Treating Your Band as a Startup – Interview with “The Lean Musician”

The Lean Musician: An entrepreneurial guide for musicians.

The Lean Musician: An entrepreneurial guide for musicians.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the author of “The Lean Musician,” a book about treating your band like a start-up business. After reading through the book and pulling out some of my favorite takeaways from its 98 pages, I invited the author to answer a few questions about making money, mindset, and what he thinks indie musicians can start doing differently to treat their career more like a business and not just play the same bars, clubs, and dead-end coffee shops across the country.

The book is available for $4.99 on Amazon.

Although he’s still working on getting the website up and running, more information about the author and book will soon be available at

First, would you mind introducing yourself and explain how you got to where you are and why you wrote the Lean Musician?

I had the fortune of making good money as an independent musician, but I also had the fortune of losing good money as an independent musician.  When you make good money you think it’s because your music is ‘good’ and that you deserve it, but when you lose it, it’s because “people don’t buy music anymore.”

I didn’t learn from my successes and failures for the longest time.  The biggest failure most musicians make (and myself included) is that they don’t even realize they are failing.

Indie musicians need to realize that making great music has NOTHING to do with making money.  Making money has everything to do with great marketing and business skills (not music).

It’s tough as an indie musician, because if you want to make money, you need to understand that there is a dichotomy between making music and making money.

When you want to make money you need to think in terms of your ‘product’, not your music.  That’s the tough part, thinking about your music as a product.

I wrote The Lean Musician to help musicians acquire a different mindset, and to help them become conscious of growing their personal business skill-set.

Towards the beginning of the book you describe the difference between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ musicians. What do you think is one step an independent musician can take in the next 48 hours to become more active and start generating income?

 I think a great start is to sit down and take a long hard look at the facts.  Get out your notepad or laptop and write down every activity you have done as a musician in the last year and what it has accomplished and/or what revenue has it created.  I’m not talking about activities related to developing your artistic craft (that’s something entirely different), I’m talking about ways you have tried to market, advertise, promote or monetize your music.

Where have you made money?

Where have you lost money?

Then start to measure things against their returns.  If you sank one year and eight thousand dollars into an album, were the results worth it?

It’s a difficult thing to do, because not all ‘returns’ are profits (right now), some ‘returns’ are building a fan base (which in the future can lead to sales).  Hopefully you can eventually start to notice if certain activities are worth pursuing again.

Indie musicians can be terrible creatures of habit.  Maybe you played 40 successful shows, but all shows were for the same group of friends.  Is that a sustainable business model?  Not at all. It might be fun and profitable in the short term, but it’s not planning for the future.

I think an honest look at your successes and failures over the last year can give you the brutal truth that you need.

Then I would make a list of specific goals to focus on.

The extent of ‘goal-making’ for many artists is “I want a manager”, or “I want a record deal.”  These aren’t helpful at all.

You need to make goals that are clear, and incrementally just above you.

If you haven’t sold one album, “selling 5000 records” would not be a great goal for the near future.  However, if you made a goal of selling “100 albums in two months time” you could instantly think of 5-10 ways you could go about doing this and act on them.  You could draft up a plan, and then execute it.  After the two months, you would have a very good idea of what worked and what didn’t work.  You would know what efforts were worth your time, and which efforts weren’t.

If you don’t want to get out of your comfort zone and work at selling and marketing, you shouldn’t complain about being an independent musician.

Making an income as an artist is not easy, but if you keep learning and growing you can get better and better at figuring things out.

Passive musicians tend to be most indie musicians; they play the same shows, record songs and upload them to Soundcloud and never try to grow.  They think they’re doing all the right things, but they’re really just a glorified hobbyist.

Active musicians intentionally try to grow by trial and error and reiteration.

Many music-business authors mention that they write books because the marketplace was lacking the type of book they wanted to read. What was the catalyst for the “Lean Musician” book?

I have found that most “music business” books are all about contracts and legalese for musicians that will encounter managers, lawyers or record companies.  I haven’t come across any books that are aimed at helping indie musicians develop basic business skills.  Specifically, I haven’t found any books that aim at making musicians better business people.  Many books help guide musicians towards forming relationships with record labels or managers, but not all musicians want to go that route.

I think that indie artists today have a lot of advantages that indie musicians didn’t have ten years ago.  Youtube is huge.  You can get your music up on iTunes, Bandcamp easily or even make your own WordPress website.  Even recording technology is so much cheaper.

If musicians can learn how to leverage this free or cheap technology they can use it to grow just like a lot of internet start-up companies.  You don’t need a big budget to record, make videos, or hire a publicist.  You can do it all on your own. With a laptop.  There are just so many different models to make revenue.

You describe a career as a non-linear progression, or that there’s no singular path to success. Do you have any examples of real-world musicians whose careers took lots of turns before they attained success?

What I mean by ‘non-linear’ is that many musicians think there is a certain path that they must follow.  Make a demo/record, get a manager, do terrible tours, have that manager ‘shop’ it around etc.  That type of career path is antiquated.

Now you can have a song blow up on Youtube and get a record deal the following week.  Or you can play house show tours and come back with thousands of dollars in your pockets.  The are different models available.

The book isn’t meant to dissuade artists from hiring outside help (managers, labels) it’s to meant to make artists to view their activities with a different mindset.

Artists should realize that you don’t need to do things conventionally.  Especially because that’s what everyone else is doing.  And in business you don’t want to be doing the same thing as ever other competitor.

I remember a couple of years ago, a band called “Walk Off the Earth” had a viral video of them playing a GOTYE song with five hands on one guitar.  It blew up, and they got a record deal.  At first glance, someone may say “ they got lucky,” but if you look at their Youtube channel’s history you can see that they were uploading and creating highly creative content for quite a while before the GOTYE cover blew up.  This tells me that they weren’t lucky; their success was intentional.  They were attempting to make viral videos all along.  And when they finally got one, they were ready to capitalize on it.

I’m a big fan of deadlines for completing projects, be it a new album, new song, booking dates, etc. Do you think more musicians should take risks and give themselves, say 1 month, to complete a new album?

Definitely.  With creative tasks, I think time can diminish your creative output.  No matter how long you give an artist, it will always come down to the deadline no matter what.

And like anything else, creating more will strengthen your creative muscle.  Your first album should be slightly embarrassing when you revisit it in the future.  If it isn’t, it means you haven’t grown as an artist.

You also touch on the idea of “look bigger than you are.” I stress branding to my clients all the time. Without a strong website, social media presence, and press photo collection, you stick out like a sore thumb. How do you think artists can stand out from the crowd in their early career without much money to spend on an “image” or professional web development?

I think social media hype can be overrated, but there is definitely a time and a place for all of it.  I think it’s just a matter of trial and error to see what works for each individual musician.  But never think that just because you are maintaining your social media, you are being an active marketer.  It may be a part of it, but it should only be auxiliary.

I think many artists make the mistake of spending money on everything but professional photos.  Having really high quality promo photos will assist you on the web, blogs and newspapers.  I think it’s a good investment.

I’ve had writers (both blogs and newspapers) tell me that having really great photos determines whether or not they will write about a new band.  Humans love looking at nice photos and editors and bloggers love to see a great picture in their paper.  It makes them look good. You’re making their job easier and increasing your chances of getting placement.

But make sure you are hiring a professional photographer with a portfolio that you can look at.  Don’t hire a wedding photographer or the boyfriend/girlfriend of your drummer.  Just like musicians, there are far too many “photographers.”

Also, developing your live show at an early stage will make you stand out.  Most young bands scoff at the idea, but once again, practicing in your band room is not the same and shouldn’t look the same as playing a live show.  Maybe it’s being colour co-ordinated or maybe it’s doing something quirky like all moving in the same way.  Little things like that can stand out.  When you’re trying to get people to remember you, you need to try harder.

Networking is a big theme in your book. Or, rather, that people are more important than most of the other assets (money, recording resources,etc) a musician has. A common reply I hear is, “I live in a small town where there is no music scene. How do I network?” How would you reply?

I do believe that there are people in your personal network that can help you greatly, and that there are people in your extended network that can greatly accelerate your career.

The tough part is knowing how your network can help you.  When you start to look at your music as a business, it will be easier to spot opportunities, or to ask for advice from people.

Even getting an outsiders opinion on a dilemma can offer great insight.  If you have any business professionals from other industries in your personal network, ask them for advice on your situation.

If you live in a small town with no music scene, you need to think even more outside of the box.  So much of networking is done via email/web these days that I think it can’t really be an excuse anymore.  Never be scared to email industry people for advice.  Sure not everyone may reply, but some will.  Just make sure your emails are short, to the point and ask good questions.  If you ask general questions, you will get general answers.  Professionals like being asked interesting questions.  Don’t ask, “how can I get a show at your club.” Ask, if I rented a bus and brought 40 people to show, would you be interested in having my band?

Don’t ask, “Will you manage my band?”, ask, “Besides music, what is the number one aspect you look at when working with your acts?”

Research the people beforehand that you are emailing and personalize your email a little bit.  These little details can make a huge difference.

Do you think early on musicians should play whatever shows they can find, be they weddings/cover gigs/coffee shops, to learn their market and start making some money, or do you think there’s a better way for startup musicians to start generating revenue?

I think wedding/cover gigs can be a dangerous circuit to become involved with, especially if you want to be recognized for your original material.  It turns into a vicious cycle.  The money’s good but you spend so much time learning covers.  The longer you play them, the harder it is to give up the easy money.  And the harder it becomes to focus on your own music.

Playing different types of venues and shows is definitely something that I wish more artists did.  Usually indie bands play the same clubs or types of clubs and never try anything different.

Paying to play, or having to meet a certain bar quota is a bad idea.  Learn which venues you do the best in, and then find more of them.  Playing a bar may feel more legitimate as a young band, but it is often the smaller off the radar shows that tend to be the most profitable.

Any final thoughts for my readers about how to get their career moving?

If you want to compete with ‘bigger’ bands as an independent artist, you will need to handle all of the marketing/advertising and networking by yourself.  Most of the artists you see on the big blogs and hear on the radio have a team of people working for them, so if you’re serious, you need to do a lot more than just uploading your new album to Soundcloud.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Everyone

    One understanding that I have gleaned from this article is that:

    Networking is one of the most important aspects for indie musicians and I agree that, “The tough part is knowing HOW your network can help you.”

    Having a network is great, but to become truly successful, you need to learn how to make best use of it.

    One way of doing this is to keep clear and concise records, of what worked for you and what didn’t.

    Make a record of which network contacts are trustworthy and which ones aren’t!
    List the type of help each of your network contacts is able to provide you.

    You can then move forward, applying what you learnt previously, avoiding pitfalls that were unhelpful in the past.

    From reading this article, ‘The Lean Musician’ book looks to be a good investment for all budding indie musicians to help them get a realistic business mind set.

    I will definitely be buying it!!!

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