Six Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started as an Artist

A month ago, Big Cats posted this great breakdown of how artists get press attention. It got me thinking more about other elements of the grind, and even though I’m not exactly the most famous artist in the world, I do make a living with it, so I figured I’d share a few things I’ve learned. Of course, everyone’s situation is different, but hopefully some of of this can apply to you, whether you’re an MC, poet, singer/songwriter or whatever.

I released a lot of material before I was really any good. And “good” means a lot of things– your straight-up ability and talent, the quality of your collaborators, access to decent recording and mixing technology, a general understanding of how to put out music, a developed worldview or personal philosophy and much more. A lot of artists throw the first ten songs they ever wrote in their life on a CD and send it off to make a thousand copies or post it online (where it could very well exist forever) without a second thought (or proper mixing).

So I’m just saying: take that second thought. I’d never dream of discouraging people from creating or being artists, but know that whatever your first project is, it could be better. Don’t rush to release it. You only get one debut, and if you know how to hustle, you may even get that debut heard by a lot of people. So take your time with it. Find a mentor or a circle of other artists who will give you honest, informed feedback. Release a single or two first to build anticipation. Play a ton of shows. Invest in creating a quality piece of art, even if that means not going out with your friends for a month so you can save the money to book time at a professional studio.

And sure, there’s a lot you can learn from making mistakes, paying dues, and just getting out there and doing it. But there’s also a lot you can learn from just asking people who already know.

Obviously, you can be both. And obviously, talent is important. Without an understanding of your craft, you’re not going to have much of a career. Even if you want to break rules, it generally helps to know what they are first. I’m not saying that your ability doesn’t matter at all; what I’m saying is that there are already thousands upon thousands of “talented” people out there.

So your job, as an artist, is not to be “yet another talented artist.” Your job is to bring something new and valuable and powerful to the conversation. “Hot beats and hot bars” shouldn’t be the end goal– it should be the basic foundation.

Obviously, write from the heart, create whatever you want; that’s step one. But step two is packaging that expression in a way that is engaging– strive to be creative, to stand out from the crowd. It’s one thing to get an audience to nod their heads and applaud for you. It’s something else to get them to really think about what you said on the drive home, or buy your album online, or actively spread the word to their friends about you. That’s all about being memorable– maybe you write songs about topics that haven’t already been addressed a million times. Maybe your stage show incorporates theater or costumes or whatever. Maybe you go above and beyond in terms of reaching out to your fans and being available to them. Maybe your show flyers are funny or weird. Maybe you have high-concept music videos. It could be a lot of things, but it’s all worth thinking about.

The popular wisdom is that “the grind” is just part of being an artist. You have to get in a van and travel around the country playing shows to not even break even. You have to email a thousand blogs to get a single post of your new song. You have to hand out a hundred flyers to get one person to come to your show.

Or maybe you don’t have to. The world is very different now than it was a decade ago. Yes, you still have to work your ass off to make it, but you have to be very intentional about what that “work” is. Is it really worth your time to go on tour when no one knows who you are and no one will come to your shows, or can you focus on building a local base? Is going into debt to press up copies of your new CD really the best option, or can you do a digital release? Do you have to quit your day job and lose that health insurance to follow your dreams, or can you balance your job with your passion? We romanticize the struggling indie artist, but these are all important questions.

Understand digital distribution. Understand where the money is (hint: it’s probably not at an endless string of small-town dive bars). Understand how your local music media works and how the national music media works. Diversify what you do, so you can make money in different ways (maybe you rap, and produce, and facilitate writing workshops, and design websites, and sketch album covers for people). Understand how to use social media to your advantage– it’s not enough to just post a video on YouTube and walk away– you have to cultivate it, spread the word, make connections. It’s not enough to just have a Twitter account or Facebook fan page. You have to research how these tools work and make them work for you.

Related to that last point, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to “have your shit together.” So many young artists have all the talent in the world, and are totally willing to work hard, hand out flyers, be in the studio all day, etc., but just don’t have any grasp on the bigger picture.

For example, if you want to get heard, don’t just record an album, release it and move on. Act strategically. Sit down as you’re writing the album to think about your timeline and release plan. Maybe you have a six-month period in which you finish the writing, recording, artwork and manufacturing, schedule a video shoot or two, figure out when you’re going to send stuff to local media and when you’re going to send stuff to national media, plan how you’re going to release the first single, plan what the CD release party will look like and how you’ll promote it, think about how to build a buzz before the release, and a million other things. Yeah, it’s work. But it’s work that actually pays off.

Similarly, have a six-month plan for AFTER you put the album out. Too many artists make something brilliant and then immediately move on to the next thing. If you believe in your work, then you owe it to yourself to get it heard by as many people as possible. An album can continue to live on– through new music videos for old songs, remixes, in-depth track breakdowns on your blog, strategic live performances, tours, or any number of other ideas.

Finally: keep a calendar, whether on your phone or one of those little ones you can carry around. You may not be super busy right now, but eventually, if you do things right, it’s going to be a whirlwind of shows, possible shows, studio dates, interviews, writing sessions, meetings and more. Stay on top of things, don’t burn out, and DON’T BE A FLAKY ARTIST. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.


  • You need a website. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay someone a ton of money for one. My website isn’t the prettiest, but it costs me nothing and is incredibly user-friendly. Look into Blogger or WordPress or other free services. A few more tips on that here.
  • Circumstances change quickly, but as of right now you should also be on Twitter, Facebook (with a fan page), Tumblr, YouTube, Soundcloud (which allows you to post your songs for free; you can then link to them from your main site) and Bandcamp (which allows you to post songs or albums and allows other people to buy them). I’m not saying you have to “buy in” to any of these sites or let them take over your life, but it’s good to at least be signed up and link back to your main site so more people can find you.
  • Related to that, when it comes to Twitter and Facebook, do NOT set up separate pages for every group you’re in, side project you’re involved with, or alter-ego. Consolidate your reach.
  • Write a short, substantive, memorable bio, ideally focusing on your concrete accomplishments (for example, saying “I’ve shared the stage with the following artists…” is better than saying “I’m awesome and popular”). If you need help to do this, reach out to someone– a friend, a teacher, another artist, whatever. Post it on your website.
  • Get some high-resolution press photos. If you can get them professionally done, that’s great. But if you want to save money, a friend with a semi-decent digital camera can do the trick too. Post them on your website (I know, I haven’t taken my own advice on this yet).
  • Print business cards with your name, contact info and appropriate web links. You can get some for free here, or pay a little money and get some nicer ones. 
  • If you’re just getting started, go to some open mics. It’s great practice, builds your fanbase and is a networking opportunity. Here’s a list of some Twin Cities ones. Once you’ve been doing that for a while, you can start to book your own shows.
  • On that note, go to other people’s shows. Talk to the artists, especially if they’re also just getting started. Networking is super important. Build alliances, form crews, collaborate and cooperate. Remember– networking isn’t just about other people who do what you do; it can be about activist organizations, businesses, artists from other disciplines and beyond.
  • Related to that– watch the other acts, whether you’re opening for them or they’re opening for you. It’s polite, but it’s also a learning experience.
  • Be nice to people. It’s easy.
  • Surround yourself with people who challenge you and make you better.
  • Good writers are good readers, and good rappers are good listeners. Listen to lots of music from a lot of different styles and subgenres.
  • Know how to get written-up and reviewed. It does not “just happen;” you have to MAKE it happen. I already linked to it, but read this post from Big Cats on how to do that.
  • Promote your events! Here is an overview on how to do that effectively.
  • You may have a million more questions about booking shows, putting out music, touring or whatever. Find a mentor. Reach out to a local artist you respect and ask– many of them will hit you back. ASK QUESTIONS.


I’d say that the traditional “fame and fortune” version of success is achieved by having some combination of talent/originality, work ethic, networking skills (i.e. knowing the right people) and context/circumstances (i.e. being in the right place at the right time, privilege, pure dumb luck). I will let you fill in the exact fractions for each piece. Basically, you need SOME combination of all those things to make it. Most of us never will. And that’s fine.

What really matters, I think, is defining success for yourself. Maybe you just want to write raps with your friends, play a few shows, and have fun. Maybe you just want someone, somewhere, to hear something you wrote and feel a little better. Maybe you just have something inside you that needs to come out, and don’t particularly care if you get rich off it. All of these impulses are perfectly fine. We all make art for different reasons. It’s healthy to know why you’re doing it and what you hope to accomplish. When you know that, you can get organized and plan for it.

And remember: none of these points are “rules.” You can ignore all of this and still be successful… or do all of this and still burn out. I just hope some of this can be helpful. Feel free to leave further tips or ideas in the comments.

This was supposed to end with #6, but someone asked me to share some thoughts on performing live:

  • Shorter sets are better. I personally think this is true for anyone, but it’s especially true for artists who are just starting out. A really solid 20-minute set is ALWAYS going to have more of an impact than an all-over-the-place 45 minute set. Leave the audience wanting more.
  • Related to that, have a diverse set list. If it’s just a half-hour of shouting about how great you are, it’s going to get old, even if you’re good at it. This goes back to songwriting, but some diversity of style and subject matter is appreciated.
  • Shut up. Your “witty banter” between songs is awful. Maybe that’s harsh, and sure, there are some genuinely charming, funny people out there. But they’re few and far between.
  • The general consensus is that lots of people on stage is a bad thing. Personally, I think you can get away with it, as long as it’s intentional and somewhat choreographed– you just have to avoid the “seven guys awkwardly milling about while one guy raps” stuff. You also don’t need more than one person doing your backups, if that. Generally, the fewer people on stage, the better. “Special guests” are great, but they should be people who know what they’re doing, not your random friends who think they can rap.
  • Don’t rap over your vocal tracks. You should rap over instrumentals with zero vocals in them. Some people can get away with leaving in backups for the hooks, but it’s probably best to cut those out too. You’re a performer– perform.
  • Don’t be a jackass. Show up on time. Be nice to the sound techs. Watch the other acts perform. Respect the stage manager/organizer. Be flexible. Never, ever go over your time limit.
  • This is a skill you have to develop, but be present– analyze the audience, read the room. If there are only a dozen people in the audience, don’t scream at them to jump around to your fist-pumping hip hop set. Maybe do a more laid-back set. Maybe pull out some a capella stuff (if it’s good). Call audibles. Again, this is something that comes with experience, but it’s never too early to think about.
  • The most important thing is just to be prepared. Have your songs ready and rehearsed. Practice. Remember that every time you’re in front of people, that’s a gift, that’s a massive opportunity. Don’t waste it.
Anything else?