Making a career out of music is a dream for most music producers, but it seems so out of reach for most...
And not to mention that there is so much you ‘should’ be doing, and as a result, you’re not sure what to focus on or disregard.
To help, here are some of my favorite tips I’ve come up with over the years. Some of these are my own spin on common advice, but many might be controversial or new to you.
A full disclaimer - while I have had mild success at best as an actual producer/artist, I have managed to make my living from music (this is something I'll cover later on).
I don’t pretend to be a wildly successful global phenomenon, but someone who used the principles below to my advantage.
So, on that note, let’s get into them.
1: Stop looking at music production and marketing as separate things. If you’re releasing music, your music is the product.
2: Marketing and promotion are only ‘evil’ if you make them out to be. They don’t have to be spammy – make them fun activities that you can enjoy.
3: Despite your favorite marketing guru’s advice, you don’t have to do it all.
Splitting your attention between Spotify, Soundcloud, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok will result in burnout and poor results. Choose the bare minimum that aligns with your goals.
And on that…
4: Set goals, and do what is necessary to achieve them. Besides worthwhile opportunities, ignore anything else – they are likely distractions.
But on the flip side…
5: Sometimes deviations are necessary. Your goals, sound, and vision will change over time, and that’s okay. Especially if you’ve been producing for many years.
6: Loosely define your sound or genre (yes, even if you hate genres), and start by marketing to that niche. No, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to publish that you’re a ‘melodic trap’ producer in your Spotify bio.
One mistake I made early on was trying to fit into too many niches, which resulted in my music not getting solid fans.
7: Invest money. For two producers with the same quality of music, the one who runs ads, pays for (legitimate) promotion and generally spends money on their project, will always get further.
8: Decide if you want money or exposure. There is always a trade-off (Spotify’s new model is an example of this). Neither is bad necessarily, but don’t be fooled into mere exposure if you want to make something resembling a salary.
9: You don’t have to rely on monetizing your music, but you can monetize around your music. Instead of music sales and shows, think merch, private lessons, Patreon, become a music journalist, or get creative. Once again, pick one and roll with it. (I monetize around my music by making a living off working at EDMProd.)
10: Diversify your income streams. If you’re a traditional artist, you’ll likely have two: music sales and shows. Try and add to this where possible using the above ideas or others.
11: Please, please don’t quit your day job (yet). The rhetoric out there that you have to quit and go ‘all in’ is 1. a lie and 2. not reasonable for most people. It causes unnecessary stress and ruins creativity.
12: Sacrifices do have to be made if you want to make this a career, but make the right ones.
Yes, stop watching TV and Netflix, but don’t neglect friends, family, or health. It’s really, really not hard to see that even those famous artists who did neglect family and friends to reach a certain level of status, are often the saddest people out there. It doesn’t have to be like this.
13: The ‘hustle’ mentality is destructive. And it destroys musicians, producers, and many music industry workers. Working hard is a good thing, but it only makes sense if you actually focus on the right things.
There are so much promotional and marketing and career avenues you could go down, but it should always come back to two core activities: making music and releasing music.
14: Early on, try both self-releasing and label-releasing. I recommend some balance of both.
Self-releasing is more flexible and often more financially viable relative to the number of streams. Label-releasing often has further reach (on the right labels) and ends up being a greater source of overall income, but lower per-stream income.
These days I do about 80% label releases, 20% self-releases.
15: Get feedback from listeners and fans. Producers can point out technical problems, but fans highlight the level of overall enjoyment embedded in your music.
16: Whether you like it or not, quantity is important in the music industry these days. This should never come at the sacrifice of quality, but release often to keep top of mind.
Personally, this is why I release on a number of labels instead of all self-releases – I’m not relying on just my own abilities.
17: Even in this decade (COVID-aside), shows are still the primary income generators for artists. Decide if you’re comfortable with this, and if not, make alternative arrangements.
18: Don’t feel like your goal has to be to quit your job. If it is – great. If not, it’s totally fine to make a healthy supplementary income from music, without quitting your job. What I would recommend is finding a job that supports your music, both with time flexibility and necessary income.
19: Decide on your show format. It’s hot in 2020 and 2021 to want to pursue the idea of a ‘live show’ instead of just a DJ set, but you can still kill it just as a DJ (just stop being boring). See what works for you.
20: It helps to have a decent visual representation of your brand. Logos are fine, but get some basic press photos (your girlfriend/boyfriend with an iPhone is fine). People connect with faces more than they do logos (especially for an artist brand).
21: A note on publicity and promos: make sure it’s being sent to the right people before release, whether you’re doing it yourself or using a third-party service. Nothing screams wasted money more than sending your new EP to 300 trap producers when you’re a synthwave DJ.
22: Achieving virality is cool but can easily become a shiny object. Make sure it aligns with your goals. If you do want to pursue it, it can be simply engineered.
23: You know all that creative energy that you put into your music? Try using some of that in your marketing and promotion.
Plant anonymous QR codes over your city (not advocating vandalism lol), make a viral video about getting your tune heard by your favourite artist, do stupid stuff while dancing to your music (that’s what TikTok is, right?). You get the point.
24: There’s a difference between selling-out and making your music more consumable. If you’re a dubstep producer, it might mean doing a more melodic or vocal-driven track every now and then. It doesn’t mean starting to write pop music.
25: Define your audience, and accept its size. Your ambient album won’t have commercial success, but you may get superfans who will buy and purchase anything you put out. Pop-oriented music will always have the largest potential audience size, of course.
26: On social media (or any online platform) it’s all about the native content. Always assume people don’t want to leave. This is why nobody clicks links.
So if you want to promote your new single on Instagram, by all means, put a link in your bio, but make sure your music is present on the platform (even a basic screen recording video of Spotify works great here).
27: Short-term tactics are often not worth it – always think long term. Tactics like virality can work, but how many artists have we forgotten about that were memes? Too many.
28: Facebook Pages suck for everything except running ads (no, this doesn’t include boosting your posts). Your personal profile is a much better bet for connecting and sharing stuff with people. Create a separate profile if you don’t want to clog up your main one.
29: Instagram is where it’s at for artists in 2020 and 2021. It’s simple, visual, and used by a lot of music fans. Once again, you don’t have to focus on everything but make Instagram a high priority if you’re using social media.
30: A note on rebranding – I changed genres/styles a few times over my 11 years of music production experience. Sometimes I started new projects, sometimes I didn’t. If you want a fresh start from ground 0, make a new project. If you want to leverage your existing stats, rebrand yourself under the same name.
31: If you want to, incorporate related or interesting skills into your branding. If you’re a graphic designer, make sick branding and artwork. If you’re a DJ, make mixes and promote your favourite music. If you play instruments, do acoustic covers of your own music. And for the hundredth time – not all of them. Just pick one for now.
32: Work smarter, not harder. Send your music to the right people, not the most. Write short and concise emails. Use checklists for marketing and promotion to reduce mental load.
33: Ironically, sometimes opportunities that utilize your music production skills can be more of a burden than having an unrelated day job that is flexible.
Working 50 hours a week producing radio jingles might seem fun because you get to make music all the time, but in reality, you actually have no time to make what you want on the side.
Perhaps something like a part-time day job at the post office makes sense.
34: Getting a manager only make sense for two reasons – you either don’t know what you’re doing, or you don’t have the time to do everything. In my opinion, it’s better to be in the latter situation, and be your own manager at first.
It’s a lot of work, but prospective managers like to see an artist who can handle themselves well before hitting artists up. By the time you’re ready for management, it will be a mutually beneficial partnership, rather than a babying one where your manager has to sort all your shit out.
35: A common question around marketing and promotion is this: should I start promoting and marketing as soon as I start releasing? I’ve gone back and forth on this over the years, and my answer is this.
Since your music is probably the most important product you’ll put out as an artist, focusing on it is the best marketing decision you’ll make for the long term. I would ignore sending your music to anyone until your music is good enough to be marketed.
36: If you’re just starting out, perhaps use a throwaway project. Start uploading music to Soundcloud and self-releasing in order to get comfortable. Once you’ve got good music and marketing skills, turn to your ‘main’ music project and start from scratch there.
37: As much as I detest TikTok, if you think it could be useful for you career, use it. If not, ignore it. Personally, I avoid it for ethical reasons.
38: Black hat marketing is a branch of ethically questionable marketing tactics (Instagram bots, paying for plays, mass spamming your links etc.) In my opinion, avoid these at all costs.
Not because they don’t work (they do, sometimes very well) but the price paid is often not worth it. These marketing tactics often trade time for reputation or something far more costly – your conscience.
39: The music industry is extremely small. If you’re an asshole, everyone will know and never forget.
40: Most people are self-focussed on social media. Often it’s those who shine a light on others who stand out the most. Make sure it’s valuable though, and not just ass-kissing.
41: You can do a lot of things without other people these days. Use Canva for basic graphic design. Use Distrokid to self-release your music. Use Google Docs/Sheets (or my favorite, Notion) to stay organized. That being said, feel free to outsource specific activities where time and expertise are short.
42: Please, please stop making music videos. Unless you want to do one to say you made one, they are often not that great of a marketing tool, and only work if you’re already big.
43: The only thing you can do to guarantee failure is to quit completely. You might have major pivots in direction, or you might take a long time to get any sort of results. In the long-term, it doesn’t matter.
44: Stop doing the same things and expecting different results. If posting your track in a bunch of Discord servers didn’t work last time, ask why. Was it the timing? Was it the right servers? Is Discord worth posting it at all? Don’t just do the same thing again.
45: Genuine friendships and relationships will always help a lot more than email blasting people you either met once or never met. This is why networking is an invaluable skill for your music career.
46: Don’t reach out to every conceivable artist, playlist, label, or promotional contact before you’re known in your scene – let some of them discover you organically.
When people start discovering you, consider it a sign that you’re on the right path. Word of mouth marketing is the best form of marketing.
47: If you’ve heard bad things about someone from multiple, unrelated people, it’s best to avoid them. By their fruits, they shall be known.
48: Meet people in person where possible. Yes, it’s not feasible for everyone to do this. But one face-to-face meeting is worth at least 1000 emails or Facebook messages.
Personally, so much of my growth as an artist has come through meeting people in person.
49: If you want your music career to be successful, start working with vocalists early on so you can feature them in tracks. I’m still getting better at this, but these relationships will help you years down the track.
50: Be really, really bloody good at making music. Everything on this list won’t work if this isn’t the case. And when you think it’s good, it’s probably not.
Music quality is like a compressor with a high ratio, low threshold, and soft knee.
It has to pass a certain (very high) threshold to be accepted by potential fans (although the exact threshold isn’t ‘exact’ – a soft knee), but the higher it is above that threshold, the differences in pushing it don’t make a massive difference (otherwise Noisia would be the biggest music act in history).
Of course, for different genres, this will look different. But each one will have a similar barrier to entry.