Songwriters, the New Music Business, and Myths Musicians Believe


Should venues be paying you for your talent? Are they taking advantage of you when they ask you to play for exposure? Maybe… but maybe not. At least give these ideas some thought.

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Image: Mickey Yeh  (yes, it’s me.. I liked the photo and I know I’m allowed to use it!)

You Are Not Relevant Unless You’re Relevant

A few weeks ago – well, back in October – I conducted a workshop at The Independent Music Conference in Hollywood. My topic: Do It Yourself Digital Marketing.

In that presentation, I cover strategies and tools to help musicians treat their business like a business. I mean, a real, bona fide, entrepreneurial enterprise.

And while this piece is written for the performing songwriter, it’s applicable to the artist, entrepreneur, business owner or executive manager, etc. who wants to get their product/service out there.

HINT: Performing songwriter… I’m going to talk to you as though you are an entrepreneur or business owner. You should think of yourself that way.

I’m going to summarize the content below. It’s sort of long and you may not want to read it all…You should read it, but I know how distracting the Internet is.

Article Summary

  • No coddling: I may offend you, but I’m right.
  • Venues should not pay for your talent until there is a reason to do so.
  • Become a “drug dealer” and find/create “pushers.”
  • You aren’t very good, but you can get better.
  • 3 Things You MUST Do!
    -Your own website (
    – Write a plan
    – Build a team

Warning: No Coddling

I’ve coached a LOT of songwriters/performers on marketing and building momentum. I don’t charge for this and generally only coach artists who I really like – and give them very limited time – and I don’t really do any work for them. I just tell them what they and their team should do. It’s up to them to do it.

My reasons for this… money! Generally speaking, songwriters cannot afford me… Hell, I can’t afford me…So, I’m not trying to win your business or your friendship – but I am going to tell you the truth and that should be worth something. I’m not going to coddle you You’ll thank me one day!

And you can hate me and think I’m an arrogant prick! I won’t argue… I’ve successfully earned that moniker. But, feelings aside, you might want to consider what I say. Just consider it… you can go back to what isn’t working at any time… it’s cool!

Also, I shouldn’t have to say this, but someone is going to bring it up… This post is NOT for someone who is content being a hobbyist and never earning a penny, and is fine playing out occasionally as background noise in a restaurant or pub. That’s totally cool!! There is no shame in that. Enjoy it! Music should be fun!

This is for the performing songwriter who wants to do something with their music – earn a little money – win some fans, etc.

Lies That Songwriters Believe – and Their Corresponding Truth

The way I’m going to do this is to present some of the bad ideas; the lies that songwriters believe and perpetuate. I’m going to take them away. In their place, I’m going to offer a proactive and workable idea – something you can do to grow your music (or any other) business.

Lie: Venues Should Pay You For Your Talent and Don’t Play for Free

These are both variations of the same lie.

You’ve probably seen those post or images. A performer posts something like, “I’ll play for free… sure… but I want you to come to my house and feed my friends for free for the exposure.”

It’s typically longer than that, but the gist is that the venue should see the hypocrisy for telling performers that they can play for exposure. Songwriter’s hate that “play for exposure” concept. They don’t like that a venue – a restaurant or a bar – doesn’t pay for their talent. They liken it to the venue providing their product or service for free.

However, here is the hard truth. Most venues/restaurants, etc. DO give away food and drinks. They also pay rent on a location, pay staff, advertise, etc.

As an artist, are you doing the same? Do you advertise? Pay staff? Pay for a venue? I’m not talking pay-to-play – but do you rent a space so you can conduct business? You probably don’t do the last part and it is very likely you don’t do the other items either. But that venue probably does.

Musicians talk about years practicing and their gear as the price they’ve paid and that the venue should understand that.

That is the equivalent of the venue’s gear/equipment – a stove for instance. It’s the price of entry into the business. You can’t use it in your value proposition. You get no credit for that. You also get no credit for practicing! Sorry!

I don’t give any credit or pay to a restaurant because they have a stove, or a table, or plates, or menus, or staff, etc. I don’t pay for what school the chef went to or how much he has practiced! I pay them for food – and if the food is awful, I don’t pay for it. And I am drawn to the restaurant through various means – coupons, free samples, beautiful atmosphere – but most importantly, referrals.

Songwriters assume that a restaurant/venue is making a bunch of money from their talent. That isn’t likely. Unless you perform such an amazing show that people change their habits to come see you at the venue, you aren’t bringing the venue much that truly helps them. If you are drawing people to the venue, we probably aren’t having this discussion because if the venue knows you bring 30-50-100+ new people to their place, they’ll pay you.

But even if they didn’t pay, the people flocking to see you will. (there is a hint right there)

Play for FREE – but wisely.

If you are playing original music, don’t play as a background dinner act for 2-3 hours. Instead, share the time with another act – play a 30-40 minutes – a high-energy, well-crafted, amazing set!

Original acts need to play fewer songs and leave people wanting more. Don’t fulfill them. Be a tease… make them want more of you. And give those in attendance something to take with them – some music… FREE if necessary; but if you’ve done an amazing job, some people will give you money – I promise!

NOTE: I’m not against a venue paying you. Ask for it. Advocate for it! I’m simply pointing out that a venue is NOT necessarily taking advantage of you to have you play for exposure. They might be helping you. Just try to think of them and their situation! Think partnership!

Lie: Don’t Give Away Music

Sorry… you will have to give away music – likely, lots of it!

If you do not have a growing and active mailing list, you need to grow it. To do that, you need more than 30-second clips of your music online. Being on ITunes is unimportant until there is demand.

Unless you have radio play and/or are being promoted across multiple venues – placed in a commercial or movie – no one is hearing your music.

Radio is that free music part. Sure, acts with radio play make a token amount per song… but it took money and time and promotion to get the song there. Then, people (the fans) get to hear the song for free – again and again and again and again…

If you aren’t in demand, you need to become your own free distribution medium – you are your radio, you are your placement, etc. People need to hear your songs again and again and again and again… or be swayed by a remarkable (not good, remarkable) performance.

You need to get people hooked – think more like a drug dealer and create some addicts. Get CDs with 2-4 songs and give them out to those who are inclined to become addicted and spread your “drug” around to their friends. You want pushers, not just listeners.

Lie: You Are Great!

Eh… probably not! Sorry!

What your friends say about your music is really not that important. In fact, they could be lying to you or giving you extra credit because of your friendship.

Instead, when you perform, are there strangers approaching you asking who the hell you are? Are they saying, “That was amazing!”  – are they gushing? Do they want to know when and where your upcoming performances will be? Do they come back out? Do they bring friends? Do they throw themselves and their money at you? If not, you may need additional work!

Find a coach, mentor, critic – and become one, too

Take video of your performances… and look at it… Is your stage presence outstanding?!


Years ago I had the opportunity to be critiqued and coached by a very well-known vocal and performance coach. It was eye-opening! I am pretty high-energy and yet I discovered that I was often flat (or appeared so) and disengaged.

I have a manager working with me now. Part of what she does is critique my presentation/delivery. Whether it is my articles, my recordings, my performances, my public presentations, etc.

I give her permission. I want it to be direct – no sugar coating. I’m on a schedule. The clock is ticking. I don’t need my ego stroked (remember, I’m already an arrogant prick!). I need to get better!

So she’ll tell me – “Well, you were on key, but I didn’t believe you.” No emotion. “Flat affect” as she calls it. She’ll point out when something could be better during a presentation, a song, an article, etc. I can take it… can you? You need to.

When I worked with that performance coach, he told me something profound! He said that whether I felt it or not – even if the bartender was the only person at the venue – that I needed to put on a spectacular, jaw-dropping, performance! He said, you can’t wait to be a superstar to be a superstar. They, “the best”, get there because they perform at the highest level long before they get noticed. That’s what gets them noticed.

Find someone who can coach you – who can be real – who can tell you the truth! And be willing to be that honest with yourself. It’s the only way you can become great!

3 Things You MUST Do

If the above wasn’t enough, here are 3 baseline, starting points, you need for your music career.

1) Website:

The number of performers who use their Facebook page or a sub-domain or their soundcloud page… or whatever, but don’t have a website is astounding to me.

Stop: Go back to start. Register a domain. Get it hosted. Beg, borrow, steal, sleep with someone – whatever – and get your website up. If you aren’t doing that, you aren’t serious about your music. So… stop reading – you’ve wasted enough time pretending… There is nothing for you here.

2) Create a Written Plan

No, I’m not talking 50 pages with financials and market analysis. But, have an idea of the things you are working on, some goals, and how you plan to get there. List 10 key objectives with simple bullet points to help you achieve those items.

And then, put 7 of them on the backburner and focus on 3 of the items. You can’t do all 10 to start… sorry. It will diffuse your efforts and you’ll end up failing at all 10.

3) Start to Build a Team

Fans and friends who want to help with technology, or marketing, or street team! A manager! A coach who will tell you the truth!

It might require you to give up some control and listen to someone else. You should have some input – your ideas are important! But you need to be strong enough to take some direction, too. You can become an awful person after you are famous and have money – then, at least you had a career before you destroyed it.

Don’t destroy your career from the start!

Posted in Blog, Music Business and tagged , .


  1. Great writing and to the point without apology. I’m already a fan! Thanks for the tips and direction. Website coming soon!

      • Hey Matthew, thanks for writing this.

        Do you have advice for finding a coach or manager? Does it just require you to play a bunch of shows and hope a good one stumbles upon your act?

        • Hi Sean,

          You can make it known that you are looking for management. Look for connections through your friends and musical acquaintances. I’d recommend having some of your promotional materials together – an EPK, website, Facebook page, and even a booking strategy of some type.

          Also, do you have a fan/friend who is interested in helping you with some of those tasks – serving as a manager? What’s interesting about some of the managers of significant acts is that they didn’t start out as “managers” – as much as people passionate about an artist and their music.

          I may right about this. Right up a plan of things you’d like a manager to handle for you and see who you know that is willing to play that role.

          Hope that helps.

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