How to go from a little girl with a guitar to a professional?
July 13, 2009 10:17 PM   Subscribe

No one tells you how to be a musician in high school. What should I be doing? I feel like playing open mics and blindly sending out demos isn't the right way to do it. I can't even play at bars because I'm under 21. Any advice?

So, I am only 18 but you don't stay 18 forever. David Bowie was releasing records with Decca when he was 17, and this haunts me every day. (David Bowie is kind of my template...the only part that's working so far is starting out solo and acoustic.)
I moved to Chicago when I was 17 because I wanted to get out of my town (Roanoke, VA) and network and become a musician. I ended up just making a long list of venues I could theoretically play at...when I'm 21 and with a backing band! I ended up doing nothing in Chicago, really. I met someone who started his own record label but nothing materialised, and I started kind of bands with a few people...but that never works out.

I grew up teaching myself about the music industry with outdated books from the library, and when I realised you can't just send a cassette and a picture to major labels to solve all your problems, my world just crashed. I can't keep up wih technology fast enough to know which path is the professional one, and which leads to being some hack in my room posting my songs online to an audience of 5.

So, it's just me, a little girl with a guitar, who aspires to be someone important. I've decided to put aside all my anxieties ("I get sick too often to tour!" "I need stable relationships too much!") and just try it, or hate myself forever. I've moved back from Chicago, and I plan to start getting credits in theatre, education, and/or French, but I don't know what I'd do with that degree. Then I want to move to Portland, OR (I've already started that venue list) and play open mics, any all-ages venues...alone, with my electric guitar and maybe a tape player...and ask around for a manager/agent.
This seems wrong. I've got a lo-tech website, and I could record a real demo if I wanted. But it all seems pointless and not right.

Any advice from musicians or other creative-types on what I should be doing? I know I'd need a "real" job, but the only other thing I want to do long-term would be working in theatre, but everyone knows that's just as bad a business. I have these ridiculous ideas on how to incorporate theatre into my music shows that don't exist yet, but I can't really do much, just me and my guitar, to really set me apart. I also like, and want to write, the kind of music no one else is really into but old men (who I don't really feel so good about working with, frankly). So I'm sort of just assuming the only way I will find anyone wanting to play with me is by just playing places and hanging out afterwards. I'm not really naturally extroverted either, so I'm not a big networker. But I have no idea how to start on that, either. ("Hey, stranger, do you know anyone who can help me with publicity?") I could put up my own 11x17 posters to my own little low-key solo performances and hope for the best, but that just seems sad.

I work best with concrete lists, and the world of music is anything but concrete, so anything resembling a list would be marvellous!
posted by lhude sing cuccu to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

Step one: Don't beat yourself up comparing yourself to people like Bowie. a) the business was a lot more wide open back then and b) he's fucking Bowie.

Everyone goes at their own pace- I'm 33 and I still haven't "made it" in any meaningful way in my chosen field. But I'm not giving up- I've got my whole life and so do you.

I'm not a musician, so I can't give you too much specific advice. That said, I've known underage people in bands who played 21+ venues. I think most places will let you in as a performer if you don't drink. It's always worth a try- if they like your music, they will probably make it work.

The thing I know about the movie business is that all the things you read in books about "how to make it" are crap. if those people knew how to make it they would be making it. No one knows. Everyone who does make it gets there in their own unique way.

Example: the one and only Oscar-winning screenwriter I have ever met told me this about how he first got an agent. He called a big agency and said, "hey can you connect me to Joe Smith, that agent who's looking for new writers?" They replied there was no Joe Smith there- not surprising, as he had made that name up. He then said, "Oh I must have written his name down wrong. What's the name of the guy looking for new writers again?" And they connected him.

I think you're doing the right thing by not making excuses and just getting out there and trying. Sorry this isn't more concrete.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:36 PM on July 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Alternatively, here's the KLF's very cynical and very funny road map to success.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:41 PM on July 13, 2009

Nobody really does it big on their own. Taylor Swift has had years of support from her parents, and is just breaking nationally behind solid management and major label support. Assuming you actually are a better than average musician (read music, are proficient on your instrument/vocals, have some familiarity with standard repertoire, etc.), and that you've got your suitcase full of original material already, you're going to need quality professional management, and the sense to take the advice of that management when it comes to development of your music and live act, styling/fashion, booking, and business.

If you are good enough to attract solid professional management, you'll succeed. If not, or if you insist on self-managing, your future prospects are murky, and likely, expensively disappointing.

You might also look into joining the American Federation of Musicians, and getting to know your AFM local officials and fellow musician/members. You might find, that as a union member, you can get funding for public performances of music you organize from the Music Performance Trust Fund.
posted by paulsc at 10:44 PM on July 13, 2009

First, let me say, "You can totally do this." Because if you want to, and you don't give it up for something you want equally as bad, you can.

Second, I am not a pro musician, but a kindred spirit so to speak, so for any advice I give you YMMV.

You mention reading old out of date books about the business.

Read this book. I'm currently swimming around in it, but it can't hurt and I've had it recommended to me loads of times.

Outside of that, you need to work on your networking skills.* Go to local concerts - as many as you can. Big names, local bands, out-door music fairs. Make it your goal - if nothing else - to pay attention to faces. You're going to start noticing the same people at a lot of events. More often than not these are going to be PR people. They're not always with a record label, but they might be with local radio or even local recording studios. If you can't do it at first, eventually you're going to want to talk to these people. They will know someone who knows someone - even if it's all local. And if it's possible, don't forget to say something to the band - even if it's a "nice job." They'll start remembering you, and will talk to you - very good networking.

*I know you say you aren't really extroverted, but in music you will want to be - especially when you hit it big and give me your autograph. I'm going to want a bit of conversation while I drool over your new CD, right? :)

And speaking of CD's a local studio can work with you easier than you think. If you have a few tunes you like to play, check out a small local place. If you need a bass player, or a drummer, don't worry - they probably know someone who would be willing to sit in on a session. Of course, it might cost you - so if you do go to school, get to know your fellow musicians. Even if you don't want to put together a band, you're bound to find a few people willing to lay down a few tracks on a Saturday with you. (Even if it's weird, old man music - which by the way, what would that consist of?)

Another good way to meet people is to ask to hang around a studio. If they aren't keen on you just sitting to watch, ask if you can do odd jobs, run errands. It might be hard with the economy the way it is, but I personally got on a local band's CD because I happened to be in the studio when they needed some extra percussion - and I'm not a percussionist by any means. You just never know what will jump into your lap - and that's what great about the business.

If you don't like the idea of any of this, find some songs you can do on your own, just you and a guitar. Record them yourself if you can, and find some local eateries or coffee/bookshops, etc, that might like a live performer once in a while. Do covers if you think your music isn't appropriate for that sort of thing. Any of that could get your name out there. Sometimes it just takes that one person to notice you and get the ball rolling.

As far as school goes, I don't know what's best to tell you. Meet people - especially musicians, and music faculty - especially faculty that performs regularly on their own gigs. Go to those. Meet the people they play with and the people those people play with, and so on.

Good luck. Send me a demo tape. :)
posted by Kimothy at 10:47 PM on July 13, 2009

Hook up with the punk/hardcore kids. Make friends and get into the DIY scene. Be in it because you are passionate about music and being a part of the community and people will be happy to support you. Record stuff and put it online.

There is nothing "sad" or "pointless" about playing and sharing music you are passionate about. If you really want to make it something that you do, you need to be happy to play for 4 drunk dudes at the coffee shop and be stoked cause it's better than not playing. You need to just do it. Make things happen for yourself.

If you want to make music your life because it's your passion, this will take you far. If you want to "get big" and deal with major labels, agents, lawyers and all that then you just need to look cute, kiss the right asses and get incredibly lucky.
posted by teishu at 10:52 PM on July 13, 2009

Response by poster: Everyone: Thanks for your answers so far. I can't believe how true it is that I need things right in front of me to remember I once knew I should probably do that...(like music blogs, which I also used to list, endlessly).

drjimmy11: That's the problem when David Bowie is your role model...since he is #1. I never really considered that 21+ venues would let under-21 performers in; I will give that a try.

paulsc: I feel like I should be much more prepared before I try to take that step. I don't want to do anything prematurely. Should a manager come first, or a label? I'd pick a small local label, of friend (with the label) worked kind of like a manager too. I don't really feel ready right now to start contacting professionals.

Item: Thanks for the list. Your efforts didn't go to waste. I feel like bars are set up for "hard rock" bands...and I don't think I'm suited for a really drunken crowd...they would trample me. Especially when they find out I'm not playing "good time" songs. Also...I've tried listening to a lot of music, and especially trying to listen to what the kids are listening to these days...and I hate all of it (not all music that is, but the music kids are listening to)! I am keeping track of what bands are popular, at least with the certain groups of college kids who enjoy electro-dance. I am not that. I'm now listening to the kind of music I am trying to be...sort of a 60's Bowie mixed with The Fall. Sure I'm putting myself in a corner, but it's a persona I am really interested in developing at the moment.

Kimothy: I'm back in Virginia, so the bluegrass musicians aren't really going to help me very much, but I guess I can network when I have to. I'm just not very good at tactfully pretending to "befriend" someone...I'm more likely to just say "You should let me play at that station you work at sometime......yeah, when?" Good ideas though.
And old man music is basically any music that sounds like it took more than 10 minutes to write! I like to think I can actually play music.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 11:39 PM on July 13, 2009

Check out the career of Ani DiFranco: she played everywhere for years and finally made her own record label. She sold CDs at her gigs, on the street, coffee-shops, etc. I don't know what she's like now but maybe reach out to her. You have nothing to lose.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:51 PM on July 13, 2009

You're doing all the right things other than (a) trying to be the world's greatest at the first go and (b) trusting that you will find a way. That trust and the ability to continually lift yourself off of the griubd aftrer rejection are all you need. Everyone's path is diffeeent_-the important thing is thbat you keep doingt it aned nver miss a break.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:00 AM on July 14, 2009

Sorry about that malfunction there--anyway, this songwriter says also to write a lot and edit a lot--better to write crap you throw out than to only write masterpieces. Play with a lot of different people and play out every chance you get. Realize it is a cutthroat business and act accordingly, everything in writing and find a good manager.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:04 AM on July 14, 2009

What they said.

Alternatively, and I say this with some trepidation, one way to raise your profile is via American Idol.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:02 AM on July 14, 2009

Since you're in Chicago, you might want to check get in tough with the folks at Girls Rock Chicago. You're older than their client base (or whatever they call it), but given my experience with Girl's Rock Camp volunteers, they would probably be happy to help you out if you're doing it grass roots style, as opposed to trying to be the next Britney. Same for Portland, which is where Girl's Rock Camp started. These connections can also help you get shows in other cities, since a lot of the Rock Camp ladies are pretty mobile, and have friends all over.
You're probably better off managing yourself or having a trusted friend who you could consider a partner do if you're not organized enough than hiring someone for the job. There's clearly a place for professional management, but, again, unless your goal is to be the next Britney or Lady Gaga, that probably comes after you've earned your stripes on the road.

Other things -
Networking is important, but be yourself.
Tour if you can - the more people who see you the better.
Put out more cd's earlier - this goes double if you're touring, and maybe triple if you are only available via the internet. There are lots of resources for low cost recording, you just have to find them.
Put some stuff on - Now I'm curious!
posted by smartyboots at 1:08 AM on July 14, 2009

From an interview with Les Claypool:

Do you have any advice for aspiring bassists?

My advice is just to play. Young players - and I did the same thing - will come to me and want to know what the secret is or the magic button to push. Everybody looks for shortcuts. If you take shortcuts, your career is going to be short. Play with as many people as often as you possibly can, because that’s the only way you’ll get good. You might be able to play all kinds of crazy licks, but if you don’t have that salt….it’s like the ability to have a good conversation. You know all the words, but you’re a horrible conversationalist, and that’s what playing music is – it’s having a conversation with a lot of people, being able to hold your own - and that comes from experience. I very much relate playing to having a conversation. I think the more experience you have communicating with people, the better conversationalist you are and that comes from experience; I call it salt, you gotta get your salt. A lot of young players can play their asses off, but they don’t have that salt, so it doesn’t seem genuine.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 3:35 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

You like lists, so here's my advice in list form. :)

1. Open mics are perfect for you right now, since they are typically held in all ages venues rather than 21+ bars. Not only do they get you out and performing, they also give you a good opportunity to meet other musicians.

2. If you write your own songs, look into songwriting groups like The Chicago Songwriters Collective Meetup Group or local chapters of Just Plain Folks, Songs Alive, or Go Girls Music. If you don't, look for more musician-focused groups. Meet people, contribute to the discussions, be nice to them.

3. Don't even bother worrying about managers or labels at this point. Focus on perfecting your skills and building a following. The rest will come in time.

4. Build an online presence for your music. Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Website. Update them frequently.

5. Maintain a email-based mailing list. As soon as you finish performing, walk around the room with the list and ask people if they liked the music and if so, would they like to sign up so they can come see you perform again? The adrenaline of performing definitely helps with this for us introverts. Introduce yourself, ask their name, be nice to them. You will more than quadruple your sign ups this way. (Of course, don't forget to actually email the folks on your list when you have shows coming up!)

6. As you start making friends with musicians (see points 1 and 2), make note of those whose style fits with yours as potential collaborators. Also make note of who has home recording studios and has produced quality work with them. This is where your demo will come from. Be nice to them.

7. In case it hasn't come through yet, my biggest piece of advice is to be nice to everyone you come across. You never know who will be in a position to help you out. Don't just make contact with people, but stay in contact with people. Focus on making friends, not just fans.

Stick with it and best of luck!
posted by platinum at 3:50 AM on July 14, 2009

Well, since you're back in Roanoke, you could definitely play at places like the Coffee Pot. The Water Heater hosts traveling musicians but I'm sure they have local musicians play too (nice little space and probably good people to network with). Another person to talk to about the business is Chris Stup at the Music Lab; it's for high-school kids (mine are in it) but Chris's whole career has been the nuts & bolts of the music business. I'm sure he'd talk with you or point you in the right direction.

The Big Lick Blues Festival is this weekend, so there will be lots of musicians about, and you have to go to FloydFest next week --- there will be tons of girls (& boys) with guitars to talk to, hang out with, listen to, & network with.
posted by headnsouth at 4:04 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

No one tells you how to be a musician in high school, and no one tells you how to be a CEO either. The key however is that both are businesses. Some of the most successful people make it their vocation. whether it is running the best widget company, or running their own music career. Learn how to deal with others at a business level. Consider yourself your best client. Make deals with your wallet not your heart. Hire a manager and make him/her responsible for the deal (i.e. commission based pay). If you have a great song that doesn't fit your voice, or could be done better by another performer don't be afraid to sell it. If on the other hand you see a song that suits you perfectly don't be afraid to cover it. Don't let idealism get in the way of your business. I've seen a number of talented local artists who would 'never sell out' go by the wayside. Remember if you truly want to make music your life it must be your profession.
posted by Gungho at 4:46 AM on July 14, 2009

Suggest devote attention to writing original songs with distinctive melodies.

This will give you a special advantage, but it is a lot of work.
posted by ovvl at 4:54 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

If/when you decide you want to distribute your music online, I think Bandcamp is the way to go. If I were you I'd invest my time in getting the word out online (myspace, own website,, some free songs) before looking for an agent, but I'm not a musician. Best of luck!
posted by carnival of animals at 6:31 AM on July 14, 2009

Don't call yourself a "little girl" if you want to be taken seriously. My three-year-old daughter is a little girl with a guitar. You are a woman with a guitar.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:53 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

platinum has the best advice of everybody. Exactly how I would phrase it, and that's exactly what works.
posted by General Malaise at 7:26 AM on July 14, 2009

David Bowie was releasing records with Decca when he was 17, and this haunts me every day. (David Bowie is kind of my template...the only part that's working so far is starting out solo and acoustic.)

If you start thinking like this now, you're going to be unbelievably miserable for the rest of your life. As a writer, I used to do the same thing to myself all through my early 20's (I'm 30 now). You have to trust that you will arrive exactly on time to the party that is your success, and in the meantime there is so much you can do to exercise your talent and evolve. There is always somebody younger and more precocious (and more successful) coming up under you. Practice not caring now, and save yourself some of the agony of not having "made it" by a certain age.

I just finished reading Julia Child's memoir, and it really shocked me that she never even considered being a professional cook until she was in her late 30's. That really staggered me. There are as many examples of people like her as there are of people like Bowie who found their calling young. You never know when or if it will strike, all you can do is keep growing and taking chances.

Inspiration is important, but patterning yourself after Bowie may not help you at all -- the world he was creating music in doesn't exist anymore, so what worked for him will probably not work for anyone else. Work in the here and now. To everyone at the time, Bowie seemed like he was from the future -- he had a vision of things to come that shocked and entranced people. If you have a vision like that of your own, then you can position yourself as the gateway that allows other people to experience it too.
posted by hermitosis at 7:53 AM on July 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sorry, OP, the Big Lick Blues Fest is in October. The one this weekend is called the Blue Ridge Blues & BBQ Festival. Another venue I forgot to mention is an under-21 club called Southside 220. They're mostly all about heavy (and heavier) metal but they've got bands coming into town all the time, so there are some more people you can connect with. And also I've seen people play with their guitars at the Daily Grind and Pop's.
posted by headnsouth at 8:22 AM on July 14, 2009

David Bowie was releasing records with Decca when he was 17, and this haunts me every day.

Unless you can build a time machine and go back to 1964, don't compare what you're doing to what David Bowie was doing when he was 17.

I mean, it's not just that he's David Bowie, it's that the recording industry was incredibly different then. The recording industry was different even back when I was 17--major record labels were always offering contracts to new and undiscovered acts. There just isn't anything like that any more.

So, yeah, what you're doing is the right thing. Go to open mikes, get your music out on MySpace and Facebook and iTunes and CDBaby and all the other places people do this stuff, make videos and get them on YouTube, send demos to small labels, hit up local coffeehouses for gigs, take part in benefit shows, etc., etc., etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:36 AM on July 14, 2009

I feel for you. At my age, Jimi Hendrix had already been dead for ten years.
Do you have anything recorded? Why don't you post it to music.mefi, for starters ?
posted by _dario at 8:58 AM on July 14, 2009

(nah, scratch the second line in my answer) - anyway: get focused on writing and performing. A lot. That comes first.
posted by _dario at 9:01 AM on July 14, 2009

Trent Reznor's recent perspective on what to do as a new/unknown artist looked helpful when I read it over the other day. It certainly didn't seem like bad advice. Amanda Palmer of the Dresdon Dolls (and more recently solo "fame") has recently posted similar advice.

I was friends with several musicians who are moderately successful now when they (and I) were your age. They found the most success at the time playing for their peers; they played every open mic at every opportunity on every college campus in Portland, then Olympia, then Seattle, then beyond. I don't believe that any of them made any money (beyond free drinks for the night and free room and board on the road) until they were in their early twenties, and even then... the music industry was already on its way to the shambles that it is now.

One thing worth thinking about... You're not going to make money doing it for a very long time, you will make friends, make connections, and gain the experience that you need to be as successful as you're driven to be. One thing that all of the guys who I know who've tasted success have in common is drive.

Good luck, you'll need it.
posted by togdon at 9:27 AM on July 14, 2009

I'm not a musician, and none of my musician friends have ever made it big, but here are my tips for things that bands and musicians I've known have done to be successful enough to get paid gigs in decent venues:

1. It's significantly easier to become quasi-famous in your local scene than it is to make any kind of money selling music yourself or getting a record deal. It makes sense to play a lot of live shows in your local area to make a name for yourself, and then worry about getting signed to a record label or anything like that.
2. Realize that getting gigs is all about drawing an audience. If you are a great musician and nobody is going to come see you play, a venue would rather book some terrible musician that will sell a lot of tickets or get a lot of people to show up and pay a cover. This is also why most paid gigs are at 21+ venues, because selling drinks is very profitable and bars will pay good money to give people a reason to stay there and buy drinks for an hour.
3. When you're first getting started, you need to have friends who will come to your shows, because random people are not going to have heard of you.
4. It's much easier to get a gig opening for a more well known band or artist than to get a gig on your own. The easiest way to do this is to find more well known bands or artists (which when you are first starting out is easy because most artists are more well known than you) and talk to them.
5. Play anywhere you can. If playing at someone's birthday party can get you some new fans then do it. You will end up playing bad shows, but this is inevitable, and when you're famous you'll have some funny stories to tell about when you were first starting out.
6. As much as I hate MySpace, have a MySpace page and list your upcoming gigs on there. Also have a Twitter account, Facebook account, etc., anything that people who might come to your shows might check and hear that you're going to be playing somewhere. Also, have an email mailing list that is easy to sign up for online, and when you meet people in real life that express interest in seeing you play ask for their email address so you can add them to the list.
7. Record your music, even if it's just with a laptop and a cheap microphone, and post it online. The more people hear your music on MySpace or your blog, or see you on YouTube, the more people can find out that they like your music.
8. Do (some) covers of songs that you like. Although obviously as a songwriter you want to perform your own material, but when you cover a song that people have heard you can tap into their history with that song and make more of a connection with them. Also, especially in situations where people are searching your music online, it helps if you come up in searches for other similar bands. It's no coincidence in my opinion that a lot of the musicians that are Internet Famous on YouTube do a lot of covers.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:38 AM on July 14, 2009

Speaking as a creative person, I hope you don't give up. Odds are not strong for financial success if you are going to be doing original material, but if you are doing it for the love of it you will find your way to make it work and you will have a richer life for it. I'm in my mid 40s, never "made it" financially as a musician, but it has made and continues to make amazing experiences, friendships and joy for me. You are very lucky to have this gift.

From a music industry professional's perspective, I will add something pragmatic: don't go dogging agents or managers to represent you until you have already created a following. Even the most noble, music-loving industry people are going to do some basic math when they encounter you. Are you making enough so that their percentage will be worth their time and effort?

Start looking for help AFTER you are booking your own tours and filling the clubs, consider labels AFTER you are already selling xx,000 CDs. If you have 900 CDs from a run of 1000 left in your closet and can only get 75 people to come see you in your hometown, it is just not going to add up for them. You want a list to follow? You've already got the music part covered. Now get yourself exposure and set goals for sales and turnout.

(Of course there are exceptions to this kind of thinking and ways to have success on a more modest level, but again, this is a practical way to think about it. There is also the chance someone will "discover" you and take a risk, but you can't plan on it.)

Also you mentioned all the books you've read about the music industry. As you probably know, these are largely marketed to be sold to eager young musicians, and most of them are FOS. Please get and read Donald Passman's All You Need To Know About The Music Business for some smart, accurate information.
posted by quarterframer at 9:41 AM on July 14, 2009

Some of the advice is going to depend on what kind of music you make. From your limited description it sounds indie-ish and not all that bizarre or niche -- tons of people like Bowie and The Fall.

Anyway, this is a large topic which incorporates many sub-topics, but the best advice I can give you is to relax and focus on making good music. You've got plenty of time to make things happen. Don't get ahead of yourself or put yourself under unnecessary pressure. How many songs have you written? Have you recorded any of them? Have you made a web site and posted your songs online? Have you started performing regularly?

Based on what it sounds like the answers to these questions would be, you should not be concerning yourself with getting a manager or a label, and anyone who tells you otherwise is misleading you. Here are some things you should focus on:

1) Write. Write music that you're proud of. This is the most important one.

2) Record. Make some quality recordings of your music. You can do these at home, by yourself, with limited equipment, but there will be something of a learning curve for the technical aspects if you haven't done this before. Or you can pay for studio time and let someone else take care of it. This is a whole separate topic. The important thing is that you end up with something you're happy with and that represents your music well. You'll need these recordings to get gigs, press, etc. Make a physical product that looks attractive and sell it for a few dollars at your shows.

3) Perform. As others have said, you can often play 21+ venues without being 21. However some places won't let you, not because it's illegal, but because they assume that if you're not 21 then neither are your friends, and so you won't bring a crowd to the show. And that's the reality of playing gigs -- bookers will not care much about the quality of your music. They are concerned with how many people will come see you. This can be a bitch. As someone else said, you should not perform in the same area more than 1-2x/month. You will be oversaturating the market. This doesn't include playing open mics. I could go on about how to go about getting gigs, but this is getting long already.

4) Promote. This is more important than performing in some ways. Promote your recordings by making a myspace and an attractive web site where people can hear them. Send them to local radio stations, local alt-weeklies, and mp3 blogs and web sites that cover your genre of music. It's best to do this when you've got a notable gig coming up. Make it sound like a compelling story and include some info about you and such. Promote your performances by putting up flyers, but don't waste your time going overboard with those. The most important thing to do is to tell your friends (and make friends if you don't have any). Then make your performances good so people will tell their friends and will want to come back. Again, don't play too much or no one will come.

5) Network. Find out what venues in your area put on music that sounds like yours. Find out who puts together shows that people actually go to. Find out what local bands in your genre are successful. Contact these bands, send them your fancy recordings, and tell them you'd like to put a show together sometime. Playing shows with other bands that you know, that share a similar sensibility, and that already know what they're doing is much much better than just contacting random venues and letting them put you on a bill with a bunch of crappy unrelated bands whose friends will leave before you play.

I think those are the most important ones right now. Good luck.

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4. It's much easier to get a gig opening for a more well known band or artist than to get a gig on your own.

Depending on what you mean by "well-known," this is certainly not true. Every local band wants to open for the well-known touring band who comes through town, but the fact is that band is either bringing their own support, which means there will be no locals on the bill, or there are going to be just a handful of these slots every month and lots of bands that want them because there will be a guaranteed audience. On the other hand, getting a gig on your own with other unknown bands that no one will come see is very easy.

Alternatively, and I say this with some trepidation, one way to raise your profile is via American Idol.

posted by ludwig_van at 10:01 AM on July 14, 2009

That Trent Reznor piece is a really good start.

"I can't keep up wih technology fast enough to know which path is the professional one, and which leads to being some hack in my room posting my songs online to an audience of 5."

If technology isn't your thing, find a friend whose thing is technology and form an alliance. Find a geek who likes you and/or your music and let that person help you promote your stuff, taking advantage of all the free distribution and communication channels that are out there right now. But, really, if you have a loyal audience of five and you're doing something you love, what's not to like? If you want to make a lot of money, go to med school.

"I'm not really naturally extroverted either, so I'm not a big networker."

Many musicians are introverted. That's why they let their music do the talking. But, to the extent that you can get over this fear, you should, as not being able to talk to people will slow things down for you. And self-promotion is good. After all, who has more of a vested interest in your success than you do?

What I've learned from my own experience playing music and from interviewing other musicians is that most full-time musicians make their money through a variety of income streams. They play live, the record, they teach, the sell gear, they license their music for use in other people's projects. Many play in more than one group. And, often, one of those groups will be strictly for-profit (read: cover band). That's a huge hustle, which is why many people keep their day jobs and do music when they can. I think there's a case to be made for both strategies.

At the end of the day, it's a huge crap shoot. But that's no reason not to roll dice. Play, record, release, promote. Shoot videos of yourself performing your work and plaster YouTube with them. Get gigs at coffee shops--not because you'll get discovered there, but because playing live will quickly teach you what works and what doesn't and because performance itself is a skill you have to learn.
posted by wheat at 11:28 AM on July 14, 2009

Seconding Item: being underage won't keep you from playing in bars. I played in many, many bars from the age of 18 through 21 (honky tonk violinist with a band).
posted by halogen at 11:34 AM on July 14, 2009

Here's a good case in point, based on your story here, I clicked your username to find your website, but your website link on MetaFilter goes to your Facebook page, and I have to friend you to find out more about you (even to find out if you have any mp3s or vids for me to listen to). I like Facebook, but it's a walled garden. Your main site should be publicly accessible. You say you have a "lo-tech website." Make that your website link here and elsewhere. And record that demo (+vids) and post them to it. This is the basics of marketing your talents.
posted by wheat at 11:37 AM on July 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

4. It's much easier to get a gig opening for a more well known band or artist than to get a gig on your own.

Depending on what you mean by "well-known," this is certainly not true. Every local band wants to open for the well-known touring band who comes through town, but the fact is that band is either bringing their own support, which means there will be no locals on the bill, or there are going to be just a handful of these slots every month and lots of bands that want them because there will be a guaranteed audience. On the other hand, getting a gig on your own with other unknown bands that no one will come see is very easy.

Yeah, that's true. I should clarify that I was talking about more well-known local bands, rather than trying to open for a nationally-known group that rolls through town. For the latter it seems to be more of issue of knowing the people that are booking the show, but as you said it's not easy. What I meant is that if you find other local musicians that like your music and want to play shows with you, and also have a relatively large fanbase compared to yours, you can relatively easily get you on the same bill as them and get to play in front of a bigger crowd than you could draw yourself.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:44 AM on July 14, 2009

Network. And the people you want to be networking with aren't established musicians, managers, or agents, but other musicians in the same place you are, or just a little bit further along. Wherever you are, go see as much live music as you can, and take a chance on artists/bands you've never heard of. Show up early and catch the opening acts. If someone's doing something you like, talk to them after and tell them. It may feel awkward, but keep in mind they've just stood up in front of a room full of people (or, more often, a room with only a few people) and are probably feeling way more awkward than you are. If you can connect with other similarly minded musicians, you may find that suddenly you're part of a scene of people collaborating and going to see each other, rather than just playing on your own in front of whatever friends you can get to show up.
As far as being under 21...If there's a band you want to see but can't because they're playing an over-21 bar, shoot them an email and tell them you'd like to to see them play -- they might be playing a party or a warehouse show or something. Since you're doing solo acoustic, open mics and coffee house shows might also work. And the laws vary from state to state, but don't assume that being under 21 means that you can't play in bars. It may, in fact, be one of the few ways you can get into over-21 establishments.
posted by zombiedance at 11:45 AM on July 14, 2009

I'm not in the music industry, but I've been interested in it since I was a 14 year old pouring over Billboard at Smokey's Records and as an adult, I've helped shape and implement online efforts for my friend's gold-record holding band.

One of the first things you should do is worry more about how the music industry works today. It's changed a lot since Bowie, just the last 10 years alone have been a major upheaval, and things are still shaking out. Look to more recent examples of what success looks like and how it is achieved.

Before you do that though, maybe think more about what you think success looks like. You say you aspire to be 'important,' what does that mean? When you say Bowie is a role model, why is that. How much of it is the level of popularity and visibility he achieved, and how much of it is the influence he's had on other artists?

Pay particular attention to the evolution and lifecycle of the things you are valuing. There are a lot of influential musicians who were never popular outside a certain circle. There are a lot of people whose influence only became obvious after they were dead, or at least after the hype cleared from around their popularity. I'll add that there are a lot of bands and musicians who've managed to make a good living doing what they love doing after loosing their major label contract, if they ever had one in the first place.

I think the most important thing though is to just get out there and play. It sounds like you are willing to take risks, so just double down. At your age you have very little to loose if you are spending time on doing the thing you think you want to do with your life, and you've got everything to gain, most importantly, experience.

Find ways to connect with other musicians. You may not consider yourself an extrovert, but most of the introverted people I know are much more comfortable connecting over their interests. As practice, maybe don't write off those bluegrass musicians in Virginia. Seattle has a big folk music and art festival every year. I wasn't a fan of bluegrass, but my favorite part ended up being spending an hour or so on "Bluegrass Hill." It was great being able to stand so close to people making music, and what impressed me most is when people who had little or no prior association would congregate and start playing together.

So you think you are too young to play the venues you think you should be trying to play? Even if that's true, there are other places to play. Practice in the park or try busking, legally of you can, illegally if you have to. Every person who passes you by is a chance to learn something about connecting with an audience. Count the ones you get to slow down or stop, not the ones who pass you by. Mix songs people know in with your originals. Record some covers and some originals and put them on your page on MySpace, Facebook and post them to YouTube. Put your URL on your guitar case, or amp, or whatever so people can find you again. Anything you can do to build awareness and/or a following will compound towards almost everything else you have to do.

Don't wait to move somewhere else (whether its Portland, or whatever) to get started with this stuff. A different city might offer more opportunities, or the potential to rise higher, but you are just getting started, almost anything you do now will help you learn things you can take anywhere.

Good luck!
posted by Good Brain at 1:40 PM on July 14, 2009

Oh, one last thing, if you want to be a "professional," don't overcommit, make sure you meet or exceed the commitments you do make. Super-genius are afforded a lot of leeway and patience, but being good to work with goes a long way.
posted by Good Brain at 1:49 PM on July 14, 2009

Response by poster: Good Brain: (about David Bowie) I never thought of it that way. I should just work on the things I especially admire about him; the risks he took and his originality.
That's funny you mention busking, because when I wrote the question I almost wrote "that's the only thing I won't do!" I just never saw the importance of it...I guess because in Chicago I saw how many people (including me) who would just walk past, annoyed even, if they were loud enough. Here, people might respond more though, because it's a smaller town and there's not one on every corner.
I wish I could mark all as best answers; this is so much more than I was expecting.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 7:12 PM on July 14, 2009

I don't think I saw anyone else mention this strategy, which I think is an excellent leg-up that I've seen work for many of my friends and associates:

Join someone else's band. As a guitarist, a backup singer, a harmonica player -- whatever you can do well enough. Join a local band that has some shows coming up. It doesn't matter if they make your kind of music, so long as you find their music interesting/tolerable.

What does it get you? Performing experience, but without having to captivate the room all by your lonesome. It gets you bandmates and friends-of-bandmates -- who will play on your demo CD when you record your own songs. It gets you introduced to the club booker, the sound person, and maybe even a manager or label representative. It gets you fans. It gets your name mentioned in blog postings. If you stick around for their next recording, it gets your name on liner notes. You become Googleable. At times you may be able to play a few songs as an opener to the band's own set.

This method of networking is natural and do-able, even for a relative introvert. You won't have to do much cold-calling, but sort of gracefully ease your way into the scene, watching and learning as you go. You don't have to stand on stage alone until you're ready to.
posted by xo at 7:23 PM on July 14, 2009

1) The idea that you can't play in bars under the age of 21 is most likely a misunderstanding on your part. I live in a city where the authorities are extremely vigilant and strict on underage drinking/underage kids getting into 21+ venues, and even here underage musicians can play at 21+ bars.
2) Two Words: College Radio. I was a college radio DJ at a recognized college radio station for years, went to college radio conferences, etc., and it really wasn't that hard for someone to get their stuff played on our station *if it had decent looking packaging and didn't come with douchey press photos or anything stupid like that.* Getting started on college radio can be really great because if you get a big enough following on there and chart on CMJ (granted, this is actually hard), all of the corporate "alternative" stations will pick up on that and put your stuff into rotation, which = $uccess!
posted by ishotjr at 9:27 AM on July 15, 2009

I should correct that-- what was most important when it came to getting played was how good it was, but since our DJs checked out CDs to review for rotation, anything that looked bad was not going to get checked out as readily as something where there was more effort put into the package, even if it was pretty DIY.
posted by ishotjr at 9:28 AM on July 15, 2009

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