10 Tips for Making it in Today’s Music Industry

Dear Indie Musician, You’re Not Going to Make It

Well, there is ONE secret…

It’s harsh, it’s brutal, but it’s also true. As an independent musician, you’re not going to “make it.” What do I mean by “make it?” Like, playing arenas, living in a mansion, and owning your own plane? Nope, those days are long gone, even for many signed artists. I mean, can you “make it” by simply running a band, recording albums, touring, paying your rent, maybe buying a house, having a kid, all while earning money through artist music? No, it’s over. What’s worse is that it’s largely not by accident. 

The music industry has changed so drastically in the last five years that it is now stacked against you. I do not want to report this, but someone has to. We’re being inundated by tech that wants to demolish us in the name of progress. Everyone is investing in everything BUT the actual music. Spotify drops $300 million, not on an indie label program or rate increases, nope, but podcasts. 

▼ Article continues below ▼

AI music creation. Seriously, is this helping you create emotional and meaningful songs, or is it actually competing with you to create atmospheric tracks (600 in one click) to get playlisted or signed by Warner? It’s a cool trick, and it’s getting better. But, it’s not helping your career.

PledgeMusic has allegedly ripped off bands and fans, all in the name of debt vehicles and VC clawbacks. And in doing so, slashed the trust of fans for direct funding.  

Hell, touring has become a mirror of the 1% struggle. The forthcoming book, Rockonomics,by Alan Krueger, is going to blow your mind with stats and business-case models of how the middle class music industry is damn near dead. 

Spotify, Amazon, Google, and Pandora are all actively fighting against a miniscule rate increase for songwriters/publishers. Read that again, the very people you pay a subscription to, and place your music on, is actively fighting against you as a business partner, and they always will, or they will abandon you. It’s literally part of their business plan to make the input cost smaller.  

Bless those Blockchain people. Sorry, but it just hasn’t happened yet. There are well over a dozen blockchain music platforms (many of which I have written about here) with their own crypto and big promises of pay and smart contracts. Yet, no one is making a living at it. Instead, they all want you, the indie musician, the bolster their business model by keeping their coins in the ecosystem, and bringing fans in to their closed platform. Funny, they make real money in actual dollars. 

So, if you made it this far, you’re a real one. You’re in this to create, to hustle, to scratch and fight. You won’t be stopped, and that’s the only way to survive today.

Secret: There is a way to “make it” today.  

But it’s hard, it just won’t look like you think it would, might be a condo instead of a mansion. It’s not for everyone, and even if you do all the things I outline, there are no guarantees. It’s going to take two years to see the results, but you’re in this for the long haul. I’ll deal with touring strategies, social media, and fan building in another article. This is about your recorded music strategy. In the digital world, it’s all about footprint. You have to release music for fans, but also for algorithms. You have to expand beyond your artist music – podcasts, videos, covers, and instrumentals. You have to constantly be working on the next fresh music so that licensors know they can build a relationship with you.

With all of that said, here is what you need to do:

  1. Look, it still starts with great music. What does that mean? No matter the genre: hooks, a memorable chorus, interesting lyrics, quality playing. Also, I can’t stress this enough, excellently mixed and mastered tracks. If it doesn’t sound as good as anything on the market, you are not trying hard enough. If you aren’t pro-level technically yet, find a producer, find a mixer, build a relationship, and pay them well. 
  2. You must affiliate with a PRO, you must properly register all of your songs correctly based on your split sheets and have a publishing entity. The long tail of royalties will eventually start to generate some passive income, and if you get a good placement, it will snowball. 
  3. You must become a distributor. I recommend Distrokid, but any of them will do. ISRC codes, UPC, quick platform uploads. 
  4. If you play live, record every single show. More releasable content.
  5. Release music for algorithms and fans. Yes, do your big album or EP. But in the meantime, you must release new music every 3-4 months. It could be a single, instrumental, fun cover, joke song, live version, experimental, or even a full EP, but every 3-4 months have something new. Even if you create another “Artist Profile.” This will trigger the coveted “new music” weighting, upstream you for playlisting.  There is literally no better strategy than this for music licensing and taking advantage of algorithmic digital streaming. 
  6. For every song, you must have three separate finals: a full mix, instrumental, and a cappella. Release a video on YouTube of the song for Content ID. It can be an artist video, or an album cover, but make it available on the largest music service in the world. 
  7. Work with a licensing agent. If not, find a micro-licensing site like Songtradr and start there. Then, do you research and represent your catalog (and new releases) to agencies. Build those relationships.  
  8. Get a Bandcamp site to maintain a direct way to offer downloads and previews.
  9. Offer physical on a special basis. Vinyl, cassette, CDs, but be artistic in how your present them, and make them valuable. Physical still sells. 
  10. Create content to use your music. Cat videos, music lessons, podcasts, cartoons, DIY videos, audiobooks. 

Ok, that’s a start. Part two later this year. I can’t wait to hear all of your fresh music! 


Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development. 

Main image “Almost Vintage Guitar” by xfile001 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Like this? Share this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.