Monday, June 9, 2014

Making It in the Music Industry: The Importance of a Plan

Every year about this time two things undoubtedly happen. The first is high school graduations around the country. 18 year olds are congratulated and showered with gifts for what they think is because of their achievement. I thought the same thing at that age, but as I've grown older I realize graduation presents and the accompanying fanfare is not about celebrating achievement, it is a consolation prize for the fact that these kids-turned-adults have just finished the easiest part of their lives and what really awaits them is the cold, hard, real world. Wow, i just re-read that and I want to kill myself. That was harsh. Ok let me re-phrase - Think of it as friends and family coming together to prepare you for the journey of adulthood. And now that I think about it, every time friends and family come together to give gifts it is usually under the banner of "celebration." But in reality it is because things are about to get tough and they're giving us gifts to make it easier to bear. Wedding showers, baby showers, graduations, you get the point.

The other thing that inevitably happens this time of year is the phone calls i get from friends, friends of friends, new graduates, parents of kids who should be asking these questions themselves, etc., all asking for my advice about how they can make their way into the music business. Some want to become engineers and producers. Some are musicians, some are artists. Some are business-minded wanting to work at record labels, booking agencies, and management companies. Most of the time the question they all ask is about what college they should attend. Sometimes it's about what or if they should move to Nashville/LA/NewYork. I don't think I know the answer for everyone. But I can offer advice based on my own experience as a professional musician, songwriter, engineer, and record producer. So for the benefit of those who don't know my phone number or know of friend of a friend, I've decided to post a blog about it in the hopes to help those in the way that others have helped me. I could write a book on the Dos and Don'ts, but today I'll focus on one thing.


If you are a graduating senior wanting to make your way into the business, you need to develop a plan. You need to set a goal. Then each of your decisions about what college to attend, whether or not to attend college, what city to live in, etc., all need to support that goal. Everything you do is either moving you towards that goal or away from it. In every endeavor, ask yourself if you're moving towards or away form your goal and you will quickly have the answer to whether or not you should continue down that path.


If you want to be a producer or engineer, should you go to college? Pricey recording school can be a nice head start, but is it really necessary? That's debatable. But let me tell you this - the first thing you do when you finish recording school is to go intern for free at a studio while you try to hone your chops and get a break. If you have $100k in student loan payments hovering over your head, how are you supposed to do that? That example illustrates my main point. College isn't the goal. Forget the propaganda you've been fed that every successful kid should go to college and that if you don't go you're a failure. College is just a tool - a resource to be used under the right circumstances. Any builder or woodworker will tell you that having the right tools is incredibly important. If you need a screwdriver, you can't substitute with a hammer. Instead of helping, the wrong tool will actually set you back and put you in a worse position that you are in now. College can be a great tool, but as my example illustrates, it can also be a giant thorn in your side. So many students assume that if they can find the right college program then all will be fine from there on out. College is the not the destination. The real goal is to make a living doing what you love. Ask yourself what the best way is to get from where you are now to there. If college fits into a strategic plan to get you from point A to point B, then great! Go for it. I just meet so many high school kids who assume that college is the next logical step without actually thinking about the logic behind that step. School costs A LOT of money. If you have rich parents, then I am happy for you. Enjoy it. But if not, please do yourself a favor and calculate how much debt you will have at the end of those 4 years, how much your monthly payments will be, and what your average starting salary will be.

The mistake that many young people make is not that they make the wrong choice; it is that they don't think enough about where those choices will lead them. When I am asked for my advice by high schoolers, the conversation is not centered around me being some sort of genius consultant. I'm actually not that smart. My first question is to ask what they want to do. Once we have a goal, then we talk about different strategies for getting them into a position where they're making a living doing what they love. We look at others who are in that career and let decisions be influenced by someone who has been successful. Making the right decision does not require a master strategist. The answers you seek become obvious if you take the time to think it through and ask the right questions. If you don't know what you want to do, that is a giant red flag. The music industry is too competitive and too curt throat for people who don't have a clear intention.

In other industries, college is a must. You want to be a lawyer? Saddle up, buttercup. You've got at least 7 years of school ahead of you. You want a DR in front of your name? Prepare to be in school and in debt for the better part of your 20s and 30s. There's no way around it. But some industries the answer to that question becomes a little less black and white. Want to work as an IT guy? welllllll, sometimes college is the answer, and sometimes a guy who works hard, learns a few programming languages on his own time and gets a few certifications makes it just as far as a guy with a degree. And in some occupations a degree is completely worthless. Plumbers make pretty good money. You ever ask what school they went to if you need your drain unclogged? Let me say this - in all my years working in music, i have not landed one gig or job because of a degree. I thought my time in recording school helped me get internships, but later on realized that studios just want free labor. They would have accepted me with school or no school.

Perhaps you want to be a songwriter. If you can't afford a fancy school with a music business program, try studying poetry or english lit at a local community college or state school. take some music theory classes. spend your free time studying the works of great songwriters and dissecting their songs while you work your way through college without any debt. If you decide to move to a big city to pursue a songwriting career, you will have an advantage over those who have to work twice as hard to pay off their student loans.

If you love music and your dream is to be a music teacher, that's great! But do you need to go into a fancy, overpriced music business program?

Or perhaps your dream is to be an artist and get a record deal. Great! There are benefits to living in a city like Nashville or LA and being around a community of musicians. If you live in a musical vacuum, moving to a more musical community can really help raise your standards and motivate you to get better at what you do. But on the other hand, we live in a time much different than the music business 20 years ago. I know of many artists who have been discovered from YouTube. If you are truly talented and unique, the infrastructure exists via the internet to have your voice heard no matter where you live. If you have a band and want to make it big, sometimes moving to a big city is the worst thing you could do. The fan base of any successful band starts with their friends. Friends come to see shows, tell their friends who tell their friends, etc. With hard work and a little luck word spreads. So where are all your friends? they are where you live. Sure, moving to LA might be your big break. But for every artist that moved to the big city and made it big, there are a hundred, no, a thousand who found themselves all alone in a big city, trying to get a gig at clubs where you have to pay to play, having no friends to come see you play, getting lost in a sea of undiscovered acts, and fighting to be heard amongst countless others.

If you haven't figured it out by now, the gist of what I'm saying is to have a goal and to think beyond whatever decision you're faced with now. Your goal should be as specific as you can get. What is the endgame? Don't just say you want to work "in the music industry." Develop a plan to actually achieve it. Don't get me wrong - it's ok to change your mind farther on down the road. We all have little course corrections throughout our life. And you know what? Sometimes unexpected doors open for you down the road and the goal changes. That's ok too. The important thing is that you have your compass set towards the destination. Some people pick a direction not knowing the destination, but best way to find yourself off course is to not know where you are going.

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1 comment:

Elraen said...

As someone who is settling in to my dream job in music journalism after years of honing my skills by working for free and holding down multiple jobs to support my passion, I would echo all of this 100%. I have a college degree, but it really didn't help me in this path at all. Hard won experience and loving something enough to not care what the paycheck looked like did a whole lot more.

About Me

"What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos; that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" --Hi Fidelity

Hey guys, my name is Nick Baumhardt. I help write and record music. I also play guitar for Thousand Foot Krutch and FM Static.

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