13 things every DIY musician should know how to do

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Photo of the band Black Light Discipline taken by Sabine Van Gameren at Tulliklubi-Tampere, Finland.

If you’re one of those artists who thinks it’s enough just to be a good musician, check out Pigeons and Planes’ recent article “Things Every Indie Artist Should Know How to Do.”

It’s a good kick-in-the-pants for anyone clinging to the very 20th-Century fiction (because it wasn’t true then either) that musicians can get by on talent alone.

Work ethic and attitude have always been important for success in the music industry (particularly for independent artists). They just might look a little different today than they did 15 years ago.

Check out Pigeons and Planes’ full article HERE, or check out my quick summary below.

What you should know how to do if you want to be a successful musician today:

1. Manage your expectations —

Amir Abbassy says,Set a goal. You want to be Kanye? Realize Kanye played the cut for over a decade before he became Mr. West. Then it took another decade to become Yeezus. Things take time. Get. That. Chip. Off. Your Shoulder. Anything that comes too easy, isn’t real. And anything you put time and effort into, will come back to you.”

2. Create memorable music videos —

Videos are IMPORTANT these days, not just to fans, but also to talent buyers who want to hear and SEE what your shows are like before they book you at their venue. Thankfully, videos don’t require a bunch of $$ to shoot anymore. You have a camera on your phone, and editing software is pretty affordable.

3. Submit your music to your favorite blogs and websites —

Don’t wait for a publicist to take you to the promised land. Be your own publicist.

 4. Stop trying to get a record deal —

The P&P article says: “Instead of rushing into a deal, develop yourself first. If it takes a couple of years, so be it—by the time you do sign with a major, you’ll be ready. And you’ll be in a much better position to negotiate for creative control, ownership, and whatever else you want from a partnership.”

5. Develop a sense of fashion —

This one always hurts, since I’m the type of person who’d rather just find a uniform, buy 7 of them, and wear the same thing every day. But alas…

P&P says, “We all had that golden moment freshmen year when we looked in a mirror and thought, “Oh God, I look awful.” As an artist, it’s best you have that moment sooner rather than later. Developing a unique style can help set the tone for your music by making for compelling press photos and visually pleasing live performances.”

6. Carefully consider your album artwork, posters, etc. —

Check out what’s out there today, what’s hitting, what’s hip. If your artwork looks shoddy, no one will want to listen to your music or check out your show.

This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but we see new albums every week with art that screams “amateur” or worse. We also see brilliant album art that catches us and makes us want to listen right away. Hopefully you’re in the second group. After putting so much time into the music, don’t skimp on the design.

7. Communicate via social media —

Facebook. Twitter. G+. Snapchat. Instagram. Meerkat. YouTube. Vine. Etc. Etc. Etc.

You do NOT need to be active on all of them. But find where your fans are and communicate with them effectively on at least one or two of those platforms.

8. Put together a marketing plan —

P&P says, “It should come as a surprise to none of you that if you want to make some money with your music, you need a business model. What are you selling? Who’s your target audience? Who’s your competition?”

Putting together a plan that considers these factors will make you better able to maneuver in your music marketplace, and to make career adjustments based on actual data.

9. Create interesting content —

I’ve been hesitant to embrace the notion of musician-as-content-creator because I feel like it shifts the attention away from what’s most important (the music).

But I I like how P&P puts it: “Take advantage of the internet—not just as a way of promoting your music, but as a way of creating a world for that music to live in.”

10. Be an effective public speaker —

Developing this skill will help you better describe your music when someone asks you what you sound like. It’ll help you give better interviews. It’ll help you when you’re networking with managers, labels, and agents. And it’ll help you become a better live performer with better in-between-song banter.

11. Code —

Basic HTML is pretty much required at this point, especially if you’re managing your own website, posting frequent blogs, etc.

But the P&P article takes it a step further: “For an artist, learning how to code early on will provide a distinct advantage. Remember when Raury released Indigo Child through an online video game? Or when Mac Miller made you make him a sandwich to download Faces? People love new and fun ways to interact with the internet. Code is just one more way you can reach them. Most artists eventually hire an expert to take over the tech, but being self-sufficient from the start can put you way ahead of the competition.”

12. Talk to your fans directly —

Megastars of yesteryear were all about living in the limelight beyond the reach of fans. Those days are over. The more direct, honest, and engaged you are with your audience (and with the individuals who comprise your audience), the more loyal your fanbase.

13. Make good music —

Here’s that bit of advice I hope is the assumed starting or ending point of any blog post or tutorial for musicians: you have to make good music! 

P&P says, “You can only get by on good looks, interesting content, and a fire social media strategy for so long. Eventually, it all comes down to whether or not you have compelling music.”

What else do you need to know how to do if you want to be a successful musician today? Let me know in the comments below.

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Join the Conversation

  • This helps me see where I’m at as I grow…WWW.reverbnation.com/originalb6

  • Robbie Alan

    Suffering for your art is an antiquanted notion. If you have to labor over something,it’s not likely to work.The song Love The One You’re With,took 15 minutes to write,once you’ve mastered,what you do,things come easier.

    Record companies spend countless hours,pushing songs from the flavor of the moment,
    trying to convince you,this is what you should listen to.The only way to know if you’ll like a
    song is to listen,without the spin doctoring.

    I have a service called Sound Advice,I’ve had over 20 years experience,with recorded,and
    live sound.I go into a project with a no nonsense attitude.I listen to what your doing,and discuss the direction of your music;I also help you use your gear in a more efficient way.
    I’m currently based in Phoenix.

    I don’t use the album point system,I charge by the hour. You can contact me at

    robbiealanmusic@aol.com Let me know your genre,and type music in the subject
    box of your email.

  • Linda Vee Sado

    5 is so true too. I see bands and some of the members look like street people and you have to wonder if they smell too. Just a bad image.

  • Excellent post! This list is awesome. So many things get overlooked but all of these help immensely in the long term! Especially coding. You can save a ton of $ knowing how to update your own sites online. No one likes an outdated website that takes a million years to load. The internet is where you interact with fans the most.

  • Sam Phesting

    A bit scary that the very last tip on this list is “make good music”. Shouldn’t that be #1 and not #13?

    • It IS the most important. But if you’ve come across this post, you should already know that. So kudos!!!!!

  • CheckeredOwl

    Thanks for the ad…

  • Isaac42

    If I wanted to be a businessman, I’d go into business. The pay is better, and the chances of success much higher.

    • Very true. But you should at least know enough to keep from getting screwed over. So many young musicians get screwed into bad deals that, to them, looked good at the time. Just pay attention to who you work with.

  • Nice to have all of this packed together, thank you for that. As for #8, would you guys have any suggestion on how to get started creating a business plan? I’ve started reading about it, and to take into account all the things normally suggested seems quite overwhelming.

    • Well, I don’t think you need to get all business-school about the plan. But setting some solid guidelines is helpful: 1) where you want to be in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years — and an attack plan to get there, 2) what your budget is, allocation of funds for recording, marketing, advertising, touring, living, etc. 3) a clearly defined band structure (if you’re working with other people): who makes decisions and how, responsibilities and expectations, repercussions for not meeting obligations, ownership of copyright, publishing, trademark, etc.

      That’s a good start, and you’ll be ahead of most bands even if you just address those things.

      @ChrisRobley

    • Definitely all of the things Christopher already mentioned!!!
      It depends on where you are in your career and what your goals are but it’s never a bad idea to have a band meeting and talk things out. The last thing you want is to invest time and $ into your brand with someone that is going to bail. Figure out what everyone’s individual goals are as well as yours together as a band. Then go for it.

      Also, just going to mention the top 5 things I usually see bands don’t have, but need. They’re just long term things that’ll help keep u connected to your fans.
      #1 A proper website
      #2 music on bandcamp or soundcloud (or spotify if you’re there)
      #3 MAILING LIST & NEWSLETTER
      #4 MERCH!! Even if all you have is stickers
      #5 BUSINESS CARDS!! How is anyone going to find you after the show? They’ve probably seen all the other bands, if they’re a show-goer, can you be sure they heard you announce your band’s name over people yelling.

  • I think that one other thing that this list omitted (which is kind of important) is sticking to one style. I find this difficult because I have so many crazy ideas in my head, but to make a consistent fan base, you need to keep a general style that people like. I bet anyone who got an album of Taylor Swift and then didn’t get a song, or a whole album, of whining over failed relationships, would be dissapointed to some extent, because that is what he/she has come to expect.

    One of my favorite artists, Owl City, uses different artist names for his different styles, and I bet that others do too.

    Anyway, I’m not really trying to be a selling artist, inasmuch as I’m not a business man, and more of a hobbyist. If my music gets popular for some reason, maybe I’ll take that gift and utilize it for revenue.

    http://www.soundcloud.com/kablechannel

  • I think that one other thing that this list omitted (which is kind of important) is sticking to one style. I find this difficult because I have so many crazy ideas in my head, but to make a consistent fan base, you need to keep a general style that people like. I bet anyone who got an album of Taylor Swift and then didn’t get a song, or a whole album, of whining over failed relationships, would be dissapointed to some extent, because that is what he/she has come to expect.

    One of my favorite artists, Owl City, uses different artist names for his different styles, and I bet that others do too.

    Anyway, I’m not really trying to be a selling artist, inasmuch as I’m not a business man, and more of a hobbyist. If my music gets popular for some reason, maybe I’ll take that gift and utilize it for revenue.

    http://www.soundcloud.com/kablechannel

  • Good read! Being a musician is more work than most people imagine. We get to do music only about half the time and spend the rest on marketing and running our business. If we neglect the business, very few people ever hear our music. If we don’t create excellent music, all the marketing in the world will not make anyone want to listen to our music. Music with business is a balance we constantly struggle with but it is also the formula for success.

  • paulie

    Cool, but #13 should be #1, by far…

  • For those wanting to work on #10 (the public speaking portion). In all honesty, there aren’t a lot of people out there giving good tips on this sort of thing. PS – Nice list, DIY! 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGx6L-GzmAY

  • BoboSwenson

    1. you want to be Kanye?, why not shoot for being George Clooney? it’s about the same odds.
    If you’re in the music business to be a ‘star’ you’re already screwed, you might as well bet everything on winning the lottery you have the same chance no matter how good you are.
    If you’re not willing to put years into developing your voice musically and refining your craft you might as well stop wasting your time and everyone else’s.
    Work on building a niche audience, which is still not easy, it’s a lot of work, but it is doable. And if you just stay in the process through the ups and downs and keep growing, ultimately you can build to the point where you at least make a part of your income from your music. Which isn’t a bad deal doing something you love.
    And oh yeah, make sure you really do “love” it, that’s what will carry you through everything.

  • Darrell Rodney
  • Excellent points. Thanks for adding ’em.

    @ChrisRobley