Becoming a rock star is possibly the number one dream of any teenager who has ever picked up a guitar. But the music business is no easy one to break into, the competition is tough and the countless number of aspiring bands makes becoming noticed almost impossible – or does it?

AS THE continued (and baffling) success of shows like X Factor and Pop Idol attests, not to mention the thousands of garage bands playing bad cover songs and trying to get gigs in their local bars, there are few industries which can compete with the music business for sheer allure. After all, who wouldn’t want to perform in front of adoring crowds, spend your days touring the world and making more money than you can shake a stick at? Along with the fantasy of breaking into movies, the goal of becoming a musical success story is one to which vast tracts of the populace aspire. Of course, for the vast majority of them, it will remain just that – a fantasy. So if you are an aspiring musician, what is the best way to get your foot in the door, and is there any sure-fire way to succeed?

Perhaps the main problem for wannabe musicians is that whatever they try to enter the business, someone else will have done it before them. Considering that record companies receive up to hundreds of demo CDs every day, making yourself noticed is a tricky proposition. Of course, there are more jobs available in the music industry than becoming the next Robbie Williams or Lady Gaga. Working with music for film, television, radio, advertising and so on is one alternative to becoming a superstar. A&R staff, publicists, marketers and many other professionals find roles for themselves within the industry. Perhaps naturally, however, for the average aspiring musician the goal is to release records and gain some of the trappings of fame. The problem arises when you actually have to make a living while trying to become successful.


So you’ve got a band and
a kick-ass demo. What’s

• Make sure the songs on
your demo are not only of
good quality but are also
good songs. One good song
that was recorded in your
kitchen is better than 20
mediocre songs recorded
in a high-end studio.

• Make your best song
the first song the record
company will hear, as they
often don’t listen to more
than one or two songs

Go ahead and send a
photo of yourselves, a
biography, and anything
else you can think of
to make you stand out
from the crowd. Drawing
attention to yourselves is
a good thing.

• Be professional. There’ll
be time to party at some
point, and you should
enjoy yourselves making
music, but you’ve still got
a job to do.

• Be polite. The music
business, especially in
Finland, is smaller than
you might think. One rude
conversation might come
back to haunt you.

• Get it in writing. When it
comes to any agreements
for anything, it’s better to
be safe than sorry.

• Listen. You’re almost
certainly not the first
person to try to do
whatever you’re trying to
do. Don’t assume that
since you have a massive
collection of CDs and
have read a few books
you know about the music
business. The people who
really get ahead are those
who learn from those who
went first.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

“It’s very important that you are there for the right reasons,” says songwriter and producer Erik Nyholm. “That you are doing music because that’s the only thing you want to do. Otherwise you won’t be there for long. Most of the time you will get rejected and you always need to prove yourself. There is a saying in the business: you are never bigger than your last hit.” Nyholm writes music for all kinds of projects depending on what artists, projects, commercials or TV shows are in need of, and has been playing music since the age of seven. For him, studying music at university was a good opportunity to get into the business. “I studied at Örnsköldsvik in Sweden where I got the chance to write songs 24/7 and meet a lot of people who were in the business,” he says. “After graduating I signed my first publishing deal and have been working professionally ever since.”

The role of music writer is, perhaps bizarrely, often little considered. The superstar who performs the piece takes all the glory, but – surprise, surprise – many famed singers don’t write their own songs. Some of Nyholm’s songs have been hits around the world, and he has worked with a wide range of well-known international artists. But a living doesn’t come easily. “The glamorous showbiz part depends on what exactly you are doing in the business, but in general I would say it’s really not that much glamour and especially not in the writing and producing that I’m doing. It’s a hard industry to break into. The competition is really tough – especially these days when you get a studio in a MacBook.”

One good thing about the record industry is that no matter what kind of music you are interested in, chances are there’ll be an interested record company and an audience for your music somewhere. The problem is producing something that no-one else has made before, or at least something that is different enough. “Record labels are not looking for copies, they want something unique, fresh and new,” says Nyholm.

Hannu Sormunen, Head of A&R at Universal Music Finland, concurs. “The record industry is constantly looking for fresh sounds and artists with a lot of personality and a story to tell,” he says. “An artist like Ville Valo from HIM is a perfect example of an A&R guy’s wet dream: a great looking, talented guy who creates a musical style of his own, in this case Love Metal, that includes great songs, an easily recognisable logo and visual concept, and stories with an edge. So the press loves to write about him every time a new album is released.”

Passion is the key

Since the financial stakes are high, one of the best things a potential musician can do is to prove to the companies that they have the enthusiasm and will to succeed. “From our point of view the best way to have the possibility of getting a record deal is simply by having talent as performers as well as songwriters, but obviously a new artist also has to have a lot of will-power, real passion for their art and at least some understanding of how the music business works,” Sormunen explains. “New artists should be prepared to do a lot of ground work by themselves: live shows, self-financed single or album releases, web and street promotion, talent competitions, etc. Instead of ‘pushing’ record companies, new artists should be able to generate so much interest that they will be ‘pulling’ A&R guys to sign them.”

Of course the work doesn’t stop when a band has been signed and the publicity machine kicks up a gear. “After signing an artist we start working on the basics: music, visuals, the whole package. During the A&R process a product manager is assigned to the project and she starts planning a marketing strategy. Depending on the project, promotion may start from day one (with an established artist) or we might want to progress slowly (with a baby act). When at least part of the ground work is done and we get positive feedback from media, audience and our clients, we will give the project a marketing budget and be prepared to spend more if the project flies. It is commonly known that the 80/20 rule applies also to the record business: 20 per cent of released records make 80 per cent of the profit and thereby support the whole artist roster. That’s why record companies are very careful in signing new artists.”

The aforementioned TV shows Pop Idol and X Factor can cause problems for record labels who do not sign the winners or runners-up of such shows, through causing essentially a publicity imbalance. “Talent shows have existed for decades, so in principle there’s nothing wrong with them,” Sormunen comments. “But in a small country such as Finland it is difficult for other artists to compete with pop artists who are basically conceived in TV shows. These artists are over-exposed in the media, so there’s simply not enough room for other pop artists or ‘serious’ artists, unless they are far more talented and considerably better in every aspect.”

Essentially, the thing to bear in mind is that the vast majority of acts will never be signed and can look forward only to endless gigging in local bars and small venues, if that. One silver lining is the increase over the past few years in the popularity of social media, which is useful both for artists – who can make their music widely available for minimal cost – and the labels – who can themselves search for and find potential new acts. This doesn’t mean that musicians can just sit back and wait for companies to get in touch. Sormunen comments, “We scan MySpace, YouTube, Mikseri.net, etc. all the time for new talent, but obviously it’s impossible to listen to everything on the web, so it’s really up to the new artists to make an impact so that people – including record company A&R guys – will find them.”

Nick Barlow