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Starting a Music Career: A Guide for Independent Artists

June 13, 2023
3 min read

Want to know how to start a music career? You’re not the only one. The rise of creator tools and streaming services means that just about anyone can turn a passion for music into a career. However, there’s a massive difference between someone who’s putting out music online and someone who’s actually making a living from it. 

While standout content will go some way to get you noticed, you need a firm grasp of the music industry to really succeed. Itching to get going? We break down what you need to know about setting goals, building a brand, networking, and understanding the finer points of this competitive industry. 

Define Your Goals and Define Success

This one’s important. You need to be clear about what your goals are. Bear in mind, they’re not the same for every artist. While it’s good to have a general roadmap laid out in front of you, setting yourself short-term goals is often far more useful. For independent artists eyeing up music as a career, goals could be as simple as getting a track written, recorded, and released by a specific date. It could also mean concentrating on live performance and ensuring you play a certain number of gigs in any given month. However, long-term goals are also important. If you’re more focused on monetizing your music, you’re going to want to pursue things like sync licensing and streaming platforms. 

Ultimately, any goals you set yourself need to be measurable so you can actually track your success. If you’re focused on the commercial side, look to sales metrics as a good indicator of how well you’re doing. However, despite independent musicians making up a sizable share of the market, sales metrics aren’t always relevant to emerging artists. If you’re only taking home meager royalties from streaming platforms and concentrating more on live performance, use ticket sales as a guideline of how well you’re doing. 

Nowadays, more people are discovering new music through playlists. Looking at your playlist reach is another valuable metric you can use to measure success in the music industry. You can use it to gain insights about audience size and exposure. Using streaming platforms to promote your music? Consider statistics like monthly listeners. We’re not talking about the overall number of streams here. Instead, prioritize the number of unique listeners. 

However, playlists and streaming figures alone don’t tell the whole story. If you’ve spent time carefully crafting and curating a brand, you’ll want your audience to engage with you as an artist.  Are your streaming statistics high but you only have a relatively small number of people following your profiles? Take this as a clear sign that audiences have an appetite for your music, but have yet to engage with you as an artist. 

Build Your Brand

If you’re struggling to set yourself apart from other artists, your branding needs work. Creating a unique identity is as important as music production itself. Start by thinking about what makes your brand unique. While this can be a loose brainstorming session, it’s guaranteed to generate valuable ideas. Next, consider your target audience. If you’re heavily influenced by other artists, you can use the demographics of their listeners as inspiration. For independent artists, maintaining an active online presence is vital. Your digital assets will prove invaluable as you establish yourself as a new artist and reach out to audiences. While you can use social media and streaming platforms effectively here, an artist's website should be the bedrock of your online presence. 

How much have you thought about visual identity? While the music most certainly matters, so too does your visual presence. A strong visual identity informs almost every aspect of your music content, from cover art to merchandise. Start with the basics by investing in artist logos and key artwork. These not only provide you with a ready supply of branded content for your website and social channels but they can also be utilized for offline assets like mailers and press releases. 

Your brand voice is another element that affects all aspects of your persona as an artist. Consider what makes you tick as a creative person. Why do you write the songs you do? What drives you to perform? You can also look to your own musical inspirations. All of these factors into your brand voice. Just make sure it all aligns with your core values and that you remain consistent with the rest of your branding. 

While your brand identity can evolve over time, consistency should drive your evolution as an artist. Keeping your audience engaged and actively participating in the industry is important. Use social media channels to your advantage here. It’s up to you how regularly you converse with fans via Twitter or upload content to your YouTube channel, but a regular stream of fresh content will keep your branding on point and increase exposure. 

Create and Promote Your Music

While the internet age has made it easier for independent artists to release their music, there’s no guarantee you’ll become TikTok’s next breakout star. Instead of keeping your fingers crossed and hoping your music goes viral, it makes more sense to invest your time in creating first-class content. 

Before thinking about music promotion, you’ll need to have your tracks in the bag first. Once you’ve got a strong back catalog, consider what your standout single is. You can use metrics like streams or online engagement to guide you here. If you can’t settle on a single song, think about compiling an EP of your strongest material. Once you’ve decided which tracks you’re going to promote, make a clear timeline. Pick out key dates and deadlines, building in plenty of time for you to engage with fans and drum up interest. Ideally, you’ll have a couple of months to do this. However, if you’re going it alone, it’s worth being more generous with your timeline. 

Next, you can think about actually releasing your music. Digital distribution channels are the most accessible for independent artists. You can sign up for artist services to make your life easier. While Spotify is the go-to for many independent musicians, it’s not the only digital streaming platform. Consider using Apple’s or Amazon’s Music for Artists services. These tools not only broaden your outreach but come loaded with useful features that make music marketing and promotion easier. However, you’ll need to factor in things like verification if you’re using these services, which can affect your timeline. 

No matter how early it is in your career, no content should be released without a promotional strategy. You can use social media to tease audiences with snippets of your latest track or a sizzle reel of your music videos and behind-the-scenes content. Even if you already have a sizable online following, you’ll also need to be promoting your music elsewhere. Invest time in live performance, which in turn creates additional content you can use for marketing purposes. You should also reach out to music blogs and review sites to increase exposure and access maximum coverage. 

Still establishing yourself in the music industry? You’ll need an electronic press kit (EPK). Your EPK should contain your best material, rich imagery, and an engaging artist bio at a minimum. During the promotional stage, your EPK will be an evolving asset. Make sure you’re updating it regularly with new press mentions and linking to new platforms you’re using. 

Need an extra push to get your music heard? Collaborating with more established artists is a powerful way to get your music heard by more people. Scour your social media channels to see if any major players are listening to your music. Simply starting a back-and-forth online might be enough to boost your audience. Sometimes, you’ll be able to collaborate more creatively. However, the more established a performer is, the more likely it is you’ll have to make some compromises in order to raise your profile. 

If you want to stay true to yourself, try partnering with other independent musicians. You maintain artistic integrity but still benefit from tapping into a new audience. 

Network and Collaborate

Just like any other industry, networking is a must if you want to succeed as a musician. For independent artists, it’s even more vital. Engaging with other musicians not only brings the chance for collaboration, it also introduces you to other industry professionals who can help advance your career. Independent artists can use networking to find booking agents, managers, and other creative professionals who can help establish them in a competitive industry. 

There’s only so much you can achieve online, especially if you’re not very established. First, concentrate on building and nurturing a network locally. This can happen organically by playing live gigs or teaming up with musicians based in the same city as you. However, you will eventually need to turn your attention to the online sphere. The good news is that there are plenty of networking platforms out there that are geared toward musicians, such as the Digilogue or Drooble

If you’re networking to create a team to support your career ambitions, think beyond the short-term benefits. These professionals are going to be your counsel, providing you with invaluable insights that will see you on the path to success. 

Understand the Business Side of the Music Industry

You might be producing great music and are effortlessly engaging with your audience, but this alone won’t guarantee success. To truly cement yourself as a star and turn your passion for music into a profitable career, you need to understand the business side of the industry. 

Many independent musicians forget about actually protecting their content. Getting to grips with copyright law can seem daunting, but it’s a must if you want to protect your intellectual property. Furthermore, it makes it far easier to monetize your music. Make sure you’re securing the publishing rights to your music. This way, you’ll safeguard it against plagiarism and misuse, while ensuring you receive your fair share of royalties if your music is used commercially. 

However, there’s more than one type of royalty. If you want to secure healthy revenues from your music, you’ll need to be exploring them all. Performance, mechanical, and print royalties can all generate much-needed income for up-and-coming musicians. 

For aspiring artists, royalties are typically collected by music publishers and digital music distribution companies. With signed artists, it’s usually record labels who collect royalties, before allocating a musician their share. If there’s a prospect of you signing with a label in the near future, it’s vital that you don’t undersell yourself. Investing in a music lawyer might seem like a big expense, but it’s a good way of making sure you don’t end up with a raw deal. Some musicians also choose to hire an accountant to keep track of career expenses. This is definitely worthwhile, as it allows artists to track investment in promotion and outgoing expenses against revenues from performance, royalties, and merchandising. 

Start Taking Those First Steps Today 

Have you been playing live gigs for years, all the while dreaming of becoming a recording artist? Perhaps you’ve been privately putting pen to paper and creating a songbook packed with tracks that might one day grace the Billboard Hot 100. Now’s the time to start making tracks and turning your dreams of a career in music into a reality. 

The first thing you’ll need to do is be realistic about goals and expectations. You’re not going to become an award-winning artist within a couple of years. Instead, set yourself realistic and achievable goals. Keep it simple with a loose deadline to write, record, and release a single online. Now’s also the time you should be focusing on building your brand. This can happen organically or may require a little more input from artist management services. 

Networking with professionals comes next. It’ll unlock new opportunities for you, allowing you to slowly build the right team around you that you need to go far in the music industry. You can also seek out exciting collaboration opportunities with other artists. Finally, make sure you do your homework. Understanding the industry landscape and being responsive to changing trends will go a long way in ensuring you prosper as a musical artist.

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