How to succeed in the music industry with no talent at all – Chapter 1 taster

I’ve taken some time out to write a book. It is provisionally entitled “How to succeed in the music business with no talent at all”. I lied slightly in the title of this blog. This is actually Chapter one of the second half of the book, which is the self help guide section, and it is a slightly edited down taster for the book, as people have asked how it is going.

The first section is the story of how I got where I am and how I acquired the knowledge, so there is a proper context. A couple of people have been given the early draft, for feedback, which has been good. They have told me that this section has really been useful to them and helped them get a proper perspective on what they are trying to do. They also told me that advice is not only pertinent to the music industry.

I’m currently looking for a literary agent and publisher. If you are interested, get in touch.

Chapter 1 – What is Success?

So what is the ‘secret of success? Before we can talk about what the secret is, maybe we should consider what success is. We can all agree that bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who are successful, by just about any measure, but anyone who tells you that they can guarantee you that level of success for a new artist is telling porkies. If you want a job that pays a regular income, so that you can drive a nice car and live in a nice suburban house, then music is probably the wrong game for you. Music is a high risk business and you can swing between fabulous wealth and being completely skint in no time at all. This usually happens when the tax bills start rolling in (more about that later), just as the sales start to dry up. If your first priority is to be rich, become an investment banker and play in a band for fun. Some of my best studio customers do that and are more than happy with the arrangement.

If you want to be a success in the music industry, start by working out what success is for you. Work out how many years of your life you are prepared to spend trying to achieve it and how much of your time you can dedicate to your musical career. If you are seriously trying to make it and the answer is not “every single second I can productively spend” then your chances are success are very slim. Once you’ve become successful, you can take your foot off the gas, but do it before your career is properly established you have virtually no chance at all. If you are working with a band, make sure they have all bought into this. If you want to make music your primary source of income, you will have to accept that there will be times when making ends meet will be a struggle. That is why it is vital to know what your criteria for success is. What do you want to achieve and where do you want to be in three, five and ten years time? What aspects of music give you a kick and what elements of being involved in music excite you.You also need to work out who you need to engage to realise your particular dream.

I always advise up and coming musicians, who are serious about getting into the industry, to sit down and work out what they want out of their music career. Whatever you want, you won’t get there without knowing what that really is. If you simply have a plan to be in a band and see where it goes, you are playing the lottery with your career. Often musicians say “we’ll get a manager and they will sort all of that out”. Musicians are creative people, they want to create and often they want other people to facilitate the environment that they create in. If that is how you envisage your career panning out, then success is to pay someone to manage your business affairs and for you to produce the music to earn the money to pay both of your wages. Your plan to achieve that should be to persuade the best possible manager that they can earn enough money managing your business affairs to make the venture worth their while. If you want to engage someone to manage you, the first question for them should be “If your plan works, what will my career look like in three years time?”. If they can’t spell out a vision that sounds like your definition of success, then they probably aren’t the right manager for you. I’d always ask “How much will I be making if things go well”. Ask them to outline how the plan works and what the measures of success are. If they say  “You’ll be gigging three nights a week and earning £250 a night for playing cover songs at venues on the circuit I am connected with, these are the other bands I deal with and where they are playing”  then if £750 a week is not enough for you and you have loftier ambitions, then that is not the manager for you. On the other hand if that pays your bills and satisfies your aspirations for being a working musician, then that will be a suitable offer to accept. Whatever the plan or what a manger can offer to you, it is only worth persuing if it delivers what you want for your personal aspirations.
If you want to be a success in a niche market, which is a valid objective for many musicians with a passion for a particular genre, and many make a decent living doing it, then you need to understand the economics of the musicians who are in that genre and ‘successful’. Many successful Jazz musicians I know  pay the bills by teaching and doing other jobs, but the gigs pay for the luxuries in life and give them a purpose. That is success, as they feel fulfilled. 

If you want to be professionally involved in the music business but in a non creative role, such as a band manager, studio owner, music lawyer, roadie, sound engineer or PA, then you need to have expert knowledge of your subject and be able to understand and work with musicians. I know a few music lawyers for instance, who make an extremely good living representing musicians. It is a highly specialised and technical area. The ones I know were/are amatuer muscians who studied law and decided to specialise in the area. The good ones have built long term relationships with their clients and have a high degree of mutual trust. For them, success is having a great client roster. The managers I know who are successful equally have a clear vision of what is success for them. They take on projects that they know can deliver a financial return, or at least have a prospect of it. The hardest area to succeed in as a new band manager is managing a new, independent band playing original material. It can take years building up the contacts to deliver success in this genre and it is never really guaranteed. Defining what is success for such new artists can be difficult, but as a professional manager, it must always involve paying the bills (unless you are massively wealthy and are just doing it for the fun of being involved with music). For someone running a studio, turning over a profit on your business and building a great customer roster is a good aspiration, and measure of success. For crew, such as roadies, soundmen and all of the rest of the people who make gigs happen for both large scale tours and smaller regular venues, success is often simply getting a continuous supply of work. Often this means being involved with an agency that fixes you up with work, but word of mouth recommendation is perhaps the way to get the best jobs. Often roadies, soundmen etc start out as mates of the band and if they are good at it, this develops into a full blown career in music logistics etc. Some start out playing in their own band, then help out mates who get a tour etc. After a few years, they realise that the part time fill in job has become their career. Many experienced crew tell me that they wished that they’d realised they’d made it their real career when it clearly was. My advice is that when something becomes your primary source of income, that is your job and that is what you should define your success in terms of. As musician often take temporary assignments to fill in, how do you know? I would say that a simple way to work out what your real job is would be that if you have earned 75% or more of your money from a particular activity for a period of two years or more, this is your job. It is worth planning around that (unless you have made a big career change in the last six months etc). 

I would also advise you to consider what is not success in the music business. Lets start with the big one. Whatever you do, it is worth remembering that ‘being famous’ is not being successful in the music business. Fame is just an enabler for being able to generate enough money to meet your personal aspirations. If you can’t pay the bills, you will have to get a day job and will soon be forgotten. Getting a deal is not success, you haven’t made a penny and you have no career until your music is generating money. Being played on the radio or being on TV is not success, it is a break that may open the door to success if you play your cards right. Likewise, being in a support band on a major tour, or bottom of the bill at a festival is not success. It can open the door, but you have not walked in and you are not supping at the table of success. It is vital to recognise this, as when these breaks happen, it is the time to up your work rate and efforts, not to back off. The biggest mistake I see, and this happens time and time again, is when a great young band or artist gets a deal, gets lots of fan attention and start to think they have made it before a bill has been paid. They take their foot off the gas, they lose focus and then it all falls down around them. Often the most dangerous thing is when it all goes to a young artist’s head, before they’ve actually earned a penny. They lose friends, fall out with family and then find that when the expected wealth fails to materialise, they have nowhere to turn. Many artists find themselves suffering depression or stress. Artists need a solid support base to deal with this and also need to be aware of the signs.

I would advise that whatever you see as your criteria of success, make sure that the people you love have a piece of it. They will be there to catch you when the way the wind is blowing changes, which it inevitably will.

The final factor to bear in mind is that what you define as success today may change. So tomorrow, you may need a new plan to meet the new criteria. Once you have achieved what you define as success, you need a new definition. In my case, in 1994, I defined success for our studio business plan as having four studios and a shop within five years. We achieved this in three and a half years. If we’d not redefined success, then we’d have not developed. So constantly review your goals.
To sum up,  the first lesson is work out for yourself what you define as success. If you don’t know what you are aiming for, you will always miss.
If you are interested in finding out more about “How to succeed in the music business with no talent at all”

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Roger Tichborne, founded started a punk rock band called The False Dots and set up a music studio in a derelict caretakers cottage in 1979, with a bunch of musicians needing a place to practice. As the band developed, becoming regulars on the London music scene and touring Europe, the studio became a central part of the London music scene. Although the band is now a purely for fun venture, gigging mostly at community events and to raise money for charities,  the studio is one of London’s most successful independent studios, attracting over 2,000 customers a week through its doors. Rog wrote a column for the Barnet Times and then founded his owner Barnet Eye blog, which has had over 2.5 million views, made documentary films, had a successful acting career and set up the Save London Music Campaign. He has appeared on various TV shows such as London Tonight, The One Show and BBC London News and is a regular contributor on the BBC Radio London Robert Elms show. Rog has also regularly mentored young musicians in association with organisations such as NCS, runs a music festival and organises gigs and charity fundraisers

Rog at the studio opening in 1979