What does ‘making it in music mean’ to you and to us?

We get daily emails from people that tell us they want to ‘make it’.

They fall into several categories.

The Musician Classes

Many people genuinely fall into a class I’ll call the ‘bewildered’. They may or may not have talent and they may be prepared to put in the years required to hone it and promote it. But, either because the landscape of the industry is so rapidly changing around them or because they somehow don’t feel they fit the modern music industry paradigm (genre, age, material all being cited), they simply don’t know how to go about realising their dreams.

The ‘bewildered’ might also fit into one of the other categories as well. If they’re just bewildered and have time on their side, they may be able to dig deep, develop their talent and learn to promote and market and thereby give themselves a chance to ‘make it’.

Then there are the ‘wannabes’ who really don’t care what music they should make, they just want to get famous and music is their chosen path. Most often they have no material for us to listen to and no online presence for us to check out. They think that because Rihanna has the world’s top songwriters and producers at her disposal, they can persuade a music industry ‘playa’ to do the same for them despite there being zero evidence that they have either the ‘chops’ or the work ethic required.

These people don’t generally stand a cat in hell’s chance.

The majority of the people that we get to hear from are the ‘aspiring musicians’ who, as above, may or may not have talent but they believe that they do and they are doing something about it. They’re writing and recording, getting out and playing gigs, building a website and learning how to promote themselves online.

They have a shot at making it.

And, rarely…very, very rarely, we’ll get an email from someone different – the Real Deal.

The Real Deal usually knows they have talent, but they don’t actually realise that they have enough to ‘make it’. It’s not that they are humble, but they are often clouded by self-doubt.

And here’s the rub (and a horrible shock for all the other aspiring musicians). It is often going to be the case that all the people that need to know about this Real Deal are going to know about him or her long before he or she has sent a single self-promotional tweet or Facebook post.

Talent will out.

A studio owner will hear it, or an A&R man will see it at a lowly pub gig or a manager wandering about YouTube will see a video. And, boom, buzz begins and the Real Deal gets snapped up by the mainstream industry and gets the old school ‘push’.

All our ‘how to’ advice was unnecessary and irrelevant for the Real Deal because they get their shot without doing any of it. And from that point on, they get a full team to help them with it or just do it for them.

Unfair, isn’t it?!

Nonetheless, the Real Deal may very possibly still not ‘make it’. Either in the sense of fame and fortune or, indeed, at all.

It still requires luck, immense hard work and extreme dedication to become globally successful even with everyone’s skill and finance backing you up.

But what is ‘making it’ anyway?

But, surely I’m taking ‘making it’ to be a narrow definition of mainstream commercial success with Gold records and all the trappings of fame?

Well, yes and no.

Unfortunately, I know it to be the case that the vast majority of those people that send us emails are STILL looking for that route.

And to us, ‘making it’ can be about that (and following the advice here will help you get there), but given the opportunities that exist for the aspiring musician, it shouldn’t be the only end goal.

‘Making it’ can mean many different things to different people.

A solid commitment to your art and a steady progression to perfect it over years whilst working out how to build a financial support structure from your art is a reality for more musicians now than it ever was before – and that should be the primary goal for most.

Once that is the route they’re taking it may lead to the global success and trappings, but, if it doesn’t, these musicians can still ‘make it’ and at least survive whilst doing so.

“Tear-Inducingly Talented”

Let’s take a step back.

I’d like you to read the comment by ‘Pazuzu’ on this Guardian post about why a British artist called Nerina Pallot still wanted a record deal with a major. She has had what the traditional music industry would see as a modicum of success but not a stellar career – she’s known, but not a household name.

I noted this article and comment when it was written nearly two years ago and keep coming back to it because of the way that commenter defines what it means to ‘make it’.

I’m not that interested in the article itself. I met Nerina a few times many years ago when she played keys in a band called, if I recall, ‘Thumb’. Very nice she was too and clearly talented. If she felt the need for a major deal on the basis of what she says in the article then it’s a perfectly acceptable choice. I don’t think, as it turned out, that it worked out that well!

But, it’s what the commenter, Pazuzu, says that works for me.

I can’t figure out if you want to make music or make sales. In these times, people seem to confuse the two, as though commercial success is any marker of artistic worth. If people want to be artists of any kind they should be prepared to toil in obscurity. It’s one of those unpleasant truths life throws at us. All of us have seen tear-inducingly talented people performing in obscurity and going nowhere commercially, while mediocrity is lavished at every turn with riches, privilege, and praise. And yet artists flock to major record labels to seek validation through commerce. No artist should ever feel entitled to make a living, much less a fortune, from their art. That is a courtier’s mentality. If they do happen to “make it,” good for them, but let’s not confuse the two distinct and incommensurable things that are artistic worth and commercial value.

The music landscape created by the current recording industry, indies included, is an anomaly in the vast history of music. Because of the myopia of being stuck in the present, it’s easy to see such human structures as being preordained, necessary, and dictated by logic, rather than as a vast and arbitrary alchemical racket for turning shit into gold. Music, like all art, is a calling, not a career. The world is such a crowded swimming pool now compared to the past that seemingly almost everyone who wants to become a brand has a diversified portfolio of art-flavored endeavors, usually music, acting, and fashion. That’s all well and nice, but unfortunately the world is currently glutted with people’s dreams, and most of them are shit.

Ask yourself honestly how good your material is against the backdrop of millennia. Are you really able to compete in that realm, or do you just want the privileged lifestyle that modern pop stars feel should go along with their career choice in return for stoking the engine of our sputtering culture industry?

That’s a pretty wordy but impressive critique of the same people who email us that I detailed at the start of this post. And, I agree with all of it except for one critical point which we’ll come to at the end!

‘Making It’ = different strokes for different folks

When I started this site, I thought that to ‘make it in music’ was to become a lauded, respected, volume-selling mainstream success – the globally successful Real Deal that I’ve discussed above. That’s where my experience was at the time and it’s what I thought all artists wanted.

As I’ve written more and become more involved in the DIY musician world and  ‘direct to fan’ models, I realise that there are myriad ways for musicians to ‘make it’ – be that playing the music you love regardless of whether you find an audience, doing it yourself but looking for a fanbase that can financially sustain your lifestyle (whether that is modest or fantastical), or indeed the pursuit of Lady GaGa-scale fame, plus a whole other load of perfectly sensible models to fit individual desires and definitions of success.

This site now bears that in mind and the advice on ‘how to make it’ is defined by our belief that you can write, record and perform music completely outside of mainstream success and yet be able to make a sustainable living as an artist. Not all our readers are looking to do any more than that.

However, whatever it is you hope to achieve, you should always focus on your art and the skills you have so that the expression of your art can be as complete as possible. Then you’ll have given yourself the tools you need to be able to make it to whatever goal you have.

Practice, effort, improvement and humility will all make your art better and therefore improve your chances.

And, as you improve, everything that we teach here should help in the promotion of that art in the most effective way that the music industry and the wider modern world allows. Whether you choose to promote or not is up to you.

But, if you do, the tools and learning the methods and using our knowledge will help.

The Shocking Truth about ‘making it’

Here’s the crux:

In his comment, Pazuzu says:

If people want to be artists of any kind they should be prepared to toil in obscurity. It’s one of those unpleasant truths life throws at us. All of us have seen tear-inducingly talented people performing in obscurity and going nowhere commercially

Although I love his view of what it is to be an artist and am inspired by how he talks about what it means to ‘make it’, this is the critical point of difference that I referred to earlier and on which we disagree!

I think we are in a golden age for music where those that meet that talent and effort level will only fail to find success (at some level) if they don’t use the tools at their disposal, or if they choose not to.

I believe that the DIY musicians who use the direct to fan model and promote and market themselves properly online can now build a career that is financially sustainable

Many of ‘the bewildered’ won’t heed advice and therefore won’t take the right action. Most of the ‘wannabes’ won’t do anything whilst they wait for some third party (a ‘svengali’) to give them a leg up. It won’t happen. But, the aspiring musicians who consistently work at their talent and art and also learn how to use the possibility of the web and mobile to reach an audience have a real chance at building a level of success.

If they do become ‘good enough’, this is where the old world music business dies and the new digital long-tail one triumphs for the DIY musician. If you’re born lucky enough or work hard enough to become the ‘tear-inducingly-talented’ and you use the now available ways to market and promote the output of that talent, you will, as never before, ‘make it’ to a level that rewards and supports you.

And, you might then go on to global success (which might or might not involve a deal with a major label). But I also believe that talent and persistent pursuit of artistic improvement is the starting point for those DIY musicians. The promotion and marketing is secondary and comes only when the material is right.

Don’t give up on the major label deal if it’s what you desire, but don’t see it as the be all and end all. Make yourself great and work to build a fanbase using what the ‘DIY musician’ industry that is beginning to appear wants to teach you. Quite how far that might take you, who knows, but it’s better than blindly hoping that you might be good enough for fifteen seconds of fame from a TV talent show or thanks to the chance meeting and fleeting support of a svengali.

And it means that you can have a real career whether or not that fabled record deal ever does come your way!

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