The Vocalist in Business: 3 Critical Questions


What is more evocative than the voice: as pure as operatic satin, as rough as sea worn gravel, or as beautiful as the sound of water trickling over skin? Those of us gifted with a voice capable of catching the ear of an audience may have the basis of a business.

Music, like most sectors of the creative industries, is a luxury market which means that no one needs to buy your product. So, its important to identify what makes your voice different and worth paying to hear. The trick is to work out who your audience is and how best to package yourself as a business.  In a nutshell: how to get the listener to part with their hard earned cash.
When you are experienced as a vocalist, perhaps as part of an ensemble, a band or as a lone singer, you will have come across a range of opportunities to perform and to get your voice heard. Many performers will have fallen into a relatively regular pattern of singing based more on opportunities that have arisen, rather than planning exactly what they want to get out of the business of being a vocalist. Now may be the time to stop and begin taking control of your business.

In this short article there are three questions for you to consider:
– What drives you creatively?
–   Who is your audience?
–   Who can give me great advice about the music business?

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any other questions; you will need to address whether you want a career out of being a vocalist or whether you are an amateur weekend performer i.e. it’s a hobby. Do you want to generate enough income to live off? Are you a live performer with ambitions to record? Or do you just want to perform locally, perhaps in a small venue/pub circuit within easy driving distance of where you live?
It is entirely possible to have a vibrant part time career as a vocalist that fits alongside another job, bringing up the children/grandchildren or your retirement. But let’s return now to the three most critical questions.

Question 1:  What drives me creatively?
The creative place from which your singing comes will provide the basis for your business and the way in which you position yourself in the music market. It will inform the places you perform, the people you perform with, the audience to which you market yourself and the contractual arrangements into which you are prepared to enter.
Often the difference between a singer with an expensive hobby and one with a viable business is that the latter has taken time to get in touch with this question.  This question asks you to go deeper than the need to perform, to gain attention or the fantasy of arriving in the top place on “America’s Got Talent”.  This question is about your creativity; where do you come from?  What distinctive features and styles are you drawn to emulate? If you were to answer the question, “Why should someone pay money to hear you sing?” you would be able to point to specific aspects of what drives you creatively.
So, if you haven’t done so for a while, take some time out to answer this question. You may want to journal, listen to your favorite music or hike up a mountain. It may just be time to regain your connection with your soul’s answer.

Question 2:  Who is your audience?
Who is your audience and how does this audience consume music? Are they concert/performance goers i.e. people who prefer to hear their music live? If so, where do they usually go to hear live music?
Audiences tend to have established patterns of behaviour: they go to specific venues to hear specific types of music. Avoid trying to enter what is already a crowded market in a way that requires the audience to take too big a chance and to travel to places that are unfamiliar.  Instead of expecting your audience to study you, study them: find out where your audience goes to hear music and find out how those venues program music.  Do they have an in-house programmer? Or do they rely on a local/state-wide promoter to spot talent for them?
Successful businesses are those that solve problems. As a vocalist selling your business, you need to make it as easy as possible for the programmer or promoter to hear your work. Make a sample CD and send it to the people who decide what music gets heard in the venues your audience attends. Could you get a slot on a local radio station or at an open mic session where the local promoter may attend in order to find out what’s new?
The same applies if you are trying to enter the market via a recording avenue. You want air-time, so find out who is playing music similar to yours. Don’t make the often conservative radio DJ’s listen to something that is way out of their comfort zone – if you do then don’t be surprised if you find yourself waiting a long time for a reply!

Question 3:  Who can give me great advice about the music business?
The music industry is one of the most diverse elements of the creative/cultural industries; the way the industry operates is unique and you need to understand how the music business works where you live. It is worth seeking out your trade association and looking at what support and information they can provide. Google ‘music industry trade associations [your city/region]’ and you will find out who can answer the music business questions where you live.

One type of advice you may want to consider paying for is legal advice. Make sure that the contracts you are entering into deliver the most favourable economic benefits to you both today and in the future. Where possible, you want to retain as many personal rights as you can.

Agents, record labels and music publishers will rightly want their cut of what you make but push to retain as many options for the future as you can. The subscription fee to your music trade association may be the best money you spend as their advice is based on years of experience and will be impartial.

Stay in Control
We’ve flown pretty quickly through these critical questions.  The most important thing though, is not what I say about these questions but what you learn from your own research.  Make sure that you are in control of your business. Do your research and think about what you want out of the business. Join a trade association and take advice before you enter into any contractual arrangements.  Most importantly, stay in touch with what drives you.

Like any relationship, the one with your business needs to be nurtured and cared for in order to get the best out of it both today and tomorrow.

Frances Medley has been the CEO of Cultural Enterprise and the Acting & Deputy CEO of the Arts Council of Wales. She is Chair of the Magdalena Project. Her company, FM Consultancy, specializes in change management and working with individuals and organizations to fulfil their potential.  Frances can be reached


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