Things I Wish I'd Known Then

After more than twenty years in the music business, our author looks back and offers ten tips he wishes someone had told him when he was starting out in the music industry. We discuss how to improve your reputation, how to make more money, bookkeeping, networking, promotions, and taxes.

It's often a struggle for musicians to build the life they want to lead. The uncertainty and constant flux that characterize today's music industry only make achieving a modicum of success that much harder. For many of us, it's a long, arduous journey, full of challenges and setbacks — and hopefully a few bright, shining moments, too.

I wish that your career could be solely about the music. Unfortunately, commerce and the other demands of real life intrude on that ideal. While your primary focus should always be on your music — honing your craft, polishing your performance, augmenting your skills, and growing as an artist — you must also attend to other aspects of your career. Here are ten basic concepts that I wish someone had pointed out to me when I started out in the business more than 20 years ago. By implementing this advice, you can rapidly gain a distinct advantage in the music industry.


Building your reputation is a crucial part of making your career better. As buyers, many of us are skeptical of new things because we've made poor purchasing decisions in the past. We don't want to repeat those mistakes, so many of us are less willing to take a chance. However, a good reputation instills confidence and reduces that fear of buyer's remorse. When people trust that you'll deliver what they want based on your track record, they are more willing to support you. People buy your rep, so spend your resources growing and selling it.

You build a reputation through image and credentials. An image establishes what you are about, and it should appeal to the people you are trying to reach. Look at the acts popular today and see how image is fundamental. Savvy promoters know it's often easier to sell an image than content (a few “celebritneys” come to mind). Package your image through diligent and consistent presentation of your music style, song topics, attitude, dress, speech, graphics, and other visual material, including your Web site, video, and posters.

Credentials show people that you are legitimate. If you have an act, you must play live. I consult regularly with up-and-coming musicians who don't tour. I tell them that if they won't play live, it will be difficult to establish a fan base and even harder to make any money. Most acts earn their pay on the road, not selling CDs and downloads.

Even though touring can pay more than CD sales, having a CD creates genuine credibility. Showcasing your work on disc is the main way to demonstrate your skills and prove you are for real.

Other credentials come from third-party endorsements such as media reviews and testimonials from satisfied buyers, clients, and peers. This evidence of your success works its magic on the doubtful. Don't believe this is effective? Look at all the movie ads in the newspaper. Two thumbs up goes a long way toward getting people into the theaters. Finally, work to win awards such as first place in a song-writing competition, best band in a showcase, or, ultimately, a Grammy. Those are credentials you can take to the bank.

Even if you're not an act, if you're working in the music industry, this formula applies. Combine a meticulous image with specific credentials, and you'll earn a reputation that buyers will trust and support.


How do you quickly make your music career better? Learn all you can about how the business really works. Read, take classes, find a mentor or two, and get real-world, hands-on experience. The more information you gather, the easier it will be to make good decisions.

Don't sit on your hands waiting for something to happen, either. Be proactive. Building a reputation, cultivating business relationships, and growing your career take time and effort. You need to push hard continually. What are you doing today to reach those people who want and need the music products and services you sell? What actions can you take that move you closer to your goals?

All aspects of the music industry are competitive, and you have to really want your success to achieve it. Many of us moan about those with lesser talent getting ahead, but they usually make up for their lack of chops with an abundance of ambition and hard work.

Success is self-perpetuating in a sense. The more you achieve, the easier it is to sustain. But that doesn't mean you can ever become complacent. Don't take your clients or your fans for granted or you'll risk quickly losing everything you've struggled to earn.


I often hear from would-be composers wanting to score independent films. I soon discover that they don't hang out with indie filmmakers, go to indie film festivals, or even read the indie film magazines. It's crucial that you start associating with the people who are either in a position to help your career along or ready to hire you. You can't make it completely on your own.

Join and participate in your music scene and start networking with industry people, media, and your peers. Start helping others in whatever ways you can. Ask about what they do and what they need. Let them know about your skills and what you are looking for, too. Networking is a form of barter. You want to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with people, not just take, take, take. When you approach and give assistance first, people will, out of a sense of obligation, help you in return with referrals, good word of mouth, and occasionally a paying gig.


If you're earning money from your musical pursuits, and I do hope you are, get your finances together fast. If you don't keep track of what you make and spend, how will you know your true financial situation? How can you successfully complete your taxes?

If you are not an employee and instead manage your music career yourself, you are in business. As a small business, you are subject to many legal, financial, and tax regulations. Since finances and taxes interrelate, it's crucial that you establish a specific method for tracking income and expenditures. Setting up a proper bookkeeping system now will save many headaches later.

Get a business checking account and a credit card for your business. Deposit your music income into the account and pay all your business expenses from it. Use either a ledger or software to record all these transactions. The more detail you use, the clearer the picture. If you track specific income streams — differentiating between gigs, CD sales, and royalties, for example — you will see which activities are profitable and which are not. Also, carefully monitoring your expenses in detail reveals where you over- or underspend. (See “Working Musician: Hit the Books” in the January 2004 EM.)


I was once stung by the bee of a substantial tax bill. It was my own fault, having jumped, young and green, into the waters of my first business without researching key issues. I collected check after check from client after client and failed to notice that nothing was being deducted from those checks. Self-employed individuals pay their own “payroll” taxes (federal and state income taxes, social security, and Medicare contributions). Consequently, I faced a substantial tax bill come April the next year, owing for the previous year and making my first estimated payment for the current year.

When all this came down, I made two important decisions: one, to research all the issues that affected my business, and two, to go out of my way to help other people avoid making the same mistakes. There are many distinct advantages to having your own business and there are many pitfalls. Make sure you fully understand all the tax issues as they apply to your particular situation. (See “Working Musician: Tax Tips for Musicians” in the March 2003 issue.) Knowledge here benefits you greatly — you will save money and stay out of trouble. Also, examine any legal issues, especially liability, to protect your business and personal assets.


Plop down some change for an ad to promote your new album and people will beat a path to your door, cash in hand, ready to buy your latest opus. Right? Wake up! It just doesn't work that way. One ad, no matter how ingenious, will not turn an unknown into a celebrity. Unfortunately, too many people waste their cash on such pipe dreams. If any promotions you use don't immediately move more products or services out the door, rethink your approach.

When it comes to promotion, you can spend money or you can spend time. If funds are short, you need to get more creative with your promotions and devote more time to them. Usually these get-up-and-go tactics are both more effective and substantially more profitable than simply throwing money at the problem. Don't fall into the easy trap of relying on passive promotions, such as advertising, when what you really should be doing is being more active.

The personal touch really works in today's often sterile, anonymous world. No ad, letter, e-mail, or flyer is ever going to take the place of standing face-to-face with someone and making the sale. Back-of-room sales are always helped when the whole band participates and interacts with buying fans. In person, and to a lesser extent on the phone, you can build a solid rapport, address every sales objection, and win people over faster. Just finished work for a happy client? Now is the perfect time to ask for another project or gig.


I'm sure you would agree that promoting your industrial band in a country-music magazine isn't the smartest idea. Yet every day brings evidence that people continue to use scattershot promotion when pinpoint accuracy is what works. Our world is deeply segmented, and the tighter your focus on a narrow market segment, the better your results will be. Trying to reach everybody with your message is a waste of time and money. Instead, find the people who already like what you do and concentrate your promotional efforts on them.

Do you really know who buys your music? If not, you'd better roll up your sleeves and find out. You must know specifically who these people are, what they want from you, how and where you can reach them, and which ways of doing so will appeal to them. Start investigating your local scene and build from there. Go to clubs, hang out with patrons and other acts, read local newspapers and magazines, review radio, television, and film. Check out other acts' music, ask questions, and conduct market research. Do whatever it takes to get the information, and then use what you learn to advance your own career.


If you sell a service (for example, a musical performance), you should also sell products (such as CDs). If you sell products, you need to provide services, too. Introduce new products and services regularly. Have a studio CD? Put together a quick compilation of live performances and sell that. Better still, sell a DVD with performances, interviews, demos, and other goodies. After that, work on the second studio CD, and so on.

Don't limit yourself to selling only the products and services you create. You can sell other people's stuff, too. Recommend other products and services that complement or augment your own work and then figure out how to profit from your advice.

For example, let's say you have agreed to promote CDs by other artists on your Web site. You can join the free Associates program and sell the CDs mentioned on your site. You put order links on your Web site and Amazon pays up to a 15 percent commission on orders that originate from your links. Best of all, Amazon handles the whole transaction and pays you quarterly. (See this concept in action at


Everybody likes to save money, including your fans and clients. Stimulate some sales through an aggressive discount program. Give your loyal fans (or clients if you have them) exclusive offers, price breaks, and discounted advance copies. Put together packages that entice buyers to spend more money with you. For example, sell your independent CD for $10, and throw in a band-logo T-shirt for $10 more ($20 total). You've doubled your sales volume fast. (For more on boosting the profitability of your music career, see “Working Musician: Shake Your Moneymaker” in the June 2002 EM.)


Just about the time you get tired of promoting, networking, and the other tasks that comprise an active music career, people will start to notice you. Don't give up now. Set goals and devise specific methods for achieving them. Trust that you've made the right decisions (and be willing to adjust and adapt as circumstances change). Commit yourself to all of these steps and diligently take care of yourself and your career.

Jeffrey P. Fisher's latest book, Moneymaking Music (, 2003), is a detailed guide to starting, growing, and sustaining your music business career. See it and other music-success resources