Monday, August 6, 2012

Advice for Independent Artists: The Real Cost of “Making it”

Los Angeles Music Awards Red Carpet event at the
Paramount Studios in Hollywood in 2010
There is an ongoing delusion about the music industry. As a result, artists  with incredible talent just sit around and wait for their big break. While this is happening, they let opportunities pass them by. What are you waiting for?

Trust me, I used to believe all the smoke behind mirrors too, hoping for that big break. For example, thinking label A&R reps are constantly in the music venues waiting in the shadows looking to sign new talent. I notice artists scheduling meeting after meeting, only to be rejected time and time again. Believing your music is enough is a myth, a fantasy. I realized this very quick, it’s all a numbers game. To get those numbers, you need to spend money to get to the top. There are few, if any get free rides in the music industry. People think the winners of American Idol are given a million bucks when they win. They get a loan, so you had better hope your record goes double platinum, so you can make their money back, plus the expected return for their investment. If there’s anything left, that is your share.

If you make a lot of money on the release of your CD, you get to move forward with your national tour. At each arena or venue you play at, you’ll need to guarantee an average of $30,000 or more in ticket sales, plus pay for event staffing. It depends on the promoter or venue. This means, you put up the money first. Yes, this is pay-to-play.

People think there is no pay-to-play in the majors. The truth is, the artists pay for everything upfront. I was reading in Rolling Stone Magazine that Madonna coughed up over a million dollars to play during half time at the Superbowl this past February. The NFL didn't pay her anything.

I’ve heard other people say, “She must get paid a lot of money to play at the Grammy’s.” No one is paid to play at the Grammy’s. A few years back, Lady Gaga paid over $500,000. The only thing she got in return was $50,000 in free endorsement products that was donated by the company sponsors. If you want to perform with the majors, you have to dish out money like one. If you wanted to play with the big boys, you could rent Staples center for about $500,000. Spend $20,000 for 2 weeks worth of radio advertising at KIIS FM (By the way, they won’t play your music unless you’re with a major label), spend another $30,000 in billboard advertising and you might have a sold out show, granted you  sell your tickets for about $100 a piece and hope you sell each and every ticket. If you’re lucky, you’ll make about $3 million, but after you’ve paid the event staff, roadies, and attorney fees, and other miscellaneous expenses, you might net $1 million…just enough to book your next 2 shows.

If you have not seen it, go see “Katy Perry: Part of Me”. She will not talk about how much money she spent to get where’s she is at, but she does talk about the struggle and how long it took and what it took to get where she is today. No one at the top will ever reveal to you what it took to get where they are and how much they spent until you are at their level. On a separate note, did you know that Katy Perry was a Los Angeles Music Awards nominee? Yes, she was. She is but one of many.

There are few people that understand this is a business. The few that do understand, they have made the sacrifices and are living the dream and making money doing what they love. They understand the basic principal that you need to multiply your initial investment by at least two times. I am talking about gear, software, professional recording, professional editing, CD artwork, duplication, design, and photography. Lump that altogether and that is what you need in additional money. The average independent artist spends $3,000 to $35,000 by the time they have released his or her first CD. If you want to make a dent in the industry, you need to spend an equal amount into advertising, marketing, public relations, entering contests, festivals, and radio, etc. None of it is free. If you’re doing your own PR, even a single news wire costs $700.

If you spend nothing after you’ve made your “killer” CD, you get nothing in return. You cannot get anywhere without spending money. If you don’t come from money, have family ties in the industry, you need investors. You need investment capital to get anywhere. It is an unfortunate reality. Very few are lucky to be as Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, or Gotye who have come from nothing.

What those 3 have in common is they struggled for more than 10 years before they became stars. Coldplay struggled for only 4 years. Muse started in 1994, but we didn’t hear about them until they were on the Twilight movie soundtrack. Justin Bieber is as lucky as they come. He is an extreme exception to the rule that only happens about once every decade. You might as well play the multi-state lottery twice a week for 10-years. The odds are the same. He was fortunate Usher discovered him. Had Usher not been browsing the internet, JB would still be making YouTube videos and he would be still playing at some no name coffee shop in Canada. Usher would have never invested in him if he didn’t see the money making potential. JB was simply seen as a product, nothing more. Once you see yourself as a product, you will understand the business a lot better.

I have witnessed a few exceptions to this rule, but you need to be incredibly well connected, but even these folks are not running up success as you might think, but they aren’t struggling either. Of the handful of the hundreds I come across, only two or three are living the semi-lucrative dream as an indie artist. One of them is actually on her way to “mega stardom,” and will most likely play at the 2013 Artists In Music Awards. Two or three more will have similar success, but the majority of these great artists will give up long before and that’s because they are just waiting to be discovered and waiting for someone to pick up the tab. This is not going to happen.

Believe me. I don’t like to see anyone give up their dream, but this industry isn’t kind or giving. I get frustrated when I see all these incredible artists continue to be turned away, because they don’t have the capital to back themselves. This is why I have the radio station and the music awards. I’m tired of good talent not getting any recognition and taking a back seat to mainstream and getting lost in a sea of talentless music. More frustrating is when artists scoff at what I do, because it’s “Pay-to-play”. If I don’t charge to play your music, then it would not exist. You get exactly what you pay for. If you get on a station for free, look at what is being played before and after you. If the music being played is garbage, guess what? No one is going to hear your song anyway.

There is also this delusion that radio play is free in the mainstream world. Trust me, you pay for airtime and it’s more than you think. Unless you’re in the Billboard Top 50, you’re spending more then what you get back in royalties. For the last 3 years, I’ve been reinvesting every dime I have collected in order to expand and grow. If I see that someone is doing better than I am, you had better believe I am adapting and making changes. Getting to the top is always ongoing process and it’s not as easy as it may seem.

As a successful artist, you must have everything in the right place and you need to hustle. By hustle, I don’t mean by just blasting someone’s Facebook wall everyday. That will do nothing except annoy people and then you will wonder why people are unsubscribing and unliking your page. I get hundreds of alerts everyday and I get annoyed too, which is why I don’t write 10 daily updates in my Facebook groups or Fan pages. That is what Twitter is for.

For the most part, Facebook is pretty useless to the average independent artist unless you’re spending at least $20 a week in advertisements. I see artists post on multiple walls, but few people actually pay any attention. A mindless MEME will get 100 times the impressions than your post about your hit song.

So, how do you build a fanbase that will gain attention? You need to relate to your audience. Engage them in conversation. Don’t ignore people and don’t make yourself unattainable. Until you are at the same level as Coldplay or Justin Bieber, act like a real person. Use Twitter to publish your thoughts and have it connected to Facebook. If you use an AutoTweeter like I do, then this is not a good idea to auto-publish your Tweets on your Facebook page. You will annoy the hell out of your friends and you’ll soon discover who your real friends are, because they will be dropping like flies. Definitely utilize Twitter. If it wasn’t for Twitter, The Great Unknowns Presents, Artists In Music Awards, All Indie Magazine, and KGUP 106.5FM would have never gotten off the ground.

Other ideas is to send a weekly newsletter and talk about your future plans. Create a weekly video diary, perform a cover song (make sure its good), hold contests giving away a song, tickets to your next gig, etc. Give your fans a reason to tell their friends why they should listen to your music and go see you perform at your next gig at midnight on a Tuesday night.

Go to major city events in Hollywood and New York and attend red carpet events. Don’t just perform at some coffee shop, bar, or club just because it’s free. You are limiting your potential when you only do free events. Events cost lots of money to produce. No one puts on events out of the kindness of their hearts or because they have extra money laying around. If there was no profit to be made, there would be no such thing as the Grammy’s, the Billboard Music Awards, American Music Awards, Los Angeles Music Awards, the Independent Music Awards, Artists In Music Awards, Youth Rock Awards, etc. Perform at all of them if you can. Every one of these events has an audience and whenever there is an audience, there is Press exposure that ultimately comes with it and the potential for you to gain new fans.

In Air performing at the Hottest 100 Music Festival 
Now, let’s talk about festivals. Here’s the truth about festivals. Yes, there are lots of them going on and people flock to them by the thousands and spend hundreds of dollars to go, but guess what. You’re not playing on the same stages as the headliners, and all those hundreds of thousands of people may not even see you, because the truth of the matter is, it’s all about ticket sales.

If you sell the minimum 40 tickets at $10 each as stated in the contract and you gave them $400, you will get the early show at 11am and you’ll only play on the smallest stage off to the side somewhere where no one can see you. If you sound awesome, you may attract about 20 to 30 people, and that’s because there are 4 other stages with bands playing at the same time as you.

HOWEVER, if you sell 200 tickets, you might get the main stage and the 7pm slot. The more tickets you sell, the later the time slot and the bigger the stage. When the next year comes along, and you sell another 200 tickets when everyone else is only selling 100, you’re playing during primetime on the main stage at 8pm. It’s all a numbers game and it all comes down to how many fans you have. If you keep doing it, you may go on tour with and become a regular name on the list and it could land you a record deal.

To get there, you must engaged your fans, plus your music must be fresh and cutting-edge, and it’s something that is tapping into the 13 to 25 year-old demographic, then you WILL be successful.

Don’t wait for opportunities to find you. Too much time will go by and by the time you meet the right people, suddenly your music is outdated. You will end up missing the boat by waiting or by holding out because it cost a few bucks to pull your weight when you don't have an audience.


  1. THank You, great article, very practical, very real ! A must read for original independent musicians.

    :Deborah Magone

  2. thank god for silicon valley and all the young tech guys who will change the industry for the better this whole thing sounds crazy

  3. That was such a good and interesting read! I think everyone who is trying to "Make it" needs to read this! It just put everything into perspective and those fantasy thoughts have turned into action="ok, here's what we gotta do"! Thanks :)

  4. Yet another email that will be forwarded to the bands gmail! Keep em comin, this is very useful! Thanks mikey!!!

  5. Can’t wait to get this! I can feel a sick day coming so I can stay home from school and blow my day playing this.

  6. Good Article, And yes the road is way more then Artist do expect, and i do agree that an artist needs to Invest, though not so much money, i think there is other factors that have the same power or even more power in the long run as money, .. Thanks for Sharing and Much Power to you With the Gems you Drop, and Keep on!!

  7. At least American idle and such shows give an artist exposure, the very thing you are saying is very expensive. Isn't that a good thing. A lot of people now know who they are. Do they have to except the record deal or can they shop elsewhere.

  8. thanks a realistic article .. slight sell for your artist competition .. but many elements of this article are true. However also musicians need to be careful with the money they do spend .. I always tell others that before you believer someone on line find another artist who has used their service .. There are plenty out there ready to exploit artists minimal budget and deliver no result .. I say when someone says they have worked with this famous band.. (Check out WHAT their role was) if they were 2nd assistant lighting supervisor ... they are hardly going to know about plugging to radio for example .. yes spend to sell your product but check it out first and spend wisely ..

  9. Is it ok to disagree? while I agree with alot you are saying Im an indie artist and make my money MCing at venues and shows mostly in Greece but also Germany. I never paid to perform and while investing in oneself is a MUST (recording, CD, misxtapes, Website etc) If you are good and get the crowd jumping venues want you, its a matter of convincing them that people will stick around and drink more... also as an emcee, party host I get called all the time, granted it took me a while to get where I am but its not as dream shattering as the post you made.