| November 29, 2023 |

What Does Success in the Music Industry Look Like?

From composition to studio recording to marketing, the path toward a sustainable music career involves many factors

When you part with your hard-earned money for a concert ticket, an album, or merchandise like posters and clothing, it means a musician and/or a management team did something right. The transaction typically flows in a simple sequence: You encountered their creative project in a common media channel and enjoyed it enough to be moved to invest further to relive the experience or to find out more. Ear candy is ear candy, but what makes it tasty is subjective. Hear. See. Want. Buy. That’s how it goes in marketing efforts.

With all the delicious algorithms happening online these days, it’s possible to stumble across new music that you end up liking because they know you (scary, right?). However, the old marketing patterns are still going strong and are based largely on campaigns. When you discovered something new and appealing, you probably experienced a professionally realized product (often a single or a video single)—and its branding accouterment—in a strategic hierarchy of related elements. 

If listed, the elements nurturing such transactions would be long and varied with things like ads, TV and movie placements, radio interviews, and more. There’s no end to the ways and means of marketing a band or artist. It can literally pay to study these methods and use them to promote your work.

Radiohead helped pioneer a new era of self-releases, as they offered “In Rainbows” as a pay-what-you-want download. Later, they released it traditionally, but the mold was cast. A band with a big enough audience could successfully circumvent label representation with solvency to spare.

Touring is one of the major marketing avenues. There’s an experiential transaction between artist and audience that may resonate for a lifetime. Memorabilia is usually available at shows, and many attendees will end up marketing your band and brand for you as they update their social media profiles with their own photos and videos of the event itself and as they wear your concert shirts in public.

Gibson Ambassador Jared James Nichols recently demonstrated the first prototype of his “Blues Power” Les Paul in an interview with Dinesh Lekhraj. Jared related that the instrument had been all over the world, and it was evident the hardware was heavily worn from flesh-on-metal contact. It takes a lot of touring to make a new guitar look like a vintage guitar in just under five years! So, he stands as a testament to making connections with worldwide audiences, building a fanbase, and constantly delivering new content into his channels of influence.

The music industry can be a challenging and competitive field, but there are logical strategies that aspiring musicians can use to increase their chances of success. Here are some general tips to keep in mind as you navigate the complexity of it all.

Develop Your Skills  

While originality and natural talent go a long way in a landscape where recording and global distribution have been democratized, it never hurts to be exceptional at your craft to stand out in the music industry. Certainly, some aspects of making music are intangible, but if you are often told that you have talent in a particular area of music, be sure to hone that talent. Take the time to practice and build upon your existing skills, whether singing, playing an instrument, writing songs, or producing. 

Consider university training, taking private lessons, or attending workshops to maintain and improve your technique and knowledge. Steve Vai once said, “I’ve got strengths, and I’ve got weaknesses. I don’t work on my weaknesses. I ignore them, and I cultivate my strengths.” So, even if you have great natural intonation with your voice, you might continue to develop amazing vibrato, better projection, and tonal control of your singing voice. Be like Steve and play to your strengths in a holistic way.

Even when you have the looks, the drive, a recognizable voice, and great songs, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll have success. Virtuosity has its place, but it may be just as helpful to look more closely at your own music collection to discover what makes those particular artists stand out. What attracted you to this music? What can you emulate? Are there points of connection between your work and what has gone before? Your album collection may be telling you something important.

Take advantage of the resources on YouTube because the times we live in are unprecedented in terms of the quality of teaching available to you (free and paid). The Gibson ecosystem has multiple YouTube channels and an App to help you with knowledge and gear demonstrations.

If you typically compose music alone, consider starting a band project—there’s no need to form a perpetual band as long as you’re honest about wanting a temporary situation for growth. Playing with other people will hone skills and is often the first step toward useful networking. Jamming in a garage is the tried-and-true method of budding stardom—and it plants the seeds for all those inglorious lawsuits later on if you’re not wise about whom you partner with!

Seriously, you’ll never regret drafting a simple contract and specifying how the songwriting and publishing are to be split for the music you create with others. Handshakes are for friends, but contracts are for serious people. Register your work with a respected performance rights society like BMIASCAP, or SESAC and your federal government because that is how you get paid and how you protect your work from thieves. 

In the 21st century, you can even wrangle artificial intelligence into your marketing strategy—particularly the visuals if you don’t fancy having machines write your music for you or with you, though this aspect of things may eventually muddy the copyright waters.

The Gibson App tuner, helping you get your rig fine-tuned in more ways than one!

Build a strong network  

Connections are crucial in the music industry, so building relationships with other musicians, producers, and industry professionals (including caterers, service staff, bartenders, and entertainment lawyers) is important. Attend local shows and events, and use social media to connect with other musicians in your area. 

Ask your peers questions and learn their industry experiences: what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Keep a notebook filled with the insights you gain, including phone numbers and addresses (which you should also transfer to your phone as soon as possible—an address in the proverbial cloud is what you need so that you never lose it). 

Always maintain a brainstorming mindset, adding new ways of connecting with people and being generous with your time. That means unselfishly helping your contacts connect with each other. Engaging with fans is another way of developing a network because, in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of way, you really never know who knows who and whether they might make life-changing introductions because you’re cool and they honestly like you and want the best for you. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to meet people making strides in their careers as long as you’re not being manipulative. We’re a social species, and one hallmark of humanity is cooperation. Be a person who sees the power in that reality. Be a person who helps others.

Form an inner circle  

There’s great power in having a smaller group of trusted friends to rely on for testing ideas and honest critiques of your efforts. One-on-one conversations about your output can be invaluable because they allow others to spin their energy and insights into your projects. You may invite them over for brainstorming sessions, too. 

Engaging in a free-flowing discussion to generate as many ideas as possible without criticism or judgment is an intelligent way of breaking away from old patterns. Plus, this strategy extends the networking idea, but it’s probably more accurate to think of it as formalizing an aspect of friendship. Everyone needs friends to help and rely on as they build a career in the music industry.

Create a brand  

To succeed in the music industry, you must stand out and be memorable. Develop a unique brand that represents your music and your personality. This includes your image, logo, social media presence, and live performances—don’t forget business cards, either. Branding may even take into account the color of your guitar and how you curate photographs of your band or solo career on Instagram or X.

Publish your efforts consistently in every channel available to you. Super-successful bands like RUSH included video and animation early in their live shows, creating an immersive experience. They also took part in at least two documentaries that extended the depth of their brand and reached entirely new audiences as the films became a way for existing fans to evangelize their work to friends and family. 

Even now, after the band (in the absence of Neil Peart) has transitioned into retirement, Geddy and Alex are still developing new branding opportunities with new bands, signature guitars, co-branded beers, and many limited-edition releases of past albums. As of this writing, Geddy is on a speaking tour to support his recently published memoir.

Get your music out there  

In the digital age, it’s easier than ever to share your music with the world, invading all the time zones all the time. Ensure you have a robust online presence, including a mobile-friendly website and many social media profiles. Use platforms like Patreon, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp to share your music with fans and industry professionals. These channels may also have the potential to produce revenue.

You may also want to consider what means you have at your disposal for a steady stream of interesting content. Do you have unusual instruments? Vintage gear of some sort? Post them on social media and begin curating an autobiography of sorts of the tools you have and how you’re using them. Perhaps you could produce and post alternative versions of your songs—the unplugged versions or stylistic excursions that show your range of interests. Field user-submitted questions in a video update about what you’re up to and push that content through the channels with forethought rather than as an afterthought.

Spending time on social media to “get your stuff out there” may prove to be more valuable than some smaller club gigs! Going viral for something carries a lot of weight at this juncture in history. Keeping your media channels flowing with content is a powerful means you have at your disposal.

Contests for fans to win limited-run media are also effective ways of building a mailing list so that you can reconnect with fans who have already shown an interest in your work—these are the folks who want your content and may end up sharing it on their own social media channels. Grow your audience in every way you can. You want your music to be generating revenue while you sleep!

Don’t give up  

Success in the music industry often takes time and persistence. Don’t get discouraged by rejection or setbacks—it happens to everyone. Keep working on your craft, building your network, and promoting your music. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody likes a jerk.

Lzzy Hale relates some of her struggles: anxiety, imposter syndrome, fear. While facing those elements of life, she and her band, Halestorm, persisted through tough tours, band life, and more. “Own your weird,” she says.

By following these strategies, aspiring musicians can increase their chances of success in the music industry. Of course, there are no guarantees, but you can make your mark in this exciting and rewarding field with hard work and dedication. And if you can swing it, meet the King or Queen—great for publicity—ahem—if you need it. Apparently, these chaps and their marketing efforts never breached Buckingham Palace!