitally record THEIR creations and put them on THEIR YouTube/Facebook/smart phones . Why – the – hell – not!? So self-employed musicians like you don’t have to lament and be better assured of your future earnings?

  8. I really love this whole discussion. Ari is so right. I didn’t know any of this when I started out in business but did it right by accident and major success followed in years to come. I played in a band in the late 70’s right after high school… but quit when I couldn’t handle the starving artist routine. Went to school, started a business in 1983, and once again, almost starved to death as I’d invested everything I had and could borrow. Sheer embarrassment had me putting on a brave face and sharing the tiniest successes. I didn’t even tell my wife how close to bankrupt we came. I simply strove to give my customers the absolute best experience I could and EVENTUALLY success followed. I now employ 250 people and my business grosses about $25 million. My wife recently started a new career as a Stevie Nicks tribute artist… and is on a fast track to do the same. We are now playing in 5000 seat venues with a show with a major production that has everyone a buzz. We still don’t make clear a dime on this act… plowing every cent back into customer satisfaction… but boy, it’s a really fun ride along the way. See

  9. Ari, while I see some validity in your perspective, there is a much bigger, more serious problem. I agree that artists will not a get a positive result from complaining. But, there is a much larger, more insidious problem to be addressed and the challenge lies in how that discussion is framed.

    For over a decade, artists have struggled to find their voice and their power in a digital world that has tolerated online piracy and a tech industry that has shown little regard or compensation for artists and their work. For too long outsiders have been deciding the destiny of artists’ work for their own personal gain.

    I believe that when artists step forward and share personal stories about a digital revolution that has marginalized the value of their work and make it nearly impossible to earn a living, only then will the audience begin to understand the importance of their support. A reasonable request, given the inspiration and joy that artists bring to peoples lives and the hypocrisy of singling out artists as unworthy of our support.

    After all, artists are only asking the audience and technology to hold up their end of the bargain; give something back of equal value in exchange for an artist’s work.

    If artists pretend that everything is great, they will surely lose when this congress decides the fate of copyright.

    Will Buckley, Founder / President FarePlay

    1. Completely agree with this. No need to whine or go on about the details, but all artists need to be reinforcing the point that piracy is killing the careers of so many musicians, and that fan support is crucial to the continued production of quality music made with time, care, and effort.

    2. Piracy is not killing the indie musician. Or the superstar musician. Piracy is not nearly as much of an issue as it used to be (and I dont’ believe it ever was an issue really). Look at DMB. They embraced it and they are one of the few bands who can still sell out arena tours for over a decade. Artists who complain about piracy are the same ones who refuse to put their music on Spotify or YouTube.

      At the end of the day it comes down to quality and authenticity. If you are putting out quality content you can get fans to pay. Maybe not 1 for 1: download for dollar, but for your Kickstarter or your Tshirt or a ticket to your concert. We are never going back to getting people to pay albums. We need to EMBRACE the new model and continue to put out quality content.

      Don’t get me wrong, I just put $15,000 into my album. Would I like people to pay for it? Sure. But am I going to bitch and moan when they don’t? No. I will gladly allow it to be streamed, stolen, downloaded, shared, burned, whatever to hook a lifelong fan who will spend $100 a year on me in another way. A true fan. I’d rather have 10,000 people download my album “illegally” or stream it for pennies than 100 people pay me $10 for it and no one else hearing it.

      Complaining, or “educating” our fans, will do nothing. Maybe you can convince a few to download your album, but that is a band aid. We must evolve with the times. Streaming is where it’s at and where it’s going. No one will be downloading music in 10 years. Or maybe even 5 years. Just like no one is buying CDs anymore. Piracy is a non-issue.

  10. Great article! And so true for many fields!

    I’m a graphic designer. I’ve been one full time for over 20 years. I have also been teaching graphic design (print, web, animation and video) at the high school, college and corporate level for almost as long. One of the things I always tell my students is I don’t care if you are sleeping in your car and eating popcorn for your meals, you don’t let your clients know that. Impressions matter. People, whether they are fans or clients, want to know that you are successful because then they can see themselves being successful.

    I used to drive a really crappy car (now I drive a crappy minivan) and one of my clients asked me if I was spending all the money he paid me on drugs. Appearances matter! Now whenever I meet with a corporate client I take my wife’s car instead of mine.

    Appearances matter!

  11. I see a number of my musical peers airing their struggles online these days. Rock musicians complain about a lack of gigs, diminishing pay, “unintelligent” audiences, DJ’s, the “stupidity” of club owners, etc. Hip hop artists always seem to struggle with “haters” and “beef” and so forth.

    Their complaints seem childish, uninformed and quite frankly a little paranoid. I tend to begin to tune them out like fussy children and I also tend to discount them as potential collaborators as they don’t seem to “get it”.

    Widely available broadband internet and social media has govern everyone with basic access an outlet for their tiniest thought without any kind of filter- from the homeless to housewives to celebrities and everyone in between. Not every thought or opinion is interesting or relevant to a mass audience. Honestly the shallowness of celebrity worship has led to an industry based simply on what certain people wear to the gas station, what color their hair is today or what they typed into a 140-character tweet.

    Ooops- looks like the nature of celebrity worship completely discounts my personal onions and yours as well. So what is it that people *really* want? Hard work, ethics and positivity or Lindsey Lohan’s latest bowel movement?

    Shoot- who knows?

  12. Ari,

    This is a terrific post and you nail many things I have been focusing on for quite some time. Being positive is not just an attitude, it’s a way of life….especially when you are going through shitty times! Coming from a theatre background before I really dove into rock n roll, this is one of the first things you learn: “Forget who you are on stage and make the audience forget who they are, even for just a brief moment in time.”

    When fans come to our shows and tell me how stoked they were about a particular song or how the energy on the stage made them want to be a “better, more positive person” it is the reward that cannot be measured in dollars and cents…and people keep coming back and we keep meeting new fans at every show, no matter how big or small. Taking it one day at a time and celebrating victories in all sizes as they come has helped keep a level head in an ever competitive market.

    Never forget to enjoy yourself….it’s music, expression, and the ultimate creative release/connection with people.So enjoy it!

    Marty Rodriguez
    Corduroy jim

  13. Thank You,so much for the Positive Energy. Really makes since about what so call Artist post or commet on F/B. I really nevered would of thought on crashing out at a friends or even at a Fan’s house. That would really,show on how we as in musicians really appreciate are fans. Thank You so much for all the help & Knowledge you gave me. Agapito Tagle, G.O.L.D. Prod.

  14. This article may or may not be a good insight on how to lead your relationship with the public.

    There is a big issue that remains unresolved, though. People don’t know what is really going on for musicians and the advice to NOT make them know seems somehow self destructive. Whether or not they don’t want to hear the truth about this or that specific artist’s struggle, they are still music lovers and, perhaps, they would get involved differently if they really knew.

    My thought may or may not be on point, but I still think that musicians need to stop being so needy for approval. It used to be that musicians took the lead and the audience followed… now it looks like many are so needy that the balance has shifted.

    Just my personal opinion.

    1. Read just about all the comments, and this one stands out to me. Right on! Musicians use to be the leaders. Now were (not me) seeming to want to be validated every step of the way. That to me spells weak! Seems all the monies are being racked in by the distributers luring and claiming they can do this and that for you. Then you research independent sales, and it’s still weak after all these years. Perhaps i’m wrong, but, doesn’t it seem wiser to create your best, have fun doing it, putt it out, do it because you love it (: and not care whether someone buys it or not? Jusk asking. Don’t fans flop to artist with nice music and videos they only dream of getting next to and knowing? Not those jocking them for attention….I will make music and movies for the next ten years at least, and not care who embraces or buys it. Why? Because i love it! And i know i have the goods! If you don’t find me, you probably wasn’t meant to be blessed for what i bring. I don’t expect to flourish to greater heights in this develish controlled business, but i’ll do it because thats what i do, and do it better then most believe me!

  15. Ari, your article makes perfect sense. As a DIY musician though we adhere to the professionalism of our musicality while maintaining a humble and slightly modest approach. We rarely call on our fans for much help unless its to generate more exposure to a charity or humanitarian cause. This is where I agree.

    Many bands are creating campaigns via KickStarter and IndieGogo to help fund their project. While on one note this may be a ‘cry for help’ its also a representation of the band. You don’t want to sound pathetic but you do need some backers. To present the campaign as if you are achieving your goal anyways, whether you invest every dime you have or by work the night shift for the next 3 years… it shows the fans your devotion to your art. They will want to be a part of that, they will contribute to gain respect and to most cases be a part of the campaign by receiving a product. I see bands act like they are Rockstars already and for some it helps. My band personally is all about meeting awesome people and going as far as this group can go while getting our music out… and hopefully it touches someone and helps change their world.

    If you believe in that goal, then you have already succeeded… and the fans will see that and respect and back you.

  16. Yeah, I hear the “I’m a starving artist” whine quite a lot. The only thing that comes to mind is “get a fucking job then.” It’s not romantic, it makes you look like a pathetic, complaining ass who isn’t good enough at what he/she does to make any money at it.
    Shut up and play your guitar.

  17. I like to give followers the truth- such as the reasons that there are no 4 and 6 nighter gigs anymore. The reason the local nightclub used to pay bands $400 15 years ago and now pays $250. I also like to tell them how stoked I am about music synch licensing, which has more than made up for the lousy gig economy, at least for me. I do this full time and have for years, but I have had to make changes in response to the changed nature of the business. I still think that this is the best time ever to be a musician. My email list open rate is between 25% and 29%, so I must not be driving them away. But I am not going to pretend that it’s still 1985, we’re selling CDs, are going to go out and make money on tour, have signed to a label, and there is a solid band of 4 committed members.

    1. Great! Yeah, you don’t need to be fake, but just keep the positivity coming! Rave to your fans about your sync placements, but you definitely don’t need to tell them how you’re making half as much money at the gigs. They don’t need to hear that. That’s for us musicians to brainstorm about. Congrats on kicking it for so long Chuck! Keep kicking ass!

  18. Awesome and absolutely true. Would want ten more blogs, however, to deal with the “blow” comment. Speaking of needing to be together, non-pathetic and positive! Surely we don’t need to add to the lie that drugs are somehow part of “awesome”.

  19. How do feel about kick start then. I have had a lot of people say to me things like so and do must have fallen on hard times he’s asking for money.

  20. Totally agree with Bob on this!! Also tho, dont be afraid to make that next leap, because guess what?? You could very well succeed.

  21. So perpetuate the lie that music makes money is right in some way? Even if that is not what you are? Even if you’re poor? Marketing the “positive allure of a dream” is part of selling the music dream – and the ARTIST is supposed to do it?!?!?!? BULLSHEET! I’d rather speak the truth than shovel more onto the pile, anyday. AND I’m not starving BECAUSE of my day job!!! This is a GOOD thing!!!

    1. Lori, your fans will live vicariously through you. If you bitch about your day job it wont’ be fun to be your fan. They have day jobs that they bitch about. Yes, if you want to succeed with music you must sometimes front that you are better off than you currently are. Get people excited to be your fans. Invite them to be a part of the dream with you. Don’t bum them out. Or spread more negativity. They have enough of that already in their lives.

  22. Nice post, Ari. And Bob, I agree with most of what you say, but in this Twitter/Facebook/Blogger world I’m not so sure that it’s always the case that we should keep things private. I have found that connecting with fans on the internet is all about sharing the process. As Ari says, keep it positive, but sharing isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    I wrote about this a while back on my blog:

    Check it out and let me know what you think.


    1. Jason, transparency is definitely key, but knowing what to be transparent about and what to still keep private is the true craft in this new social media world. People gravitate towards those who are true and authentic. Just like you don’t share your shitty week with new acquaintances, don’t do that with your fans. Keep the positivity flowing. That inspires people.

  23. As with most other aspects of your life, your professional business career should be kept private except for the people who are directly involved. Always present a positive face to the public and even family and friends who are not directly involved in helping you achieve success. You do this by bearing in mind that any artistic endeavor whether it be music, art, writing, etc. requires years of striving to achieve any siginificant level of success. It’s a business…not a social function. In an ever-expanding world population the competition for attention for your work is more difficult than ever. Talent is a prerequisite, but from my experience, never a guarantee. Be realistic about your chosen field of endeavor. Study your industry completely from every angle, not just from the techical and artistic side, but business, marketing, publishing, legal, and demographically. Study the trends. And finally be responsible about your own financial well-being. Success in the arts is seldom ever a life-long matter. And staying on top if you ever do get there, is more difficult than actually getting there. Keeping this in mind don’t neglect your education and a practical approach to earning a living, even if it’s in the periphery of your industry. Many musicians teach, produce, engineer, sell and basically do anything that keeps them involved and close to the industry while still maintaining a steady long-term income. Even though it may not be glamorous, it could be the difference between success and failure. Opportunities will present themselves to those who are prepared to embrace them. ~Bob Buford, Producer, Summertown Studios.

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