Your Band is A Startup: How to Start a Career in the Music Industry


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 is 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 post starts with 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 blog post, 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 blog post series, 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 material 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 title I chose for this blog post series “Your band is a startup” because the intent of this work is to relate 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 course that will follow with the right critical spirit, but without pessimism.

In this blog post we’re going to discuss:

  1. How the Music Industry Has Always Been in Crisis
  2. The Scope of Investment in the Fashion Industry
  3. Record Production is not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution
  4. If You’d Like to Start a Music Career Start with Writing a List
  5. Conclusions

1. How the Music Industry Has Always Been in A Crisis.

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 progress, the vinyl, 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 a 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 a 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 sections, 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 Music 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 defence 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, merchandise, 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 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, production does not invest in an artist because it has the 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 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 mindset 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 neighbourhood 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. If You’d Like to Start a Music Career Start with Writing A Lis​t

After briefly ascertaining that a discographic contract is not among the most immediate goals of an emerging artist, let’s talk about the first steps for an emerging professional musician.  What I write is meant for musicians, but it is also easily applicable for other creative professions.

It all starts by sitting at a table. 

The first step is to identify an objective, useful and attainable. For a ‘reachable’ objective I mean something easy, widely within our reach, something that is already on the horizon. I can say that in our professional life there are never big, complete victories, but on the other hand every day we build something for the next day. it is in this long term perspective that I recommend to act.

Re-focusing on one’s own goals is fundamental because it leads us to understand what we expect from our careers. Once we become aware of what it means to take a certain musical path and accept the risks that this entails, we will understand that from this first decision many other consequences will follow. We shall pick a goal and write it down. It must be a goal where most of the work needed must depend on us, but aid is allowed. Defining a goal is what you would do if instead of having a conversation with yourself you were actually talking to a manager or an agent.

The difference is that to make the most of the help that these professionals can give you, you must already have quite clear ideas about your future.  But if we do not have to do everything ourselves how to understand who can help us?
We take a piece of paper and write a list where we put all the people who are part of our network and that can be useful to achieve our goal.

Let’s take an example. If I want to become a musician, a possible first goal is to do a concert in a club in my city. If I can do the concert alone, excellent; if this is not the case, then I make a list and write to it the best musicians I know; if I do not know them I write a list of places where I can trace them, and I continue the reasoning backwards not to find a first action that will lead me to reach my goal. As I often say to my students, my professional aim is not to reach the most ambitious goal, but to achieve the most significant goal I can reach, maintaining the highest possible quality of work. This is professionalism:  providing a service – even small – but of great quality.

From a high-quality project will be born other projects, in which we should maintain or raise the standards we have achieved. If there is no quality there is no work.

A question arises from the question: how can I understand which is the standard to which I must arrive to, in order to achieve professional status?
This can be done in various ways. One way to understand the level of professionalism is through one school.

A school is not just a gym but it is also an environment, a context of confrontation. The higher the school level, the better the standards will be. Another way is to do research. Doing research means widening one’s horizons and trying to know and understand the reasons for things as much as possible.

Read biographies, get to know people, develop systematic and organized curiosity. A good researcher starts with questioning himself, his tastes and his certainties. As the ancients said, the wise man knows he does not know. Both of these approaches require humility, but they are passable at the same time. As we said earlier, doing business involves investing in research, but it is a time investment, something that does not necessarily require spending.

5. Conclusions

In terms of business, therefore, your band is a startup or an organization in the stadium where it is building its fundamental elements and is characterized by many uncertainties. A company and a band have many similarities. Both, for example, must be economically viable and must promote their product (or, in the analogy, their concerts). But the fundamental point is another.

A company in its start-up phase as well as an emerging band must understand who its audience is aimed at. A well-established company, in fact, works on improving a product that already has a lot of consumers, while a startup has a good idea, but often still has to understand who may have an interest in buying it. The world of startups is the subject of much attention in recent years, and for a musician-entrepreneur to have knowledge of entrepreneurship or business administration can be very useful. This is why on our blog a lot of information can be found when it comes to starting a new venture, building upon the similarities that make all startups alike, regardless of the industry they belong to or of product they’re selling.

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