File Under: Building Your Music Business

One of the most common questions we get when we lead music business workshops and do talks around the country is: "how do you succeed in music when you have little or no resources?" The answer may surprise you.

We recently heard a story on NPR which told the story of Wes Avila who started a business for $0 and ended up creating a successful food business from nothing (Guerrilla Tacos': Street Food With A High-End Pedigree). He started his food truck as a side job because he wasn't making enough money working four days a week as a sous-chef. So, he made a small bet on himself -- he bought a small food cart, took his last $167 to buy ingredients, and began selling tacos. He called his business Guerrilla Tacos since he couldn't afford the permits and so set up in alleys or out-of-the-way places to avoid the authorities.

While he got caught a few times, customers loved his tacos and eventually he made enough to get the permits as well as a real food truck. He already had the clientele by this point, recipes, and business model that worked and was getting noticed by prize-winning food critics. And he's now getting ready to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Avila's strategy can apply to your music business. In our talks, we often include a segment we first put together in 2013 called "Music Business For $0" where we explain how to distribute music, make merch, and make royalties without paying a single dollar while being profitable from the first dollar you make. But beyond this, the three techniques below can help, and they come from some of our favorite non-music books. Little Bets by David Sims and Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. If you choose your bets wisely, you can find out which ones are really working for you and grow your music business based on actual successes.

Here's how to do it for your own music business:

1. Make little bets, not big ones.

The book Little Bets says ideas are great but they're only valuable if you can test to see if they actually work. That's exactly what Avila did when he bought his small food cart and took to the streets. He discovered pretty quickly people which recipes worked and which didn't. Use the same method, and find as many free or low cost ways to try out your ideas before you invest any significant resources in them. Most music business fail not because the music is "bad" or the musician is flawed, but because the musician spends too much time or money without trying out their ideas first on others to see if they work. The time to make a bigger bet is after you find out what works.

2. Try "ooching". 

Similar to placing a little bet, the book Decisive talks about a concept called "ooching". Ooching are small experiments that are easy to create and give you results quickly. This is the best way to test out new ideas to see if they "stick". Nearly everything we succeeded at in our own music projects came about by experimenting. The bigger plans came only after we saw what worked and decided where to take it next. For instance, before we decided to take on a song-a-day, we tested out whether we could quickly write and record six songs in one day. When we realized we could (and how much fun it was), that's when we started seriously considering releasing a song for every day of one year.

3. Use tripwires and time-limited experiments.

The book Decisive also explains how to make good decisions when you're uncertain of the outcome. One of those methods is setting a "tripwire" -- an objective trigger you determine in advance that tells you when things aren't working so you can back out before you have sunk in too much money and time. Another method is to set a time limit. Cross the deadline without seeing success and you can switch to something else.

Our own band tried the tripwire method when we first started out and needed to test our songs and cover setlist. We didn't leap initially to venues, instead we signed up for open mics and open band nights. We'd test different mini-sets to see which covers got the best response and which of our originals got paid attention to. Only when we tested out all our mini-sets, did we have enough information as to what to do for our first big gig.

As we like to say during our talks: if a music business were like making pottery, you need to put clay on the table in order to mold it into something. Your "clay" are the experiments which work out.

Finally, remember to keep an open mind. Sometimes the world comes to you with an idea to try which may lead to new bets to place and opportunities to seize. For example, we didn't understand licensing until Disney came asking to license one of our songs. That led to us doing a lot of research and eventually finalizing a licensing agreement. That started us licensing other music in our catalog, something we never thought of doing until Disney woke us up to it. And, even the licensing opportunity came to us from a unique album we did in partnership with a game business, which was a little bet of ours that paid off big.


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Photo credit: Liz Lawley