A Brief Guide to Becoming an Entrepreneurial Musician


I do not think there is a need to make preambles, music is an artistic expression made of air and as such it has an evanescent, immaterial nature. On the contrary, the musician’s life can be made up of many material issues – or rather obstacles – that prevent most of the aspiring rock stars from achieving their professional and personal goals. I will be immediately honest with you: as for all the professions in the show business, there is a high degree of natural selection among many looking for a career of successes.

However, what distinguishes the winners from the losers is not talent, but perseverance. This content starts from the desire to gather some fundamental information that is important to know in order to develop your artistic or musical project in a concrete way. I will not go into personal life stories or tales of better times, but I will try to address in a clear and exhaustive way of the main nodes of the music business suggesting strategies of common sense to navigate stormy seas.

For the rest, every emerging band or artist will write his own story and, even without following any one of my advice, you can achieve great goals. I certainly do not presume to reveal secrets or stratagems for success. I believe there is no right way or wrong way to do things, since there is no rule that guarantees a certain result in business; certain opportunities happen due to a series of coincidences well beyond our control. In this course I will suggest some ideas that give a structure and a concreteness to the path of an emerging musician and that help to face a “sustainable” career.

As they say “the broken clock marks the right time twice a day” and nothing prevents people driven by authentic madness to reach heights of notoriety in one night. But this notoriety and this success are not those that many artists see. The type of success I’m talking about is related to doing what we love in life, building one’s professional stability day by day.

With this content my goal is to present the life of the musician with all his privileges challenges, so that emerging professionals can face their career choices with ascetic clarity and intellectual honesty.We do not know at the bottom what the future holds, but we can look for as much information as possible to make the best possible choice or at least the best informed.

This text does not want to express generalist ideas or coaching concepts, but rather attempts to provide clear and immediate initiatives to roll up one’s sleeves and strive for the opportunity to follow a passion, transforming it day after day into a profitable job.

The purpose of this work is to connect two different dimensions of the creative initiative, showing the similarities that exist between a musical project and the one of a company’s start-up stage. In both cases it takes determination, character, strategy and a good dose of know-how. I would also like to point out that, yes, I am perfectly aware that a career in music is very difficult but I am even more convinced that when there is a sufficiently determined will, there are few objectives out of our reach.

I therefore ask my readers to face the content that will follow with the right critical spirit, but without pessimism.

  1. A Brief History of the Recording Industry
  2. The Scope of Investment in the Discographic Industry
  3. Record Production is Not A One-Size-Fits-All Solution
  4. Conclusions

1. A Brief History of the Recording Industry

The concept of ‘crisis’ is certainly not new to us. Although in many cases, it is to be intended as a bad thing, in the case of the recording industry the concept of crisis is to be understood in a positive sense.

In a nutshell, within the music industry every technological revolution, expands the ways in which artists reach their audiences. The recording industry is in fact comprised of two souls: one is the creative side (represented by music) and the other is the technological component (represented by the medium on which the music is recorded). Both of these souls are constantly evolving: every time a crisis involves the first of the two, we are witnessing the creation of a new musical genre, when it involves the second, we have the creation of a new medium, or a new technology of accessing music.

To each ‘new mechanical support’ corresponds a different distribution business model. To gain a proper perspective, we can think that as early as the beginning of the 20th century – when the first pianos began to circulate with perforated paper roll – people were already calling a scandal, because musicians thought that live music would have suffered unfair competition.

The same then happened with all the subsequent progresses, the vinyls, the radio (developed as a result of the technological innovations of World War II) but also with tape players and the CD. For each of these innovations, the music industry had to reinvent itself, to sell an ever-new product on the market (although it remained identical at the same time).

The crisis we are closest to has been the one brought by peer-to-peer networks, Napster and digital distribution. Paradoxically, in this latest crisis, the “mechanical support” has lost its material dimension. Most record companies had not developed a business model that would allow them to maintain the value of the enormous investment they had on their musicians. By downloading from peer-to-peer networks, users could acquire the result of a millionaire production at no cost.

But every crisis is also synonym of an opportunity. In the phase in which we find ourselves today, discography is experiencing a new Renaissance due to the birth of a model – the “subscription” model – which allows users to enjoy the music they need at an affordable cost. It can be said that music now is almost an utility bill, compared to  other goods and services of great importance, such as electricity and gas. On the other hand, live music, has not suffered the same kind of rollercoasters – with  surges and collapses –  as the live concert scene is a completely different market.

Live music, in fact, is based on the idea of creating an opportunity for relationships among people, which will never lose value. In the next chapters we will talk more in detail about what it means for a record label to invest in an artist, to understand the mindset with which companies in the entertainment industry – like any other business – must find a compromise between the search for new products and production of a profit.

2. The Scope of Investment in the Discographic Industry

The matter is simple: for every business activity, there is a risk capital, or a sum of money that we spend in pursuing an activity with uncertain results. The greater the capital we invest in an asset or a venture, the greater the percentage of the profits we are entitled to if the operation is successful. An enterprise usually carries out two types of investment: an initial one, needed to create the provision of a service or the creation of a product, and a cyclical one, linked to the maintenance and growth of the company. The former therefore takes place once, during the start-up phase of the activity, while the second one is evaluated on an annual basis.

The companies that invest a part of their profits every year with the goal of developing and innovating their organization find themselves managing a whole division or  ‘department’ called Research and Development. R & D in shorts aims to improve products and services relating to your audience. The percentage of R & D investments is therefore assessed as a percentage of annual profits and depends on the type of business that the company carries out.

For example, in the army and defense sector, annual investments are around 4% of total profits, while in sectors that are very close to scientific discoveries, such as for example the pharmaceutical sector, we reach a percentage of around 15%. By comparing the recording industry with these sectors, one understands the extent of the risks to which large music productions companies expose themselves when they invest in an artist, since on average the investments reach about 30% of the annual yearly profits. From here it is understood that to sustain their expenses a record production must be able to make the most of the gains earned on their successes – when the artists they sponsor achieve success – , in order to offset losses related to ‘bets’ that did not have the desired result.

These huge risks are the ones which created the premises for the 360° contracts, according to which musicians give away part of their rights to other sources of income, which do not only concern the sale of records but tap into the value connected to an artist overall image media image. In the contracts productions can draw percentages of income from various fronts, such as: live concerts, merchandize, or even the participation in television or cinematic productions.

Returning to the initial analogy, in the same way that the companies have the R & D division, the record labels that have the A & R division (Artist and Repertoire), that is the part of their organization that deals with finding and enhancing the prospects of the new artists under contract. Through R & D, a label seeks a subtle balance between seeking new talent and maintaining its financial stability.

3. Record Production is Not A One-Size-Fits All Solution

We could argue that if we went to a rehearsal room to interview emerging musicians and asked them to talk about the goals they wanted to reach in their musical career, most would probably suggest that their biggest goal is to sign a discographic contract. It is undeniable that for an emerging artist, signing a contract with a music label is a very important moment of one’s career, but few artists take this step at the right time, or with the right mindset.

The reason why it is important to choose the right time to start the production stage of one’s career is linked to the fact that a band needs to have a very clear idea of the public that is speaking to,  before being able to pro itself on the market. In other historical moments a record production could serve as the means to explore a market and find a ‘niche’ of fans, but in modern times the productions play a role much more tied to the packaging of the product and its distribution, rather than to its promotion. Promotion is often a component of a music-production deal which is undervalued, and with no promotion, chances of success are very slim.

Taking a brief historical excursus we see that in other historical moments the approach  pursued by a record production was the one to choose an artist to “cultivate”. In the ’60s or ‘70s, for example, a production could choose artists with the aim of helping them achieve their own artistic dimension as well as a clear musical identity through their unique mix of sound and lyrics. Only after achieving this first goal, the on of finding one’s voice, the artist becomes “mature” for the commercialization of his/her music and for a wider public success.

A mature artist, therefore, after accessing the market through the powerful means of a production company, could extend and consolidate his audience. In the Rock and Roll years, being produced by a record company means having the opportunity to work with high-level professionals who would undertake a close collaboration with the artist both on a professional and personal level.Today, however, a production does not invest on an artist because it has potential for success, but invests on an artist if he is already famous and has the possibility to monetize his success. Now it’s not anymore about investing in potential success, as much as investing in a project which already has already collected its own community of fans, and which provides almost-sure returns on investment.

So here’s a practical advice: if you want to become attractive for an investment, at the time of your “discovery” you must already have a following and at the same time have your own clear musical identity. This is not only a sign of musical maturity, but also a way to attract investors who see a ‘structure’ beneath your project. It is therefore clear that in the psychology of modern production a good investment is the one that produces income from the first day. From the foregoing it is understood that my advice is to consider production as a goal for mature artists, to be addressed only after answering many other questions that we will see together.

Only when an artist has developed a clear self-consciousness can he/she place himself competitively on the talent market. The first step in this direction is therefore starting from something much more immediate and useful, build a local public. A group that develops its audience from concerts that take place in a neighborhood club or in a contest between emerging bands, will build a much more loyal fan base, thanks to a direct and personal involvement between musicians and the public.

4. Conclusions

As we’ve seen in this post, the first challenge in becoming a professional musician lies within ourselves. Even if with the advent of digital distribution the music industry has undergone some seismic changes, it’s necessary for any musician to understand what are the goals of a production label and how these goals can be aligned or unaligned with their personal objectives. 

As we’ll see in the following posts, there are many ways in which a musician can develop an entrepreneurial attitude towards hisher career and bootstrap a business, starting from making the best use of what you may have already available.

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A Brief Guide to Becoming an Entrepreneurial Musician In this post we share some common sense advice to those who are approaching the music career and want to create a sustainable approach to a exceptional job.
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