There was a time when, if you were advertising for a musician, all you had to do was print the magic phrase “major label interest,” and the world would beat a path to your door—if you were foolish enough to include your home address in the ad. Once the masses arrived, you could qualify the statement with, “Well, there’s no money yet, and we have to travel far distances and play long hours at obscure and under-attended venues, but we have major label interest.” And to a person, the teeming throngs would cry, “Sign me up!”
Although I still see this cliché in classifieds, I’d like to think that musicians searching for opportunities and positions are a little more discerning these days, and wouldn’t fall for the “major label interest” hook—at least to the exclusion of any other compensation or benefit. Why? Because there is no “major label interest.” This is primarily because the majors aren’t majors anymore, and the surviving recording companies simply don’t have the resources to cultivate a band from obscurity to stardom the way they once did.
You’ll have a better chance at winning the lottery than capturing the handful of slots available to burgeoning bands who play local clubs now but hope for a “major label” miracle to break them into the big time. More than likely, a record company will catch you halfway up the ladder of success, when an offer presents more of a dilemma than a bonanza.
So what should aspiring career musicians do in the meantime? In a phrase: Create your own reality. Bands these days should behave more like self-sufficient entrepreneurs than cogs in a machine. They should plan on doing everything themselves, from demo and master recording to press kit production to gig booking and event promotion to merch sales and music distribution. And the good news is, now they can.
With all the tools now available for the above-listed tasks—for virtually every aspect of building a music career and distribution network—it’s never been more accessible, affordable, or possible. Music technology pundits like to point out that digital recording democratized the recording process by making it possible for anyone to create master-quality recordings using the plethora of affordable gear. But that truism can be applied across the entire record business, where inexpensive and available technology exists all the way up the chain. For example, for about $1,500 you can buy a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera that’s more than capable of shooting top-quality publication-ready photos and high-resolution/high-definition videos. Programs like WordPress enable you to produce slick-looking websites with no special programming skills. And services like iTunes, CD Baby, TuneCore, and ReverbNation let you sell your music directly to the public—right alongside The Beatles, Beyonce, and Bieber. And promotion? Two words: Facebook and YouTube.
All of this means that you don’t have to wait for a sugar daddy, sponsor, or benevolent A&R person to get started in your personal empire building. You can start using any of these resources yourself today, and on any level of engagement. If you’re a good prose writer, take on the production of your band’s press kit, and learn the desktop-publishing programs provided in Adobe Creative Suite to produce the press releases, brochures, one-sheets, and publicity photos (both prints and high-res jpegs) of your band. The musically technical folks among you can marshal a DAW, an interface, and a couple of decent microphones to create your recordings. Perhaps a friend of the band can explore the website and social networking mechanisms. Any volunteer who contributes to the cause will be getting valuable experience in the process—experience that comes in handy as the processes are scaled up as the budget affords and the needs demand.
Perhaps the best part of having a hand in all aspects of the business is that you understand how everything works, and you get to be in control. Once you can afford to outsource any aspect of the business, the knowledge accrued from your early efforts ensures that you’ll always retain a basic understanding of the process. Understanding is the key to making informed decisions—even while actual technology outgrows your immediate ken.
So start getting involved in your own destiny. When making music a career, you need to touch, contribute to, and be engaged in all aspects of the business, not just with how well you play your axe. When I was much younger, I told a friend who was an intellectual property lawyer that I was only interested in the music, or the “creative” part of the business. Here’s how he responded: “Aw, that’s adorable. C’mon, grow up! The music takes care of itself; it is what it is. But the business part? Now, that’s where things really get creative.”