The 411 on the music industry: how to find your place in it

By Benita Aalto (photo of Tanya Tagaq performing at the Indspire awards)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Q: How do you get a musician off your porch?
A: Pay him for the pizza.

Or how about this one:

Two people were walking down the street: one was a musician, the other didn’t have any money either.

Those gormless jokes aside, you may also think that, if you want to be in the music business, you should prepare yourself for a life of pizza-delivery and penury.
And it can be difficult to see any alternative, particularly when so many stars are discovered in their teens and turned into global brands before they hit their 20s. (If Jay-Z hasn’t discovered you by now, it’s probably over, right?)
Not necessarily.
“Not everyone will be a Rihanna. But there are countless artists making a living doing what they love,” says Stuart Johnson, president of the Canadian Independent Music Association, a not-for-profit trade organization whose members include record producers, labels, and other independent music industry professionals.
“First and foremost, you have to have a passion for it. You have to be able to weather the feast or famine days,” says Johnson, who also points out that half of CIMA’s members are sole proprietorships, and most have five or fewer employees. When a small shop is competing against multi-national corporations, they have to be willing to look beyond the traditional definition of what a record label does, so they can reach audiences effectively.
Illustrating his point about the importance of diversification, Johnson cites the example of Toronto-based Six Shooter Records which not only releases music, but also programs the annual Interstellar Rodeo music festival, which comes to Edmonton in July, and Winnipeg on Aug. 14 to 16. “Six Shooter also signed [Inuk throat singer] Tanya Tagaq, who is a departure for them but who has done very well.”
But first, a reality check: “Just because you can record music doesn’t mean you should”
“I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours theory, that people need to put in ten thousand hours to master their craft,” says Alan Greyeyes, the Aboriginal Music Development Coordinator of Music Manitoba’s Aboriginal Music Program. “Good music matters the most. With so many people competing now, it’s hard to rise above the noise.”
The idea that you can record music on your MacBook, release it on iTunes, then shoot a video on your iPad, upload it to YouTube and become a globally connected star is more an Apple ad fantasy than how it actually shakes out in real life.
“Technology has made making music much more accessible, but just because you can record music, doesn’t mean you should,” says Johnson. “The industry has changed since the 80s and 90s. It’s not a dollars business now; it’s a pennies business. You have to find a lot of streams of pennies to make a decent living.”
Where do these pennies come from? In addition to the usual suspects like royalties from radio play and iTunes sales, there’s also song placement in movies, TV and video games.
Niiko Soul, a 23 year-old singer, songwriter and producer, has been working full-time as a musician for the past six years. He gets most of his sales through iTunes and works other angles, too. ”We just sent out my latest single through DMDS, which is a digital radio distributor for Canada and the USA. It was my first time using it, and the response so far has been great.”
Soul is quick to say that his job doesn’t end once the single has dropped. “It’s not as easy as just sending it out there: once the song is sent off, it’s up to you to follow up through the tracking process. When I follow up with radio personnel, I treat it as an opportunity to form relationships.”
Soul has also taken on other projects, like composing a custom score for an educational video project, producing songs for a web series, mixing and mastering other artists’ recordings, and performing as a guest musician in studio and in concert.
“There are a lot of misconceptions as to what having a career in the music business means,” says Soul. “But there are thousands of people working in the industry every day who are not Rihanna or Taylor Swift.”
“There is always opportunity,” agrees Johnson. “But you have to love the music and, in Canada, you have to learn how to do a lot of grant-writing.”
Nothing is more Canadian than writing a grant proposal
You may be eligible to apply for a number of local, regional or national grants to cover the costs of recording, touring, or professional development. Check out, or the “Music Funding Organizations” page on, to name only two. But don’t stop there.
“Going to websites is very passive,” says Greyeyes. “You need to get engaged. You can call Manitoba Music, for example, and say, ‘I’m trying to put together a tour. Where can I get funding?’“
You should also consider becoming a member of Manitoba Music: a mere $50 a year gives you access to Manitoba Music resource centre where you can use their computers or have a quiet desk to work. You will also get your own profile page, access to downloads like the Manitoba media guide, and contract templates, as well as the chance to have one-on-one consultations with staff, who can help navigate the grant-writing process.
(And if you’re not based in Manitoba, don’t despair: your province or territory probably has its own music industry association. The FACTOR website has a great industry links page with that info. Go to:
A credit card is not a business plan
Greyeyes notes that, even with a successful grant application, you may not see the money right away. Some touring grants, for example, disburse the funds after the tour is completed. Since the main source of a performer’s revenue is often live performance, this is a particularly sensitive area, as musicians need to be able to hit the road, which means being able to take the financial risks that come with touring.
Tour expenses can include, at a minimum, renting a van, paying for motels, meals, and gas and allowing for any other costs that can unexpectedly materialize. Many novices would consider simply putting everything on a credit card. But is that the best idea?
According to a recent report from Equifax, you might want to think twice: we Canadians love our credit, and have racked up an average debt load of $20,861 – and that number doesn’t even include having a mortgage. Ouch.
Does that sound like your financial situation? If it does, you might need to bolster your financial literacy: Manitoba Music has offered a DIY Series of professional development workshops on topics like bookkeeping and cash-flowing a tour, for example. Check out to see their latest offerings.
And finally… do your best, but don’t wait for the big break
As much as you will work, network, and multi-task to successfully bring your music to the marketplace, there is a point at which luck takes over, i.e. what happens is out of your control. It can be extremely discouraging when you have a clear plan for how your career should proceed, but reality refuses to conform to it.
“I was always upset that I wasn’t at the end goal yet, and I held that against myself every day. It wasn’t a healthy or productive way of thinking,” admits Soul. “When you work in what can be a shallow business, where everybody’s looking for “one big break” to change their lives, it took a while to embrace the idea of enjoying the journey, but I feel like I have finally gotten to a point where I have.”
“I understand that every step leads to the next. That’s what excites me now, more than whatever the end of all this may be. I love my life and work now. “
You can see Niiko Soul and Tanya Tagaq perform on the 2015 Indspire Awards on Global TV and APTN on June 19. Check local listings.

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