Most Music Career Advice is Marketing from Services that Profit Off Musicians


One of the big reasons we started Songhack was the awful state of career advice for musicians. No wonder so few musicians understand how the music business works — most of the people giving them career advice are trying to sell them something.

“Content marketing” is taking the marketing world by storm. The idea is simple: Publish original content that customers would want to consume, and you will attract potential customers to your site, where you can market your service to them.

On one had, we guess it’s better to have this content than not. Without profitable businesses to hire content producers, it might never get made.

On the other hand, none of this content exists for the reason it should: to help musicians. Every business creating content like this is doing so to sell a product or service. The motivation behind helping musicians is really to help musicians see the value in forking over some cash.

We can’t blame the companies putting out this content. Even when their advice is lazy, misleading or useless as it often is, they are just doing what anyone would expect a corporation to do.

The bigger question is, “Why are musicians relying on the companies that profit from them to get advice on how to profit for themselves?”

There are two factors to blame: the failure of institutional music education, and the anti-business culture of musicians.

Music in a Vacuum

The failure of institutional music education, is not just a failure to fund music education, but funding the wrong kind of education.

Generally speaking, all creative subjects including music are taught as pure creative skills, absent a business framework, until you get to college. And even in college, most programs focus on composition, performance and recording, with very little emphasis on music business.

This way of learning a creative skill — without any consideration of the business behind it — is stupid and thankfully changing rapidly.

Sites like CreativeLive are disrupting the tired old model of institutional music education, fusing entrepreneurship with the skills to create incredible compositions, performances and recordings. By bridging the art/business divide this way, CreativeLive and other online education platforms like it are a huge boon for musicians, for the first time giving us the tools to succeed on our own terms instead of blindly signing our rights away and hoping for the best.

Institutional music education has failed in another way. It has been too slow to adapt to modern music. While guitar and piano programs have been rolled out in districts where funding has not be totally gutted, schools still spend enormous amounts of money teaching kids how to play anachronistic instruments in genres of music few people listen to anymore. We don’t teach computing classes on calculators, and we shouldn’t teach music classes with the tools of the 20th century.

Classrooms should be centered around the recording process, with performance and composition following naturally. Then business education can follow as the musician-student produces music of increasing value and needs to find ways to monetize it. That’s the way professional musicians do it these days, and it’s the way we should be teaching music. Of course, most of my music teacher friends nod in agreement and then cite a lack of funding. The problem is not with the educators but the institution.

Don’t take my word for it. The School of Rock (popularized by the movie starring Jack Black) is one of the fastest-growing franchises on the planet, a multi-million dollar operation involving thousands of students and teachers across the entire country. School of Rock, and other businesses like it, have filled the gaping hole left by institutional music education with regards to contemporary styles of composition, performance and songwriting.

Musicians Hate Business

Perhaps part of the reason musicians hate business is they don’t understand it at all. Nobody ever taught them how it works.

Of course, there are tons of other reasons musicians have no interest in learning the music business. The more time they spend working on the business side, the less time they have to work on music. They want to be musicians, not businesspeople. They think any consideration of business compromises their artistic integrity. They rightfully think the music business is full of unethical business models that exploit musicians. In short, everything about the music business is antithetical to creating music, so how could oil and water mix?

One of the things you hear over and over again is something along the lines of this: “If you don’t put 100% into your music… if you don’t risk everything to play it, and aren’t willing to go years as a starving artist, you have no business being a professional musician.”

That is nonsense. If you put 100% into composing, performing and recording, guess how your business is going to go? And guess what determines how many people are exposed to your songs, or whether you’re still composing, performing and recording when you have a family and a mortgage? That’s right — business.

Take this to the bank: The more you focus on learning how the music business works in the short term, the bigger the exposure you get in the long term. Not building business into your plan to become a great composer, performer or recording artists is a great formula to make music your hobby for the rest of your life.

It’s not about the money, it’s about the music. And if you want to play lots of music for lots of people for lots of your life, you need to understand the business and generate revenue from your music.

Information is Not Knowledge

This is one of our favorite slogans for the information age. With so much information available, it can be easy for musicians to think they do understand the music business, or are at least starting to. But information is not knowledge.

To gain knowledge, you have to use the information — apply it toward achieving a goal. Only then do you actually know something.

Our point is this: Music companies clogging up the Internet with super-OK music career advice is not helping musicians thrive. But we can’t blame them — we need to address the failings of institutional music education and begin creating a musician culture that embraces entrepreneurship.

That’s why we started Songhack — to bridget that gap and break down the insane complexities of the business into easy-to-digest information. If you use the Tools we recommend, and apply the information you’ve learned, you’ll gain real knowledge that will help you push your music career forward.

Finally, we’re very optimistic and encouraged by the recent upsurge in music coaches (we list a bunch of coaching resources). A music coach is a perfect teacher for musicians because they are focused on building, sustaining, and growing your music career so you can compose, perform and record for as long as possible, for as many people as possible.

So, go out there and find some better information than marketing blogs. Good luck!

photo (CC-BY-SA) 401(k) 2012