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The 10 most important things you need to know to break into the music industry

Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

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I started gigomi to help up and coming musicians learn how the music industry really works and what they can do to give themselves the best chance of breaking in and building a successful long term career.

I’ve worked in music for 30+ years and for this project I have spoken to scores of artists and industry executives to get their take on things.

Many of the same pieces of advice have come up over and over again and I think it is worth pulling them together in one place.

So, here are the 10 things that my network of artists and execs (who between them have 1000’s of years of experience in the industry) think you need to know if you are serious about turning your talent for music making into a career:

1. Become exceptional at making and performing music

This is blindingly obvious, isn’t it? But it's still true.

The most important thing you can do is write fantastic songs, make brilliant records and blow an audience away when you perform live. You need to be exceptional at at least two of these three things, and you should put 90% of your efforts into achieving it.

  • Be impatient. Work at these skills relentlessly. Make music and then make more music. Send it out into the world and watch how people react. The best way of learning is by trying things. And making more music.

  • Be patient. You won’t become exceptional overnight. Nobody will expect you to be exceptional immediately. They will, however, expect you to work & work some more, learn & learn some more until you are.

  • Notice I use the word “work” a lot. Becoming exceptional at anything requires a lot of obsessive work, it is part of the job. All the experts I speak to emphasise just how much bloody hard work is involved in a career in music. Don’t underestimate this.

As artist manager Paul McDonald said on my podcast:

“We view the early years of an artist development... very much as an apprenticeship….our most successful artists probably ended up writing 100 songs before they made their first album. And that is … the same for James Bay, or George Ezra, James Morrison, John Newman, a lot of the people that we've worked with, and we definitely see it as a sort of unwritten apprenticeship. And that includes getting better live, learning what to say to an audience, not feeling nervous standing on stage. And we work very hard on all those areas with our artists, to help them grow and develop. And of course, there's a confidence that comes with the music getting better and feeling great about that. And that can take a moment. So if you give yourself …. two, three year developmental phase...Some people are quicker,...some people come to market quickly. Other people just take [time] and need to find out who they are and develop their sound. So you just want to give yourself that space.”

2. It’s called the music business for a reason

If you are only interested in music, you will remain an amateur, a hobbyist. You only begin to turn pro when you take the business side of things seriously.

The people you will be dealing with know which way the money flows. If you are to prosper you need to tool up with commercial knowledge and skills.

Study how the music industry works. How do songs make money? How do records make money? How do gigs and festivals make money? What is your fair share? How does it get to you? And the best way of learning? Ask lots of questions. If you don’t understand something, ask questions until you do. There are great people at PRS, MCPS, Help Musicians UK, Ivors Academy (& gigomi!) who are there to help you find your way.

3. The business is built on copyrights and contracts and you need to understand them

When you are making songs and records you are also making copyrights, because each song and record has a copyright. These are the basic building blocks of the music industry. Lawyer Ann Harris explained in our podcast conversation:

Copyright is a property…...just like a house or a car. But it's a property of the mind as it were, it's an intellectual property….The owner of that (song or recording), can decide what happens with it, whether it is released, whether it's changed, whether it's made available, whether it's played in public,”

The owner of the copyright controls who can use it and collects the money it generates. To make sure you own the copyrights you have made, you need to do two things:

  1. Establish ownership over the songs and records you make.

  • If you’ve written a song with somebody else, agree with them who wrote what % of the song. AND WRITE IT DOWN AND GET THEM TO AGREE IN WRITING.

  • If you’ve made a record with other people using their recording equipment, getting them to perform on the record or produce it, agree with them what they are getting in return. AND WRITE IT DOWN AND GET THEM TO AGREE IN WRITING.


  1. Register those copyrights at PPL, PRS and MCPS

  • Listen to my conversation with Cliff Fluet, who puts it bluntly: “Anyone that is out there, creating music, that isn't a member of PRS [and MCPS and PPL],I think you're crackers.”

  • If you don’t register your songs and records you will not be paid anything for their online usage. Nobody will be able to find you to pay you.

There is a lot more information about this in my interview with Cliff & I’ve included details of which bits of data you need to register and where in the notes page to the interview.

4. Look after yourself

This is never talked about enough, yet it's the most basic and important requirement for building a successful life and career making music:

  • If you are in a bad place personally, you almost certainly won’t be able to make the music you are capable of and you probably won’t be in a fit state to deal with business

  • If you are in a bad place personally, you won’t enjoy life even if you manage to make some music and some money

This 3 circle gigomi logo is a (corny) way of reminding you that:

  • you at the core

  • your music emanates from you, and

  • your business is you sharing your music with the world & getting paid in return

These are inter-connected and you need to keep them in balance.

Above everything else, learn to look after yourself. Work at being physically healthy and mentally healthy.

Here are some things to get more of: exercise, sleep, good food, water, time for relationships, friendships, love, family, downtime, meditation, anonymity

Here are some things to be wary of: drugs, alcohol, the pressures of social media, worrying about streaming numbers, eating too little, eating too much, impersonal sex, always being on

5. Have a plan

What are you aiming for?

World tours? Selling out Wembley stadium? Writing for Beyonce? US #1? Writing Hollywood scores? Tabloid fame? Never having to get a proper job?

Before you start trying to make it, think about what it is you are trying to make? Write it down. The effort of writing it will force you to think about what you want.

Everything you do should be something that can help you move towards your target. Everything that doesn’t help you get there is a waste of your time.

Think short term: always hustle for opportunities that can propel you forward and always be ready.

“Be prepared, ready and rehearsed to play your 3 best songs anywhere for anyone” and don’t judge these don’t know who is in the room… there could be someone who having a pint whose brother or sister works [in the industry]” advises KT Tunstall

But also think long term: Always keep an eye on the big picture. How can you achieve the big things that you set out to do? Are you on the right track? What can you do to get back on track and move toward your goals?

6. Find a way to pay the rent

You are going to need time to get better at making music and build an audience. How are you going to live while you are doing this?

And don’t forget. When you do start earning money from music, the tax collector is going to come knocking at your door. You will have to put money away for tax. An unexpected and unbudgeted tax bill can scupper a career before it has really started.

  • The tax collector doesn’t care about your journey. They just want what they are entitled to under law. You can never evade them, they will get you in the end, so plan ahead.

7. Build a following

Most people will never be interested in you or your music. Even if you get 10 million devoted fans, there are almost 8 billion people in the world who will remain oblivious to you.

Don’t worry about those who ignore you. Concentrate on the people who get you.

Start by deciding who your music is for. Think about:

  • What genre are you operating in? Metal? Drill? RnB? Brechtian punk cabaret? What does music in that genre usually sound like? Does your music sound like that? How can you make it sound like that while giving it your own twist?

  • Do people in your space have a certain look? Think about how you want to dress, your hairstyle, your makeup. Again, how can you give it your own twist?

  • What do you feel strongly about? Veganism? Peace and love? Becoming extraordinarily rich? Bringing about the destruction of society? Can you find a way of feeding your ideas into your work and the way you present yourself?

Each of those things will send most people running in the opposite direction but will thrill the right people.

Ignore the people who ignore you.

Spend your time welcoming those who come towards you. Encourage them to connect with you on social media but above all get their email address so you will always have a direct link to them.

Communicate directly with them, communicate regularly, communicate when you have nothing to sell.

I wrote a blog about how Amanda Palmer built her amazing following. Love or loathe her music, she is phenomenally good at this.

8. Build a following

This is so important it's worth saying twice.

  • Your first priority is ALWAYS to learn how to write fantastic songs, make brilliant records and blow an audience away when you perform live.

  • Your second priority is to build a following of people who love you and your music and want to know what you do next.

  • Exceptional music skills + a devoted following = the world is your oyster

It's easy to see how many people are interested in you right now. Look at your social media likes & follows, look at your streaming numbers on the different platforms, look at ticket sales when you play live. The numbers don’t lie.

It’s not easy to grow those numbers. It takes a lot of consistent, repeated work. And you can easily waste a lot of time doing the wrong things.

Artist manager and music industry expert, Phil Nelson has developed a system to focus your efforts on doing the right things at the right time.

I STRONGLY advise you listen to my podcast conversation with him where he explains how you:

  • Establish the size of your following

  • Work out how far away you are from establishing yourself as a serious player, and

  • What you specific things you need to work on next to bridge that gap

It's a system that has worked for others and can work for you.

You can’t get to the top of the mountain in one leap, but you can climb there one step at a time. Other people have - so why can’t you?

Identify one area where you are behind the curve and start working on it right now.

When you have completed that first task, pick a second and begin work on that.

Develop a habit of working on something to grow your following every day.

I explain the details of Phil’s system here.

9. It is all down to you

Nobody’s going to make your music for you, nobody’s going to look after your business for you, nobody’s going to look after you.

There is a danger that other people may look after you, your music and business for their benefit. That’s human nature.

That sounds pretty bleak but its the way things are.

You may have a manager, a lawyer, an accountant, a label, a publisher, an agent. They may be great, honourable and have your back. You may work together brilliantly as a team. But ultimately each of them is in business for themselves. Teams can break up. People can leave.

Its important that you learn to trust your team - you will get nowhere unless you find that trust - but, at the same time, it is vital that you have one eye on business - including the work others do on your behalf - at all times.

Ultimate responsibility for your life and your business stops with you, even in areas that you are not that comfortable with and don’t enjoy.

In our podcast interview, artist KT Tunstall said that it's so important to make yourself take an interest in the business side of things even if its not naturally your thing, and be particularly careful what you sign. Listen to her explain how “delegating and relying on other people to do everything bit me on the arse.”

She also said that your reputation is one of your most important assets, so spend time working on your good name.

Set a positive tone:

  • Be charming

  • Be polite

  • Be respectful

  • Be interested in other people. Ask them questions about themselves.

[Getting people to like you is a super skill. If they like you they will go the extra mile for you and send opportunities your way.]

  • Be punctual

  • Be professional (uphold your side of the bargain)

  • You can be all of these things without being anybody’s pushover. Don’t let anyone cross that line.

The world is always an easier place if you can get on with people. Apply this approach to build a network of people who might be able to help you move forward.

10. You are not going to make it on your own

You won’t have time to do it all.

Build a team (manager, lawyer, accountant, agent, publisher, label) who you can delegate things to. Look for people with the following characteristics:

  • people who are smarter than you, who know more about the industry than you and who know more people in and around the industry than you.

  • professionals who get you and your music, buy into where you are trying to get to and who will work hard on your behalf even when you are not looking over their shoulder.

  • high performers who demand the same from you.

  • the best people that you can afford.

  • People who add value. Your team get paid out of your earnings. They must help you grow the pie so you all can eat.

  • Above all, find people you trust.

But while you might delegate tasks, never delegate responsibility. Your team is doing work for you, they are not replacing you. You have to accept responsibility for what they are doing.

  • Keep an eye on how they go about their work. If they represent you and behave like idiots, you will soon have a reputation as an idiot by association.

  • Use the power of questions to understand what is going on. Especially those questions that start with Why, What, How and When. Ask them questions like:

  • Why are you spending money on taxis for everyone, when we could get the tube? Who pays for that?

  • What are you going to do about getting the new merchandise to the first gig?

  • How are we going to get me on Later?

  • When do you expect us to be ready to play the O2?

  • What do we have to do to get there?

Never forget your team will always have other options. They are people who have their own responsibilities to themselves and their families. Never take them for granted. Remember that they only have so much time and are giving up other opportunities to work with you.

I blogged about the huge benefits of having a good manager here.

11. There is no victory post

Unlike football or gaming or esports, you can’t “win” music.It’s not that kind of game.

The people who stick around making music all their life know that this is a never ending game.

Ultimately the point of this game is to keep playing.

To make enough money to give you the freedom to develop the musical skills you need to attempt the next project. And the next one. And the one after that.

What next?

There’s a lot of advice here. Too much to fit into just 10 items!

But if you are serious about stepping into the ring as a musician, I recommend that you read through it several times to let it sink in. Listen to the podcast interviews and blog posts on The people I talk to are real experts.

And please don’t let the scale of what you have in front of you overwhelm you or put you off. Other people have trodden this path. It’s not rocket science. And you have time.

Just remember. At its simplest the game is: develop exceptional music skills + a build a devoted following

So, concentrate on doing those things first and foremost, then

  • You need to stay match fit >>> look after yourself physically and mentally

  • Establish your ownership over your copyrights. And register them

  • Find people to help you on your quest, delegate work to them but never forget you are ultimately responsible so keep one eye on what they do for you

And never stop asking questions and learning

Go for it!

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