Music Production: “What’s a Strategy?”
This is a common concept in business but doesn’t get much attention in the music blogs, for whatever reason. Probably because it’s more of a business thing rather than a music-specific thing, so people nobody really talks about it, I guess. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but a strategy is kind of important, especially in an industry with so much competition. My first guess is that it’s because people get distracted with the day-to-day tasks and stop worrying about the big picture. Pretty hard to plan a strategy when you’re too obsessed with meaningless things, like staying alive or whatever.
All jokes aside, if you don’t have a short term and a long term strategy, it’s probably time to start thinking of one. Here’s a few things to keep in mind.
I actually got the idea for this article after playing a round of Settlers of Catan with a few friends. If you’ve ever met me in person, I have a pretty intimidating persona, so everyone has a tendency to team up against me in free-for-all games. It’s not because I’m especially good at games, I guess I just give off that “threatening” kind of vibe or something.
Anyways, I found myself blocked pretty early in the game. One player had surrounded my settlements and the others were refusing trades and focusing on stealing from me. I was in a really bad spot. No room to expand and no ability to get the resources I needed. By about halfway through the game, it became very apparent that I was no longer able to compete with anyone on the board. Typically people in this position accept the loss and start throwing the game, just to make sure whoever bullied them the most early-game doesn’t win.
But that doesn’t really help anybody, imo. So instead, I decided to make a deal. One of the other players wasn’t doing so hot, either, but more so because of his limited resource distribution. At this point, we both knew we’d lose if something didn’t change, so I proposed a team up. I’d help provide the resources he needed to expand and get better resources, if he would block the player that was surrounding all my area. Luckily, he agreed. So I fed him the resources he needed and worked out a few trades that weren’t too great for me at the time, but it worked. He was able to block the other player and expand his resources.
Luckily, he held up his end of the deal and started feeding me the cards I needed to upgrade my current situation (once he had finished his expansion), and all of a sudden, we were both right there with the leader. My physical position on the board had not changed, but with a little negotiation we were able to leverage our poor positions and work together to catch up during the late game. The player who had blocked me and led most of the game still ended up winning, but we ended up only losing by a point or so.
This is a common strategy in business negotiation, and should really be leveraged more by independent artists trying to make a career. Because here’s the deal:
There is always someone more talented than you. Someone who was raised with more training and has more money. Someone who got an early headstart and decided to gatekeep everyone else early on. That’s life. It’s unfair and it sucks, but wallowing in self-pity isn’t going to get you anywhere.
I promise you, there’s always another path you can take to get to your goal. Just because a few roads are blocked doesn’t mean there’s not a way to get where you want to go. Get creative. Be willing to work with others. Be professional. I think the best way to teach this is with examples.
Chance the Rapper is always a good one. There are lots of theories about him being an “industry plant”, but having met people that seem similar to him, I’m really not too surprised at his success. Chance the Rapper came from “not-so-ideal” circumstances with no connections in the industry, but he knew what he wanted from a relatively early age. He started interning at studios and sitting in on sessions, going to live shows, and talking to everyone who was willing to talk, which eventually built him a pretty strong network of artists and engineers. When he decided he was ready to start releasing, he fearlessly asked a few of the artists he had met over the years to be part of his record. Like Flying Lotus and Lex Luger, who weren’t huge at the time but were on their way up. Not even a year later, he released a track with Childish Gambino, at which point his career really took off. Every single track on his first record featured a different writer and/or producer, which I personally think was a huge key to his success.
Moral of the story, even though Chance hadn’t come from some great music school or a music-filled childhood, he implemented a solid strategy to get himself noticed. His secret was his incredibly likable personality and networking skills, which he utilized to connect himself with a large network of up-and-coming artists and producers.
Think about it… it’s a pretty solid strategy. If even one of those 15+ people ended up making it big in the industry, your chances of getting noticed and succeeding increase significantly. In Chance’s case, Flying Lotus, Lex Luger, and Vic Mensa all later ended up as big names. Of those names, I’d say Chance is probably the least talented of all them, too. But as soon as they released a track together, they were all on the same “team”, and I think they all ended up “winning” in the long run. Chance’s networking skills were probably instrumental in helping FlyLo get noticed, since FlyLo is known for being a little more introverted and reserved. But FlyLo was probably instrumental in getting Chance noticed because of FlyLo’s production skills. That’s the trade they made, and I think it’s pretty safe to say it worked out pretty well for both of them.
Now, is that THE strategy? Definitely no, although it is a very popular one. Ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”? This is a strategy built around that concept, and it’s sort of like the “tried and true” strategy for most of these kinds of professions. Network and collaborate.
The trick here is to get creative. There isn’t one single strategy that always succeeds, since the industry is constantly changing. So instead of suggesting vague strategies, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about developing smart strategies instead.
Just like in any game, the first step is always to identify the end goal. In a game, it’s usually some sort of point system, like achieving 10 points to win. Start here and think about what your end goal is. Release an album with a major label? Release a collaboration with artist X? Make X amount of income every year? You may think these sound pretty similar, but the strategies you’ll use to obtain each of these is very different.
Contrary to popular belief, a lot of artists sign away their rights to making any money when they sign a big record deal. They sacrifice their monetary compensation in exchange for access to the record label’s marketing resources and management teams. This is a good deal for most artists who don’t have a large following, but it’s also why a lot of big artists complain 4–5 years in. Now they have all this clout and following, but the label is taking all their money and they barely have enough to live. It doesn’t seem fair to them, not realizing that the label dumped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, into getting them there.
Point being, don’t aim for a major label deal if you’re expecting a payday. If you want money and a record label deal, you’ll need a much different strategy than just a record deal.
Second step is to evaluate your position. Like I said before, not everyone starts in the same place or has access to the same resources. Evaluate what you have and where you are, then evaluate those in your network and their position. See if there’s anything that you currently have that can be used to negotiate. This can be anything from money to “willing to be groupie”.
The third step is usually to “get creative”. Especially in today’s industry, you can’t just be good at what you do. You need something to set you apart and make you different. That’s why you see people doing these crazy things on Tik Tok and on TV. It’s part of their strategy to get people’s attention. You don’t need to go over the top like those guys do, but find something unique that nobody is doing. A guy I knew when I was in school just made it onto American Idol by wearing a cowboy hat and hauling around an open briefcase saying “place ticket here”. It wasn’t anything crazy over the top, it just made him stand out a little bit. Get creative. There are a lot of ways to be noticed, make money, get attention, etc, you just have to think about it a little bit beforehand.
For example there’s a guy in one of the groups I’m in that actually makes some really good money in the industry. He never wanted the fame or the clout, he just liked music and wanted to make a living in it. He had an unnatural love for vintage synthesizers, and his girlfriend encouraged him to start making soundbanks for them and selling them. Not very many people these days are making soundbanks for vintage synthesizers, so he’s able to charge a relatively high price for them (especially since the only people who can afford those synthesizers are big artists and producers with deep pockets). Now he makes enough to live off of and pursue music full-time, not to mention all the sounds he designed that have ended up in really popular dance tracks. His strategy was very different and required a little more creativity, but it seems to work out for him just fine.
And finally, be persistent. You don’t lose until you give up. Even if your position sucks, you only lose when you stop trying. Constantly reevaluate your position. Negotiate with the people around you. If you don’t have a strong enough network, work on your communication skills and force yourself to go out and meet people. Build your skills. Do whatever you can to make your position more profitable for yourself and those around you. If your goal changes, change your strategy.
TLDR: Think before you act. Know where you’re going and design a simple strategy for how you’re going to get there. Just doing that will get you one step ahead of most of the other people you’re competing with.
Hope you learned something!
Good luck, have fun!