Beyond the exciting and obviously soul-stirring experience that music can provide, there is a question of survival as an artist and eking out your livelihood. Obviously, there are chances of getting signed up by a record company or big business venture, but how does an independent artist strike the balance between continuing to do what he/she loves and making a living through his music?
It goes without saying that almost all the artists have to face this question at a certain point of their career. Incidentally, it takes a dedicated heart and obviously a keen eye about the industry and its dynamics to ensure that both the ends are met to the satisfactory level.
We talked to Matthew Mayer — a Pianist from Omaha. He continues to perform in live events, produce new music, and travel to various countries sharing the magic of his music. We present an email interview with him regarding his career and the music business.
Q1. What made you sure you could survive as a musician and do not need a regular job or a career?
First off, thank you for the opportunity and interview! Truly a privilege!
To answer this question, I actually do have another “8–5” job in addition to all that I do musically. It has never been a question of survival for me, instead ever since I started playing piano, it was always a question of how do I continue doing what I love to do, while at the same time doing what I have to do. I’ve found a way to do this, but it comes with a lot of sacrifices and constant effort and focus.
For example, when I released my first album in 1999, I was still in college with a lot of school debt, but I knew I wanted to release an actual CD. At the time, it was several thousands of dollars (no Google or network to figure out how to do it), and I had only a couple hundred dollars in my savings account. I remember going to my bank to cash out ALL of the savings bonds I had had since I was a little kid and putting it “all on the line” to get my first album out there. Long story short, I created the album, and it sold well, while I attended The University of South Dakota, and that’s where a lot of the “traction” started. From then on, I’ve done all I can to keep going creatively.
I also own and operate SoloPiano.com which takes up a lot of time, so it’s always making sure I take time to continue to get my own music out there. It takes a lot of effort, and after a while, you incorporate it all as a lifestyle.
Q2. For an independent musician, how important it is to do gigs and live performances?
It’s very important, however, there is a business side to this too. You don’t want to set up live performances that end up breaking you financially, and at the same time, you don’t want to let opportunities slip away. There is a great value in people seeing you play live. However, I will say this…. times are changing so much that a musician could technically get music recorded and, on a playlist, to support themselves if that’s all they truly wanted to do. But for me, music is a connection, a sharing, and a way to forge an unspoken relationship and experience with other people. For example, when I performed Live in Croatia last year with Matej Mestrovic, the connection I felt from people that didn’t speak the same language as I did was something magical and can only be experienced by putting yourself out there and being vulnerable with a live audience.
Q3. You know the music industry from the business side as well. Tell us your experience regarding that.
The music industry is absolutely a business, no doubt. I started a course at the University of South Dakota many years ago called “The Business of Music”. One thing you quickly figured out when looking at case studies of past successful artists and bands, is that many musicians found “fame” or “success” with a certain record, but because their contract with a label was set up more as the label acting as a bank for them “loaning them money” etc…in the end, the musician could actually end up with very little profit (after they had paid back the label all the costs the label charged the musician!).
Today, more important than ever, I think musicians need to think of themselves as any other entrepreneur, while at the same time being true to their craft. It’s a tricky balance. I’ve always been a firm believer that you need to maximize the resources you have available to you and build from there. For me, I have had to build up my support starting from my hometown in Canistota, SD to my college at USD, to places I’ve lived, audiences and fans, and you keep building and building. Same is true for any small business owner.
Q4. You have studied both management and music. Do you feel that comes handy to marketing your music?
Absolutely. I took classes in Music Theory, Aural Theory, university-level piano lessons for a time, and studied the history of music and cultures, and ended up with a B.A. and MBA on the management side. I’ve always felt business and music go hand in hand, and I only wish more universities would push this in their music programs. There are musicians today that some people may never hear because they are not marketed or get their music out there, but on their instrument or craft, they are geniuses. There are others that market like crazy and are geniuses in getting their music out there but might be subpar on their instrument. If you are solid in both disciplines, you can do well for yourself!
Q5. In the modern world of digitization, what are a few things that every musician needs to take care to survive in the industry?
Technology has somewhat created another catch 22. For indies, it’s been great that you can reach SO MANY MORE people, but with that brings so much more noise! You have to try and get your music, message, a brand out to people in short amounts of attention spans and bring people to your music! I would stay primarily focused on your output and making sure that whatever your output is (whether it’s music, art, writing etc), that it is high quality and reflects YOU! All of our projects eventually are put in the court of public opinion and overtime your creative output will speak for itself. But make sure you create what you are proud of. It will always be a stamp in time what you give to the world, and you want to make it the best you can.
Q6. Any message for budding artists?
3 Things come to mind during this interview.
1) FOLLOW YOUR TRUE NORTH: As you walk your own creative path, take in any and all advice, but always listen to your ‘true north’ inside yourself. It will never leave you astray, and your path will never be 100% the same path as other artists or musicians.
2) CONSISTENCY: Like any sport, any project, anything in life, success does not come overnight, or without effort. Many great things happen because you are consistently doing the small things day in and day out…95% of this creative journey is not glamorous, but it’s hard ‘everyday’ work (email lists, campaigns, practicing your song over and over and over;) Be consistent in your effort and you WILL succeed!
3) USE ALL OF YOUR TALENTS: Chances are you are not just good at your instrument or craft. You have other talents. Use Them! Are you good with written communication skills? USE IT in how you stay in touch with your fans through email. Are you a good speaker? Use that talent in your live shows? Are you good in something that has nothing to do with your instrument? USE IT to generate income when you are not practicing. You are not someone with one talent. You have MANY and use them all to move towards your goal!