I know, I know. Starting a sustainable music career might seem like a daunting or even ridiculous idea, especially in a world where everyone can make and share music.

But hear me out. Even though the market is oversaturated, it’s still possible to break through with your unique gift and create a music career that not only fulfills your creative passion but also ensures financial stability.

Here’s my personal perspective on how to navigate this challenging but rewarding journey of being a full-time, middle-class music artist.

Create Original Content

This whole journey requires you to do one major thing: ignore the music industry and its standards.

Since its current inception over 70 years ago, the modern music industry has taken the idea of music as an art form that enriches the world and turned it into a pretty ugly, shallow, competitive sport that generates money for everyone except the artists themselves.

Sounds fair, right? (cough, not really, cough)

Some say there is no longer a way to be original in your songwriting or in developing your sound that creates a new genre. Most people feel that the human race has conceived every possible genre and sub-genre that can be invented out of thin air in this universe.

Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to answer that one.

Music over the last 20 years or so now mostly consists of sampling, reworking, remixing, and borrowing from artists and songs that came before it. The never-ending barrage of individual legal battles, the social media fights, the corporate and estate lawsuits, the birth of AI, and a bunch of other industry drama is the result of essentially inventing new ways to “steal” originality from the past so that we can create “new” works of art that create new financial opportunities for the industry machine.

Most days, it feels like the digital world and the modern music industry have destroyed music as an art form for current and future generations.

But I hate speaking negatively about something I hold dear, so I am here to say it’s not all gloom and doom.

As an artist, whether musically, visually, or in other art forms, one must express themselves from the heart and bring something new to the table every time. The world will always need art, as it is the universal vehicle that transcends any cultural, political, and language barriers, and usually is among the things that stand the test of time and connect past generations with future generations.

So if you are going to bring anything of real substance or value to the world and plant your legacy, originality is the lifeblood of a sustainable music career.

It’s what sets you apart from the millions of songs available at the click of a button. Crafting original content is an opportunity to express your unique voice, tell your story, and connect with listeners on a deeper level.

Remember, people gravitate towards authenticity. So don’t fear to show who you are in your music. As the old saying goes, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Build a Strong People Network

Whether you decide to jump head first into the modern music industry machine or choose to pursue music independently on your own terms, the music industry has always been and will always be about relationships.

Introducing yourself to fellow local bands and musicians before or after they jump on stage at their show can give you face time with future songwriting collaborators, opportunities to learn from their journeys and challenges, or open doors to future gigs.

Researching local, regional, and national industry events can open doors to sync licensing contacts, management and promotional resources, sponsorships and endorsements, recording and touring mentors, and more. These contacts don’t always have to be to benefit your career in a selfish way. Approach business contacts as if you just want to buy them lunch or coffee and listen to their stories. You can learn a lot from listening first and not asking questions or for favors right away. Always make these networking opportunities about them, not you.

Online music communities are also great ways to meet artist peers and industry mentors without leaving your home.

Mutual support within your local community and your national network alike can strengthen individual careers and the industry as a whole.

But if you only take away one thing from this section, GET OUT AND MEET OTHER MUSIC PEOPLE.

I’ve been networking locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for almost 20 years now, and while I do feel my network could always be bigger, I will always cherish and find value in the people I have met and am blessed to know. They are a wealth of knowledge and can help you overcome common pitfalls and challenges, so let them help and guide you!

Use Social Media Correctly

I’m almost certain you don’t need to hear this one, but at the same time I know that most music artists who are on social media aren’t using it correctly.

Yes, social media is an invaluable tool for self-promotion, and it’s a tool that provides connections, discovery, and global reach that was unheard of just 30-40 years ago.

But posting selfies a couple of times a month or sharing your track in a single post and not responding to comments isn’t going to get you closer to a sustainable music career anytime soon.

Social media has been here for a long time now, but you also have to remember that it evolves almost daily. Algorithm changes, trends, people’s expectations, impacts on individual mental health both positive and negative, growing businesses, and hurting lives. It’s all a part of social media and how we use it in a responsible way.

The default advice people give for social media is usually along these lines:

  • Post content regularly
  • Engage and interact with fans
  • Build your brand
  • Regularly update your profile
  • Experiment with different formats like live sessions, behind-the-scenes footage, and Q&As

But what you should be hearing more of is:

  • Have patience and understand that 99.9% of social media growth takes at least 2+ years
  • Post consistently, whether it’s weekly or daily. Posting once and going dark for 3 months isn’t going to cut it
  • Anyone who claims overnight or viral success is not the norm, it’s an accident or fluke
  • Post valuable content that relates to your audience (not empty content)
  • Know who your audience is otherwise all your content will fall flat
  • Personal human stories can get you farther than business and music share posts (it’s social media, not business media)
  • Thank commenters, send personal DMs, and be a human. Steer clear of your ego and stay humble always

Your Live Show is Still Important

Despite the digital revolution, live performances are still a huge piece of a music career.

They provide an unparalleled opportunity to physically meet your fans, cultivate an experience for them with your talent, and build a loyal fanbase that will last a lifetime.

It doesn’t matter if you’re:

  • playing your neighborhood coffee shop
  • bringing joy to a regional mid-sized music venue
  • commanding a large outdoor festival
  • live-streaming to a larger global audience

When you embrace the adrenaline and joy of sharing your music live, you’ll let your guard down and your fans will see how much fun you have doing this for them.

And if your audience can see and feel the fun you’re having, chances are their experience will be fun too, and that will keep them coming back for more.

Finally, while live shows and fan experiences are a huge part of your sustainable income source, playing shows lets you be you. In most cases you probably won’t even care about the money because you’re doing what you love, and that’s a much larger form of compensation.

Nothing in this world can replace live performances, and that makes the music memorable and the experience cherish-able.

Skillfully Balance Creativity and Commercial Success

One of the biggest challenges in a music career is balancing creativity and any level of commercial success.

It’s difficult, yet crucial, to remain true to your artistic vision while also producing music that resonates with a broader audience.

And by broader audience, I mean the community you attract that resonates with the art you’re making. I am not talking about the size of the broader audience that someone like Taylor Swift has attracted. The size of your audience should be relevant to you, and should only be compared to your audience size a week ago. A month ago. The only person you will ever compete with is past you, because you will always be getting better and growing, even when you don’t feel like you are.

Remember, your best music will always stay true to your artistic vision. But in the event you aren’t finding an audience for your “purebred vision”, consider putting clips and demos of your recordings out to family and friends to get early feedback and see how you can get your starter audience involved in the creative process.

Your music requires you, audience feedback, and your ability to tolerate and listen to good feedback and harsh criticism.  I KNOW IT WILL BE HARD AND IT WILL BRUISE YOUR SOUL, but you will become a stronger artist on the other side.

Build an Audience You Own through Email

Fleeting social media trends. Fake followers. Changing algorithms. A busy newsfeed. Trolls. Unfollows. Shorter attention spans.

There’s a lot of crap to wade through when building a personal or business brand via any social media platform. But unfortunately it seems to be the go-to medium for that initial brand awareness phase, the top of the funnel in marketing speak, for anyone who seeks its power to grow a name for themselves.

Despite the hell that social media is, email remains a powerful tool for building the dedicated audience of real fans that you want to have. An email list gives you direct access to your fans, the fans you now possess actual data for, free from the nightmare of consistent algorithm changes and per-user preference settings.

Think of social media as a candy store. There are so many pieces and flavors to choose from. But within that store are your favorites, and once you find them, you only want those.

Once you find them, you have them in your hand. You can unwrap it, eat it, smell it, whatever you want to do to engage with it. The ones you now possess and can pay special attention to are those fans in your email list

Ok, so that may be a horrible analogy. I mean, who “engages with candy”?  You don’t “smell or eat your fans” right? But I hope there’s some light bulb that goes off in your brain on this one!

Social media represents a bull horn or a billboard on a highway. You can reach a lot of people but most of them aren’t going to be interested in your music or a good fit to develop a better connection with. But those who do find value in your music or services, they will be the ones to “convert” from social media by signing up to your email.  They will have self-selected by raising their hand and saying “hey, I like your music!”.

Regular email communication can keep your real fans updated about new releases, upcoming shows, and more. It’s a more personal way to connect and foster a sense of community among your listeners.

And the more they hear from you and enjoy what you’re sharing, the more likely they will eventually reciprocate and buy music, merch, or subscribe to your Patreon.

In business, you have to “Give, Give, Get”, meaning you have to put a lot out into the world before the world gives back to you.

Set Up a Music Business

Making music is your art.

Selling music is your business.

Setting up a sustainable music business helps you stay organized, take ownership of your revenue, and be in control of your career journey.

This process tends to be a pain for artists because of human anatomy (in my opinion):

  • Being a creative is one side of your brain
  • Being a logical and strategic business owner is the other side of your brain

So if you hate the business side of music, it’s not your fault. It’s kinda science-y and natural! :)

While this is hard for artists, know that being your own business is probably the only true way to make music for a living. It is a two-headed beast, where if you care for one you have to pay attention to the other.

Here are a few of the things your business may be responsible for:

  • Forming and managing a legal entity (LLC)
  • Understanding contracts and negotiating
  • Managing your finances, taxes, and cash flow
  • Managing your artist team, operations, and processes
  • Registering your music for copyright protection
  • Owning your masters and collaboration agreements
  • Partnering with venues and festivals for shows and tours

It WILL seem overwhelming at first, but these and all the other unmentioned pieces of your business will help you establish a solid foundation for a sustainable music career. And remember, you never have to do it alone. There are peers, coaches, mentors, and networking contacts who are able to help you do what you love on your terms.

Starting a sustainable music career is a marathon, not a sprint. It involves ALL of the areas I mentioned above (and then some).

Remember, your journey as an artist is unique.  Every artist’s journey is unique. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for success. But with passion, perseverance, and a strategic approach, you can create a rewarding and sustainable music career that resonates with your audience and leaves a legacy for all to remember and hear.

Here’s to your music and the incredible journey ahead. I’m rooting for you (and here if you need help!)

Join Career Musicians Made Simple today to access Music Career Success Specialists who are available to help you grow and see you succeed

Stop Feeling Isolated & Let’s Build Your Music Career Together

Are you a serious career musician looking for help from real industry humans?

Are you fed up with the lack of help from the many online music cliques?

Join Career Musicians Made Simple today and gain access to:

  • Music Career Success Specialists who truly care about your success
  • A community of musicians helping each other overcome similar struggles
  • Guides and frameworks that give you tangible results when applied properly
  • Special live events that let you ask questions and get focused attention

Stop Feeling Isolated & Let’s Build Your Music Career Together

Are you a serious career musician looking for help from real industry humans?

Are you fed up with the lack of help from the many online music cliques?

Join Career Musicians Made Simple today and gain access to:

Join Career Musicians Made Simple today to access Music Career Success Specialists who are available to help you grow and see you succeed
  • Music Career Success Specialists who truly care about your success
  • A community of musicians helping each other overcome similar struggles
  • Guides and frameworks that give you tangible results when applied properly
  • Special live events that let you ask questions and get focused attention