There’s nothing more valuable than career advice from those who’ve “been through it.” And Music Connection’s interviews are loaded with it. So we’ve compiled what we feel are the most helpful tips, insights and inspirations from the many artists and music people we’ve spoken to during the past year.
One consistent thread of all writers I work with is that they’re feeling, sincere dudes. We talk honestly and dig in before we write, sometimes as long as an hour. Not coincidentally, those are the songs that are the most sought after by artists and A&Rs. – Ricky Reed, songwriter July
I’d love to control the narrative that people interpret out of the music, but I learned a long time ago you can’t. Make the song be about what they want it to be about. At the end of the day, their interpretation of it is probably cooler than what you actually meant when you wrote it. – Slug of Atmosphere June
You have to get excited about something within the first 30 minutes. If you’re not, then move on. There should be something beautiful early on. – Niles Hollowell-Dhar, the Cataracs (producer) March
Even though you may not like a song or an artist, [a hit] is still worth a listen. Hits are hits for a reason, and they are definitely hard to come by. Each has some sort of magic––as well as some common elements––so something can be learned from every single one. – Bobby
Owsinski, producer/engineer, author Feb.
Detune your guitar to something other than the standard E-A-D-G-B-E. Move your B up to C, your G down to F#… that sort of thing. Now start improvising chords and melodic shapes as if you were playing a standard tuning. Why? The odd tuning will give you melodic and harmonic ideas you’d probably not have found otherwise. Be prepared for weird sounds, but you’ll probably stumble on something that’ll get the creative juices flowing. – Gary Ewer, music teacher, clinician, composer, arranger July
Artists must be strong performers today. Touring is big now. You need to get people into your music and if an artist doesn’t have stage skills, they need to develop them. – Dallas Martin,
SR. VP A&R Atlantic Records Jan.
Good microphone technique involves not only handling (not cupping the microphone), but also knowing the correct way to sing into it. Your microphone should be at a 90-degree angle to your mouth for the mic to pick up as much of your vocal as possible. Avoid singing “over the top” of your microphone, i.e. holding it upright near your mouth like a lollipop, as you will be singing into the side of the microphone and there will be less of your vocal being picked up. – Andy Reynolds, concert manager, audio engineer, author June
Where you stand in relation to your monitors makes a big difference in what you hear on stage. Stay relatively close to your monitors. Position them upwards toward each ear at a 45-degree angle. If you can see down the opening of the horns in your monitor, you have them positioned optimally. – Jeannie Deva, celebrity vocal coach May
You will meet the house sound guy when you load in to do your sound check, so always introduce yourself to him and make a note of his name. (I always Sharpie the house audio people’s names onto my hand at load-in time.) – Andy Reynolds, concert manager, audio engineer, author June
Use In-Ear Monitors (IEMs): If affordable, consider being fitted for custom them. An attractive alternative to wedge monitors, IEMs offer a high-quality signal to your ear that allows you to clearly hear the mix at any chosen volume. They provide you with better sound, improved stereo balance, protection against hearing damage from loud stage sound and more. Companies to choose from include Westone, Sensaphonics and Ultimate Ears. – Jeannie Deva May
It’s very unlikely that someone will see you play at a showcase [like SXSW] and want to immediately whisk your career to the stratosphere. You have to garner their interest before they come and see you. If you’re able to get the people into the room, then the showcase can close the deal. – Jesse Kongos of Kongos July
Someone who’s thinking about promoting should treat it like a business. Present yourself in a positive way. Any business who uses Gmail, Yahoo, etc. looks smalltime. If you’re serious, you have to have your own URL and email address connected to that. It presents a far better image. It’s not just what you do at the event. It’s the whole thing. – Tom Ingram, owner/founder Viva Las Vegas March
[If you want to start your own festival], be able to sustain a financial loss at the beginning. These are risky endeavors and there’s an extraordinary learning curve. Partner up with someone who can help you navigate all the trials you need to go through, because there are a lot. Make sure everybody is going to be safe and that you’ve got a plan in place. And make sure you manage your expectations. It’s a difficult business to get into as a grassroots startup. It’s tough to do in today’s marketplace. – Ken Hays, Gathering of the Vibes founder July
[When you play house shows], the competition is taken totally out of it. If you can cultivate your own thing with your own audience, there are plenty of people to go around––if you are willing to work. – Shannon Curtis, singer/songwriter June
If you can record a great album with your own money—or with small investors or donors—to present and be used for sale, distribution and promotion, then you won’t have to be in the studio with a label, spending their money and time on creating a product you could have made DIY keeping more ownership rights. If you bring a final product to the table, they can do distribution and support the things that will make more money, with less to be recouped. -Loren Weisman, music prod. and consultant March
One way to get a good deal is to book the whole project—a full album from start to finish. That’s becoming rare today because it’s a producer-oriented market. There’s usually more than one producer involved in a recording, and each one may book a different studio. So, full-service projects that book a block of time will get the best rates. – Jason Carson, VP of Operations, GM at The Record Plant July
If the song isn’t there, no amount of gear will make it great. Gear will never be the magic sauce that will make a song a hit. Likewise, you can’t blame the equipment when a song isn’t good.
- Christopher Tyng, composer/prod. Sept.
Talent is important, but being focused and having the will is perhaps even more important. The artists that I’ve seen succeed are the ones that are almost desperate for it to happen. Elton John always wanted to be number one and he never gave up. But the greatest artists originate within teams of people—producers, engineers, studios. – Stuart Epps, producer (Led Zeppelin, Elton John). Aug.
You’ve got to be realistic. You’ve got to step outside that box you’re in when you’re in the studio thinking your music is the best in the world. The reality is, it may not be, so you’ve got to be open to criticism. Listen to people’s advice and make sure you keep that team that helps you across that bridge. A lot of artists forget who helped them build that bridge and, when things go wrong, that bridge is no longer there. – Sat Bisla, Pres./Founder A&R Worldwide May
You have to keep making stuff that sounds like shit for a while and know that that’s okay. Your mess-ups can sort of define your sound. Even [my song] “G6” was really an accident. I had this [Roland TR-] 808 and I put distortion on it. There was a melody on top of it. I accidentally dragged the MIDI from this bell over to the 808 bass. – Niles Hollowell-Dhar of the Cataracs March
You can be a mediocre composer, but if the client gets what they need on time and on budget, they’ll come back for more. That’s as important as how effective you are at composing. Taking care of your clients and seeing that they’re satisfied is the secret to success in this business. – Jack Wall, composer/producer June
There’re a lot of people in this business who stand on giant shoulders financially. I think waiting for the right project––if you can manage to do it—is great, but it depends where you are in life. I didn’t move to L.A. until my 30s. If you’re fresh out of scoring school, I would say work on your body of work. Take what you have to take to continue to write music. – John Swihart, composer (Napoleon Dynamite, How I Met Your Mother) Nov.
SUBMITTING MUSIC FOR MUSIC SUPERVISORS/FILM/TV
If you are sending your music to a production company that is creating a new TV pilot, first listen to the songs that this company has chosen before and see what the songs have in common. Is the BPM always the same? Do the songs have a specific sound? Do they have a quick shout-out chorus? Is the hook melody sustained or legato? Is there a pre-chorus or bridge? The right arrangement, lyrics, hook, beat and BPM are key to getting your song licensed. It is also helpful to get familiar with the show you are pitching and its characters. – Susan Hyatt, singer/songwriter, artist coach, author June
[When submitting to a library] there’s something to be said for doing your homework and knowing the players. The blind emails I respond to are the ones where people have done their homework. They’ve looked at our artists. They’ve referenced a recent sync. I know that’s not much, but that person went that extra step. Take the extra step that the person next to you is not willing to do. If you do that, it always shows. – Justin Shukat, President, Primary Wave Music Publishing Jan.
If a company believes in you and sends you a pitch for a show, read the pitch requirements carefully and follow the instructions. Do not take any liberties. If they want a song that sounds like Katy Perry or Daft Punk, make sure your song sounds that way. Some artists may think of this as selling out, but instead think of it as “selling in.” Since the beginning of time, composers have been commissioned by courts and kings to create music. If you can create great commissioned music, then you are a true musician. Always remember you are in the “business of music” not just working in the music business. – Susan Hyatt singer/songwriter, artist coach, author June
Sometimes it’s the label; sometimes it’s the publishing company Kobalt [Music Group who get us synchs]. Occasionally our management gets us placements, but probably not as much as the label or publisher does.
In the industry, everyone knows everyone so you probably don’t have to be in publishing to get a placement. You may have friends in the advertising industry that want to work with you. – Gus Unger-Hamilton of alt-J Nov.
We’re trying to get as many people into our music as we can. Sometimes if someone’s going to put your song on a commercial, but no one’s going to hear it anyway, but they’ll throw me several thousand dollars, why not. I don’t think we’re that prideful. I’ve heard the Black Keys talk about saying no to a lot of things early on; now they’re looking back and saying that was dumb. – Clint Culberson of Modoc Feb.
DJ Advice From Mick, DJ/producer Feb.
• Play music you really enjoy. Now, every DJ in the world—from the guy doing your uncle’s lame wedding to Tiësto—occasionally has to play some songs they don’t like. However, finding a way to remix those songs, or sandwich them between songs you do like that make sense sonically—that’s how you really create your identity as a DJ. Just make sure you keep people dancing or vibing—whatever the mood calls for.
• Recognize that song selection is way more important than DJ-Battle skills. Not every basketball player is going to be LeBron James—but they have to understand the rules before they step on the court. That said, I’d much rather hear a DJ with amazing selection and up-and-coming mixing skills than a guy who can scratch with his left testicle and plays horrible music all night.
• Vary your set lists. A few months ago, a mega-popular DJ got “busted” in a national magazine for admitting he just plays the same songs in the same order every night. This isn’t fun, nor is it cool. Find new ways to play the same songs. If they are your own personally produced songs, remix them to add something new for the people who paid money to see you perform. This just isn’t good for your audience—it’s good for you and your mind. I feel super refreshed when I go into a gig with a crate of new awesomeness. New music is like a weapon, so sharpen your sword.
•Be respectful to everyone you meet in nightlife. From the doorman to the bartender, and all the way up the food chain to the club owner. You never know where that person will end up next, and how they can help (or hurt) your career. One person telling people you’re an arrogant diva holds way more weight than 50 people saying you’re a nice guy. However, that guy pouring you drinks could be the Director of Marketing next year, so tip him if he is good, and be nice even if he isn’t.
Some people get into music because of the lifestyle. But you’ve got to work. We practiced eight hours a day and played five nights a week on the strip in Vegas to support ourselves in the beginning. We had no money. And we learned, like, 60 cover gigs as well as writing our own songs and did that for years and played to empty bars.
- Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons Jan.
Until you’re a big enough star that you don’t need press, say yes [to opportunities]. I’m always surprised when bands are not thankful. They’re like “Oh, this is stupid. This is not why I joined a band.” Well, if you only want to play music, stay in your basement. It’ll stay pure. You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, other than working a normal job. You could listen to a terrible manager at Starbucks scream at you or you could talk about yourself to somebody. My advice would just be to roll with it and have a good time. – J Roddy Walston of J Roddy Walston and the Business July
You may have already signed up with a PRO. But here’s what you may not know. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC do not pay the same rates for all types of music royalties. They have negotiated radically different rates for radio and domestic TV performances with vocals.
Make sure to choose the right organization for your specialty. You could potentially lose thousands of dollars if you have joined a PRO that pays less for what it is that you do. Terminating your PRO contract is not easy and your show could be off the air by the time you are able to switch to the better paying PRO.
There are strict dates for termination and some of your catalog will not be able to follow you to your new PRO. – Susan Hyatt, singer/songwriter, artist coach and author June
The core fundamentals never change. If you don’t have good music, you’re not going anywhere. If you don’t have a great work ethic, you’re not going anywhere. And if you don’t have a good team, you’re not going anywhere. You’ve also got to take risks, because if you’re not willing to you can’t expect others to take risks for you. – Sat Bisla, Pres./Founder A&R Worldwide May
I think there’s such a thing as oversaturating your fans. If my favorite band in the world put out a 10-album compilation, I’d be like, “Eh… This is too much for me to comprehend.” But on the same note, I think it’s important for bands to continually give their fans something to be excited about. – Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons Jan.
It is vital that bands schedule business meetings, separate from rehearsals. The biggest problem I see is that bands will meet to refine the music but not meet to deal with their business issues. Meetings should be held when there are NOT problems—clearing the air BEFORE problems come up. Talk about important things like money, ownership of the band name and publishing.
- Lee Jay Berman, professional mediator Jan.
If somebody wants to be a music lawyer, they’re best served getting other kinds of experience, because when you’re an entertainment lawyer you’re kind of full-service. If your client gets sued and you don’t understand the process of litigation, I don’t know how you supervise it. You turn it over to a litigator and then you have to rely on that person to do the right job. – Gary L. Gilbert, attorney Aug.
When you sell through iTunes, you have no idea who bought your album, T-shirt or CD. When they buy directly from your website, you give them the opportunity to sign up for your mailing list. That artist-to-fan connection is extremely important. That’s how you’re able to remain relevant, by sending them remixes or acoustic videos. You can’t do that through iTunes or Spotify. You can only do that through your website and mailing list. – David Dufresne of Bandzoogle Oct.
There can be a lot of reasons [some students don’t succeed in music school]. Some use classes to network rather than learn—they’ll hound you about getting them a deal. And, there are a few who like talking better than listening and will ask 10,000 questions that have little relevance to the subject matter, and might even debate what you’re trying to teach them.
- Owen Husney, UCLA Extension May
Belmont helped us get our feet wet, and in the relationships and with the contacts that we made. But getting out on the road, learning the hard way, and learning on our own has been the best way. – Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line Sept.
Too many acts use [social media] like a megaphone, constantly promoting themselves and asking people to do something for them. That gets old fast and it’s no fun [for fans]. You should encourage conversation, ask questions and give people a reason to engage. – Ari Herstand, artist, music blogger Sept.
Buying numbers is the worst thing an artist can do. Their viral rate will go down because fake fans don’t like, share, tag or post. Industry is especially sensitive to it, since they’ve been burned before. Furthermore, Facebook will punish you for it and YouTube will take you offline. – Hunter Scott, founder, La Famos PR Sept.
Choose the right social network: Not all social networks are the same. And, some fan bases prefer one over the other. By knowing your fans, you can choose a social media site that is relevant to your brand, fans and music. – Music Connection, Sept.
Obviously, it would benefit the artist if the manager must accomplish a specific result. By inserting performance conditions with time limits, the artist can have the option to terminate the agreement if the results (e.g., a record deal, income, an endorsement) are not obtained.
- Ben McLane, music attorney March
[Artists sign the first contract they’re offered because they’re both excited and intimidated.] They’re afraid the deal will go away if they question it. It’s a lack of confidence on the artists’ part. [In reality, music biz professionals expect questions, clarifications and negotiations.] As long as they’re fair and reasonable people. Everything is negotiable in this business. Artists should always have someone knowledgeable review (and possibly negotiate) a contract before they sign it.
- Burgundy Morgan, music attorney March
Artists should NEVER grant an unrestricted ‘General Power of Attorney.’ That would give the manager total power and control without having to consult with the artist. There must be strict limitations on it—like only when the artist is unavailable, has been notified and approves.
- Ben McLane, music attorney March
People who don’t make it are people who give up. Nothing’s going to be given to you in any way. If you keep trying, you get better, eventually you’ll do something great. Don’t be satisfied if something is just okay. Do something you love and people will catch on. – Jeff Bhasker, producer (fun., Kanye West) Feb.
Don’t mistake activity for achievement. That means you can be as busy as you want, but checking things off your checklist means nothing. – T. Mills, artist Aug.
At the end of the day, Wiz said it best…
Don’t take anything personal; have confidence in your own business structure and just be aware of your surroundings. You learn as you go; everybody’s story is their own so you can’t take one person’s experiences and make guidelines out of that. It’s the energy that you put out, you get back. – Wiz Khalifa Aug.