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Advice for Up-and-Comers from a Musician who Made it

By Ryan Mernin

Achieving success as a musician is often made out to be a kind of magical, intangible feat, a notion that can be both exciting and discouraging for those looking to make a career in music.  October Project lead singer Julie Flanders, however, has practical advice for amateurs looking to make it in the music business.  October Project had two popular albums with Epic Records in the ‘90s, October Project and Falling Farther In, and although their stardom has since waned they are currently in the process of producing a third.    Flanders has a number of reflections, both on how to make a constant living through music and how to achieve and manage the fleeting fame that some musicians eventually discover.

The nitty-gritty always comes first, she says.  Any moderately successful band has to be able to manage itself and to take the business side of the job seriously.  “[T]hink of the business as something you can practice – like five-finger scales or jazz and guitar riffs. You can get better at every aspect, or collaborate with or hire an expert. Think of your business team like a band.”

A solid business team will help your band to prepare for success, so that momentary popularity develops into lasting momentum, instead of disappearing and becoming a forever-lost 15 seconds of fame.  Self-advertising, primarily through playing as much as possible, is absolutely necessary.  Don’t get bogged down in recording studios or in each other’s basements.  Get out and get noticed, you never know who might be in the audience.

But self-advertising involves more than just playing shows.  Sell your image; make your band look like a group of professionals.  T-shirts and other brand items go a long way in making people remember a show, and in spreading the word.  And while you’re building your career, learn how to crowd fund.  It can simultaneously raise money and get your name out in the open.  Learn how to sponsor your life outside of music, in order to give yourself a chance.  Teach classes, write songs for other bands, or get into the technical aspect of production.  Do what you can to give yourself room to make mistakes.

And sell your music, Flanders stresses, “digitally, physically, and in every format you can think of and invent.”

Of course, she says, it all comes down to the sound itself, and no one gets anywhere without a band that plays together and that spends as much time as possible practicing.  Make sheet music or songbooks so that what started out as a jam-session melody or a bus-ride idea for a song doesn’t get lost or forgotten.  Having written collections of finished songs, notes, music, and chord progressions makes for a good emerging repertoire, but is also useful for experimenting and reworking those same ideas.  Don’t be afraid to collaborate with other artists and other bands, to pit your sound against something new and to experiment.

Collaborating also helps to build a network of musicians with similar tastes and styles.  Hosting artists from other cities in your own town is a great way to connect with these people and to find partners in all aspects of your music career, whether it’s agents and managers to help with business, producers to help with recording, or other artists to help you fine-tune your sound and discover your niche.  Keeping up-to-date with fellow artists, especially those who are a step ahead of you in terms of success will help you to mould your career.  Success means they’ve done something right, inside and outside of the music itself, and are an example that can be followed and replicated.

As important as it is to host people where you live, she says, it’s even more important to hit the road and play venues in other cities.  Don’t get stuck in your hometown nursing a local reputation – get out and get heard even if you’re just beginning.  Don’t hesitate to travel even if it’s just to play a house party; any exposure is good for building your name and your image.

Next, says Flanders, get online.  Blog, send out newsletters, and put your music on YouTube for the world to stumble upon.  The easier it is for people to find you, the better they will remember you.

But there’s more to it than simply sharing you’re music on all of the usual sites.  Flanders recommends anyone setting out on a career in music to the books, blogs, and webinars of music PR expert Ariel Hyatt, whose company Cyber PR Music has helped many an independent act work their way through “the noise” and get noticed1.  “Benefit from the generosity of her enormous free resources,” says Flanders.  Establishing an audience on social media is only the first step.  A company like Cyber PR teaches musicians to find interviews, get their music on podcasts and radio shows, and to go from seeking publicity to sought after.

As much as practice will improve your music and PR and advertising will earn you a reputation, making a career in music involves a straightforward but endlessly stressful head game.  Self-confidence is essential to writing, recording, and performing.  “Don’t be afraid to stand out and fly your freak flag.”  But self-confidence also entails a willingness to distribute the labour; let your band mates, friends, and associates work with you.  Take help where you can get it, she says, but ultimately “let the buck stop” with you.  Persist but don’t romanticise your career, strike a balance that avoids both laziness and unrealistic expectations.

Major success, says Flanders, isn’t for everyone.  And it’s not just a question of ability and luck.  “The lottery of the big time”, as she terms it, is not as attractive to some as it is to others.  Ultimately, moving from a modest living to major record deals is not a measure of your talent and musicianship – it’s a game.  If you can make it and manage it all the better, but it often has more to do with your commercial appeal than with the quality of your music.  But, she says, “play [the game] if you are brave and silly enough.  We did!  And while it lasted it was a thrilling ride on the rollercoaster of the music business.”

Flanders’ insights into the business hint at another important point.  Even the most successful band can only retain the spotlight for a short while.  Success, if you are lucky enough to find it in the first place, is short lived.  Flanders herself transitioned out of the spotlight two decades ago into a career as an independent artist and poet.  Rather than desperately chasing an impossible dream, she advises working hard to maintain a modest and stable living.

Making music doesn’t require working your way to super stardom, and you definitely won’t get anywhere if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing.  “Don’t forget that Music is fun!” says Flanders.  “Sometimes musicians get so serious it’s ridiculous.”  Get out in the open and “fly your freak flag.  You don’t have to be like others!”

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