So You Wanna Be a Star?
Breaking down the music business and putting success in to context
The sum of all my experiences has led me to the conclusion that there are 4 levels in the music business: 1. Unknown. 2. The level below famous. 3. Famous. 4. Mega famous, but let’s leave Justin Bieber out of this article. Level 2 is the place where you can just about earn a living from music, but you’ve yet to play on a stage much bigger than a postage stamp. Truckfighters would be a good example of a Level 2 band. See what I mean? You’ve probably never heard of them, but they have more than 117,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and they make a living from music sales and gigging (pre Covid).
Moving from Level 1 to Level 2 is actually the hardest. In order to do so you need to understand why it’s called the Music Business.
The Music part is the fun bit. It’s you sitting in the bedroom writing songs, it’s you rehearsing with your mates and laying down tracks in the studio. It’s you on stage belting out your fond creations to an adoring audience. Then, there’s the Business part.
The Business part is the hard slog that an unknown (Level 1) DIY band has to go through to get noticed. The business part is the grim task of getting media attention and arranging live performances. It’s the difficult discussions about money and how to finance your passion.
The truth is very few bands earn enough money to fund a decent standard of living over a prolonged period of time. Sure, there’s the one hit wonders and the ’15 minutes of fame’ reality show winners. They make good money for a while, but it’s rarely sustained.
In 2014 Priceonomics, a company that specializes in turning data into stories, leaked a worldwide list of bands who made more than $100,000 per gig. The list ran to 160 acts, with less than 10 commanding a fee of $1m a gig. Let’s just put that into perspective for a second. Think of all the bands in the world; from the amateur, to the semi-professional, to the full-time professional. Less than 200 of them were ‘Level 4 – mega famous’. And, to put that into context, the Wall Street Journal reported the same year that more than 400,000 business people in the USA were making at least $1m a year!
In short, the music industry is a lousy way to make money – at least if you’re an artist. However, there are some things you can do right from the get-go to increase your chances of success.
Firstly, you have to be prepared to slog your guts out to gain attention and get gigs. It all starts with content. The music industry is obsessed with it. So, you need to record your songs and then get your mate who’s studying at the local Art College to make some videos.
The videos don’t have to be anything fancy. Enter Shikari leapt to fame following the release of their video for ‘Sorry You’re Not A Winner’. It was filmed in the living room of the bass player’s parents’ home. The song subsequently appeared on the band’s debut album, which sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide.
The next step is to put a press pack together. This should consist of a one-page band biography and news about your new recording. You should also include photos, copies of any reviews you already have, all your contact details, social media links and music/video links. Setting up your own YouTube channel allows you to consolidate your videos in one place, making it easier for the media and promoters alike.
Next, send your press pack to anybody and everybody in the world of news. Start with your local news outlets, as they are more likely to give you some publicity. Your main goal at this point is to get some positive reviews. Reviews and recommendations are the two most powerful ways to get small venues and promoters to give you a gig (post Covid).
Armed with your press pack, and hopefully some reviews, you’ll then need to start contacting venues and promoters and arrange as many gigs as possible. This can involve hours of research on the internet, or a small investment in an online listing such as the ‘Unsigned Guide’. After that, you just have to hit the phones. Like a cold calling tele-seller you need to ring them up and give a short intro: “We’re a punk band putting together a UK tour in support of our debut single, which is receiving great reviews.”
Some small independent venues will book you direct; others will have outsourced booking to a promoter. Some won’t pay you, and some won’t even let you pass around the hat for tips at the end of the night. That can make it expensive, especially if you’ve had to hire a PA system as well as pay for petrol.
One way to manage the cost is to get together with a couple of other bands to form a multi act evening. Three act nights were all the rage pre Covid, and it’s a great way of spreading the cost.
It can be sole destroying ringing venue after venue to get a gig, but there really is no short cut. However, once you’ve got a few gigs under your belt and established your credibility on-stage you will gain the trust of the venue/promoter. At that point you can ask about the opportunity to do a residency. This is where you are booked to play the same venue on a regular basis and can begin to build up something of a following. People will get to know you, and you can begin to build a fan base.
Building a following through a residency really does work. Ask Gary Barlow of ‘Take That’. Barlow first performed at the Connah’s Quay Labour Club in the late 1980s, which then developed into a Saturday night residency paying £18 per performance. Not Level 4 money, but it helped Barlow hone his songwriting skills, develop his stagecraft and build his confidence.
There are a number of venues in Leeds that had residencies pre Covid. For example, the Grove pub and the Duck and Drake. Andy Yuill, who oversees both venues as well as the Blues Bar in Harrogate, told me: “We have a number of popular acts that play on a set night each week or month. One of the acts started playing for us at the Duck and Drake on a Saturday afternoon and became so popular we struggle to get him back on a regular basis now.”
In these times, when music venues remain closed to everyone except the sewer rats (and I’m not talking about the German punk band) live streaming is a great alternative. Broadcast channels such as YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Crowdcast, Twitch, Periscope and StageIt are just a few options open to you.
So, what are you waiting for? Hit the (Home) studio, prepare the press pack and bump, grind and stream – all the way to the top baby!
(May 2017, edited January 2021)