Why musicians should think of themselves as entrepreneurs

Music marketing
12 min read
In this Article

If you watch Shark Tank, you’ve probably seen main “shark” Kevin O’Leary tell guests that if you’re three years into a business and you haven’t made any money, “It’s a hobby, not a business.”

Music isn’t much different: for most musicians, it’s a hobby but not a business. Thus the joke about a musician being someone who loads $5,000 of gear into a $500 car to drive 100 miles for a $50 gig.

musicians entrepreneurs

Transitioning from weekend warrior to career musician means approaching your music and craft like an entrepreneur would.

Yes, that means having a business plan and even putting together a team. No, it doesn’t mean destroying all your street cred. And we’re not just talking about megastars like Jay-Z here—musicians at all levels of their careers can benefit from taking an entrepreneurial approach to their music.

What happens to musicians without a career-based approach?

All of the world’s most influential musicians have one thing in common—they treat their music like a business. Regardless of genre, primary instrument, or approach to music in general, they don’t let their careers just happen to them. Instead, they actively push to have successful livelihoods.

So, what happens when you don’t have a career-based or entrepreneurial approach to your music? Chances are, you won’t make it very far. Or, if you do take off, you’ll find yourself ill-prepared and at the mercy of some of the music industry’s infamous vultures.

Here are just a few downsides of lacking an entrepreneurial mindset:

Poor organization and missed opportunities

Creatives (including musicians) aren’t often known for their organizational abilities. But as you ramp up gigs, co-writing sessions, studio time, and other creative deadlines, it’s essential that you get yourself organized.

For example, if you’re releasing an album, you need to plan out elements of that release months in advance. Most reputable publicity firms won’t even think about taking on your release with less than four months lead time, and vinyl production times are backed up nine months as of the release of this article. If you don’t schedule your release in advance, you might not book the support that you need to give your release the best chance it has at commercial success.

Tinkerers need deadlines

While everyone has a different workflow, some people work better on deadlines. This is especially true of creatives, many of whom will happily tinker with EQ levels and different plate reverb plugins on tracks until their bandmate or manager forces them to call it done. Without deadlines, half-finished tracks can bounce around hard drives and Dropbox folders for years and might never see a true release.

Deadlines can force you to prioritize and be a little less precious with perfection. “If everything’s important, nothing’s important” is a common rallying call among the most successful businesspeople. While it should be obvious that prioritization is key to entrepreneurs, anti-perfectionism might surprise some.

Perfectionism is an enemy of the entrepreneurial spirit. After all, it keeps you from getting things done—or at least ever feeling good about it. If deadlines help you break the cycle of perfectionism and bounce that final mix or commit to the transition out of that bridge, start setting more deadlines in your musical career.

Musicians who find success aren’t ready for it

Chances are, you personally know a few local musicians who are tinkerers or suffer from poor organization. But if you’ve ever thought about a formerly famous musician and wondered, “What happened to them?”, you might be surprised to learn they weren’t prepared for their own success.

Though the likelihood of hitting it big in music is low, it’s important to treat your career as a business from the beginning. That means educating yourself about the business elements, including revenue streams, some of the lower-level legal elements of music, taxes, publishing, and more. That way, if you do hit it big—which can happen suddenly in the age of the internet—you won’t be caught off guard.

The thing is, when you do hit it, people from the industry will come out of the woodwork. Some of them will be legitimate, some of them will be fair, but almost all of them will have their own best interests in mind. You need to be your own advocate, and that means understanding what’s normal (for example, managers should absolutely never get 50 percent of your earnings, no matter what they say) and knowing your worth. It’s easier to do that when you’ve spent years developing an entrepreneurial spirit.

True DIY or building a team

When it comes to your career, there are two approaches you can take—true DIY or building a team to help you manage the day-to-day elements of your music.

Most artists start with a true DIY approach where they do everything themselves. They book their own shows, manage their social and email, pack up their own online sales orders, reach out to press contacts, book their studio time, file their own taxes, and more.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But for younger musicians it’s the only practical option until you can afford to hire help, can attract a manager, or get signed by a label.

The next step in a career is usually to build a trustworthy team to help you grow your audience. But why build a team when you can do it all yourself? Time. The more your career grows, the more all that work you were doing adds up. A one-week west-coast tour is a lot easier to book than a cross-country co-headlining endeavor with radio station promotion baked in at each stop. Shipping 100 pre-ordered cassette tapes is easier than shipping out 1,000 pre-order bundles with different shirt sizes and merch packs.

Let’s face it: you should be focused on making great music, not calculating shipping rates or playing phone tag with local promoters.

So how do you build your team? This looks different for each performer. Some bands start with a manager (who should be getting 15-20 percent of your gross revenue, if you were wondering).

Your manager takes care of a lot of the day-to-day tasks, including booking studio time and managing their calendars.

Later, bands may choose to sign with a label that can help them with everything from distribution to publicity to merchandise and digital. Other acts choose to keep a more DIY approach, like Ani DiFranco who started her own label Righteous Babe Records in 1990 or Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and his label Saddle Creek.

In the case of DiFranco and Oberst, they had to find their own support for the different elements of the music business that they otherwise might have gotten from a traditional record label, including:

  • Live and touring: Planning and promoting your shows to making sure your tours run as smoothly as possible—and that you get paid as much and as quickly as possible
  • Recording: Booking the right amount of studio time in appropriately-sized and equipped spaces and hiring talented session musicians (if needed) and mixing and mastering engineers.
  • Physical printing distribution: In an era where it’s taking nine months to press vinyl and shelf space at record stores is limited, it helps to have a team member with strong connections at record pressing plants and knows physical distribution as well as digital.
  • Merchandise: Who’s designing your merchandise? Who’s choosing what shirt or hat brand to place it on? What about how much of each size to buy? And who’s responsible for mailing it? You don’t want this to be a guessing game, or you’ll end up with boxes of unsold crop tops in your garage for decades.
  • Website: It’s a lot easier to make and manage a music website today than it used to be—especially with tools like ConvertKit’s landing page builder. But we highly recommend taking whatever you can off your plate so you can focus on your craft.
  • Accounting and financial planning: How did MC Hammer go from having a $33 million net worth to being $13 in debt? Bad financial planning. Find someone trustworthy to make sure you’re paying your taxes and saving and investing plenty of your income. The world’s most successful musicians have about 10 years of high income, and the biggest mistake they make is assuming they’ll never stop playing O2-sized arenas.
  • Publicity, Promotion and Radio: From reviews to interviews and beyond, your publicity team will be your most well-connected cheerleaders. You’ll also need someone to help you with marketing, including email lists, social ads, fan clubs, and more.
  • Publishing: Setting up your publishing name, signing up with a PRO, and making sure your music is being properly pitched for synchronizations.

If you don’t bring people on to help you with those roles, you’ll have to do them yourself. Of course, you should always be involved in each of these elements at the highest level. But having a team of people who are experts in their field and encouraging them is what the world’s best entrepreneurs do. Remember, there’s a fine line between being completely out-of-the-loop and micromanaging their employees, and the best entrepreneurs work hard to live in that happy medium.

Essential parts of a career plan

If there’s one thing entrepreneurs are great at that musicians well…aren’t, it’s career planning. Career planning can feel strange as a musician because the music industry seems to change so frequently, but remember that your goals can be recalibrated every year.

For a normal entrepreneur, a five-year career goal might be to launch a big product or increase sales by a certain percentage. They’ll vary by entrepreneur, and they’ll vary by musician. Here are some examples of setting one-, three-, five-, and 10-year career goals for someone early in their career.

One-year goals

A year is going to go by a lot faster than you’d think, but there’s still a lot you can get done. Here are a few attainable goals for your first year.

  • Start an email list and get 200 subscribers
  • Grow social fans by 100 percent
  • Grow digital music revenue (streams and digital download sales) by 50 percent
  • Book two local shows each month
  • Book six out-of-town shows
  • Write, record, and release a new single

That’s a pretty hefty list, but a lot of those elements should feed into each other. That new single should drive digital music revenue and could help you book those local shows. Those local shows will help grow your social fans and email list. That social and email list will help you book those out-of-town shows. So much of your work is connected—keep that in mind as you set your goals.

Three- and five-year goals

Your one-year goals should set the tempo for your three- and five-year goals. If your ultimate goal is to become a career musician, here are some examples of goals you can set:

  • Transition to full-time musician
  • Release your first full-length record on a DIY label
  • Tour United States and Europe in an opening slot in support of your first record
  • Sign with an indie label
  • Release second full-length record
  • Tour United States and Europe in a headlining slot in support of your second record

We’re not going to lie: some of these goals are loftier than others. Becoming a full-time musician is tough to do, and you might have to make ends meet with online music lessons or session work. Landing a coveted opening spot can catapult your career, but those spots are difficult to get. Still, it’s important to have these goals and, more importantly, be able to pivot if an opportunity or setback occurs.

10-year goals

Ten year goals and beyond are much harder to plan, and they can feel lofty but can also be a lot of fun.

This is your opportunity to ask yourself some big questions. Where do you want your career to be in 10 years? Regularly headlining theater tours? Or do you want to settle down and move into scoring TV shows and movies while you grow a family? The future is up to you—you just have to work towards it.

Be your own boss

Prince used to tell a story about needing money as a teenager. Like most kids his age, he looked at the classified ads in his local paper and couldn’t find a single job he wanted—all he wanted to do was play music. It was that moment when he decided he was going to treat his music like a business, and himself as an entrepreneur.

Focusing on your career isn’t selling out; it’s being smart. You deserve to make a living with your music, and treating your music as a business is an essential part of that. After all, if someone else sees an opportunity to make money on your music, they will. Why shouldn’t you beat them to the punch?

Plus, by getting a head start on the business of music, you’re making yourself less likely to get scammed by bad actors in the industry and are giving yourself the tools you need to succeed.

Start building your business with a creator marketing platform

Speaking of tools that will help you succeed, ConvertKit has great tools for musicians, including email, ecommerce tools, landing page builders, and more.

ConvertKit audience building software helps musicians like you grow your fanbase, connect with those fans to turn them into superfans, and earn a living with your music. Click the link below and start a 14-day free trial and start growing your music business today.

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Emily Harris

Emily grew up in the rural outskirts of Cincinnati, OH before moving to Nashville, TN to study Music Business at Belmont University and work in live events and ticketing. In 2015, she moved to the Pacific Northwest where she writes SEO-driven copy during the day and works as guitarist, guitar podcaster and music gear demo artist for Get Offset at night.

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