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DIY Musicians: Think Outside the Box to Find Success

This post has been adapted from a piece I wrote for The Developing Artist. I initially wrote this piece last year to offer some encouragement for DIY musicians who were feeling a bit overwhelmed by the seemingly constant “bad news” about the music industry. I think this post is still relevant for today. Enjoy!

If you’ve read my posts in the various outlets where I write, you have probably come across something where I encourage musicians to think outside of the box to find success. Despite all the seemingly bad news about the music business out there, all the talk about low record sales, all the stories of hard-working indie artists struggling to make it, and well-established label artists having to drop their ticket prices just to get people to come to the shows–the fact is that there are some bright spots out there.

I’m not getting all Pollyanna on you here–I’m not trying to be overly idealistic about the state of things. I realize it’s a tough time for the music business, mainly because it’s in such a state of transition.  What I do want to convey, however, is that most of the bad news we hear is coming from segments of the industry who have been used to having things run a certain way, that aren’t getting their way anymore.  The ones shouting the loudest that you can’t make a living in music anymore are the ones who used to make a good living by the status quo, who are seeing the status quo shot to hell and don’t know how to get it back.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for music anymore, or that you can’t make a living doing it. There are people who are finding success in this business, simply by thinking outside the box, by refusing to limit their thinking to a status quo that no longer exists. The money might not come through the same outlets anymore, but that doesn’t mean the money went away.  People who think outside the box during times of transition are the ones who are most likely to tap into those fresh streams of income, and that’s as true for the music business as it is for any other enterprise.

Just to give you a couple of examples of hope:

  • There’s a relatively unknown young musician I know who in the past couple of years has begun pulling in enough money from music that he can now do it full time. What does he do? Along with some original songs, he makes quality videos of top-40 cover songs and puts them up on YouTube. He’s one of the most-viewed musicians on YouTube, and is apparently selling music hand-over-fist as a result. He’s not some wonder-boy who had one video go viral; he’s a hard-working musician who managed to tap the market.
  • There’s another musician I know of, another guy who is not a household name, who nets over $50,000 a year simply by recording instrumental piano music and putting it up for download on the Internet. I don’t know all his secrets (or I’d probably be doing that, too), but he’s managed to find an audience.

As another general example…during my recent connections with the Durango Songwriters Expo, most of what they talked about was that while record sales have admittedly been down for songwriters, one area that is taking off is music licensing.  There is a huge demand for original music to appear in commercials, trailers, TV shows and movies, to the point that most of the industry pros now showing up at the Expo are music directors rather than A&R people. Music licensing pays well, pays quickly, and the demand has never been greater for good music. A growing number of DIY musicians are now making money by tapping into this demand.

Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that success in the music business is easy, nor guaranteed. The fact is, it never has been.  If it were, everyone would be doing this, and every musician would be successful!  I’m not saying it won’t be difficult; I am simply saying that there is hope. Our culture has to have music, and musicians are the ones who meet that need. That is the basic foundation of the music business, and that foundation has not changed.  It is really a matter of finding fresh ways to meet that need in a way that helps artists eat and pay their bills while they do it.

There are ways to do it. They might be unconventional, they might be methods no one has ever thought of before–but the possibilities are out there.  While many people bemoan the demise of the recording industry, there are many others who see this time as a positive rather than a negative–because while the ways we used to make money aren’t working anymore, there are other ways that are opening up as a result. You just need to have eyes to see them.

The ones who think outside the box are the ones most likely to find success.  Think it over.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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