Do I Have to Sell Out to Write Commercially?

I’ve often been confused by the notion that if you’re making an abundant living (i.e. significant amounts of money) with your music, it’s because you’ve sold out to what the market or consumers want to hear instead of being true to your artistic/creative vision for your music.

Why doesn’t this point of view make sense to me?

Because you’ll often times see these exact same artists, songwriters or musicians express that their dream is to make lots of money with their music without realizing that their music only touches the masses when it has a universal appeal or message that people can relate to.

Commercial Songwriting

Most people won’t care how clever or sophisticated your rhymes, chord progression, song structure or musicianship is. If you’re looking to get recognition of your artistry by your fellow musicians, there’s a place for that. But there are many artists who have critical acclaim of how good their music is, but often times you’ll also find that they haven ‘t made much money from their music.

What is your goal with your music?

If it’s to satisfy your need to express your point-of-view or life experience for your own personal gratification or songwriting development, that ‘s fine. But don’t expect people to pay you money for your music or other artists to record your songs if they don’t feel a connection with your music or message. The reason popular artists are successful is not only because they have a support team behind them (marketing, management, etc.), but because their music had a large enough appeal that made people want to take action and buy or share their music. The emotional connection with the music and universal message of the lyrics are what make your song great. That’s something that can’t be bought no matter how much money you invest in marketing.  

The difference between the music industry and the music business

There is a difference between the music industry and the music business. When people think of the music industry, they often refer to the structure of how it is or used to be. That can include record labels, publishers, managers, live music venues, radio stations, music distribution, PROs (performance royalty organizations), the MLC (mechanical licensing collective) and so forth. It can also encompass industry award events like the Grammy’s. In order to succeed in the music industry, you had to get a record deal or publishing deal, build relationships and work within the system to build your fan base and industry relationships to monetize your music. However, getting a record deal or publishing deal is no longer needed to make a good living from your music in the new “music business”. But being affiliated with the traditional “music industry” organizations can still help accelerate your success, but is not necessary.

The “music business” in the other hand is how to make money from your music activities including how to correctly identify your niche, target audience, build a fan base, write great songs that connect with your fans, and monetize all of your activities related to your music. Because of how social media has drastically changed marketing and how people discover and share music, you no longer need to rely on a record label to market your music in order to make a good living. (Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 true fans” theory has been discussed for many years and helps put into perspective how you can make a good living by finding just 1,000 superfans who are willing to spend $100 on your music products and experiences annually.) But traditional music industry players can help you take your “indie musician” success story and amplify it to the reach the masses.

How does a songwriter increase chances of success in the new music industry or new music business?

First, you have to decide if you’re writing songs for your own personal development and satisfaction regardless if you make any money from your songs, or if you want to actually make a living from your music. If the latter is true, then commit to learning more about what your strengths and weaknesses are as a songwriter. Study the genres that you want to focus on whether it’s Pop, Country, Christian or whatever. If you’re not familiar with those genres or are not strong in writing lyrics, toplining (creating melodies and music) or creating tracks, then find collaborators that are stronger in those areas to make your songs as authentic and appealing as possible to what fans of those genres expect to hear. The music industry and music business is still about creating and nurturing relationships whether it’s your co-writers, publishers and music supervisors as a songwriter. If you’re an artist, learning how to create relationships with your fans is key. But regardless if you’re primarily a non-performing songwriter or an aspiring artist, focus on writing great songs that connect with people emotionally and make them want to buy, stream or share your music.