Access is why you will never be a rich and famous musician

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There is a myth involving the music industry that seems to persist from generation to generation. The myth that, when it comes to music, the cream always rises to the top. That is, the best music/artists will always get signed to a major label, get played to the masses, make it to the top of the charts, become a sit sensation, etc., etc. That the music constantly getting played on the radio or that finds its way onto a movie soundtrack is the best of the best. This is simply not true; the sheer amount of pedantic crappy pop music that constantly assaults our aural peace is proof of that. Naturally, artists and labels generally don’t want to dispel this myth, as they benefit financially from the illusion that things like constant radio play means that the music is popular and thus worthy of your money ala download sales and concert tickets.

The reality is that determining which music/artists that get to ‘rise to the top’ is primarily an issue of access. Access to the right people and the right funds is what drives the music industry (or any industry for that matter).

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It’s all about who you know (or networking, networking, networking)

Every industry has gatekeepers. There are gatekeepers everywhere you turn. As if dealing with them wasn’t challenging enough, figuring out who the ones are that can provide any actual help is damn near impossible. The guy claiming to love your sound and absolutely will get you signed and make you rich and famous usually turns out to be some coked up blowhard looking for a new drink ticket hookup. Meanwhile, that slightly awkward guy you just accidently bumped into and made him spill his drink because you were too distracted by that coattail-rider putting dollar signs in your eyes and didn’t even offer an ‘excuse me’ like your poor mother taught you, is a major label rep who just wrote you off.

The good news is that no single gatekeeper can make or break you. There are many paths to success, but they ultimately all rely on your network. Who you know and, more importantly, who knows you. You can have the best music in the world, but if the right people don’t have access to it, it will mean nothing in terms of a career. Now, if you are just making it for yourself, or for that one hipster and his bragging rights for finding your unknown work after an all-night smug fueled search, driven by the constant worry that he won’t be allowed in the gluten-free locally sourced vegan coffee shop without scowls and jeers from the artisanal baristas unless he produces something previously undiscovered, then this need not apply to you. But if you want to build an audience, and make a career in music, then you need a network.

Not only is your network crucial for exposing your music to “important” people in the industry, as well as building your audience, it is vital for you to improve and refine your crappy pop music so that you can build a bigger and wider audience and move on up the ladder within the industry. There are no overnight successes, despite what you may hear, there are just people that have access to better networks.

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Money money money money, money

If you don’t have access to money (whether it be yours or an investor) you aren’t going to be that chart-topping artist that you promised all your ‘haters’ you would become. Money makes the world go ‘round, and the music industry in no exception. Aside from needing money for obvious things like equipment, accessing listeners (you know, the ones that actually pay for your songs and for those overpriced tickets to your show and gives you value as a selling artist to labels and venues) costs money, mainly through both direct advertising and indirect advertising (like radio play or those crappy CDs playing in stores that retail clerks have to listen to all day long and then die a little inside when you ask them what song is playing right now because they have no idea and they just want you to buy that damn shirt so they can go refold all those clothes you just messed up looking for that perfect black V-neck).

One of the advantages of being on a label used to be that they essentially acted as an investor. They would take care of getting the music beyond your own small fan base and activate their hype-machine to get your work exposed to the mass market, just like any other business and product, all to maximize their return. Given the, now, low return from digital sales and the extreme saturation of available music, this model has changed and you basically have to already be profitable before you will be taken seriously. Further, everyone has all but relegated to compete for listeners online (usually on the same limited sites and social media platforms). To make matters worse, the algorithms that expose content to people on these sites are always changing, making it even harder to get exposed without any kind of substantial investment.

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Think of it this way… Beatport, one of the more popular digital retail outlets for dance music, has over 4.6 million songs just in their Progressive House genre alone. When they first started 11 years ago, you could search and sort by artist, the site is so saturated now that it no longer remains an option. Further, let’s just use a safe round number and say that you are competing with 1,000,000 other artists worldwide for attention. This means you have a .0001% of making into the top 100. Want to be a top 10 artist you say? Well, then that would be .00001% (and this is all assuming of course that your music isn’t complete crap, which, odds are it is).

The truth is that the odds you are going to be a superstar are very low, sorry to be the one to have to break it to you. Unless you are one of those lucky few that just happens to make the right kind of network, or have the right amount of funds to invest millions in advertising, you might want to start making friends with that hipster after all.

Disclaimer: Yes, I know that there are always exceptions to the rule and that there are examples of your sister’s cousin’s ex-roomate’s, former dog’s owner’s lover that made it to the big time after being discovered in the ghetto while doing dishes in the back next to the toilet. There is a reason those stories stand out, because there are extremely rare. Being at the right place at the right time can play a role when extreme talent is involved, but access to a good network is still key even in those cases.

Disclaimer part 2: I’m not trying to discourage you from making music or following your dreams. Ultimately I just want you to be realistic about your goals and how to get there. If you have real passion for the music, and you have a vision that you really want to share, share it. Now, if you are just trying to be famous for the sake of being famous, I am actually trying to discourage you. The music industry is saturated with enough meaningless crappy songs, quit.

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DJ schools and other scams

Over the years quite a few people have offered me money to teach them how to DJ, a few have even suggested that I start my own DJ school. My answer is always the same, I can’t in good conscious charge people money to teach them what they should teach themselves for free. Now that DJing has saturated the mainstream there have been an abundance of people looking to learn the trade and an increase of organizations willing to take their money. In theory, DJ schools seem to have value, but in reality they are generally not worth the money they extort from eager would-be DJs.

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Why you are wasting your money

DJ schools are exploiting the belief that you will get at least two things of value from attending. One is exposure and time spent with gear, the other is having someone to walk you through the basics (assuming you lucked out and actually have a competent instructor who has a successful DJ career). Sounds like a great deal, especially if you aren’t quite sure if DJing is right for you or if you are looking to fast-track your way into the spotlight, right? Wrong. They are ripping you off. Even if there is a promise of some sort of fancy certificate or a “live gig” at the end of the course, you are being charged for a short period of time that will not allow you to obtain a skill level worthy of a paid DJ. Unless you happen to have unlimited funds for hundreds of hours of training, you are better off saving your money. You’d be hard-pressed to find a successful DJ that attributes their success to a DJ school.

What you should do instead

If you are unsure of whether you want to be a DJ, then go do something else. Don’t waste your time, effort, or deal with the unlimited hassle of the lifestyle. Download a fun little DJ app and have fun with your friends. If you are stubborn and still want to see if it is for you, throw a rock, you will hit a DJ, ask them if you can check out their gear and if they will show you a thing or two. Stroke his or her ego a little bit and you can guarantee they will give you some dedicated attention that you wont find in any classroom setting.

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If you know with obsessive certainty that you do want to be a DJ, invest that money you would have spent on classes and get gear. Then use that gear a lot. Play with it, explore it, record your work and listen to it. Go out, watch other DJs, watch videos, documentaries, absorb everything you can, and practice some more. If you want to DJ, you need to spend a lot of time on that gear, more time than what any DJ school will offer as part of their “curriculum”.

Your desire to DJ should borderline obsession, not some casual hobby you want to do now and then. If you put in the effort that comes with obsession versus throwing a few bucks at a hobby, you will develop your own voice and your own style which is way more valuable than sounding like someone teaching at a DJ school. Don’t pay for what you can get for free, or could put toward the cost of your own gear.

Competitions

Another scam that preys on eager young DJs and producers are competitions. While some competitions offer some actual value to the participants, ultimately they are all asking a large group of people for free work. Even if there is a monetary prize for the winner, think of all the unpaid hours of work the host of the competition is receiving and is not accountable for financially. There is a wide spectrum of ethics when it comes to competitions; from the whole thing being rigged and there is already a winner in mind before it starts (which is more common than you may realize) to an actual weighing of skill and talent where someone will actually be awarded something for their efforts. Make sure you really look into the specs of the competition, never be afraid to ask questions. Never fall for any prize that is based on notoriety, there is no one gig or competition that will make or break you. Competitions are more about ego than anything else.

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Even in the best case scenario that your work is judged purely on its merit, who are the judges? Competitions are decided purely on a subjective basis (even with point-based guidelines) and are dependent on what the judges are feeling at that exact moment. This is of course assuming it is a judged competition and not a vote-based system which is nothing more than a popularity contest and has little to do with actual talent other than talent at self-marketing. Overall competitions aren’t inherently bad, just make sure the prize is something of actual value to you in exchange for your efforts and not just appealing to your ego with the promise of being your big break.

Have friends, will book

There has been a disturbing trend of promoters expecting other people to do their job so they don’t have to. If you are looking for a non-headlining booking and the promoter asks how many people you will bring right off the bat, find another gig. Or at the very least arrange a deal to get a percentage of the door based on head count and have your own person at the door to monitor the numbers. Yes, a promoter should be concerned with how many people come through the door, but as a non-headlining DJ it isn’t your job to fill the club, it’s your job to play to the time slot you are in and support the vibe of the night. If you are being paid a flat rate, there should not be any major concern with how many people are coming to see you. That’s what the headliner is for. That is what the PROMOTER’S job is. Somewhere down the line the job of promoter has been confused with talent booker.

In short, if you are going down the DJ or producer path be an educated consumer, think about what you are putting in, in relation to what you are getting out. If you are new you will have a lot of dues to pay as it is, don’t tack on unnecessary ones.