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The Lefsetz Letter: The Ladder

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You need to practice off the grid, offline. This advice is for pros, not amateurs. If you’re just screwing around, post on YouTube and TikTok, have fun, but if you want to make music your career… People tend to know this at a young age. And if you’re one of these people you don’t want to try and build an audience online until you are ready. Maybe post, but don’t try and draw attention, don’t dun people to watch, this will ultimately backfire, because people are overloaded and hate to be told to take time out for you and if they do and you’re substandard, it’s much harder to get them to come back.
So, learn how to play in your bedroom. Practice with your buddies in the garage. Play live anywhere that will have you. Put money last. It’s about the experience, not the cash. If you put money first you’re doing it wrong. The key is to learn how to do it, and this is a skill. To get over the stage fright, to perform adequately, to handle the audience, to build the arc of a show. This is a skill most of the overnight wonders do not have. Which is why their live shows, assuming they can play to anybody, that anybody wants to pay to see them, have to be stacked with ringers and production, it’s to cover up their greenness. You want to be ready when you get your break.
You must sacrifice. You can’t be on the team or be in clubs or go to the prom. You may be able to do all of these, but there will be times you have to choose, and you’ll have to choose music. Think of it like the swimmers and other athletes gunning for the Olympics, they cannot take their eye off the ball.
You’re going to have to start with covers. The classics are key here. Everybody knows “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Yes, the rock classics, the classics of the MTV era, they are the last universal songs. Sure, maybe know some contemporary songs, but only play them for audiences you think will know them.
Write. From day one. You get better over time, so you might as well start early. Anybody who tells you their initial songs are great is wrong. Writing is an adventure, you have to learn the basics and then how to express yourself.
Start playing some originals live. See what works.
Ultimately get enough gigs that you are making money. Such that someone who works on a percentage will be interested in working with you.
More important than a manager at this point. Gigs are the issue, not direction. You don’t need a manager to negotiate deals, your path, because there is none. But you do need someone to get you work. An agent works on percentage, they will only work with you if they think they can make money, not only today, but tomorrow. If you want an agent to work with you don’t tell them how good you are, but how you can make them money.
3. GIG
Anywhere and everywhere, to bigger audiences. Even with an agent it pays to know the other acts, so you can trade headlining gigs in each other’s territory.
If you’ve gotten this far, you will have fans. Know them, pay attention to them, serve them. They want to serve you. Give them access. Incentivize them to bring their friends, i.e. let them bring their friends free or at a discount, let their friends meet you. It’s about establishing a relationship. In this broad world everybody wants an identity and in many cases this is their adherence to an act.
Now is the time. You can have a website, have information online earlier, but as far as videos, now you are ready. Post on YouTube and TikTok. Your fans need to spread the word. Make them aware the videos are there, don’t dun them to spread the word, either they will or they won’t, if you’re good enough and the bond is strong enough, they will.
TikTok… Should you try and game the system? Do covers? Have innovative videos? Well, OK Go was famous for its innovative videos but no one can sing a song of theirs. Once you try and manipulate the system you’re going down a bad path. The music must be the draw, not the penumbra.
This is the time you need one. You’ll probably have one earlier, but probably one you’ll ultimately want to fire if you become successful. Because only a passionate nobody will be interested at first and ultimately you need someone with experience. Having said that, oldster managers tend not to know the new, digital landscape and the audience of young people. They’re all inured to radio and Spotify, they think big and miss the low-hanging fruit.
When you get big enough, you’ll need a real manager. And a real manager will come to you because you’re making money and they see an upside, they think they can add value, make you bigger.
If you get a manager earlier, do not sign a contract with them, no way, odds are it will come back to haunt you. Pay them their percentage, but ultimately you will probably want to fire them, and you don’t want to have to continue to pay them.
The key is to be big enough that you can get slots at festivals. So more people can see you. The key is not to be able to say you were on the festival, but to kill at the festival. People know if you’re great, if you’ve got something, and they never forget. I saw Hooray for the Riff Raff at the Rose Bowl/Arroyo Seco playing in a tent with fewer than a hundred people and they slayed me, I’ve paid attention to them ever since. This is what you’re looking for.
Make merch when it’s not a hobby, when someone likes your show so much they need a souvenir. Handmade stuff for the hard core only is a bad look.
If you’ve jumped the above hurdles, you will start to have opportunities. This is why you need a manager, to negotiate, to handle these opportunities. The smaller you are, the more you say yes, the less you weigh the pros and cons. It’s just the reverse when you get bigger.
You probably won’t need one. It’s no longer the badge of honor it once was. Only sign a deal with a major if it signs, promotes and makes hits in the genre you operate in, otherwise you’re giving up too much for too little. Sure, you might be so successful that the advance is huge and the recordings revert to you in a short period of time, but this is rare.
You need to do it yourself. You need to do everything yourself. At first keep your day job. If you or your friends and family can’t finance your operation you’re doing it wrong. Don’t borrow money from a bank or anyone who charges interest, don’t even borrow money from someone who expects to get it back. This is a long shot venture and you don’t want to be beholden to anybody. If you can’t make it work financially from the get-go, you’re doing it wrong, you just don’t want it bad enough.
When it comes to recordings… Sans hits, which are rare, recordings generate little income, why not take the lion’s share? Which you can do if you own and distribute yourself, via a third party like CD Baby, TuneCore, etc. Don’t be enticed to sign with an indie label. What the indie label says it will do it rarely does. The indie doesn’t have much cash, doesn’t want to spend it and doesn’t have enough personnel and wherewithal to hammer something again and again. Meanwhile, the indie will take most of the money that comes in and may even own the copyright.
Today’s markers of success are not the ones of the past. Record deals? You’re better off with a sold out gig.
10. DUES
You’re always paying them. Through your whole career. And now, if you get off the hamster wheel, you’re quickly forgotten. You’ve got to stay in the game, delivering all the while, making the most of new opportunities.
You can try and flush out new opportunities, but this is like writing and producing movies, they rarely come to fruition. This is the job of the manager, let the manager dedicate their time to this.
This is the ultimate goal. To not have to work a day job and be able to continue to play music until you die. If you’re in it to become a brand and to extend that brand into other areas, there are much easier ways to do this than music. Some don’t even require any talent, nor do they require a whole hell of a lot of dues. Look at the Kardashians, look at the influencers. And even actors. Music is the hardest way to make it. And people know this and treasure music in a way they do not treasure the purveyors of other art forms. The key is to touch people’s souls, and if you do this you’re on your way, and ultimately there will be enough money to provide. And you may not be a billionaire, but you have more sway over your audience than the billionaires. That’s the power of music. Focus on the music, that’s where your strength lies.

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