There comes a time for every artist when they make the decision to transition from viewing music as a hobby to trying to make an actual career for themselves. As with all industries, the independent artist’s success is highly dependent on the team they surround themselves with. While the size, composition and complexity of each team varies from artist to artist, the fact remains that knowing when and how to effectively build your team is one of the most important steps in ensuring a successful career in music.
Before we dive in, here are some things to know before building your team
1) Start with the people who believe in you
Rather than starting off by considering what aspects of your team to put in place, you should look at who is already in place that believes in you and your music. As Jesse Cannon and Todd Thomas, authors of the ‘DIY Guide to the New Music Business,’ write, “everyone has to be on the same page and doing a good job for you to be successful, so you want to find team members who are as excited and talented as you are.” You can have the best agent, most connected manager, and most experienced publicist, but if they don’t truly believe in your music, you’ll oftentimes get put on the back burner and not truly be as successful as you’d want. Even a friend who’s looking to break into the booking industry, for example, and loves what you do and is passionate about building both your career as well as their own -- can take you a lot further than say, getting lost on a huge roster at a major agency.
2) Take your time and know your goals
Another good rule of thumb is that it makes more sense to bring on team members as various needs arise rather than bringing on an entire team at once. Looking at who you have already in your corner is a good place to start, but also keep these two questions in mind:
- What do you need help with?
- What are your long-term goals as an artist?
For instance, if you’re a performing artist and you have a lot of different requests coming in. You are struggling to keep up with the business and logistics in all corners of your career and you want to continue to grow in that direction, with a need for help in all areas. It probably makes sense to look for a manager who will work on a percentage of all your income.
Conversely, if you’re you a busy songwriter that gets cuts and placements regularly, but can’t keep up with the administrative side of registering your work and you know that you really only ever want to primarily be songwriting, then hiring a manager that is a generalist and takes 15% of everything might not make sense. It’d make more sense for you to seek out a publishing, licensing or admin partner who specializes in what you need help with and will only take a portion of your songwriting income.
In sum, it usually makes more sense to build a team slowly, depending on your needs and goals. Give it time. Usually if you seek the right partner and you both have a clear understanding and vision for what your working relationship will accomplish, that partner will help you in putting the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together.
Okay, so what are all the types of team members I can seek out .. and when is the right time?
While each artist has different needs, there are a couple key players to keep in mind while building your team. Below is a rundown of some different types of team members you could bring on to help you throughout your career. Along with some advice on when it might be time to hire them, what to expect and how they are typically compensated.
When it’s time: There is a clear breaking point when an artist truly needs management, but that’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t find a manager sooner than that. As to when an artist might “need” a manager - it’s smart to wait until the point where you literally can’t manage your own career anymore. If you’ve got too many emails, phone calls, contracts to negotiate, tours to navigate and merch to sell to keep it all straight, then it might be time to bring someone on. Ideally, at that point you’re also generating a decent amount of income, enough to justify adding someone into the fold.
However, if you’re just cutting your teeth in the industry and have a friend or even a big shot manager who approaches you with interest, it certainly can’t hurt to entertain the idea. Just remember: this relationship is the most important relationship in your career. Traditionally, managers get a cut of all your income and are involved in every aspect of your career. You can date around when it comes to marketing companies or PR or even booking agents, but your manager is like your spouse. Sure, you can change managers at any point, but it’s much more like a divorce than a casual break up. So, choose wisely. Make sure you’re both in it for the long haul & the right reasons.
What to expect: All managers work differently, but you should reasonably expect to be in regular contact with your manager multiple times per week, maybe even everyday depending on how busy you are. If your career is your corporation, you are the president but your manager is the CEO. They will have a hand in everything - but only if you let them. A good management relationship involves mutual trust and respect, and widely open lines of communication.
How they get paid: Managers generally will take a percentage of your total income (off the top), averaging at 15%, although some may take less or more. Some managers charge a flat fee, and operate more on a contract basis where you can come and go - but be careful with those deals, and just make sure you know exactly what you’re getting out of the deal. A third option is to seek out individuals who do management consulting on an hourly basis, or some other small commitment. This can be a great way to learn more about what a manager can do for you.
Music Marketing Companies
When it’s time: Okay, maybe we’re a little biased, but putting your music and content out there and trying to get some traction is probably every artist’s #1 priority, and marketing companies are designed to do just that. In terms of timeline in your career, there’s really no bad time to bring a marketing team or individual on, if you can afford it.
Ideally, however, you will want to make sure you have something to work with. A new release is ideal as well as quality content (or the budget to create it with their guidance). Investing in a marketing company without anything for them to work with can be a frustrating experience for all parties involved, not to mention a waste of your precious resources.
What to expect: Expect to have a partner in your corner to help with creative strategies to promote your work, as well as someone who is an expert in executing those strategies, whether paid or organic. With data-heavy marketing companies such as Venture, you can also expect valuable insights into your audience that can be scaled up and used effectively later on. You might not hear from them every day, but expect at least weekly reporting, and regular check-ins as outlined in your deal.
How they get paid: Whether it’s a marketing firm or an individual freelancer, marketers are either fee or percentage based. Fee-based will take a monthly fee for a set number of months (plus you will need to cover the cost of any ads), while percentage-based firms take a percentage of your total ad spend. Ie: you have $5000 this month to spend on a youtube ad, the company takes $500 and spends the other $4500 on the ad. Note that to get into the territory where you’re just paying a percentage of what you spend on an ad budget, you will need to be spending sometimes $10k+ per month for a good chunk of time on advertisements. So, for smaller budgets, a fee-based model usually makes the most sense.
When it’s time: When you have an album release or something significant to promote on the horizon, you might consider hiring a publicity firm or individual. A publicist can work on a record, a series of singles, a tour or some other notable event, but before you bring on a professional, you should have at least some history of press or some other “hook.” Publicists have relationships and can help get your foot in the door, but can only do so much without something like a history or past support from an outlet, or a big label signing, a big producer on board or something else news or noteworthy.
What to expect: Expect a three month commitment at minimum. Although there are exceptions to this rule, for the most part, a publicist needs time to build your story and pitch, and anything less than three months won’t give them that. In terms of expected outcomes: expect the unexpected. PR campaigns are notoriously difficult to predict. Sometimes with the best, most expensive publicist in the world, you won’t get anything and with someone just starting out, your story will take off and you’ll be doing an interview every other day. Keep reasonable expectations. Plan to stay on top of your PR team with regular check ins and follow ups and keep in mind that of all the places you can spend your money. This is potentially the biggest gamble.
How they get paid: Independent publicists and firms work on a retainer basis and you usually agree up front to commit to a certain length of time. Independent music publicity campaigns can run anywhere from $500-1000 / month to $10k / month and upwards. There are absolutely scrappy upstarts that might crush it for $500 / month .. but generally, in terms of reach of a publicist’s network - you get what you pay for.
When it’s time: Frankly, it’s time for a booking agent when you’re making consistent money playing shows. That’s not to say that you can’t find a smaller agency or someone who might be willing to build their career alongside yours at an earlier stage. But don’t expect the big agencies to come knocking unless you’ve got some decent history OR you’ve got something in the works that is super promising (ie: you’ve never played a show before but Billie Eilish wants you to open her worldwide tour). Don’t fret, though - you just have to do the work and book yourself to build your touring profile. If you build it, they will come.
What to expect: Expect to work closely with your booking agent, or ideally for your management to work closely with your booking agent to book shows and tours a minimum 4-5 months out. Don’t expect a booking agent to be able to magically get you opening slots, though - those almost always come from relationships that the artist or manager or label has. So, keep up that shmoozing and keep your agent / manager in the loop when you do make a new friend, for them to connect the dots.
How they get paid: Agents take a commission off the top of all your shows (usually whether they book them or not if it’s exclusive), averaging about 10%.
Record Labels or Independent Distribution
When it’s time: This is another one similar to management, in that there’s a time when hopping to a label makes sense, but it’s also never too early if one comes along and is interested. You’ll know it’s time to either seek out a record deal or find distribution support for your independent releases (see: ‘Serviced Distribution Companies’ section in this article) when you’ve hit a plateau with your records’ performance at retail, are hitting a wall creatively on how to market yourself or, plainly, just need some cash to help level up.
If you’ve got a decent sales history and strong Spotify follower numbers and are ready to up your game on your next release, that’s a good time to seek out a label deal (or consider taking the one that might have found you already). However, if you’re a brand new band and someone you know is starting a label or even an established label approaches you - explore that idea! Just make sure to have a lawyer review the deal before signing anything. And if there is no deal on paper for a lawyer to review - proceed with caution, and make sure you know 100% what you’re getting into.
What to expect: What to expect really depends greatly on the circumstances. If you’re a brand new artist signed to a small independent, what you can expect from your label deal and team will vary greatly from a seasoned independent artist signing to an established label. Ultimately, though, you should expect regular, proactive communication, lots of advanced planning and solid marketing support. If you’re not getting that, it may be time to look elsewhere.
How they get paid: Label deals are also quite varied, but the baseline is they get paid a percentage of your record income. Some will outright own your masters and publishing forever, some might just license your masters for 10 years and not participate in publishing at all. The biggest thing to note here is - if they’re offering to front any money, whether it be an advance payable to you or marketing funds, that money will almost always need to be recouped (aka 100% of your record income is payable to them) before you start to see any dividends.
Music Publishers or Sync Licensing Teams
When it’s time: Once you’ve got a solid catalog of music, preferably with some history of sync placements, co-writes or maybe even other artists recording your songs - it might be time for a publisher. There are a variety of types of publishing deals. This article does a great job detailing some and Music Connection has this deep-dive into the traditional publishing deal’s close cousin, the sync deal.
What to expect: A publisher can help administer your catalog, and keep all the technical stuff in order, but can also help you reach the next level, often pairing you with other writers and pitching your work to other artists and music supervisors for placements in tv, film and advertising. On the spectrum of deals, if you have a full-on publishing deal and are a writer full-time, this relationship might be someone you communicate with on a weekly or even daily basis. On the other end of the spectrum, however, say a non-exclusive sync deal, you might only check in occasionally when you have new music or press to share, and might only hear from them when / if they have an offer for you.
How they get paid: Publishing deals will take a percentage of income, but vary to greatly to even estimate percentages. Sync deals are generally 20-30% of any sync licenses that come in, although can go up to 50% (those are usually non-exclusive, meaning that if you secure your own license, you don’t have to pay them).
When it’s time: Do you have a new record coming out and / or are you going on tour (whenever that is a thing again)? Having a combination of the two is a great time to bring on independent radio promotion. Independent radio support can sometimes be easier to get than traditional publicity. Provided you have the right promoter and are working the right format. In our experience, it’s also one of the last few areas of the industry that seemingly places less weight on press or social media following or Spotify numbers, and will give anything a chance as long as it’s good and the right person recommends it. So, it’s never too early to give it a shot - but you will fare much better if you have some tour dates over the life of the campaign. Stopping into a radio station to even just say hello will go a long way towards building the relationships with those stations and getting more spins.*
*Note that we’re not talking about country or commercial radio here - that’s a whole other ballgame and likely not the best move for an independent artist.
What to expect: Expect to plan a campaign at least a couple of months in advance of a release and / or tour, and for the campaign to last at least 1-2 months, if not more. You’ll want to keep your radio promoter in the loop with anything you’ve got going on that could help their pitching efforts, but don’t expect to have daily check ins with them. You should expect to receive at least weekly reports during an active campaign, and hear from them regularly regarding opportunities they are pitching for.
How they get paid: Radio promoters will charge a flat fee for a campaign, usually dependent on how many formats they are working (ex: college only vs college, non-comm and Americana). Some radio promoters will give a fee for “life of record” which means they will actively pitch for spins and opportunities during a certain period of time surrounding the release, but will keep the record on their roster indefinitely, pitching it for opportunities and responding to requests as they arise.
Tour Management, Audio Engineers and Other Tour Support
When it’s time: When you have a significant enough number of tour dates and prospective guaranteed income that you can reasonably afford to bring on staff members. Finding a tour manager who can also run sound is a bonus, but keep in mind - a big way that tour managers can make up their salary in the early days is to sell merchandise while you’re on stage. So, depending on how much more merchandise you can sell by bringing on an extra team member, you may be able to afford someone sooner than you think.
What to expect: A good tour manager will start advancing shows and prepping a month or two out from the start of the tour. Ideally, they gather up & communicate all of the info that’s needed for every show, handle accommodations, day-of meals and anything else you and your band might need on the road. They are the point of contact for all venues, will settle up financials, handle merch and should have a handle on every aspect of the tour. They’re the hub, and as an artist you will be completely in their hands on the road. Make sure you can trust them and that they will be able to confidently and competently handle all communications and finances.
How they get paid: Tour staff usually get paid a flat fee, whether it’s per show, per day (whether there’s a show or not) or per tour.
So that’s the round-up. As you can see, there’s a variety of individuals and companies you can and will bring on as your career grows. You should always be evaluating these branches of your team, and know what you’re getting into before you sign. And keep in mind that you can get out at any time, and you should exercise that right if you feel you’re not getting the most out of a relationship.
The most important thing to remember, however, when building your team as an artist is that you will only get out what you put in. Never go into any working relationship expecting someone to be more invested in your career than you are. You will have the most success if you approach every relationship as a partnership, remain engaged and curious, and bring to it as much as you expect to get out of it.