Thumbnail from Tony van Veen's video about music career success

Tony’s Tips for Music Success and Longevity

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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

The music biz is a tough place to make a living. It’s a hard truth that I’ve addressed in various videos and blog posts. At the same time, my vantage point as the CEO of Disc Makers has revealed that having a long and productive career as a musician is an attainable goal. Thousands — tens of thousands — of music artists are able to make it work. But how, exactly? What do they do to achieve music career success?

Well, before we get into my tips for music success and longevity, let me begin by stating something that should be pretty obvious: There isn’t one single path to making a living in music. There are many paths that lead to success, and every artist’s journey is different.

It’s a long way to the top…

The list I’m going to give you is by no means the only way, nor is it exhaustive, but it does include common-sense advice, gained from my experience and the experience of others, that will greatly increase your odds of making a living from your music.

First, a couple of quick caveats. If you don’t, can’t, or won’t perform live, quite a bit of this advice won’t apply to you. If you want to make a living as a songwriter, but not a performer, much of this won’t apply to you. If you want to pursue a full-time career as a computer programmer and do music as a side gig, some of this won’t be relevant. That said, whatever your musical goals, most of these tips will help you get closer to reaching them.

If you are interested in building a successful artist career, this is 100 percent for you.

1. Treat music like a job

If you are serious about making it in the music biz — whatever “making it” means to you — then you have to spend the necessary hours on it. You have to make time for it, real time, after your day job. If you treat music like a hobby, it will always be one.

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2. Prepare to play the long game

For most artists, music success takes years and you’ll need a plan to make this journey financially sustainable. For this music thing to work for you, and for you to have a shot at music career success, you need to generate income to live — to survive and pay the bills — in addition to writing, recording, gigging/touring, and keeping your music career progressing on an upward trajectory.

Until that time when you can actually make a living from your music, that most probably involves a day job of some sort along with your musical activities.

3. Make financial investments in your music

When a new company launches, they typically invest lots of money upfront — renting space, hiring people, buying inventory, spending on ad campaigns — before they start seeing revenue and certainly before they start seeing profits.

It’s not too different with your music career. You need to invest in instruments, music and recording gear, manufacturing, merch, etc. before you see income. You’ll need funding to do that, hence, my previous point about having a plan and source of income to financially support your career early on. You just won’t make money on every album, every concert, every single thing you try. Initially, this will require more money going in than you’ll see coming out, and this phase could last for several years.

4. There’s a lot of competition for your fans’ attention

There are lots of songs by other artists being released every day, lots of other concerts for your fan base to go to, and lots of other ways people choose to entertain themselves. To rise above the noise and get noticed, your music can’t just be good. It can’t just be very good. It has to be great. Your live performances also have to be great. Which means you need to constantly improve your musical skills, musicianship, compositions, recordings, and performance chops.

5. Stand out from the crowd

Because of what I just said about all the competition, it really helps to find a way, or several ways — musically, visually, performance-wise — to stand out from the crowd and break through. Your amazing voice or guitar playing alone may not be enough to do that. If you’re a young, talented, good-looking pop singer, it’s really difficult to break through unless you have some angle that differentiates you.

6. Realize you are in business

Specifically, you are in the business of building a fanbase. In fact, you’re not just in business, you are the business! Just making great music is not enough. Like it or not, you’re going to have to do work you might not otherwise want to do — like being active on social media, learning marketing, and interacting with fans at concerts. Remember: if you’re going to make a living from your music, it’s your fans who are going to pay to make this possible.

7. Build your audience one fan at a time

Yes, we live in an age of social media, but fans have to be won over one by one with an interaction at the merch table, a comment on a social post, a smile and a wave from the stage. The occasional social post or new track on Spotify isn’t enough to build a loyal fanbase. It takes real work, over and over and over again. It certainly helps if you actually enjoy this part of it… and if you’re nice.

8. Everything starts locally

You need to support and respect your local music scene. Not only that, but since you’ll likely have to do multiple cycles of touring and come through the same city every year, local bookers, promotors, DJs, and other operators remain important to your success much longer than you think they are. When you start out, you have no option other than to start small and local, and do so proudly. Love your local fans and make them love you, starting in bars and clubs in and around town. Engage with them — in person, outside the venue, after your set — to build fans for life who will be invested in your success and who’ll spread the word about you to others.

9. Build a network

Networking has become almost a dirty word lately, but a network will really help move your career forward. Become friends and make connections in your local scene — with other artists, promotors, DJs, and the like. Then do the same in other towns where you perform. Get the contact info of the people you meet and reach out with a simple “thank you” or “it was great to meet you.” Over time, this is how introductions and referrals happen that can move your career along.

10. Be professional

Specifically, be on time (I can’t overstate how important this is), be polite, be easy to work with, and be nice. I don’t need to explain why, right?

11. Beware of difficult people

You should be a gem, but inevitably, some people will be jerks. If you have to deal with them, find a way to do it amicably. Don’t take things personally. From a personal perspective, you may not like them, but if you need to do business with them — now, or later — you’ve got to figure out how to work with them. Figure out what makes them tick, what they need, then — as best as possible — give that to them.

DM CatalogNot everyone you meet in life, and in business, is going to be nice. That doesn’t mean you can’t do business together. And remember, sometimes that rough exterior is just a front, and underneath that exterior is a solid, hardworking person who is under a lot of pressure to perform.

12. Release music regularly

In today’s crowded music space, fans — especially new or casual ones — will forget about you if you don’t release music regularly. Just dropping an album every year or two doesn’t cut it. You need to drop singles every four-to-six weeks, plus an EP or an album every year. Each release builds upon the previous one, gradually growing your streams and your fanbase.

13. Hit the road and perform extensively

If you’re not prepared to gig all the time, or if you don’t enjoy performing, then maybe a music career is not for you. It’s at your performances that your fans get to interact with you. Heck, in the early stages of your music career, it’s at performances, opening for larger bands, that potential fans can learn about you and become your fans.

You have to do this constantly. The goal is to keep at it and, every year, grow your base and play a bigger venue. That’s how you build a sustainable music career over time.

14. Make and sell awesome physical products

Fans love the connection they get with an artist from owning a piece of physical product — a CD or vinyl LP, a t-shirt or hoodie. Plus, selling merch is a critical part of your financial survival as an artist. You can’t make a living from streaming, so you need to sell stuff — merch, music, and concert tickets — to pay the bills. Ideally, your merch, CDs, shirts, etc. are so well-designed, creative, and cool that fans just have to have them once they see them.

15. Enjoy the ride

Don’t focus so much on your end goal that you ignore the journey. Making music, performing, meeting fans and people in the biz, playing bigger venues every year… they’re amazing experiences. Enjoy them! Have fun. Stop and pinch yourself every once in a while and remind yourself that you’re fortunate to be able to create and share your music. Whatever level you ultimately end up at with your music career, if you love what you’re doing, the journey will have been worth it.

Read Part 2: The Practical, Tactical Path to a Successful Music Career

Learn How to Make a Great Master

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Tony van Veen in the Disc Makers lobby

About Tony van Veen

Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.

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