How Do I Plan For A Successful Music Career?

Ritch Esra shares valuable advice on how to plan for a long and successful music career.


Since 1992, Ritch Esra and Stephen Trumbull have been running the Music Business Registry which includes The A&R Registry, The Publisher Registry, The Music Business Attorney Registry, The Record Producer Directory and The Film and Television Music Guide.

Ritch started out as a promotion coordinator for A&M Records in Los Angeles in 1980-81. He coordinated releases with radio stations as well as the national field staff, providing promotional prerelease information on what competitive stations are playing, informing stations on status on how a record was selling and overcoming objections and resistance to broadcasting new releases. He also ensured that all field staff had product and took care of any product needs for radio stations.

Visit Ritch’s Speaker Page


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Welcome to our Cartne video titled How to Plan for a Successful Music Career. Our guest is Ritch Esra.

Hi. My name is Ritch Esra. I am the publisher of the Music Business Registry. We are one of the premiere companies that publishes contact information for the music industry. For record labels and our music publishers. Music attorneys, artists managers and film and television music supervision. We have been in business now for 31 years. I have a 43 year background in the music industry.

I’ve been in radio promotion. I was an A&R at Arista for many years, and I have taught courses in the music business for I guess it’s 36 years now, and I continue to teach at the musicians Institute here in Los Angeles.

So what would you say are the most common mistakes that artists make as they start to get serious about their careers?

I think some of the most common mistakes artists make are that they don’t think it through. They don’t think of the really big question, which is, is this going to be my life? Am I committed to being an artist as a way of life? And I think that that’s a very important point in 20, 22 and I’ll tell you why, because in this day and age, the amount of music and the difficulty in being an independent artist or being an artist at all is extremely difficult.

It’s much more difficult than it even was ten years ago. And that is because the barrier to entry for artists has been reduced to almost nothing. Anybody can put music up there. Anybody, you know, there are no more gatekeepers. That’s sort of the funny thing to artists today. There are no more gatekeepers. That’s the good news. The bad news.

There are no more gates. And what that means is that anybody you know, you or your neighbor can put music out on the Internet. The real challenge today as an artist is how do you bring attention to what you do? That’s the key element. And I think that’s the big mistake that people make. Artists when considering this as a career are not giving that enough thought.

And you have to really understand this is a way of life. It’s not just, you know, well, I’ll give this a year or two. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go drive a truck. It’s a way of life. And I think you need to view it as that. If you’re going to have a career in a band or have a career as an artist of any kind, I think that’s that’s the number one mistake that I see artists making is that they haven’t really given it enough thought because this isn’t some sort of project.

It’s it’s, you know, hopefully you’re if you’re serious it’s going to be your career. It’s going to be what your life is about. So that’s what I would say would be the number one thing that I think is probably the most important element or the biggest mistake that I think artists make.

I find that many artists have a challenge because they don’t think one, three, five years down the road, where do I want to be? What do I want my career to look like? And even if they do have an inkling of what that looks like, they don’t know what to do to put things in place so that they can actually make it a reality. Do you find the same thing?

I totally agree with you. And that’s called vision. And that is something that any manager, any publisher, any executive is going to look to, to you, the artist or the band to have. I remember an interview that I once read with Mike Carron, who’s the head of APG who was one of the heads of air at Atlantic for many, many years.

And he said when he met Kanye West, when Kanye West was just starting out, he wasn’t even making he hadn’t even made his first record yet. He knew the names of his that of his first three albums. I mean, he knew that in advance. He really had a vision like what you’re talking about, that he really had an idea and a vision for what the career was going to be.

That he wanted. And I think that that’s a very important point, learning the business, learning what it is that you want to do in this industry. It’s never been easier. You don’t even have to leave your home as an artist to learn this today. It’s available to you but you have to be committed to learning it and learning, like you said, what it takes to do that.

Learning about publishing, learning about, you know, the different steps and the commitments that you want in your career. Very, very important.

Right. When an artist doesn’t learn the business, they often get ripped off or scammed. They also leave money on the table along the same lines. Many artists get stuck because they don’t know all the options that are available to them. You have to know what the options are so you can choose the right path.

I completely agree. And that takes a commitment to learning about your chosen career path. You wouldn’t go into, you know, the shoe business without learning about shoes. You can’t go into the music business without learning about the industry that you want to make your career in. And again, I say this for people who are serious about this as a career, not as a hobby, not as something well, I like to do this a couple of times a year and dress up and do a show for my friends and family.

That’s fine. But if this is to be your career, if this is to be your life, like you said, then you do have to make that commitment to learn all about this business. And as we were discussing just a few minutes ago, it’s so radically changing. And on that note, Vinnie, I think the most important thing for artists to know is that the expectation that the business has for the independent artists today is so much greater.

In years past, there were a lot of systems and infrastructure in place to take an artist who was talented, who was a talented songwriter, a talented performer, and build a career around them. That era is gone. It doesn’t exist anymore. And now if you look at the industry as a paradigm of between one and a hundred zero and a hundred, let’s say you have to basically take your career to like 40 or 45 before a manager or a label or a publisher is going to take interest in you.

The idea that you’re just an incredibly talented writer or performer and someone’s going to just do this for you. That era has ended. It ended about ten, 15 years ago when the whole business went to digital because the whole economic model of the industry changed. We’re now in an era where for the very first time in our history and over 120 years, we’re not selling something.

We are selling access. We don’t have an object anymore to sell music. So it changed the paradigm entirely. And the responsibility of the artist to build their career and start their career is becoming immense. I can’t emphasize that enough, which is why I’m so glad you’re doing what you’re doing, because artists need to know the majority of the responsibility at the beginning of their career is on them.

And if this is not something that you’re wanting to do or willing to do, please find another profession because you will be terribly disappointed. The idea that someone’s going to come along and do this all for you is a delusion. And I see too many artists today who think that way or think it’s all about just music or songs or and, you know, and it’s very interesting because I don’t know any other profession or any other areas of business in modern culture today where people have notions of what it was like 15, 20 years ago, but not the notions of what the reality is today.

But I see that again and again in music, especially for people who are starting out. And the contrast to that video is that never before has it been easier for artists to learn from people like yourself, from from magazines, from the Internet, from videos, from publications that they don’t even have to pay for They will come to them in the comfort of their own home, but they must be committed to learning this.

If they’re not. Please find yourself another profession. It’s very difficult today. And, you know, attention is the greatest challenge that we have. And the reason attention is the most valuable commodity in the world we live in today as an artist is because it’s something that can’t be bought anymore. It can’t be bought if you’re Disney. It can’t be bought if you’re Warner Brothers or Sony.

It can’t be bought if you’re Johnny and the Joneses. It’s not something that can be bought. We from the time our eyes open in the morning until they shut at night every day, all of us in this world Think of how many times a mother, a brother, a father, a sister, a husband, a wife, a boyfriend, girlfriend, a text message, an email, a website, something, a blog, something somewhere is demanding our attention.

And how many things do we give it to? And for how long? And you begin to see how difficult it is to check my song out. Come to my show. Buy my album. It’s a real challenge. And I say that it doesn’t matter if you’re Disney or Sony with nine digit budgets for four, marketing attention can no longer be bought in the culture that we live in.

And if you don’t believe me, ask any of the major labels. They’ll tell you straight out.

I tell artists that no one has ever been paid for just their talent. You get paid to sell tickets, to sell drinks, to get people to buy your merch, to buy your music. There are countless extremely talented rock singers and musicians out there who find them all over social media. The reason they’re not making money is because they have never added that commercial component to their careers.

Yeah, that’s true. And, you know, it’s interesting because what is commercial? Commercial is a term that basically refers to what it is that connects? What is it that connects? With, with, with the culture, with people. And you know, what’s fascinating about the area we’re talking about, which is music and artists and musical artists is that I believe that that has really shifted.

I mean, as I said at the beginning, I’ve been in the business for 43 years, and one of the big things I’ve seen in this particular arena that we’re just discussing is how in the past I think the element of music and musicality and your songs mattered a lot more in connecting with an audience than it does today.

What I mean by that is that I think about your personal narrative, who you are, where you’re coming from, what you’re about, what you stand for, what you don’t stand for, why I should give you my attention, why I should care. These are the kinds of things that I think an audience culture today, whether we’re conscious of them or not, really need to understand.

When you look at Harry Styles, it’s not just because he has smash hit songs. It’s because all of those other factors that I mentioned are present. And he has connected with an audience based on those. Or if you look at people like the 1975, which is a rock band, or you look at people like Frank Ocean, these people don’t have hit records.

They have no Spotify presence, relatively speaking, to a big hit artist. But you can’t get a ticket to their show. You cannot get a ticket to see these people live because they’re completely sold out. What’s that about? It’s about all those other factors that I was speaking about. It’s about connecting with an audience on a value basis. It’s about giving people a sense of who you are and not being afraid of that.

And, and I say this to a very specific point, which is that if artists today do not want to reveal who they are, what they are, where they’re coming from, what’s important to them, I don’t know that you can really make a significant impact as an artist in terms of launching a career today. And more independent artists are having careers today that you and I and the rest of the people watching this have never heard of.

And that’s a fantastic thing. You don’t have to be beyond say or at that giant level of Justin Bieber to be popular anymore or to even make a living. And there are plenty of artists, as you well know, Vinnie, who are making livings, decent livings, who are not on People magazine, who don’t have hit singles that they have managed to connect with an audience.

And that’s what I think is what is connecting them to an audience today. So there’s been a shift over the last 15 years. The Internet has had a lot to do with it. Technology had a lot to do with it. And most importantly, I think in the culture that we live in today, the value of music and the access to it has profoundly shifted our criteria of what we will and won’t connect with.

And I believe that’s the same in media culture as a whole. I think it’s the same in television. I mean, look at that. My God, if we ever saw it. I mean, you and I grew up in an era with three channels, ABC CBS and NBC, and everybody had a common connection to that one newspaper per town. Now we live in an era with infinite choices.

I have friends at Netflix. They can’t even tell you how much stuff is on that channel. I mean, that’s the world we’re living in today where there’s so much. So my point is not to complain about it, but to say that reality has completely shifted the criteria of what people connect with and why.

Today, fans want to get to know the artist first. Then they’ll listen more deeply to the songs.

Absolutely. I totally agree with you. And we’re seeing much wider even if we want to go on just the big popular stars that have made it. You see those points that you just made very accurately, whether it’s a Lizzo or whether it’s an Arie on Ariana Grande Day or whether it’s a What’s Her Name or Cardi B or any of these artists who espouse who they are and they’re not afraid of that.

The most deadly thing I can think of is an artist who has nothing to say, who’s just neutral. I don’t know that artists can connect with anyone or anything today. Not in the era that we’re in today. You know, we’re just getting by with just being entertaining. It doesn’t cut it today. It doesn’t cut it and movies don’t cut it on television.

And it certainly doesn’t cut it in music. As you mentioned, you know, in an era when we have so much.

Are there any other challenges, your mistakes? You see artists having trouble with.

I think that those fundamental elements of, you know, work ethic having, you know, thinking about your commitment to this, those It’s not that they’re mistakes. It’s that I think that, you know, you need to be thinking about these things before proceeding on a career and looking at yourself and really being honest and saying, do I have the work ethic?

Do I have that level of commitment to spend years building, building, building, because it doesn’t happen in 20 minutes? And for those instances that you can point to where somebody had a career very, very quickly, nine times out of ten, as you well know, that career ended just as quickly where it was like an event and then it went away. It’s like the person who has, you know, a gigantic debut.

Very few people in history ever can sustain that. It’s, you know, this is a marathon it’s not it’s not a race. It’s not an event. The idea is to have a long term career. And whether you’re the Rolling Stones or Barbra Streisand or, you know, any you know, Madonna, it doesn’t matter who the artist is. They’ve all had ups and downs.

But the idea is that they’ve had a career, a long career. Sometimes it was you know, they were at the top and other times they weren’t. And that’s the commitment. I think, you know, if you say mistakes, it’s that’s the thing I think most artists need to be thinking of when they’re getting into this. Do I really have the drive and the desire?

Is this the most important thing in my life? And if it’s not, then try to think of what is the most important thing in your life and commit your time, energy and focus to that. You need to be honest about that with yourself. You know, I think that’s true with any area of the arts.

Being a filmmaker, a writer or a recording artist, this is a life. It’s a life. It’s not a well, if I do one, two, three and four, OK, that’s over with. Now, I can be you know, it doesn’t work like that. So that’s my advice on that.

This concludes our video titled How to Plan for a Successful Music Career. We’d like to thank Ritch Esra for sharing his valuable experience and insights with us.

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