Reflections from Youbloom : Part II : How To Succeed in Music

Yesterday I reflected on some of my impressions of the Youbloom conference with the observation that emerging artists are just like startups. I've worked almost exclusively with startups my entire career, so I thought I'd impart some "wisdom" on how those same experiences directly apply to artists who are trying to succeed. Here's 10 Tips.

1. Reset Your Expectations

While we're being a bit coy regarding what we are doing at REBOOT, I can say that the core focus is helping people build a business around their art. It doesn't really matter what type of media this is, but we do try to focus on something or someone with a music connection. We are re-imagining what management, PR, marketing, A&R, and being signed to a label means in this age. From my own perspective, I had a long tech career with no experience in the music business until I went to work for the Discovery Channel. I was naive enough to think I could as easily build a music site, as I would launch any other site. It was an exercise of herding cats, if those cats had gone to law school. From Rupert Hine's side, he's had the long view of watching the industry change, yet not being satisfied with business as usual or standing still.  

If you are holding on to some remnant of what "being signed" means or that you've made some level of success and from now on it's easy street, you need to wake up. There are many artists out there who are doing very well with no label support at all. So a "record contract" in this day and age means very different things and you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty to make it work for you. 

2. Your Identity Is Your Brand/Your Brand Is Your Identity

The very first thing I try to convey to any artist is that you are a brand. Most artists cringe at the thought of this, but if you break it down it's less upsetting to think of your art in this fashion. All successful artists have something that their fans can connect with. Therefore, a brand is really no more than something that people identify with. If you always lead in everything you do with the internal visualization of who you are and what you represent, you'll often make good decisions. 

It isn't that you don't have any fans, it's that you simply haven't found them. 

Once you can visualize who you are, you can move on to develop a plan for the business side of your art.

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I saw one artist this past weekend who was mind blowing. The moment the band started playing and she started singing, I was enthralled by the sound. I thought she was a new artist, but turns out she's about to release a third/fourth album (I can't tell). She's got all the elements musically to be a wildly successful, and yet I've never heard of her. She's got all the social marketing sites, but doesn't have her own website, so of course I can't really tell who she is or glean any real sense of her identity. Her top search returns include Myspace, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, Last.fm, and Twitter. Where exactly should I go first? MySpace is first, let's start there. 

She has no photos in her gallery and only one video. I love the sound, but as a fan I've got nothing really here to work with. I'm now completely disinterested in being a champion of her talent, because I don't have any sense of her as an artist. She's relied entirely on the basics of other platforms to present herself, instead of building something more personal. Because there is no real anchor, within a week or two I'll probably completely forget who she is and never look back. 

When I was a teenager I would scour magazines for any information on the bands I liked. Much to my grandparents chagrin, every possible blank space of my walls was covered in posters and clippings of The Cure, The Cult, Pogues, New Model Army, Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, Eurythmics, Big Country (yeah I was all over the place). I would draw their logos on my notebooks and tennis shoes. I felt a connection to these artists, and this, plus all the obscure trivia I had picked up, was my anchor to them. The platforms have changed, but this feeling is as strong as it's ever been.

3. Develop A Business Plan

When I started in the tech business, it was expected that to gain funding you'd develop a giant bound paper business plan with detailed information on who your customers were going to be, how you made money, and what all of this was going to cost you. Over the years these documents have gotten shorter and shorter to where the last one I wrote was less than 5 pages. Now, I've never put much faith in them, because they are basically asking you to make a lot of assumptions that never turn out as you planned it. However, what's truly valuable about writing a document like this is it's a great exercise in thinking through your business. It's a great way to set some goals, communicate those goals to others, and be able to reflect on that progress as you move forward (or backward). It can also be a hoot to dig it out 5 years later and see what you got right and what you got wrong, and how dumb you sounded back then. 

4. Understand Your Business

Too many artists over the years left many or all of the details of how their business worked to other people. They were either disinterested because it was boring, or couldn't be bothered because they were too busy with their art (or too busy enjoying themselves). Many of these artists found themselves in a lot of trouble and in some cases without a career. 

I'm not great at math (not even good at it) and I'm not a programmer by trade, but I did learn programming and I did have a part of my career where I programmed for a living. The reason I learned programming was out of a personal need to understand the process of how things worked and also not to be entirely reliant on someone else. If you are lucky enough to surround yourself with good people and those people are passionate about your work, you still have a responsibility to yourself to pay attention to what they are doing, how they do it, and understand what's going on. Show the same passion in their work as they do in yours. Also, ask lots of questions. Nothing will kill your career faster than not being curious.

5. Get Good Outside Advice

There is no room for your fragile ego or pride. While some labels or managers in the past would craft an artists identity or music to be more appealing to masses, it doesn't have to be that way any longer. That said, it's important to get the advice from others that's unvarnished and honest. If you are a band, but onstage you look and play like a bunch of strangers who just met, you should be open to hearing that. If you write 12 songs and 6 are crap, you should be open to hearing that. Nothing is worse off for your career than a bunch of ass kissers who are either too afraid to tell you what you need to hear, either because they fear you or because they want something from you, like a check. 

6. Spend Where It Counts

There are so many great ways to waste money, but as an emerging artist, you likely have a limited budget to spend, so you need to spend it wisely. For example, you can hire an expensive web developer or you can save the money and use something like Squarespace. Then, put your money into a great graphic designer. I could write an entire blog entry on this topic alone, but here are the basics (this applies to photographers & etc). 

Don't just hire your best friends sister because she does logos for local restaurants and she's cheap. Your visual identity is something that will follow you in both physical and virtual space for years, so make it good. Communicate in very descriptive terms of who you are and what you are. Don't be ambiguous, use definitive language. The more wishy washy you are the more iterations it will take to get what you want and the more it will cost you. Also, I've seen a lot of people get shafted on design because they didn't understand how to be prepared to work with a designer, or they had lofty expectations but no budget to back it (this goes back to having a plan). Remember that this person is also an artist, so afford them the same respect you'd expect for your work. 

This work will later translate into web, social, business cards, print material, t-shirts, etc., so the better your design, the better your identity.

7. Life Happens/Recognize Opportunity

I went to University 24 years ago as a composition/theory major with a focus on electronic music. While I was passionate about music, I stumbled on building a business by accident and realized that there was an opportunity for me. That company led to my starting a tech career on the internet in the early 90's. I recognized that while I was passionate about making music, it was really the technology side that I loved. I've never regretted that decision and I've had the pleasure of a career full of diversity. What I learned from my journey was that my "art" was not so much music, but ideas. 

My point here is not that you should have some type of back up plan, but that you should always leave yourself open for opportunity. If you have a linear view of how your career will look, you will fail to see wonderful chances that appear before you. If your blinders keep you looking forward, you may miss those waving to you from the side. I've known artists who started in bands but found their greatest success in composition and scoring. I've known other acts who were fearless in throwing away what they did before, starting all over, and finding greater success.

While I talk a lot about knowing who you are and where you want to go, those are simply guidelines. We don't present ourselves to life, it presents itself to us. We embrace it or we deny it. While I say you should have a plan and identity, be sure leave yourself open to recognizing opportunities as they are presented to you. Be fearless in accepting them.

8. Make Mistakes/Make Connections

I'm not saying to go out of your way to make mistakes, but you will make them. Most of us learn from our mistakes by making the same ones again and again and then hopefully a light goes on and a connection is made. This is why it's really important to open yourself up to feedback and learn from those who have come before you. 

I think networking is critical to this. The more you read and research your business, the more you find and talk to mentors, the more everything will open up for you. Don't simply stay active with your fans, get active with other artists and professionals. Foster relationships with them.  

Again, why I think there is a need for more Youbloom-like conferences.   

9. Careful What You Sign/When You Sign

We won't work with an artist who doesn't know or understand their identity and have a point of view. It's not my job to figure that out for you. So if you want to sign to a label or management company, you need to be prepared in advance and adjust your expectations accordingly. Most labels today don't have the budget to promote you. If it's a good label they focus on fostering your art and getting it out there, but don't think for a second that means you can sit on your ass and just show up for the gigs. Today, you are a major part of the process of marketing and promotion. If you hustled before you were signed, you should hustle twice as much afterwards. If you are approached or find a label interested in you, ensure that you already have much of what I've mentioned above done. The worst thing that can happen to you is not being prepared for success.

10. Work With Technology & Social Media

You have a Twitter account. You have a Facebook page. You have a YouTube channel. You have a website. Congrats, you have the same thing everyone else does. Having something and understanding something are two different things. Learn how to analyze the data behind the platforms you use. You should know the difference between unique views and page views, what's a bounce rate mean, how did these people discover me, what search terms brought them to me? Are you a member of Amazon/Google/iTunes affiliate programs (gets you paid twice)? When you promote your music are you using your own affiliate links? Are you collecting information at shows? Can you come up with a way to suss out contact info from fans at the shows? Are you making it as easy as possible to purchase your materials? Are you thinking of Crowdfunding? Do you have a plan for that? Are you not simply thinking of it as a funding option, but more importantly a way to market yourself? 

You should find new ways to engage your audience online and off. I remember when I was a teenager, They Might Be Giants had this answering machine you could call and hear a new song each day. I can't tell you how many times I must have called that number. It was almost like a private joke amongst a small group of insiders. What's your inside joke? What's your "dial-a-song?" It's not enough to look at all that's out there and think "Let's Do This." You also have to think,

 "What if?"

Your social platforms are your voice. It should be authentic and come from you. That said, don't feel you have to say everything that comes to your mind. Having 45 Tweets/links on one day...in a row...saying, "I've posted a new photo to Facebook," is obnoxious. Having Tweet after Tweet composed of hashtags is obnoxious. Posting day after day, hour after hour about meaningless shit is one way to turn me off to your feeds. Some things should be kept to yourself. And don't engage people who are trolling you online. All that ever comes of this is both parties end up looking like assholes.

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While I could go on and on about these topic and others, suffice to say that my experience with Youbloom was one where I realized that musicians are struggling with the same issues that tech startups struggle with. We took what was inherent to the technology (connecting people) and started creating ways in the physical space to share our knowledge base, our stories, experiences, mistakes, hindsight, etc. There is this same need in music, but often artists have seen themselves as islands unto themselves. This needs to change, which is why I not only found the initial Youbloom conference the germination of a good idea, but saw it's potential for the future. Beyond that here's a need in larger cities, like London, for regular mixers where artists and potential mentors and labels can simply get together and connect. 

I know I'll be there.