The Shocking Truth about Making It

by Ian on April 30, 2013

 The Shocking Truth about Making ItWhat does ‘making it in music mean’ to you and to us?

We get daily emails from people that tell us they want to ‘make it’.

They fall into several categories.

The Musician Classes

Many people genuinely fall into a class I’ll call the ‘bewildered’. They may or may not have talent and they may be prepared to put in the years required to hone it and promote it. But, either because the landscape of the industry is so rapidly changing around them or because they somehow don’t feel they fit the modern music industry paradigm (genre, age, material all being cited), they simply don’t know how to go about realising their dreams.

The ‘bewildered’ might also fit into one of the other categories as well. If they’re just bewildered and have time on their side, they may be able to dig deep, develop their talent and learn to promote and market and thereby give themselves a chance to ‘make it’.

Then there are the ‘wannabes’ who really don’t care what music they should make, they just want to get famous and music is their chosen path. Most often they have no material for us to listen to and no online presence for us to check out. They think that because Rihanna has the world’s top songwriters and producers at her disposal, they can persuade a music industry ‘playa’ to do the same for them despite there being zero evidence that they have either the ‘chops’ or the work ethic required.

These people don’t generally stand a cat in hell’s chance.

The majority of the people that we get to hear from are the ‘aspiring musicians’ who, as above, may or may not have talent but they believe that they do and they are doing something about it. They’re writing and recording, getting out and playing gigs, building a website and learning how to promote themselves online.

They have a shot at making it.

And, rarely…very, very rarely, we’ll get an email from someone different – the Real Deal.

The Real Deal usually knows they have talent, but they don’t actually realise that they have enough to ‘make it’. It’s not that they are humble, but they are often clouded by self-doubt.

And here’s the rub (and a horrible shock for all the other aspiring musicians). It is often going to be the case that all the people that need to know about this Real Deal are going to know about him or her long before he or she has sent a single self-promotional tweet or Facebook post.

Talent will out.

A studio owner will hear it, or an A&R man will see it at a lowly pub gig or a manager wandering about YouTube will see a video. And, boom, buzz begins and the Real Deal gets snapped up by the mainstream industry and gets the old school ‘push’.

All our ‘how to’ advice was unnecessary and irrelevant for the Real Deal because they get their shot without doing any of it. And from that point on, they get a full team to help them with it or just do it for them.

Unfair, isn’t it?!

Nonetheless, the Real Deal may very possibly still not ‘make it’. Either in the sense of fame and fortune or, indeed, at all.

It still requires luck, immense hard work and extreme dedication to become globally successful even with everyone’s skill and finance backing you up.

But what is ‘making it’ anyway?

huge crowd The Shocking Truth about Making ItBut, surely I’m taking ‘making it’ to be a narrow definition of mainstream commercial success with Gold records and all the trappings of fame?

Well, yes and no.

Unfortunately, I know it to be the case that the vast majority of those people that send us emails are STILL looking for that route.

And to us, ‘making it’ can be about that (and following the advice here will help you get there), but given the opportunities that exist for the aspiring musician, it shouldn’t be the only end goal.

‘Making it’ can mean many different things to different people.

A solid commitment to your art and a steady progression to perfect it over years whilst working out how to build a financial support structure from your art is a reality for more musicians now than it ever was before – and that should be the primary goal for most.

Once that is the route they’re taking it may lead to the global success and trappings, but, if it doesn’t, these musicians can still ‘make it’ and at least survive whilst doing so.

“Tear-Inducingly Talented”

Let’s take a step back.

I’d like you to read the comment by ‘Pazuzu’ on this Guardian post about why a British artist called Nerina Pallot still wanted a record deal with a major. She has had what the traditional music industry would see as a modicum of success but not a stellar career – she’s known, but not a household name.

I noted this article and comment when it was written nearly two years ago and keep coming back to it because of the way that commenter defines what it means to ‘make it’.

I’m not that interested in the article itself. I met Nerina a few times many years ago when she played keys in a band called, if I recall, ‘Thumb’. Very nice she was too and clearly talented. If she felt the need for a major deal on the basis of what she says in the article then it’s a perfectly acceptable choice. I don’t think, as it turned out, that it worked out that well!

But, it’s what the commenter, Pazuzu, says that works for me.

I can’t figure out if you want to make music or make sales. In these times, people seem to confuse the two, as though commercial success is any marker of artistic worth. If people want to be artists of any kind they should be prepared to toil in obscurity. It’s one of those unpleasant truths life throws at us. All of us have seen tear-inducingly talented people performing in obscurity and going nowhere commercially, while mediocrity is lavished at every turn with riches, privilege, and praise. And yet artists flock to major record labels to seek validation through commerce. No artist should ever feel entitled to make a living, much less a fortune, from their art. That is a courtier’s mentality. If they do happen to “make it,” good for them, but let’s not confuse the two distinct and incommensurable things that are artistic worth and commercial value.

The music landscape created by the current recording industry, indies included, is an anomaly in the vast history of music. Because of the myopia of being stuck in the present, it’s easy to see such human structures as being preordained, necessary, and dictated by logic, rather than as a vast and arbitrary alchemical racket for turning shit into gold. Music, like all art, is a calling, not a career. The world is such a crowded swimming pool now compared to the past that seemingly almost everyone who wants to become a brand has a diversified portfolio of art-flavored endeavors, usually music, acting, and fashion. That’s all well and nice, but unfortunately the world is currently glutted with people’s dreams, and most of them are shit.

Ask yourself honestly how good your material is against the backdrop of millennia. Are you really able to compete in that realm, or do you just want the privileged lifestyle that modern pop stars feel should go along with their career choice in return for stoking the engine of our sputtering culture industry?

That’s a pretty wordy but impressive critique of the same people who email us that I detailed at the start of this post. And, I agree with all of it except for one critical point which we’ll come to at the end!

‘Making It’ = different strokes for different folks

When I started this site, I thought that to ‘make it in music’ was to become a lauded, respected, volume-selling mainstream success – the globally successful Real Deal that I’ve discussed above. That’s where my experience was at the time and it’s what I thought all artists wanted.

As I’ve written more and become more involved in the DIY musician world and  ’direct to fan’ models, I realise that there are myriad ways for musicians to ‘make it’ – be that playing the music you love regardless of whether you find an audience, doing it yourself but looking for a fanbase that can financially sustain your lifestyle (whether that is modest or fantastical), or indeed the pursuit of Lady GaGa-scale fame, plus a whole other load of perfectly sensible models to fit individual desires and definitions of success.

This site now bears that in mind and the advice on ‘how to make it’ is defined by our belief that you can write, record and perform music completely outside of mainstream success and yet be able to make a sustainable living as an artist. Not all our readers are looking to do any more than that.

However, whatever it is you hope to achieve, you should always focus on your art and the skills you have so that the expression of your art can be as complete as possible. Then you’ll have given yourself the tools you need to be able to make it to whatever goal you have.

Practice, effort, improvement and humility will all make your art better and therefore improve your chances.

And, as you improve, everything that we teach here should help in the promotion of that art in the most effective way that the music industry and the wider modern world allows. Whether you choose to promote or not is up to you.

But, if you do, the tools and learning the methods and using our knowledge will help.

The Shocking Truth about ‘making it’

Here’s the crux:

In his comment, Pazuzu says:

If people want to be artists of any kind they should be prepared to toil in obscurity. It’s one of those unpleasant truths life throws at us. All of us have seen tear-inducingly talented people performing in obscurity and going nowhere commercially

Although I love his view of what it is to be an artist and am inspired by how he talks about what it means to ‘make it’, this is the critical point of difference that I referred to earlier and on which we disagree!

I think we are in a golden age for music where those that meet that talent and effort level will only fail to find success (at some level) if they don’t use the tools at their disposal, or if they choose not to.

I believe that the DIY musicians who use the direct to fan model and promote and market themselves properly online can now build a career that is financially sustainable

Many of ‘the bewildered’ won’t heed advice and therefore won’t take the right action. Most of the ‘wannabes’ won’t do anything whilst they wait for some third party (a ‘svengali’) to give them a leg up. It won’t happen. But, the aspiring musicians who consistently work at their talent and art and also learn how to use the possibility of the web and mobile to reach an audience have a real chance at building a level of success.

If they do become ‘good enough’, this is where the old world music business dies and the new digital long-tail one triumphs for the DIY musician. If you’re born lucky enough or work hard enough to become the ‘tear-inducingly-talented’ and you use the now available ways to market and promote the output of that talent, you will, as never before, ‘make it’ to a level that rewards and supports you.

And, you might then go on to global success (which might or might not involve a deal with a major label). But I also believe that talent and persistent pursuit of artistic improvement is the starting point for those DIY musicians. The promotion and marketing is secondary and comes only when the material is right.

Don’t give up on the major label deal if it’s what you desire, but don’t see it as the be all and end all. Make yourself great and work to build a fanbase using what the ‘DIY musician’ industry that is beginning to appear wants to teach you. Quite how far that might take you, who knows, but it’s better than blindly hoping that you might be good enough for fifteen seconds of fame from a TV talent show or thanks to the chance meeting and fleeting support of a svengali.

And it means that you can have a real career whether or not that fabled record deal ever does come your way!

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Akello Light May 1, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Lovely write-up


Ian May 1, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Thanks – I think I have managed to just about make the point I was aiming for!


Dave May 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm

No worries Ian, you guys are doing a great job. And its a message well worth repeating. I spent many years advising music and performance students on pretty much the same stuff, though the DIY route wasn’t as developed back then (1990-2004)

Interesting times though more recently; as you describe, musicians now have so much more control potentially, over their own futures and how they market their music. Along with that comes the need to use other sets of skills, and a lot of time deploying those skills, especially in marketing and promotion.. In many cases this is not what musicians see themselves as being good at doing, whether they are or not!


Ian May 4, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Cheers Dave – you’re dead right. Maybe the best solution in the future will be a network of skilled marketers and industry execs who take on passion projects of DIY musicians so the musicians can concentrate on the music and the execs can make it happen for them outside of the label system by advice and mentoring.

We’ll see!


Suzanne May 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Wonderful article. It’s a big world and we can all find our niche if we remain focused and listen to that inner voice pointing us in the right direction. When I started using my music to help teens in trouble, I never knew the path it would lead me on.

Through the years, I have learned and grown and had many opportunities to share. Some I didn’t follow up on at the right time. Some I did. Life takes you in different directions but all along the way you are learning.
We have only just begun to fly……Nashville songwriter Peter McCann told me many years ago not to get hung up on when my songs would make it……just keep writing so when you are discovered and they ask “what else have you got” you will be able to deliver. :) Enjoy the journey and be prepared for adventure!!


Ian May 1, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Hi Suzanne

Thanks for that – I think you’ve got a great view there. Do your thing and keep creating and where that might lead is a mystery but the journey will be worth it alone!


Dave Bold May 1, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Spot on insight/commentary. In fact so spot on it hits the middle of the spot, not the outer edges. Well Done :-)


Ian May 1, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Thank you Dave!


Atul Rana May 2, 2013 at 11:29 am

I’ve been on your mailing list for about 3 years. Sadly I have now given up on “making it” and don’t read email by music academics that I signed up to. I felt in the race for making it I was losing touch with music itself and I wasn’t enjoying playing it anymore. As soon as I let go of that self promotional need, I have started feeling a lot lighter and better about making music and expressing it. This email did catch my attention though.


Ian May 2, 2013 at 11:49 am

Hi Atul

You know we aren’t music academics and that we are cutting a pretty different path than most who give advice to musicians – we do this as a day job for artists who many would think have ‘made it’ and pass on what we learn to those that are trying.

I know how hard you’ve worked and tried as I remember the comments you’ve left and emails you’ve sent.

But, I totally get your point and it may well be that letting go and not pushing hard is right for you and many other musicians. First and foremost you are compelled to make music and that music must be what you want it to be.

Very often the perceived need to make music that will help you ‘succeed’ will colour that music in a way you aren’t happy with and negatively affect your drive to carry on.

Those are some of the things that I was trying to say. Music first, attempts to ‘make it’ second. And, perhaps ignore self-promotion entirely, and, if success happens, it was meant to be!


Riaz May 3, 2013 at 3:59 am

I find that the idea of “making it” has been misinterpreted these days. Popularity and view counts on Youtube is seemed as equate to the success of the artist (rather than hearing the music and judging the music) . Also, an artist’s image of success is measured by the wealth and cars one own–typical in the mainstream Hip-Hop scene.

I believe the internet has opened to the Do-It-yourself model of music and independent distribution, but take into factor that promoting music costs lots of money and if one has limited funds, then that is why most artists try to get the major label’s attention. Major labels have the media exposure, promotion, marketing and music personnel to make the song popular. On the other hand, most of the mainstream label deals literally tell artists what they have to do, so that means the artist has reduced creative freedom in the music projects.

Competition in music is always there, but for every Hip-Hop artist there are thousands of copycats pirating a mp3 music instrumental, rapping on it and uploading it with the expectations of getting signed. Most of them quit a year or two after not getting signed or noticed.
The ones who stand out have to work, formulate, go by the rules and have passion for the music. The “wannabees” who illegally download producer beats but could afford to pay for a video for it aren’t going to go that far in music. But don’t try telling that in front of a wannabee. Chances are they get so angry they might behave aggressive. Also, Publishers and music placements want music that has no copyright issues. Making your own music is one step ahead towards the dream. Now find your market, license and promote :-)


Ian May 4, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Hi Riaz

Those are all good points but remember that what I’m saying in this article is that if your material is good enough, then the modern ways of promoting do allow any musician to get a level of success that would previously have only been available via a major label deal.



don mancuso May 3, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Great article. Was inspiring to me after being in this business for so many years and watching one friend/band member hit big due to work that our band did to get out there. We were on 2-3 major labels in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s and I’ve done a bunch of indies.
You’ve hit nail on the head with this article though. Nice job!


Ian May 4, 2013 at 10:03 pm


Thanks for the comment and positive spin on your experience.



Karen Kingsellers May 6, 2013 at 6:13 am

Hi Ian,

Thanks for that article! Well, I remember my mom and dad saying to me as I was growing up….” Don’t expect music to make you money. You should practice it because you have the gift!”

Of course, I was confused at the time but it gradually sank in. So, now I sing to inspire people and I feel good when I move them. My aim is to study Music Psychology.. Hope I can do that soon.

Warm Regards,


Ian May 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Karen – good luck with that and you may yet prove your folks wrong!


Nick Smith May 7, 2013 at 12:22 am

Very interesting article, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts & experience. It certainly gives a great steer to a fledgling self release project like ours. ( We will certainly be contacting you for help & advice in the near future.


Ian May 10, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Nick – good luck with that.



Mickey Carroll May 8, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Make It In Music . Nice positive read . I have written and played jazzy blues all my life . I’m a Gold Record Recipient , Grammy Nominee Three arts & Humanity Awards . Im 72 and still at it . I have a wonderful family .Music is what I do not who I’am

This is some of the work I have been doing .

Endorsed by Eric Schilling of the Grammy Trust Association This song represents cultural diversity and the gift of life . The awards represent cultural diversity and the joy of giving back to humanity .

Song title – People Love Life

Arts and Humanity Award presented by the first lady of Florida and the secretary of state

NBC – Universal Archives TODAY SHOW ” American Dream / JanePauley & Bob Dotson /Mickey Carroll

Honored by ASCAP

OLD DOGS Song dedication to all the male Boomer’s

Chicago Tribune – PBS TV / Radio :…

Beldon Blues

All The Best to everyone with your creative adventures


ross May 8, 2013 at 7:49 pm

Ian: Thanks for sharing the article. I suspect everyone sitting on the outside looking in could relate to your post. What follows is in agreement with the thesis of your article. However, I missed the “Shocking Truth” part.

The individuals I know who have “made it,” some of whom are household names, cannot themselves today get arrested in the industry when a few years ago you couldn’t turn on the radio and not hear one of their songs.

And there in lies part of the rub, only in Country and Christian does radio presence seem to be what it once was as a conveyor of what “the industry” was pedaling.

My experience is that the 17 to 30 audience listens to their own preprogrammed playlists, and when they do hop in the car, their radio is tuned to NPR or to Oldies Stations. So, one of the definitions of “making it” used to be getting your song played nationally on the radio. Does that even matter any more? Does this new demographic even go to radio to discover new music? I think not.

A/C and Pop Radio is focusing on the baby boomers–and yet they focus little on new talent that might be just what the boomers, (Michael Buble, Rumer and TrueHeart come to mind) growing tired of the same playlist from the 50′s, 60′s, 70′s and 80′s. They seem content to take what ever the labels are pitching them as cross over artists from country, which in turn is diluting country–trying to capitalize on the last bastion of loyal radio listeners.

The audience wants a soundtrack for their lives and the field has become so narrow because of the over all lack of quality and the focus the industry has to give to the golden goose on their roster.

Artist development has all but dried up at the major record label level which makes finding a niche, as you adeptly point out, key when it comes to utilizing the portal that leads directly into the homes of every potential fan in the world. The market clutter from the “industry” is relegated to awards shows and live concerts in stadium venues.

But this in and of itself is not “making it” necessarily. A fellow musician and his band signed with a label who created a half million dollar budget for this group to record a new record and tour. The math could work: Spend $50 to $100k for a killer record and $400k to support the tour. They were already buddies and label mates with an existing self sustaining band, so the touring part was all but taken care of. They would hit the road as soon as the recording session was finished. However, just after the ink dried on the deal, the A&R executive was fired in a corporate restructure and the new people in charge did not have any vested interest or knowledge of this band. These new label minions did know a huge producer (100million records sold) who they determined would now make their record. $400,000 later, the group had a recording of noise they could not release because the fan base they had worked for years to develop could not recognize what was on the recording as the band they so loved. And now they had no tour money to go and try to fix what the label had damaged. Naturally the band broke up and everyone went their separate ways. Note to self: all that glitters is not gold. They spent 5 years (patience and fortitude, hard work and dedication) developing their music into a viable living, and it took a “major record label” less than one year to destroy everything. “The Industry” broke them spiritually and financially. Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.

If one is called to create one creates. Finding an audience has never been easier. You just have to stand on your virtual street corner and let the world know you are there. Ah, if we only knew then what we know now. And that’s the “shocking” truth.

Great job, keep the thoughts coming.


Ian May 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm


That is an excellent addition to the piece – many thanks.

I think that we agree on what the ‘shocking truth’ is – get great, promote yourself in the online realm and you will find some success.



Christine Barron May 18, 2013 at 12:06 pm

What planet are people on when they say that because you work in the arts you must be ‘loaded with money’! Success arrives when you have made or are making living from your chosen art, not just being rich and famous!!


Mike May 30, 2013 at 4:18 pm

“I think we are in a golden age for music where those that meet that talent and effort level will only fail to find success (at some level) if they don’t use the tools at their disposal, or if they choose not to.” This sentence smacked me in the face…It makes me want to make moves. To use these tools at my disposal. The only problem is, I don’t really know what those tools are exactly. I would really love some advice. I constantly am practicing. I practice my instrument everyday, and always try to do some writing, and am constantly playing shows, and LOVE it. It doesn’t feel like work, it just feels right. The musical work I am not concerned with because I feel that I am doing all of that. But what advice can you offer for the tools someone like myself should be using that aren’t directly related to the music? How do I take advantage of the social media? What other things do I need to focus on besides the music itself? Things like that. That is the part where I struggle. Those “tools” you speak of that don’t directly relate to making music is what gives me a hard time. I’d love some advice from anyone in what to do regarding taking advantage of these tools. Thanks!


Ian June 1, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Hi Mike

There’s a lot of advice on those tools here already. Probably the best place to start is this article – – which breaks the steps down.

The core thing is to build a relationship with people that like your music – do that with a website, a mailing list, Facebook fan page, Twitter account and a YouTube channel. Those are the basics for me right now.

We will be posting more step by step stuff soon. Keep checking back.



Mike June 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Thanks for the advice man. Looking forward to reading more from you.


Adam Spencer June 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Quite an article Ian,
It is so possible for artists to achieve a level of success these days, that previously was unattainable(indie artists/diy). Technology has made this possible. (cheaper and more accessible tools for promotion)
And as far as I am concerned the old days of the industry where you will be ‘discovered’ and then someone else does all the work are rotting away in a corner somewhere (for the better I believe, however there will always be room for that part of the industry and it will be kept alive by millions of dollars and projects like the voice and idol).
The future will be made by smaller artists and teams promoting and growing their own audiences.
-Just my two cents.


Ian August 23, 2013 at 8:20 pm


Apologies that my reply has taken so long. I missed this comment.

But, obviously I agree wholeheartedly. Every artist now has to build their career themselves or with their own team – no-one is simply going to pluck you from obscurity.

Get busy in the trenches with great music on your side and you stand a great chance.



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