Build a Business, Not a Following

If small business owners in other lines of work took the same advice that has regularly been doled out to musicians, they’d never get anything done. The fact is artists, producers, and other music makers have been encouraged to emulate the 1% of music stars and celebrities, looking for scale and big numbers–whether it’s streams or subscriptions or follows–first and foremost. This is a predictable product of the platform-era of digital music, but it distracts from other, more practical and fulfilling ways to achieve a sustainable, satisfying career.

You need to be focusing on your business, not your following. You’ll need a firewall between your creative life and its demands and joys, and your business thinking, which requires a bit more distance and cold, hard clarity, when you look at your music as something you’re selling or promoting

How you do this, how you cut through the noise, will be different for each creator out there. However, everyone can take three things to heart as you traverse these waters. Building your business requires that you nurture your talent, find your community, and maximize your income from the work you do.

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Nurture your talent

Your creativity is your business. There is no separating the two, and these two aspects of your work are not in opposition. You can’t have a business without your talent driving things, and this means you need to take your creativity and talent seriously; they are the core and you can’t afford to neglect them.

This means both protecting your time and energy to make sure you create regularly and ensuring that you never stop learning, setting attainable goals, and improving your skills. Without an effort, life has a way of running roughshod over our creative impulses and hopes, even if we’re making a living as creators or music professionals.

Everyone is going to approach this nurture differently, but everyone needs to make expansion, improvement, and room for inspiration on their own terms a life priority. Everything else is really secondary.

What to do:

  • Experiment with different approaches until you find one that builds the habits you need to get traction.
  • Remind yourself of what matters. It’s easy to get swept up in other conversations about business tactics or hacks, not to mention other measures of success. Remind yourself regularly that creativity is the heart of what you do, and that that creative urge needs room and time.
  • Look for inspiration, both within your style or scene, and outside it (and outside music in general). Seek out what gets ideas flowing and make it a habit to turn to these inspirations. Take time to listen to new music, go to a museum, daydream, take a walk, or play a game, whatever it is that works for you. It’s not just good for your soul, it’s good business.

Find your community

So maybe you’ve got a regular practice down, or you’re making sure you’re shielding that creative spark from the storms of daily life. You also need to find a group of likeminded people to egg you on and support you, and that you can encourage and support. You need a community.

These aren’t your fans or your customers. These are your creative peers. Ideally, this community should be a mix of people just getting started and those further along in their careers. The mix ensures you can both commiserate and trade tips, as well as find real mentorship opportunities from those who’ve learned what you’re still mastering.

Though this is rarely discussed in the context of a music business, feedback from the community is critical. A producer starting out, for example, may not have been exposed to certain things and may pick up a ton of new knowledge, ideas, and inspiration from more experienced beatmakers. It’s really hard to grow in a vacuum; you need props and constructive feedback.

A lot of new producers who are judging their success in terms of beat sales, for example, often need guidance to discover the simple fixes in both marketing and production that could get them to that first beat sale. Without this community input, they can flail around for months, get frustrated, and quit, when all they needed to do was tune something better or reduce compression. You can’t find customers until you’ve perfected what you have to offer, and you can do that faster and better in a supportive community

What to do:

  • Find where helpful communities gather. It could be Reddit. It could be Discord. It could be at a local music venue or shop or studio.
  • Invest in that community. Lurking or simply striving to extract value from a community isn’t going to get you far if what you need is a two-way conversation. Invest by sharing what you know and supporting your fellow community members.
  • Be open to constructive feedback. This can be really hard, especially when we’re talking about your creative work. Stay open, work through your defensiveness, and listen to feedback that’s well-meaning and well informed.

Maximize your income

First, let’s talk about how to focus on creating more opportunities and more growth for your music business. When you’re looking to increase your revenues from your music or beats, the first, big-picture step comes when you put yourself in the shoes of consumers and imagine how they’d like your music to be presented. You may be proceeding from the assumption that people are actively seeking out your music, taking the time to listen, and quickly deciding to buy or lease your beats. That’s wishful thinking. You need to be intentional and reactive in your marketing efforts.

What to do:

  • Explore your audience and target ads to excite them. You’ve met your community; where do they hang out? What music services do they listen to? Where do you see ads from producers similar to you, but maybe a bit further along on the journey? You can do what a lot of marketers do, and A/B test your ads. Try two approaches to the same call to action and see what resonates more. Then experiment. Keep track of your results and notice what people respond to. Don’t throw money into ads without committing to monitoring what they actually get you.
  • Choose your features and collaborators wisely. They need to speak to your creative side (a vocalist or MC who is just really damn good), or they need to speak to your business side. Don’t just connect with friends.
  • Price your music to make the decision to purchase easier. If you make beats and you’ve explored your audience effectively, you can decide whether a reasonably priced lease ($50, say) is more enticing than a $1,000 exclusive sale. Set your prices to fit the market niche you’re aiming for, and don’t feel you’re stuck. Though remember, it’s easier to lower your price via discounts, deals, or other means than raise them.
  • Create mystique around your releases. While everyone feels the temptation to get that music out there the second it’s done, it’s okay to make your niche audience wait. Build in some time to let the excitement build, at least a week or two. Surprise drops may work for household names, but probably not for you. You can hold onto that track for a bit and set things up right.

Along with these marketing decisions, you can track down as much of your potential revenue as possible. Many, many music creatives leave money on the table. It’s easy to note this fact, but it’s much harder, however, to give solid advice about how to remedy this problem. You may not want to become a world-class royalty administrator, so don’t be afraid to seek out and even pay for administrative help. The cost is low, and the potential gain is high.

What to do:

  • Leverage tools like Content ID to capture revenue from your copyright usage. By registering with automated tools like YouTube’s Content ID, your work can be found wherever it pops up—and you can get a share of any money generated from the use of that work.
  • Create your own storefront and market to your niche. Marketplaces can be great, but if you’re a producer who’s thinking like a business, you should have your own landing page where people can buy direct. (For even more control, use an embeddable store like we offer at Airbit. Artists should look at something like Bandzoogle, where you sell music and subscriptions in one spot via your website.)
  • Distribute your music with a reputable independent distributor like CD Baby or TuneCore. This is something that producers sometimes overlook. If you’re not already signed up to collect on publishing or mechanicals, check with your distributor to see if they can help.
  • Collaborate with creators who can increase your exposure and generate more streaming revenue. These creators may not even be in music but may share some passion or common theme with you. Why not team up, do something cool together, and share audiences?

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