[written for @NARIPatlanta Indie Label event on 7/20/16]
There are many things an artist must have to succeed, and then there are a few things that will make life easier. Today, I am focusing on the necessities. We all know the music business is currently changing, but there have always been changes in the music industry. How we adapt to those changes determines our outlook and success. Perhaps I’m used to change because I’m from the rap world, which was new to music in the 1980s and rap just began making money for the labels heavily in the 1990s–so it’s a relatively new art form. Today, independent rap artists can build successful careers that feed themselves and their families without having to sign to a major record label. Here’s what is needed for that to happen, for rappers and for all artists and musicians looking to build a successful career:
1-TALENT. You need an incredible amount of talent to succeed. Yeah, I know you listen to the radio and think some of the stuff playing isn’t based in talent, but it is–just not your definition of talent. While talent is subjective and based on opinion, it does mean you must have a skill set to deliver music that a mass amount of people want to hear. Those fans must be willing to exchange money and time to hear and be around that talent. They must be willing to listen to your music, share it with their friends, attend your live shows and performances, and even buy a t-shirt or merchandise with your name on it. They are mini ambassadors for you. Similar to a politician, you are running for musical office and they vote for you with their dollars.
2-FUNDING. You need money to make and record music, market and promote your music, spread your music, and travel around in a large enough regional area to reach enough potential fans to build awareness for your music (online and in the real world). Whether your goal is to get signed to a label or stay independent, you need to build a buzz, or some hype, about you and your music to start building your fanbase. You may need to hire a consultant to save you time and money rather than bump your head learning this industry yourself.
3-WORK ETHIC. The music industry is over saturated. There are talented artists everywhere. The only way to stand out from the din of struggling artists is to outwork every other artist. You have to constantly build awareness of you and your music. You need people talking about you in a positive way that builds your brand. People need to like you and your music, and they need to be willing to share it with their friends and acquaintances. You have to constantly be marketing and promoting yourself with a plan for success. When TI was asked what his secret to success has been, he said it was simple: he out worked every other rapper, had a great team, and stayed in his lane. Do something every day to further your career. Every day.
4-BUILD A TEAM. No artist can succeed by themselves. LeBron James is probably one of the best basketball players in the NBA, but if he was on the court against the worst team in the League (looking at you, Philadelphia 76ers), he’d lose. Even the world’s best player can’t beat a team. As an artist you need to surround yourself with efficient and dedicated people to help you plan, market, promote, tour, monetize and sell music and merchandise, and spread the word about your greatness. You need a team of people who believe in you and are willing to work hard for your success (and you must outwork all of them). Lead by example.
5-PASSION. You must believe in yourself and want to succeed more than anything. Your passion and dedication are what will stand you back up when you get knocked down. This is an industry of adversity. It’s not easy and it’s not fast. There are a whole lot of 10 year “overnight” successes, meaning that people will think you came out of nowhere and suddenly exploded on the scene. But your success will be hard won and fought for every step of the way even though it will appear easy and fast to outsiders. Perception is their reality. You will give up many, many things for this success so you better want it more than life itself!
6-INDUSTRY KNOWLEDGE. Someone on your team needs to have a solid understanding of how this works and a track record of success in the music industry. This is a complicated industry, and it’s infinitely challenging if someone has no experience, connections, or access. It looks easy, but it’s not. This is not an intuitive industry. Jay Z had Damon Dash and then John Meneilly; Beyonce had her father; Lady Gaga had Troy Carter…the top stars all have someone on their team who know how to succeed in the music business, where to go and what to do, and they know who the key players and tastemakers are and they have access to them. They know who to hire, when to hire them, and how much to pay them. You need that person on your team. You can hire that person to help you–please see #2.
7-TIMING. One of the areas where most artists fail is with their timing. To properly market and promote a project, you need to make sure all aspects hit at the same time: radio, publicity, the video, performances, street and club promotions, etc. The blogs need to be talking about you at the same time your video plays, at the same time the club DJs are playing your single, at the same time people see you perform, at the same time your song plays on the radio, at the same time fans are sharing your music on social media, etc. Just one aspect of promotion won’t create awareness and success, you need every aspect to hit at the same time; it’s like cooking and serving a meal. If you want a successful meal, you have to prepare everything so it all finishes cooking at the same time in order to put everything on the table together. You can’t serve a dinner roll, and then 30 minutes later some rice, then an hour later a steak, with the vegetable coming 20 minutes afterwards, and 30 seconds later a piece of pie with a salad. There’s an order to a meal, and you want the steak, rice, vegetable, and dinner roll to be finished at the same time even though they have varied cooking times. A project in this industry is the same–you have to work the streets and clubs first to get your single hot before you try going to radio. The blogs can be attacked a week before you want your music posted, but the song can’t be too old, nor can it be too new with nothing going on with it. Blogs respond to the reaction of the music and your movement forward as an artist. If you have no buzz, don’t expect them to be excited about your music. On the flip side, you need them talking about you to build a buzz.
8-MONETIZE. Assuming you are trying to make money doing this, you need to have a balance between what is free (music, performances, promotional items, etc) and what you get paid to do. In urban music, it is so over saturated with rappers that we give music away to potential fans to help build the fanbase of a rapper. As fans gravitate towards their favorite music and artists, we then begin charging them for music, shows, and merchandise. Some artists move faster through this progression than others depending upon how quickly fans embrace the music. With a hot song, this process can take 6-9 months. With good music and no hot song, this process can take years. With average music, it might never react. Very few artists can make a hit record. This is why there are so few superstars at the top and so many struggling artists trying to climb up to get to the top. It’s not enough to make good music, your music has to be great (!) in the eyes of the fans.
9-CHARISMA. The “it” factor. Everybody knows “it” when they see it–that special something that superstars have that light up a room. It can’t be learned or bought. Either an artist has it, or they don’t. It’s image mixed with charisma that draws people to them. They light up a room when they walk in, and it’s a necessity in today’s music industry. It’s not attention caused by a gimmick, it’s natural attention–people seeking to be near them. Gimmicks don’t really work, at least for any length of time. More than ever, stars are in the public eye, constantly. Between public appearances, social media, tv shows obsessed with our fame based culture, artists can’t escape being seen at all times. It’s important to uphold a solid image and to be likable and authentic in the eyes of the fans. The more you allow fans into your world, the more they will see you and the level of fame you achieve will be in tandem. There are very few successful hermits today. Fans want full access.
10-STRENGTH. To experience success, an artist must develop thick skin. While the majority of people love stars, there is a growing contingency of toxic, unhappy people who will delight in negativity, gossip, and tearing stars down. We call them haters and no successful person is without them. They say mean things, do cruel things, and live to make others miserable. There’s no way to avoid them, even Mother Theresa and Ghandi had haters. It’s a fact of life. If you listen to them or allow them to cause you self-doubt, they can really destroy you. It’s important to develop a very thick skin and ignore them. Your attention causes them to multiply and get a turbo boost of power. To thine own self be true. Be honest with yourself and ignore the chatter and the bullshit. Also, stay grounded. It’s hard not to believe the hype when millions of people are telling you how great you are and how much they adore you. You are not defined by your stardom, it is thrust upon you. This is a job you have chosen, it’s not who you are at your core. Enjoy it while it lasts because it never lasts forever. With a little bit of intelligence (and luck) you can feed yourself and your family, and you can use your platform to make positive change in the world. Build a legacy. Leave the world a little better than you found it. Use your voice for good.
The music industry isn’t as intuitive as it seems, and while I know many really great and legitimate people in the industry, most are not. It seems to be an industry fraught with con men (and women) and fraudulent people looking to scam, take advantage of artists, and make a quick buck. There are also many genuine but inept people who want to be around famous people but aren’t even qualified to walk your dog, yet have impressive titles and attractive business cards. With some common sense and thorough research, it’s not hard to figure out who’s who. Ask around about everyone you meet, and remember that Google is your friend (go beyond the first page of results, please).
Building a career isn’t difficult if you have and apply the 10 things listed above to succeed. By the way, they aren’t listed in any order of importance. Can you miss one or two and succeed? Yes, if you’re very lucky. But why not just heed good advice from an experienced music industry geek like me and assemble exactly what you need…
Wendy Day is a 24-year veteran of the urban music industry. She built her career starting Rap Coalition, a not-for-profit artist advocacy organization for rappers, producers, and DJs. Educating artists is her passion, and she is well known in the rap community for having negotiated some of the best deals in urban music and helping to build the careers of many new unknown artists who’ve gone on to super stardom with her help. Wendy helps artists build their own independent record labels and has worked with a veritable who’s who of rap: Cash Money Records (Juvenile, BG, Hot Boyz, Lil Wayne, Big Tymers), David Banner, No Limit Records (Master P, Mia X, Fiend, C-Murder, Beats By The Pound), Young Buck, Hurricane Chris, Slick Rick, BloodRaw, Do Or Die, Twista, Lil Boosie, Webbie, TMI Boyz, Trouble, UGK, and many others. If you text WENDYDAY to 44222, you can join her free email newsletter list. Follow her on social media @RapCoalition.