Going solo

Taking care of business: Insider tips for musicians

- July 18, 2023 4 MIN READ
Carlos Lara and Jimmy Young from Bootleg Rascal

Image: Carlos Lara (left) and Jimmy Young (right) from Bootleg Rascal.

Australia has no shortage of solo musical talent: Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins, Peter Andre (hey, he still counts!) … However, as we groove along and tap our feet to their sublime sounds, we also have to realise that these are musos living off their craft; in the same way an accountant, copywriter or graphic designer lives off theirs, writes Tom Valcanis.

Though we may associate rock and pop stars with high lives of red carpets and mansions, for most gigging musicians, it’s much like starting up any solo business. Plying your trade, getting your business affairs sorted, marketing yourself, and treading that line between artist and entrepreneur.

Music as a business: What musos need to know

Carlos Lara, one half of Banora Point, NSW’s eclectic electronic/indie rock/hip-hop band Bootleg Rascal and pizza shop owner – with a second shop opening later this year – says that any musician who wants to perform and make a living from it needs to approach it like starting and scaling a business.

“The first place is to just start gigging,” he says. “It’s tough at the start because you need to make a name for yourself. But once you do have money coming in, you have to treat it like a business. Your appearance fee isn’t beer money or whatever, it’s money for the band and the band is your business.”

He says that the money coming in needs to be used to grow; you need to ‘spend money to make money’.

“You can use that money to spend on posters, on getting merchandise (merch) printed, pushing the next event. Keeping that money as internal as possible is important. It’s hard at the start because no one knows who you are.

“Then you might get a bit of a following. You might start thinking, ‘Do I need a manager? Do I need an agent?’ When people [like venue owners] start asking you about those things, then you’ll know you need that kind of representation.”

Though many will balk at seeing ten to fifteen percent of their income fly toward a manager or agent, the same solo businessperson wouldn’t think twice about paying a virtual assistant, salesperson or bookkeeper – which is essentially what artists are paying for.

“You’re paying them to take care of the business end of music, which gives you more time to work on being an artist,” he says. “It’s easier to have someone else dealing with those people and can talk to them in a certain way, and perhaps be heavier-handed than you as a band member would. It’s good to have someone else be the bad guy, sometimes,” he laughs.

Making sure you get paid

Another aspect of being a muso is being paid what you’re worth. That means as a performer and as a recording artist.

“Getting on to APRA AMCOS straight away is always a good idea, because they’re the one collecting royalties on your behalf and paying them to you,” Carlos says. APRA AMCOS grants licences for live performance and broadcast of recorded work. About 85 per cent of all royalties goes back to artists after the organisation’s costs are covered.

“They have good resources for artists, are good for networking, and can help you out with a lot of industry bits and pieces,” says Carlos.

Merchandise, touring, and scaling

Though your music is your product, people also love getting a piece of it in the form of merch. That could be physical media (LPs or CDs – even cassettes!), t-shirts, hoodies, posters – almost anything you can think of.

“Merch is amazing for bands,” Carlos says. “All the profits you make from it, you keep for the most part. A t-shirt might cost $15 per piece to print, and you can sell it for $35 – that’s $20 profit per shirt.

“You shouldn’t overcommit to merch because you could print 100 t-shirts that might never sell. Always test your product in small runs. You can find t-shirt printers that might have overruns of different colours or sizes and you can get them for really cheap. That way you can maximise your profit margins.”

However, as your career gains momentum, it also means scaling your business. Bootleg doesn’t have to sell merch themselves; they could easily hire someone to do that for them.

“We finish a show and go straight to the merch desk because we like hustling merch. If you get a roadie or a merch slinger or whatever, that’s another bum in the van or plane seat that you have to pay for, a hotel room to pay for, another person to pay for their time,” he says. “You have to take that cost into consideration. Touring is good for promotion but in some cases, you might not break even. The bigger you get, the more money you’re spending.”

Don’t work for free (mostly)

Carlos says that you need to know the value of your work and the brand that you’re creating. “At the start, you might have to gig for free. Sometimes getting on a festival and playing for free is good exposure, like opening for some massive band at Brisbane’s Riverstage to 10,000 people. You can’t really pass that up. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis.

“But once you set a baseline, stick to it. If you’re getting $200 per gig, don’t go lower than that. If someone offers you $100, everyone in the industry talks and will demand that price. Don’t devalue your own brand when people are lowballing you. That’s when it takes a tumble.”

Remember: Don’t be a diva

Ultimately, good business comes down to relationships. This might be connecting with promoters, venues and other musos. Throwing your weight around after tasting a bit of success will give you a bad rep and tarnish your brand.

“It’s super important to stay humble throughout the whole process,” Carlos says. “I think it’s a privilege for anyone to write music for a living and have other people get into it. You shouldn’t ever take it for granted or let it go to your head.”

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