Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
“The music industry” is a broad, amorphous term. It encompasses some of the world’s largest multinational corporations (three of them, to be precise) and their massive, globetrotting flagship artists. It also includes the homegrown record label your friend uses to release his music. And don’t forget the cover bands and music groups who play at your local pub.
Anyone wondering how to make money with music on any level is considering how to get into the music industry. It’s important to have a clear definition of what you consider “success” to be, keeping in mind that 98 percent of people don’t hit the fame-and-fortune lottery to have a successful music career. But with perseverance, willingness to learn/grow, attention to detail, and devotion to your craft, you can achieve the goal of having a long-lasting career in the music industry.
Qualities of successful musicians
Maybe your goal is music performance. You grew up admiring specific artists and thought, “I want to do that!” Depending on what kind of music you want to perform, you’ll have to first focus on honing your craft before going on a music performance. That can mean different things depending on what style of music you want to do.
For a singing pop/R&B artist, you’ll need to include dance training and physical fitness into your regimen. For an instrumentalist or musician who wants to work for a recording studio as a session/side player, you’ll need to learn your instrument thoroughly and become proficient in different musical genres. Any artist looking to make live performance a substantial part of their income will need to learn about visual presentation; live music coaches like Tom Jackson can assist in teaching the fundamentals of performing onstage.
How to get into the music industry
Perhaps your goals are less about performing and more about being behind-the-scenes. Anyone looking to get into the business side of the music industry will also need to define what their goals are.
Applying for internships/jobs
Potential artist managers/booking agents would be able to learn their trade by interning or working for an established manager or agency. If your goal is to be a mogul at one of the Big 3 companies, starting from the bottom rung (the clichéd mailroom job) is a great way to get a foot in the door. Those interested in the technical side of production — such as lights, sound, and/or stagehand and roadie work — could benefit from formal education in their field at a college/university and then joining their local IATSE union.
You can, of course, not do any of these things and try to forge your own path, but the chances of being struck by lightning and becoming the next Mal Evans (Beatles roadie) are very slim indeed. When applying for any internship or job in the music industry, the same rules apply as in other careers: be persistent, be polite, and always put your best foot forward. Have a well-prepared cover letter suited to the position for which you’re applying and a concise, well-presented résumé.
Performing at local shows
If you want to learn how to get into the music industry as a live performer, you’ll have to hone your skills so you’re comfortable playing/performing for other people. Once you are there, you’ll want to find any and all live performance opportunities to get in front of actual people who respond to what you do. Not all live performance opportunities are created equal.
If your goal is to be a performer who attracts an audience, you’ll want to find local opportunities to perform where people are coming to see YOU. You’ll want to get in front of attentive listening audiences who are not focused on the television, their phone, or there to drink and talk with their friends. You might have to create these opportunities yourself by renting a local hall, charging admission, and serving refreshments.
If your goal is to just get used to playing in front of people and possibly be a cover act or make background music as a career, then you will want to seek any and all opportunities to play where there are people, listening or not. The good news is restaurants and bars will often pay their cover performers.
How to generate awareness
Once you’ve got an act, you’ve got to get people to take notice.
Passing out your CDs
An album on CD is a great way to get your music in the hands of people who want it. Even if they rip it immediately to their computer or if it includes a download card to save them that extra step, it’s still worth manufacturing professional CDs with artwork that reminds people who you are in a visceral, physical, visual way. Sell CDs for a reasonable price to fans/friends and hand them out for free to other music industry people like you would a business card.
Create an online presence
If you want to connect with an audience, it is crucial to have a coordinated social media presence and electronic press kit. Work with either a professional who knows the music business or someone with social media branding experience. Your social media accounts for your music business should be coordinated with a similar look and vibe, with only minor variations in posting between platforms.
Music release listening parties
If you’re figuring out how to get into the music industry as a recording artist, you’ll need to have a release (a single or album), and one way to promote your music is to have a music release listening party. These can be a great way to focus your audience and build enthusiasm for your releases without having to expend the energy and expenses of a traditional release.
What can I expect in the industry?
For folks looking in from the outside, the music industry might seem like some sort of fantasy land. While dreams do sometimes come true, it’s a business environment, like any other, and many of the same rules apply.
Importance of making connections
As the old adage goes: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The connections you make along the way are crucial to your music career. You’ll never know which connections turn out to be the ones that help your career path.
One person you think might be an important business contact could turn out to be a supportive friend who comes to your gig and gives you pep talks. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a music producer or artist management contact through a friend your mother plays pickleball with. Go to open mikes, go to networking events for industry professionals… go out and meet people.
Isaac Asimov said, “Education isn’t something you can finish.” This is especially true when it comes to the music business on any level. For performers, it’s especially important to keep developing your craft and not lose faith in the tough times.
Bruce Springsteen delivered one of the most inspired performances of his career to 10 people. Charlie Parker played one of the greatest gigs of his life on a saxophone held together with chewing gum and Scotch tape.
The technical side of the music industry is always in flux; it’s vital to keep informed on the latest advances in recording technology, music promotion, disc duplication, and how streaming and social algorithms work. An open mind, curiosity, and enthusiasm will serve you well in all areas when figuring out how to get into the music industry and have a successful music career.
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.