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Small Band Struggles With Jay: Band or Business?

This entire post has been done by Jay so if you don't know who he is please go show the man some love!

Welcome back to our second instalment, I hope you enjoyed the first, as riveting a read it may have been. I feel the way we left off last week, it seemed almost to naturally plant the title and topic for this week’s instalment into my head. In an attempt to get the word count down from last time, I’ll get straight into it. Thanks again to Grace, for allowing my input on these topics.

Band or Business?

When a musician first picks up an instrument and starts noodling aimlessly until something they play sounds okay, or decides to get tuition, it’s unlikely they are doing it because they want to be a small business owner / entrepreneur. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. I know I started to learn to play the guitar because I decided relatively young that I wanted to be a ‘Rockstar’, like all my idols at that time. I grew up in a normal family, I didn’t go to a private school, we weren’t rich, and we weren’t poor. My mother and father worked 9-5 jobs; I think I understood relatively early what a ‘standard’ life looked like after education. I may have understood the general concept, but there was a lot more I needed to consider, and I would as I grew up. When I started to learn the guitar, I decided straight away I was going to get amazing at playing (passable) and then start the best band in the world (second best in the school). I later started a new band, that was the precursor to The Mocking Jays, with Sam and Alex. The point being, I know a lot of musicians started learning because playing a guitar, keyboard or drums for 5 days a week, sounded a hell of a lot better than working a 9-5 every day. Turns out that is true, it is a hell of a lot better… But everybody knows that it is, and so it is an incredibly competitive market you are entering. You can bet no matter how much you want to be a successful musician, somebody wants it more, and is working harder. I did a back of an envelope calculation, If you started learning guitar (like me) at age 14, and practiced for 1 hour a day for the next 20 years (which would be more than a lot of people) It would now be impossible to ever be as a good as somebody who practiced for 2.5 hours everyday since they were 7, born on the same year as you. Monetising any form of art can be incredibly challenging. For something to be creative it must be both novel and useful. If it is too useful, you can bet that somebody has already done it, or done something similar. If it’s too novel, nobody gets it, and nobody will find it of use. Finding that perfect balance is a real challenge. Music in particular is subject to consumerism, audio is a product, and an artist is strikingly similar to a brand.
If you decide to enter the music business as an original artist or band, who doesn’t have a tonne of money or a parent / angel investor who can break down some barriers early, you have two reasonable choices. You play as many gigs as you can, in as many different places as you can and hope that somebody notices you and decides they want to be your champion, put some investment into your project and maybe give you that dream record deal. The likelihood of this happening to you is sadly comparable to lottery probability, and do you really want to leave it down chance? Option 2 is accepting right away the odds are against you. But if you can be tactile, observant, patient, and committed, you can certainly tilt the table back toward you over a longer-term period. Some people confuse a career in music with fame, they are very different. If you want to be mega famous, you better hope you are the perfect amount of novel and useful, and that somebody notices that quick. YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok, rich or famous family or serious connections are your best bets. If you want a career, you’re in for a long and hard slog, but the reward could be phenomenal. You may want to consider the following perspective if you are open enough. Why should anybody invest in you and your art, if you aren’t prepared to do so yourself? This means long term commitment and investment, of both time and money. (we touched on these currencies last time).
When I reached an age I could work, I started using my money to help the band. Maybe it was buying a broke friend a ticket. This would boost numbers at my show, plus I could help a friend, happy days. Maybe it was being able to chip in money for petrol so we could afford to play that gig in Leicester at the weekend. It started small and as my income increased, I could do more and more for the project. My point here is, if you want to give your art the best chance, get a main form of income and sink it into your art wherever you can. You need to be organised, putting out a song is great but what is the artwork? Is there a music video? Have you done a campaign to accompany it? Have you considered your target audience, and how you will reach them? Will there be shows to promote it? You must sort all these things in advance or it’s a wasted asset. Here is a nice cliché, it could be the best song in the world, but if nobody hears it, what good will it do? It’s true though! I was fortunate enough to have studied business whilst in college and have worked as a manager at a few corporate companies since leaving college. I was a business development manager for a multi-million international distribution company when I was aged 20, guess how I got that? Because I was lucky, and had connections, not because I was the best in my trade, or because I had the most experience. I got the position through a fair process and I worked hard for my interview and tests, but I’m not naïve, I know my family connection played a tremendous role in this opportunity. You may not have the opportunities I had, you may not have the experience I have, and you might not want it. So, outsource. If you want experts in individual fields to help bolster your products and business / art, outsource tasks and responsibilities. It doesn’t take a genius to see the most successful and biggest business’ in the world require thousands of employees, whereas the corner shop near their houses require 3. You can’t be an expert in everything, you’ve got enough to worry about trying to practice your instrument enough to be better than the kid who started at 7. Maybe some good friends or family have skills you could make use of, if they are willing to assist you. My band has 4 core members who play live on stage, but 6 crucial people to keep those 4 on the stage. That’s not even including session players, those who film our music videos and live sessions, providers of our artwork, servicers of our instruments and the producers of our records. Find trustworthy partners to assist where your knowledge falls short. If you are in a band, as opposed to being a solo artist, an advantage you have is that each member likely has another skill or two that they can bring to the table. Speaking of bringing things to the table, you should find one that has enough seats around it and schedule a weekly meeting (after the apocalypse) with anybody who you deem necessary to enacting your plans, whatever they may be. I’d recommend for any new bands starting out, you write as much material as you can at the start of your formation, try and get an album’s worth or more. Once you have your stockpile, don’t even think about releasing it all. You want to pick the best tracks and plan some individual campaigns for them, single campaigns, with enough thought and preparation that they run seamlessly and have great effect. It’s easier to market one song when nobodies heard of you, than it is to market 12. You’ve got about 15 seconds; if that, to grab the attention of your average potential fan. Plus, once you blow those 12 tracks, you’re back at square one, no songs and negligible growth. My advice? You pick 3 songs, and run a campaign for each, with a budget and all the assets (artwork, music video, promo shots) acquired and approved a few months before the release. It makes a tremendous difference… Plus, throughout the year you continue to write music, maybe 6 of those other 9 songs you wrote feel sub-par compared to the 4 you wrote during your first year on the job. You’ll find you’re always ahead of the game, you always know what is coming next and have minimal surprises and hurdles. My own band tend to work 1 year in advance as of last year. But we blew all our material early and didn’t write for quite some time in our earlier years, so we were playing catch up for most of the end of 2019, in some ways the COVID-19 pandemic has offered us the time we needed to get way ahead of our game again. But you can do that without a deadly virus outbreak if you are smarter than we were. Start small and think bigger as your income/budget increases.
On average, my band spend about 4-6 hours weekly doing admin. That is compared to the 2-4 hours we spend weekly doing rehearsal. That’s not because we enjoy admin, let me be clear about that. The admin is to ensure all the work we do writing, rehearsing and recording, doesn’t go to waste. Some days I get to thinking ‘Are we a band or a business?’. I think I know the answer now… We are a business, so that we can be a band. Right now, we don’t have lawyers, accountants, investors or project managers, but we need them. So, we must be them ourselves, or outsource them as practically as possible in regard to finance. The alternative? We be a band/artist through and through and be doomed eventually to face that mundane 9-5 slog we dreaded as teens, playing our first original songs. We would have a lot of fun, no doubt being and band through and through, and if that’s what you are seeking, then knock yourselves out, you’ll have a hell of a lot of good memories! But being a business early, may mean you get a real opportunity/career later in life out of just being a band or artist. The difference is now you can have all the fun in the world and also put bread on the table doing it.


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