OnlineRock: Empowering Musicians  
OnlineRock Guest Column  

What's a Working Band to Do?
Part 1: A Game of Musical Hats
by Erik Jay

I was going to liken the struggle of “making it” in the music business to a game of musical chairs, until it occurred to me that there’d be too much sitting down and you’d never get anywhere. You’d also be going around in circles, which is a big waste of time and effort -- plus it’s probably something you’re doing too much of already, which is why you’re reading articles like this in the first place.

Let us characterize your career plan, then, as a game of musical hats, instead.

The music business is a highly competitive (okay, cutthroat) industry comprising a lot of demanding professions besides performer -- meaning singer, songwriter, musician, producer, or whatever combination of those you are. There are also engineers, managers, distributors, agents, concert promoters, and many other professionals in the mix, and you need a lot of determination, persistence, energy, and smarts to advance in any one of those careers. But making it as a band or a solo performer, becoming nationally or internationally known, is about, oh, a million times harder, and requires you to work in any number of those other capacities along the way. You’ll wear a lot of musical hats.

Check the top ten tunes today, and you’ll see (hear) that sometimes there’s even talent in certain “how-to-make-it” formulas, though it’s not absolutely required. Performers find many ways to counterfeit talent anyway, while “technical” positions have live, open-access reality checks daily. (You can successfully fake singing a song, but the sound guy can’t “pretend” to have the right backing tracks cued up, as Ashlee Simpson can attest.) Be that as it may, as a performer it’s just as important (or more) to have “good selling points” as “good material,” which means you’ll need to learn how to speak fluent “marcomm” (marketing communications) as soon as possible.

Okay, let’s say you’re a singer/songwriter fronting a four-piece band Whatever else you might think of (or call) yourselves, you are not just artists, but craftsmen (craftspeople?) too. The sights and sounds, the motions and colors, the scenarios and soundtracks playing in your heart, mind, and soul -- that’s the art that you are; painting it, sculpting it, composing it, dancing it, singing it, marketing it too -- that’s the craft that you do. It’s the craft that brings your art to life and gives it a home in other people’s lives.

Forget the Clowns, Bring in the Hats

If your music or (heaven forbid) your day job are not making you enough money to pay for professional help, you will have to handle as much of the biz as you can, with assistance from your bandmates, your family, your friends, and, oh, everybody you’ve ever met and most everyone you’re going to meet from now on. No matter how many tunes in your repertoire, you’ll have to be a one-note song now, henceforth and always. It’s all about your art, your craft, your music. If the people you are closest to you aren’t telling you that all you do is talk about your music and your career, then you’re probably not talking about your music and your career enough.

Frankly, it’s about your life, isn’t it? It comes down to the life you chose, and choose again every morning -- to be an artist, a rocker, a jazzer, a crooner, a folkie, a blueshound, whatever it is you are. And, being art and craft, it’s not only who you are, but what you do, too.

Whatever the genre and wherever you live, your music -- your new enterprise -- will face the same “start-up” woes as any other small business. And that means you and your “extended family,” however large or small, will have to cover as many of those bases and wear as many of those hats as possible. You have to do the promoting, get the gigs, keep the books, get the copyrights, write the letters and e-mails, make the demos, play the shows, build the buzz, tell the media that you are building a buzz, all of it.

And if some new person appears who can help you move even a fraction of a step farther down the road, you have to talk ‘em up. Maybe this guy who signed your website guestbook is a graphic artist who’ll do your CD cover for tickets; maybe this lady at your gig is an acoustic engineer who will diagnose your recording space for a good home-cooked meal; maybe this local radio DJ will interview you and your band for, oh, one of your sister’s home-cooked meals.

Do I sound cynical? I’m not really. It’s just that you have to be realistic. You probably won’t “be discovered“ or “luck out” somehow and “get a record deal.” Like everything good (or valuable) in life, it takes time and unflagging devotion to get anywhere in the music biz. Calvin Coolidge, a President who let the government finance minions stumble right into the Depression, was still plenty insightful, and he uttered a truism about success that’s so good many people attribute it to Abraham Lincoln:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

So, you press on. There are a million things to do, but first things first. Take one step at a time. You can come back to the demos and the internet distribution and all that later -- and anyway, that lets me stretch what I have to say into a series.

Here at Square One

So for now, in this first of (hopefully) a series of marketing how-to’s for the working band, just ask yourself: What’s the first thing a working band needs to do?

Still thinking about it? Then tell yourself: Build buzz. That’s something you’ll do at every level of your career, of course, in addition to everything else you’ll be doing. But here at Square One, if you have some dream of getting on an indie label or selling your own CD, you’ll have to show “the people with the money” that you also have people with money, who are willing to spend it on seeing you and buying your CD’s (and Chia-seeded clay figurines, if it comes to that).

What to do? Keep a sign-up book at your gigs to get e-mail numbers and mailing addresses; watch for your dedicated fans, the ones who keep coming to shows and bringing their friends, because they will flat-out want to help you; tirelessly promote your appearances and build your fan base as much as the combined band budget and shoe-leather can handle; and take advantage of every media outlet available.

Ready for more? Then start making a list of the daily papers, the weeklies, local magazines, college and high school publications, cable outlets, local radio and TV, every media outlet you can think of, starting from your hometown or city and expanding in concentric circles. Stay in touch with people; don’t just send out flyers and press releases, take half a day each week and follow up the mailings with as many phone calls as you can make. Get people’s names, and call them by their names. Tell the story of how your band is drawing more people, how your website is getting more hits, how your weekly e-mail fanzine is going to x number of people. This initial, local media outreach is the proving grounds for the bigger, broader media plan that follows. If you can get into this and make some headway, you just might be ready to, well, rock and roll!

All I need to tell you right now is to come back for part two, because way back in 1930 the President of the U.S. gave you your marching orders, the words you need to sear into your spirit: Press on, and never forget that persistence is more important than talent.

If ever you do start to doubt the saying, by the way, just remember where it came from: Calvin Coolidge. As far as persistence trumping talent, he’s living proof.

I rest my case.

Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site,, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.

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