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It’s Never One Thing that Makes a Music Career

by Head Above Music

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It’s never one thing that makes a career in the music business. Everyone has a different balance of skills used in making music their full time job. I grew up on KISS, Prince, Queen, my dad’s Motown records and my mom’s classical piano lessons. In my mind I was never put on earth to run a publishing company or indie label, I figured I would be breathing fire like Gene Simmons by now (and not just on Halloween). Still, at the end of the day I am extremely grateful I make a good living doing what I love, and I get to see this amazing country year round. If you are performing artist, don’t make the mistake of letting licensing consume your entire business plan.  The music business is filled with people ready to take your money. I think any site where you have to pay to get licensed (including and maybe especially, SonicBids) MOVE ON. If you are a performing artist, music licensing is not a replacement for touring, merch, sponsorships etc, but if done right, it can be a huge source of revenue for artists that have sounds that support picture.


When I finally moved to LA after working 18 hour days for years to find success in the Midwest, I sat with anyone that would talk to me to try to get a hold of the scene and who I might fit with. I learned quickly a lot of factors were simply just doing good work and being at the right place at the right time. Also, unless you have a great manager or great industry connections (in which you probably wouldn’t be reading this long sucker) people have to like you first, and then your work. There is enough music in the world and enough artists that would love to work in this business that few people are taking the time to deal with jerks. If they are, they might be jerks themselves and you don’t need the aggravation. Good people attract good people, and when you establish a relationship with someone who needs your music, the word will get around. Like anything good, it takes times and it requires a lot of patience. It is extremely competitive. There is a seemingly infinite supply and limited demand for new music, but if it is what you love and you are being honest in your work, you will find your niche.

There is no more truth than the adage: GIVE TO GET. That’s a spiritual discussion best left to another time, but it’s worth mentioning. Like all of life, you will do 1000% percent better licensing your music if you take time understand and empathize with the other person’s perspective and needs.  Get to know a music supervisor and understand what their day to day is like. I went so far as to take a class on music supervision with the amazing Thomas Golubic (Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad) even though I have ZERO intention of ever trying to become a music sup.


We have all heard this 100 times but it’s true… “Everything is relationships.” There are a billion tracks on the market now. Everyone has a record. Everyone can cobble together some ½-way decent sounding Apple loops and say they have a catalog. The only way to cut through all of this after we do the best and most honest music we can, is to get out there and meet people in the field. Do a search for music conferences and film fests and attend them. Then, follow up. Really provide value to the first few clients you get in hopes that your reputation will lead you above the pack. I have pitched for 1000 things, and I still do, but 90 percent of my business comes from a handful of people who know and trust my work.


It doesn’t sound fun cause it ain’t! Cold calls and emails are tough, but sometimes if you have exactly what they want at the right time they are looking you can get in the door. A lot of people say never cold call, but I started my business this way and still get work from some of those first calls.  DON’T DRIVE THESE PEOPLE CRAZY! BUILD YOUR RELATIONSHIPS! DO YOUR HOMEWORK!

It helps to have ANY kind of resume built up before you call; even if that resume is your friend’s tiny independent film. I made my first few calls with nothing but placements in my friend’s student films at University of Kansas, but I rattled them off like they were great pieces of art. Be confident but polite. You are making the call to them asking for their time so get your pitch down fast, and if they are kind enough to point you in the right direction or even give you a piece of good advice, be appreciative and move along. If you had presence and handled things well they will remember even if it takes a few calls over a few months. Also, don’t take it personally if the bigger supervisors don’t return calls or emails. There are simply too many people coming at them to get back with you but that does not mean they don’t remember. I sent a CD in for a huge show and sent a follow up email every couple months for a year and a year and half later I got a 30 sec call asking for a track and within that afternoon the paperwork was drawn up.


Although I’m sure I don’t need to tell YOU this but nothing will kill you worse than negativity. If someone is quick on the phone or doesn’t call you back, my God do not bad mouth them to ANYONE. I had someone once license my stuff to a large network without clearing it, they called after it aired and apologized, offered some money and I happily took it and went on my way. Soon after they licensed a lot more and the relationship is great to this day. It was an honest mistake. Being litigious or angry would have only killed any of my future business with them and everyone they know. I find this business is so small the further I get. I took a meeting at a large TV station and on the cubicles of the music sups were lists saying “THESE ARE LITIGIOUS ARTISTS. WE WILL NOT USE THEM.” The movers and shakers know each other and many of them are friends. You’ll never win bad mouthing or burning a bridge.

As my pops always says “don’t step over a dollar to make a dime.” Be really careful what battles you take on. Having a great lawyer will help in this area.

One foot after the other; do not stop.


Once you have one marquee placement (for me it was bugging everyone on mp3.com in 2000 and getting $200 to be in the Matrix: Revisited) send a quick newsletter and call your best contacts. Give them the good news to try to get leads for more. Having one thing to start the conversation off is critical. Momentum is everything.


This is crucial, and where I think artists that perform live, especially in major markets, may have an edge. It helps to play gigs outside of town, go to conventions and film fests. Slowly build your address book and follow up. I have found living in LA makes this a lot easier but of course the cost is considerable and it took me a long time to get a foothold here. It still has to be said, if you are not near a city center, get to one. People say the internet has changed all that but in this case I do not find that to be true. There is simply a different energy in the major music cities; and, you will be forced to “do or die” and really focus on your career.


Make sure you provide them exactly what they want in a way they can get right to it. Mark the track you want heard.

  • Don’t send too much material. I know you are excited that you have new tracks and want to give them plenty to pick from. I do it too but we gotta STOP IT. It comes off as desperate and no one but your most die hard fans are gonna listen to all those tracks. (I made this mistake for years and I probably made it again this morning because I don’t take my own advice).
  • Make sure your contact info is clear. Make sure they know ONE WRITER and NO UNCLEARED SAMPLES. They can’t think there will be any trouble using your track. I have been lucky that a lot of my catalog has been 100% writer and publisher and therefore they know they can clear a song with me by the end of the business day.

They want the song cleared fast and want to know you don’t have 30 writer’s waiting to come back and ask for a piece.

  • Only send what you think fits them. Be concise when you follow up; they have 1000 people hitting them up. Ask them: “what do you need right now?” Like it or not, we need the airwaves more than they need new music.

There is a lot of music in this world. Wait, a cricket just came up to my desk and is pitching me his new disc full of apple loops…


Do you write hammer dulcimer music only?  Well if it is killer and you push it to the right places, I believe you can be totally successful with that one instrument. I am actually working on a new record of just Drums and Mallets. I expect it to license perfectly as long as I put my whole heart into it and find the right uses for it.

Follow your voice no matter what, but know that you will only fit for certain ops. Even the most prolific person can’t cover it all. If you are known for something great in a niche, brand yourself in that way and they will eventually search you out. It’s better to be known as being amazing at one thing than being mediocre at 10 things.


If you can convince a friend you trust to help you with this, do it. I have walked the line between business and artist and I think both sides of my brain have benefited form the other, but if you spend all tour time plugging your music you are not making music. This asks a fundamental question too: if you like the business or the “score” of landing a spot and making money with music, maybe you should be the manager and let someone else make the art. By the way, I preach and don’t always practice, but I’m giving you pearls here…. J


Scratch that. BUILD THE RIGHT TEAM. I prefer lawyers over managers. I am still great friends with most of my former managers but for starting out, build a relationship with a lawyer (this happens naturally by doing good work and by paying them well to look over your contracts WHICH IS WORTH EVERY PENNY).

I signed a deal with Rhino where I gave away most of my digital rights to a song cause of one small sentence that I didn’t understand at the time (you can believe I understand it now). I trusted my manager at the time to handle all my paperwork and he did not have a lawyer look at it. We were too excited and signed to quickly. The manager was young and at the end of the day it’s MY career. Rhino was doing what companies do; they get as many rights as they can to protect their bottom line. This isn’t about blame, it’s about the importance of lawyers, and above all else, educating yourself as much as possible. The vision of an artist just recording and touring and a staff of people handling everything else is a romanticized vision that sharks love to talk to musicians about before they sign on the dotted line. Ever read U2 by U2? Every member of that band is on the phone solving problems, attending meetings. Larry Mullen was on the phone himself trying to solve a ticket scalping problem on a tour just a few years back. Watch your business, but don’t do everything yourself if you have people who will help you, and of course, treat them like kings and queens if they back you.

One more note on having a lawyer before a manager: you pay a lawyer ONCE for a service; not for years after the contract. Plus you pay them on what THEY are working on, not what you yourself might be working on. If you are a go-getter yourself, you might sign with a manager that you run circles around and you still have to send them a cut. This doesn’t happen with lawyers. And some of those lawyers know a lot more people in the biz than the managers. That being said, I have met some managers that are about 10x more talented than their artists (no hate mail dammit) – and I don’t know of a single banner act that doesn’t have a great and connected management team.

Regarding licensing (aside from the team I have assembled for my recording and live career) I was extremely fortunate to find a passionate Director of Operations for my catalog, Deb Tuinei. She receives a percentage of everything that comes in for licensing and publishing, and from time to time we hire others to do hourly work. We also have a publishing administrator (the aforementioned Steve Winogradsky) to handle contracts and negotiations, and tell me when I am headed in the wrong direction. Since we are working full time now, we also take interns that have provided their time in exchange for learning the knowledge that Deb is acquiring (I do not work too “hands on” with the interns or the music would not get created). I still do a fair amount of work for hires (covered in the books mentioned above) where I am paid well to create something I will no longer own. This is tricky as it provides no writer/publisher income, and while it generates a good deal of working capitol and helps with a resume, it does not help build my catalog to relicense or possible sell the entire catalog down the line.

Just starting out it was only me and a few loved ones close to me making every call and sending every package. It’s always this way and bless the families and partners of entrepreneurs who are willing to get behind someone’s dream. One of the hardest things for me to learn is delegating (I am still learning this one slowly and painfully). I owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone that has been patient with me as I was, and still am, learning the ropes (in this biz I think we are always learning the ropes to some degree).


To those who are selling stakes of your writer’s shares for placements (IE- not work for hires, you are giving up writer’s share just to get a credit), or paying music supervisors to use your tracks: You are not only making someone else money off YOUR work but you are devaluing the business for those of us who work full time- therefore limiting your ability to work this business full time in the future. And yes, Pump Audio broke the 50/50 rule and is offering only 35 percent to artists. Please don’t send them anything.

Now that we’ve cussed and discussed let’s just go write some music. Unplug the phones and write till the candles burn out. There is a necessary evil of  artists having to learn now to be great business people…but here’s to us all keeping the music first in our hearts. The old model is dead and we must not fear the new one. There are opportunities everywhere, though we are still shaking out what replaces the revenue streams we once had. If someone loves what you do there is always a way to monetize it, but I am getting into another conversation and another blog….

When you are done combing through the internet sites and books, magazines, and calling everyone, just don’t forget to enjoy making the music. With a little planning and elbow grease you will hear your song on your TV set or at your theatre soon.

Heading back into the headphones…Hope to see you on the road in 2010! Please come say hello and let me know if you made it all the way through this!




50 state tour starts March 6, 2010

Download my new record for free here:

And if this was helpful drop me a line and let me know how the fight goes at: [email protected]

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