For all the creativity needed to sustain a career in music, having a business plan is one way to stay grounded, define your goals, and keep you reaching for the stars.
Artists of all stripes grapple with the struggle of art versus commerce. We need time to make music and concoct our visions, but we also need to eat, pay the rent, and have clothes to wear. Musicians who become famous when they are young often have to learn business acumen and skills as they go along, usually learning the price of ignorance by being ripped off.
For those of us on ground level, having a plan can mean the difference between being able to make a living as a musician and being a weekend warrior with a day job for eternity. Here are a few suggestions on how to make a business plan as a musician. The most important suggestion: take it one step at a time! This kind of work can be overwhelming for creatives. I left my last day job by working on a business plan 15 minutes a day at lunch for a year. Slow and steady wins the race!
How to start
There’s a ton of resources online — including articles, courses, and software you can purchase — to help write a business plan. But where to begin? A good place to start is to define what a business plan is and why you might need one.
A business plan is an outline of your goals, the practical methods you will take to achieve them, and the resources that you have and will need. The plan will help you take your goals from disembodied ideas to concrete actions.
There’s a number of reasons to have a business plan, not the least of which is the basic idea that planning always helps. When you go to the grocery store, you go with a list. When you head on a cross-country drive from New York to California, you plan your route. Having a business plan will give you clarity, focus, and a sense of forward motion in your music career by identifying realistic, achievable, and action-based short-term goals.
It’s also worth noting that you will absolutely need a business plan if you seek to attract investors or loans. It can also help to show potential managers, booking agents, and record labels that you are serious about what you’re doing. There is value in making long-term (10 year), medium-term (five year), and short-term (one year) business plans. You might also want to make a business plan for a specific project/album to have structure for the process from recording to releasing to marketing.
Writing a business plan requires research. You’ll need to understand your audience, your market, and where/how you will find resources and people to join your professional team. If you’re writing the plan for yourself, this step is still important to provide guidance and clarity. If you are writing a business plan to attract investment, a thorough understanding of your field and your plan is crucial.
First, you need to clarify your vision and craft a mission statement. Who are you, what do you want to do, and why? These are weighty questions and worth pondering in depth: the clearer you are about who you are as an artist, the easier it will be to explain what you do to others and sell your project/products. The mission statement doesn’t have to be long, just a short paragraph describing who you are as an artist and what you are trying to achieve.
The meat of the plan
There is no set business model for a career in music, but there are some essential components to any business plan, and no matter what your objectives or what kind of outline you use, it’s a good idea have the following categories included.
Executive summary. You should actually write this after you’ve finished the entire plan. This is a one page summary of your business plan that includes an introduction, a description of your project/goals, an account of the funding you have and/or are seeking, and a synopsis of your plans for implementation. This will be the first thing prospective investors read, so it’s important to make it thorough and compelling.
Analysis of your audience. It’s a bad idea to try to appeal to everyone. To define your demographic, start by understanding who comes to your shows. What is the gender breakdown, age, and geographical location of your fans generally? What other artists do they listen to? How do they purchase music? What other events do they attend? Where do they shop and could you work with those retail outlets on cross-promotion?
SWOT analysis. This is a standard part of any business plan in any field. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The first two categories, Strengths and Weaknesses, are internal to your music and music business: they are things you can control. For example, the people on your creative/business teams, musical skills and abilities, your location.
The second two categories, Opportunities and Threats, are external, based on what happens in the larger market. You can take advantage of opportunities and protect against threats, but you can’t change them. Examples would include recordings and success of your competitors, prices of gear and equipment, and technology shifts (streaming vs physical product). Most SWOT analysis templates would have you list at least three items per category. Once completed, this will provide new perspectives on ways you can leverage what you already possess to take advantage of opportunities and protect yourself from marketplace threats.
Marketing plan. Creating a comprehensive marketing plan is a separate exercise requiring as much research and detail as a full business plan itself! For the purposes of the business plan, though, you will at least need to demonstrate awareness of your market and have an idea of some solid steps you are going to take to generate revenue and get your products and services into the marketplace.
What kinds of promotion will you do? What will it cost? What kind of return do you expect to achieve on your marketing investment? How will you track your progress? All these questions should have answers within your business plan. The music business specifics you’ll want to address in this section are your web page, your social media plans, touring, radio promotion, press kit, what merchandise you’ll sell, what your logo will look like, etc. Get as detailed as possible; your plans may change once you begin to execute, but if you have a blueprint, your chances of success will be much higher.
Financials. There should be detailed financial breakdowns of your estimated income and expenses. It’s not important that you have a lot of money to start with; you need to show how judiciously you would use investment funds and what kind of return you would expect you and your investors to get. If you’re doing a recording project, you should have a clear breakdown of all the costs involved in the recording, mixing, mastering, and replication processes. This section will likely require significant research. Include a category for legal expenses, as it’s vital to copyright your songs and trademark your logo. The better your estimates are of income and expenses, the easier following your plan will be, so be thorough!
Metrics. You are going to need to demonstrate to investors (and yourself) how you will measure your progress. Will you have weekly or monthly check-ins with your business team for accountability? Social media accounts and websites have multiple analytical tools to measure page hits, likes, demographic info of your fans, and where your page/account can improve. If you choose to advertise on Facebook or Google, there are tools to track the progress of those as well. Use them. Set yourself a very specific timetable and make yourself accountable to someone else, even if you are not seeking investors and just doing this for yourself.
A word about income
In any creative business plan, you should have multiple revenue streams. Business coach Gary Ryan Blair suggests that anybody in business for themselves should have at least 10 revenue streams at all times. This ensures that if one stream dries up, another can cover the gap until you rebuild it. In writing your business plan, you’ll examine your skills and abilities (SWOT analysis) and figure out where those revenue streams could come from.
In looking for those 10 revenue streams, keep the definition of what you do broad. One of my heroes and good friends, the artist Rex Ray, was an artist, a teacher, a graphic designer, and designer of housewares (wallpaper, rugs, furniture). He straddled the line between art and commerce better than anyone I know. He designed album covers, book covers, rock posters, and also made high art that hangs in museums. He followed his interests and saw how he could contribute and also survive as an artist.
There are multiple options out there for a business plan framework. Business Plan Pro is an excellent piece of software, and there are books available, including Business Plans For Dummies which also offers a kit you can purchase with templates to craft plans. Find something that works within your budget. The format you use is irrelevant as long as it is comprehensive and detailed.
As Casey Kasem, the great DJ who hosted American Top 40 for many years, would say: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Dream big, but think practically and build a business plan. Break down your goals into smaller, more achievable goals. Become clear on what the costs will be. You’ll find that the very act of creating a business plan will set things in motion and center you in a place of clarity. This opens the door for synchronicity and fate to intervene. But it all starts with formulating and having a plan.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.
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