By Silas Grant
I’ve volunteered a lot of time in my community and beyond. My focus has been primarily on assisting teenage males between the ages of 12-19. I am a native Washingtonian and the roots of my work lie there. Washington, D.C.’s music roots are deep. However, the pipeline to “Hollywood” for recording artists has been a bit clogged. In 2013, the flood gates are beginning to open and young people are starting to see their peers reach higher levels in the music industry. And so when I interact with youth today, they are more likely to express interests in the music industry as a career path. I’ve seen some make it. But I’ve also seen many fail at their attempts to become rappers, producers and music executives. I won’t steer or advocate for young people to enter the music industry, neither will I discourage them. My philosophy is that if I can’t provide a job for them, who am I to judge what industry they decide to go in?
After quite some time observing young people plunging head-first into the rap industry, I’ve decided to share my thoughts/tips on what I’ve seen thus far in the Washington, D.C. area music scene.
Simply put: before you jump into something, you need to know how you’re going to jump out of it.
The biggest obstacle for young people pursuing music today is the unrealistic approach that many of them take with respect to their chances in this industry. Pride will rear its ugly head and have someone taking too much time, money, emotions and other resources and put them all into an idea that may not work.
Before you enter the music industry, ask yourself a series of questions:
– How much time should it take for me to “get on”?
There is no best practices recommendation for the amount of time that it takes to “get on” in the music industry. Some artists are signed within eight (8) months. Others may take eight (8) years to “get on”. Despite the lack of a standard, you need to set a time and stick to that plan as much as possible. If you estimate the time being three (3) years for you, take that time period and work that plan. This goes for any initiative that you take on. If your actual time is excessively beyond your estimated timeline, it may be time to cut the strings on that plan. Just maybe…
– What does “getting on” mean to you?
So many young people say “I’m tryna get on”. But, what does that mean? And what does it mean specifically to you? What do you equate being “on” to? Is it a record deal? Is it a financial bonus from a record company? Is it a video on a major television/internet outlet? What you may see as being “on” may not be as shiny up close as it is far away.
– How much money are you willing to spend?
Are you keeping track of what you’re spending on this initiative? Can you determine at this moment how much money that you’ve spent on studio time, traveling to shows, paying for CDs and other purchases related to your music career? Have you determined a financial threshold that you won’t cross? What is the dollar limit on your spending that determines if you cease pursuing your music career?
– Am I quitting or am I making a smart decision?
Most people think that an exit strategy for leaving a music opportunity behind is quitting. It’s not. You have to be smart. Make the argument to stay or leave. Take everything into consideration.
– Am I being honest with myself and others?
The biggest issue with leaving a music career behind is the lack of honesty. The rap industry encourages artists to embellish the truth or flat out lie. So when we are telling out friends how great things are going with the “music stuff”, are we really being truthful? Deciding to leave music behind is not a moment of epiphany. Most failing artists know for a long period of time that something is not working. Your next step is to find a way to pivot into something else and not make it look as bad to others around you.
– Did I give my best effort?
You can always tell when the best effort isn’t given. In most instances, the excuse includes blaming someone else. In rap, the rappers normally blame another rapping for not “keeping it real” and “putting me on”. If not placing the blame on other rappers, they place the blame on a lack of knowledge or being tricked by someone in management. That’s no excuse. You will be held responsible for what you know as well as what you don’t know.
Exit strategies aren’t exclusively about “quitting”. Sometimes you can set a dollar amount or goal that determines your exit strategy. You can agree to work until you make $500,000 from rapping and take that money to start another idea. You can work to record a platinum selling album, write a book that capitalizes on your new found fame and become an actor and a public speaker. World famous artist Jay Z was once quoted as saying that his goal was to record ONE album and leave the music industry. Because of that, he put a superior effort into his first recording and recorded what rap critics consider to be one of the top five rap albums of all time. The story didn’t end with him stopping at one album. He went on to record other albums. But, he had an exit strategy. The reality is that your plan may/can/will change, but at least you have a plan in place.
It’s the Entertainment Business
It’s entertainment and it’s business. Period!
“Why don’t they feel my music?” “I’m a real dude, that other dude ain’t real!” “I do this for the streets!”
I hear young people say these statements and ask these questions all the time. The reality is that the music industry is one outlet for the entertainment business. Until prospective artists understand that, they won’t succeed.
Before you proceed with your career, ask yourself these questions:
– Am I entertaining people?
“Are you entertained? Is this not why you are here?” Those were the famous words of Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”. At the core, people want to be entertained. The job of an artist is to understand the elements of entertainment.
– Are people willing to pay for what I’m offering?
If you understand how your music entertains people, you are closer to knowing if they will pay for it. That’s the goal. The goal is to get paid. If you’ve worked for free for years and years with music, you’re probably practicing without a business model. The reality is that you can’t run from education. I mentioned that I volunteer with young people. A few years ago, recording artist “T.I.” came to a recreation center in Washington, D.C. to speak to a group of kids that I was working with. He told them “You’re either going to have to learn or be able to afford to pay someone else who has learned to tell you”. Many young people flock to music to escape college or high school. If you want to be an artist, you have to make a business case and plan for why you belong in that industry. For a sample of a business plan, click here. It may seem a bit over the top, but most people enter entertainment to make “over the top” money.
– Do I understand business? If not, who can interpret it for me?
The people that you surround yourself with can determine your fate. Sometimes you just need to go and get a job. Having job experience helps you understand how things work. Too many aspiring artists come from “the streets” and have so much to learn. They are so behind that when an executive makes a move or positions legal documents in a particular way that is shrewd, the artist thinks that something illegal has happened. When in fact, what’s happened is a disadvantage to the artist, but far from illegal. Also, many young artists develop entourages and no one in the entourage has substantial value. Your best option may be shopping around for a lawyer or retaining legal services through a pre-paid format. Also, find a financial stream to secure a business manager at some point can help. So the focus has to be on making money in your industry to pay for these people.
– Have you researched the industry?
As mentioned earlier in this section, the business plan is important. A major part of that business plan is expressing your understanding for the current state and prior state of the industry that you’re entering. For entertainment, there is an additional layer of research that is appreciated by industry insiders. That layer is acknowledging and understanding the art and artists that came before you. Relationships matter in entertainment. Later, we will talk about perception. Your perception will be shaped partially in your ability to understand the craft of recording and performing music.
– How will you prepare for your career?
Have you ever thought about taking vocal classes? Do you understand the hundreds of buttons and switches on a studio sound board? Are you familiar with the instrument keys and the terminology that comes along with writing music? Many aspiring artists see celebrities in music and assume that they are just a bunch of cool people who made it. Many of your favorite acts are well trained in music. Remember that the cost of this training should be included in your bookkeeping as you track your financial status as an artist.
This is not an industry where you make money and checks come in bi-weekly. You have to work in order to achieve financial security. It won’t always be about the “art” of your music. Artists grow financially in order to record the music that they truly desire to put out into the atmosphere. Until that point, being under the direction of a record label limits your creativity at times. Especially if the business model that works across the board at this time is not in sync with your outlook and mission.
“I’m grinding!” “I’m on my Team No Sleep!” “The money won’t let me sleep! I gotta get to the money!”
There are 24 hours in the day. It’s suggested that we sleep for eight (8) hours. That leaves us with 16 hours to work from. If we can’t get it done in 16 hours, chances are, we aren’t using those 16 hours correctly. Any occupation that threatens your health is hazardous. The last time that I checked, music companies don’t pay artists “time and a half” for hazardous pay.
A few suggestions:
– Prepare for your studio sessions before you get there
Friendship, fellowship and camaraderie are cool. And that studio time allows for that. But, at what cost? You can develop music concepts without being in the studio. If you are in the early stages of your music career, you can’t afford to use studio time to post pictures on social networks. You certainly can’t use that time to get high on drugs. Unfortunately, these habits lead to the demise of a lot of young people
– Schedule your entire day
If it’s serious, you will write it down. If other people are involved, they will invest if they take you seriously. Set your goals and hit your marks.
– How does this bring in money?
Don’t become money hungry, but always maintain the business mindset.
Some people take pride in “putting in the work”. You should take pride in moving forward. Don’t feel like you’re cheating if you move forward at a faster and easier pace. Take pride in the stride.
Perception is reality.
In life, how you are perceived goes a long way. The music industry is no different. The danger in that goes back to our exit strategy questions. Your honesty with yourself and others is a requirement at times. You can’t live a lie and get away with it forever. Also you can’t buy a lie unless you want to be lied to.
Many aspiring artists believe the lies that people tell them because they want to believe those lies. Often, they are suspicious of the lies, but insist on moving forward with partnerships because the lies sound good. You must realize: if you want security, go get a job. In entertainment, you don’t get what you deserve; you will get what you negotiate. A key factor in negotiations will be how people perceive you. You must guard your reputation at all costs.
Here are a few questions to consider:
– Am I in control of my marketing plan?
Do I have comfort in being who I seem to be in public? If my name is “Little Bobby”, what happens when I grow up and I’m no longer “Little Bobby”?
– Do I have any skeletons in my closet?
Will there be any compromising photos of me capable of being released to the public? Am I living the lyrics that I’ve rapped?
– Who do I have around me?
How do they benefit from me? How do I benefit from them? Who can take me to the next level?
– Am I relying on one success story of another person to justify my existence in music?
For every “rags to riches” story about an entertainer shown on a cable channel, there are hundreds of untelevised stories of people going from rags….to more rags. Relying on the most extreme story of success from a person who had the odds against them is not a good case for disregarding the fact that you may need to address where you are as an artist. The perception sold to us on television is that these “rags to riches” stories are happening every day. They don’t.
You have to always be aware of how you’re being seen, how you see others and how you see yourself. You have to also eliminate focusing on what other people have and how they’ve attained those things. You can’t make assumptions that people who have progressed further than you are better off because of an unfair advantage. Remember what we talked about earlier: In most instances, the excuse includes blaming someone else.
You can do what you like the most. But sooner or later, you may become uncomfortable there.
The things that come easy to us aren’t always the most profitable. The things that we need to do aren’t always exciting. Many artists enjoy recording and performing. But, they won’t work on weak areas such as setting up meetings and reading more on the industry. You can become too comfortable with a situation and that leads you to discomfort in the long run. If you rent studio time to get high and laugh with friends, you can a) do that at home and b) do that without being a rapper/musician.
A few questions to consider:
– Have I grown in this process?
Can you clearly identify an area where you handled a business situation better than you would have before? AND are you sure that you won’t revert back to your old ways? Is there something that you had to do and you hated, but now you get done because you understand the importance?
– Can you balance being the business “you” and the artist “you”?
Your ability to “code switch” can take you further in your efforts to be successful.
– Can you handle your dream?
The reality is, if your dream was put in your lap, you might not be able to handle it. A dream salary, car and house could cause you to reconsider the value of the people around you. Some people say that they wouldn’t change, but change is certain to occur. In fact, the only thing in this world that is consistent is change. Things will always change and you have to move along to stay ahead. Some aspiring artists want to be like other artists very bad. You have to be careful. You’ll never know the price that someone else paid for their success. Your dreams being fulfilled can sometimes push you out of your comfort zone. If you don’t like talking to people, your dreams being fulfilled may force you to have to speak more. If you don’t like being watched/followed, more cameras may follow you if your dreams of being a big time artist comes true.
Business is business and life is life. Some tips cross all lines and business arenas. If you’re entering a new realm, take the time to consider what you’re getting into. Understand your entry and exit points, remember to remain business minded, be efficient, keep your image and perception in mind and stretch your comfort zone.