young musician playing a guitar in a home studio

The Practical, Tactical Path to a Successful Music Career

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

In “Tony’s Tips for Music Success and Longevity,” I outlined 15 of the 30 tips from my video (see below). In this post, we’re going to cover the other 15 tips to help you build the foundation for a sustainable, successful career in music.

But first, it’s important to remember this truth: You’re pursuing a career in the music biz because you love making music and you love how making music makes you feel. Sometimes, while we’re in the grind, we lose sight of that — we may even forget that we are supposed to love doing this — and that’s a terrible thing. As musicians, we are so fortunate to make music and use our creativity to express ourselves. Most of the world, the non-musicians, have no idea how that feels. But you do, and that’s a reward in itself.

So that’s the romantic, emotional side of the music biz. But you also can’t lose sight of the practical, logistical, tactical steps involved with reaching your idea of music success. Here are another 15 things to consider as you make your way to a successful music career

1. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse (more than you think is necessary)

You’re not rehearsing enough (no matter how much you do rehearse) and you’re actually not as good as people say you are. Sounds harsh, but let’s be honest, the people around you — your crew, your fans, your family — they won’t tell you the hard truth, they’ll just tell you they love you.

And in fact, they may love your music, but that doesn’t mean it’s good enough for you to live off it. Look, baseball slugger Mike Trout knows how to hit a baseball. But he’s still in the batting cage every day taking batting practice. Why? To keep getting better, no matter how good he is. To keep upping his performance. You need to do the same. Practice like crazy, and whatever level you’re at, work on getting better.

2. Make your concerts a visual experience

Concerts are not just for the ears. If you get onstage knowing how to play your songs really well, that’s great, but it’s not enough. Music fans are not there to hear your music — they can do that on Spotify. No, your fans are there to see — to experience — a show that will inspire them. You have to plan and rehearse your whole live set over and over again to deliver that show. Practice how to engage with the audience — during and between songs. Practice your stage banter. Rehearse the interplay with your fellow band members.

Your goal at every gig should be to blow the headliners away. And when you are the headliner, you should want to blow your fans’ minds. And here are two quick tips: If you’re an up-and-coming act, the audience probably won’t know you. So when you’re on stage, tell them your band’s name! Do that a few times during your set. And remind them to buy your merch at the merch table. You sell a few CDs, it’s gas money for the van.

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3. Build a funnel

Remember, part one of this game is about creating awareness and getting people to notice you. Then, it’s about getting them to remember you. And finally, it’s about getting them to give you money. That may sound crass, but if you aspire to make a living off your music, you’re gonna have to get paid at some point. And you need a funnel to do this.

Awareness creation starts with songs on streaming platforms and videos on YouTube, and, of course, with performing and opening up for other artists. Next, you want people to subscribe to your YouTube channel and follow you on Spotify. You want to get them to your social media profiles and follow you there — on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc. And ultimately, you want to get them onto your email list.

Yes, old-fashioned email.

Email is a great tool to retain mindshare with your fans and it’s the single best tool to monetize your music. When you have a new CD or vinyl LP, single, or merch, email will drive dollars. One of the things I tell artists is, “Social for show, email for dough.” And, to make music your livelihood, you’ve got to generate enough income from your music to live off.

4. Track metrics

As you are doing your funnel building and your career building, you need to track the metrics. How many followers do you have? How many subscribers? Streams? Views? Merch sales at gigs? Ticket sales? And how are they progressing — are they growing? At what rate?

Did you do an email campaign? What was your open rate? Click-through rate? Hey… this is a business. You are the business. You need to deal with numbers and make decisions based on results.

5. Experiment

Change things up. Get creative and see what works best. Try different price points at which to sell CDs at shows and see what works. And, per my previous point, measure the results. Try a “name your own price” program for your CDs. Try different subject lines for your emails and see which get higher open rates. Try performing a cover song live and gauge the audience’s response.

Maximizing your performance — and your results — comes from trying new things. Marketers do this all the time. They call it “testing.” You should do this too! And, you can have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to try some of your weirder ideas. Who knows, they may work!

6. Celebrate wins

Take time to enjoy that sold-out show. Take a selfie from the stage with the audience in the background. When you hit that next milestone, take a minute to relish the feeling of getting that win.

7. Learn from failures

Success in the music business is frequently two steps forward, one step back. You’re going to run into headwinds. Just like you have to celebrate the wins, you have to learn from your failures!

You will play to the occasional empty venue. You will make mistakes. That’s OK. You’re in it for the long haul. When you get knocked down, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, take a deep breath, figure out what went wrong… and take the next step forward. And, of course, don’t make the same mistake twice!

8. Be open to advice and feedback

Over time, you’ll get lots of feedback and advice — from booking agents, DJs, A&R reps… from fans… from your mom. Be open to the feedback. Take constructive feedback to heart. But figure out what advice and feedback to ignore. You need to know what you are about, have your true north, and do things you want to do in the way that is right for you.

If you get a poor review from Pitchfork, first, look for legit opportunities for improvement, then ignore the criticism and keep doing what you’re doing. You need thick skin in this business. It’s hard when your creations, your songs, get trashed by others. Which means you need to keep striving to do better, but get comfortable tuning out the negativity and advice that’s not right for you.

9. Don’t tolerate toxic bandmates

15 Music Promotions guideHere’s a biggie that many artists are afraid to deal with, and this goes for anyone who is on your team. It’s hard enough trying to make it in the biz when everyone’s getting along. Climbing this ladder takes all the energy you’ve got and you don’t need anyone draining that energy with their negativity — especially not someone in the band.

Look, you’re still early in your career. Believe me, your talented singer or guitarist isn’t talented enough for you to tolerate their poison. You can afford to replace them and you’ll be just fine. Trust me on this. I’ve seen it time and time again, in music and in business. Plus, you’ll feel so much better once you replace that toxic part of your team.

10. Do most of it yourself — particularly early on

Recording, releasing, promoting, booking, driving the van… you’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes. Remember, no one’s got more at stake in this whole thing than you. You know your goals, you know your direction, and you don’t want to delegate that too soon. You don’t want to give up control too soon. Plus, you need to keep your costs low.

This will take a lot of work from you and your bandmates. You don’t want to sign with management too early. But… you do need someone trustworthy to manage your merch booth. And if there is one outside expert you’ll need, it’s a lawyer, because trust me, you don’t want to try to interpret contracts all by yourself.

11. Success is never guaranteed

No one owes you anything. Someone else who started around the same time as you may be way ahead of you. Maybe they are more talented. Or have a more unique angle. Or work harder. Or are nicer. Or are more punctual. Or are just plain luckier than you.

Of all the artists who make music, very few reach the top of the charts. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure if you don’t make it. There’s only one number one… but it is another reason to make sure you enjoy the journey while you’re on it.

12. You get to define what success is

No one else can tell you what your goals are or what you should achieve. Yes, by all means, get inspired by others. But there’s no one definition of success. For some, it may be playing arena shows; for others, it may be playing in a wedding band on weekends and working on originals during the week. There’s no right or wrong to your goals.

Stretch goals are important to motivate you, but make them attainable. It’s important to be realistic with your goals. If you play some obscure niche music genre, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be packing large venues. If you set yourself lofty, unattainable goals, it’s easy to get discouraged and drop out because you see yourself as a failure… even though, within your genre, you might be doing great!

13. Don’t give up too soon

I’ve seen it on multiple occasions where an artist throws in the towel and calls it quits just as they are starting to get liftoff. This is why it’s important to watch the metrics. Yes, the grind in the music biz is real. It’s non-stop. It’s tiring. But if you’re seeing growth — in subscribers, streams, followers, concert attendance — keep going… You never know where it’ll lead.

14. Ask for what you want

This is an important piece of advice not just in music, but in life. If you want your fans to buy your merch, ask them — via email and when you’re on stage. If you’d like to co-write with another songwriter you respect, ask them. If you want something from your bandmates, or a producer, or a booking agent… ask.

Be polite, of course. Always. But ask. People can’t read your mind! If you ask for what you want, you will end up getting it much more often than if you don’t. Here’s a fact about negotiating (and in music, almost everything is negotiable): people leave opportunities on the table because they just don’t ask for enough.

15. Be true to yourself

If you want to last in music, you have to make the kind of music you feel. It doesn’t matter what the genre is — reggaeton or free jazz, grindcore or R&B. The music’s got to be you, and you’ve got to be the music.

If you go chasing commercial trends hoping for success and trying to play stuff that’s not really you, there’s a small chance it could work financially, but how long would you be able to sustain that? How fulfilled would you be creating and playing music that’s not really what you are? And, let’s be honest, would you even be able to create the BEST music you possibly could if you’re just chasing financial goals?

No… If you want to do music for the long haul, you’ve got to be true to yourself and play what you want, what you feel.

Read Part 1: Tony’s Tips for Music Success and Longevity

The 90-Day Album Release Planner

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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