It shouldn’t be news to anyone in the music business today that the smart (and maybe the only) money is in live performance, merchandising (which is kind of tied into live performance) and publishing (and all of its income streams). The bottom line: If you want to make a living these days on the artist side of the music business, you need to write and publish your own songs and perform them from the stage in an entertaining manner. Here’s a step-by-step list of how you might go about doing that – starting with the live performance side. (Note: There are probably a couple hundred other ways to accomplish this – but the odds are probably better this way)
- LEARN HOW TO PLAY GUITAR AND/OR PIANO AND SING (AT THE SAME TIME)
You’ll need to know how to play either guitar or keyboards (or both) well enough to accompany yourself singing. These basic skills of musicianship and vocalising can be a) self-taught (the slow process where you never really get good and you pick up a lot of bad habits along the way) OR b) learned from one-on-one professional instruction (the faster and better way). The latter method would also allow you to more quickly determine (based on your instructor’s reactions) if you have the talent to pursue this singer/songwriter/performer thing any further.
- LEARN IF YOU HAVE THE GIFT TO WRITE GREAT SONGS; IF SO, THEN WRITE SOME
The same learning process applies to song writing, although less so, in as much as playing and singing at the same time can be taught and learned, but song writing not so much. Once you learn the basics about chord progressions and formula song structures, anyone (really) can write a song. But the gift of writing a great song, melody and lyrics, is just that – a gift. You either have it or you don’t. You can fake singing and playing; you can’t fake writing great songs. You may want to look to outside co-writers for lyrics to fit your melodies or vice versa, just as Elton John met lyricist Bernie Taupin through a classified ad in NME. Note: co-writer is the key word in the previous sentence. Avoid covering other people’s songs; you lose the publishing income stream. (Note: This would be a great time to start your own publishing company and to copyright your songs. See Step 6 below)
- LEARN HOW TO DO IT ALL AS A SOLO ACOUSTIC ARTIST
You will want to focus on performing solo to keep costs down, especially at first when there is no performance income. (Note: A duo is OK too; three or more, not so much.) You will find that the ability to perform solo in a showcase setting will benefit you at every level of your career. And, in doing so, you eliminate all those unproductive band meetings.
- BEGIN TO LEARN ALL OF THE ABOVE AT LEAST BY AGE 12, OR 15 AT THE LATEST
To get anywhere near being at least good enough at all the above, you need to start in your early teens (or before), so that by age 18 you’re ready to take yourself out onto the professional stage. The later you begin, the older you are before you get good enough (let alone great). It’s a young person’s game and at some point, you may have to re-think your expectations. You could still make a decent living, performing your music and loving every minute of it, but you may have missed the star bandwagon.
- STEPS 1-4 ABOVE REQUIRE AN INCREDIBLE AMOUNT OF PRACTICE
We’re talking about a couple years at least of long, boring, tedious practice, preferably with instruction, encouragement and motivation from a variety of professionals – piano and guitar teachers, vocal coaches, dance classes, etc. If hard work, patience and persistence aren’t among your attributes, then perhaps you should reconsider your proposed path to stardom. There are way too many others out there who DO have that drive to be GREAT. Good enough may get you the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised, but only being great gets you a lasting career. And that takes practice.
- READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN ABOUT THE MUSIC BUSINESS
To start, I recommend Don Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business and Randall Wixen’s Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing. Funnily enough, neither book touches on the essential skills of live performance – and that’s why you’re reading this list. Learning how to perform and be an entertainer is a whole thing unto itself, separate from the business end. But you MUST learn the business end.
- DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME OR MONEY ON RECORDING (YET)
YOU’RE NOT READY. Learn how to operate Garage Band or ProTools. Record demos of your songs to listen to later and re-write to make them better. DO NOT POST YOUR DEMOS ANYWHERE. Or else they will come back to haunt you later in your career.
- DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME OR MONEY ON VIDEOS (YET)
YOU’RE NOT READY. Record your performances with your phone on a tripod for review later. DO NOT POST YOUR VIDEOS ANYWHERE. Because videos live forever on the Internet. Forever. Why set yourself up for future embarrassment?
- START TO PUT TOGETHER A 20-30 MINUTE SHOWCASE SET
That’s four to six songs. Up until now, you’ve been a “live jukebox” – singing and playing your songs in some random order, from a static position. Now you need to learn how to convert that amateur (yes, amateur) presentation to a professional-looking, entertaining showcase – one that will attract and impress an audience, preferably an audience made up of music industry leaders and potential investors, because you cannot go to the next step in your music career without the help of professionals and funding. A great showcase set is the way to attract both. Why 20-30 minutes? If you can’t show what you can do well in that amount of time, then you aren’t ready. And no one wants to see or hear any more than that from you at this point in your career anyway (other than your friends and family – see Step 10).
- DO NOT LISTEN TO YOUR FAMILY, FRIENDS, OR EVEN YOUR FANS
They are not music performance professionals. And even if they were, they are too close to you. Generally, they all love you and want you to do well, so they offer support and encouragement. What you need is an unbiased evaluation from someone unrelated to you – someone who has experience in all facets of the music business, but specifically and most importantly – live performance and publishing. You need to hear the TRUTH and get some DIRECTION from someone who knows what they’re talking about. NOTE: The TRUTH may not be what you want to hear. Too bad, get used to it. You might as well start now developing a thick skin for criticism, constructive or otherwise. You’re going to need it later as well for all sorts of other things.
- SO NOW YOU NEED TO HIRE A LIVE PERFORMANCE COACH
Such a person should have extensive personal experience playing live on stage and years of first-hand knowledge of the performing and touring business. The alternative is for you to book your own shows and tour around for the next five years or so, making little to no money, learning the craft of entertaining an audience by trying things out and seeing what works. You’ll find that such an endeavour is not nearly as much fun as it’s portrayed to be in the movies. However, with the help of a LIVE PERFORMANCE COACH you could learn positive performance skills faster and cheaper. And you would get to sleep in your own bed.
- NOW LEARN HOW TO ENTERTAIN
This is the point at which you move from the hard work of learning how to sing and play your own songs with confidence to the even harder work of learning how to entertain and connect with an audience. It’s the next big step on your way to becoming a great performer.