You can have a meaningful career that doesn’t burn you out and break the bank. This is what our guest imparts to us in this episode, giving a music career diagnostic to understand how best you can thrive in the industry. Melissa Mulligan, the visionary behind Music Career Mastermind, guides you through the intricacies of a music career. She discusses the nuances between live performances and studio recordings, shedding light on essential considerations. Emphasizing the importance of understanding your goals and maintaining focus, she provides strategic advice for building a robust business within the artistic realm. Join us in this empowering conversation with Melissa Mulligan and elevate your artistic journey with her game-changing tactics for career success.

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Beyond Burnout And Bankrupt: Music Career Diagnostics For Success With Melissa Mulligan

From Origin Story To Music Career Mastermind

I am thrilled to be here today with Melissa Mulligan from Music Career Mastermind. That name gets me excited, like talking. I feel like we’re going to have a little music career mastermind because both of us have worked with Indie artists for years and giving them support and helping them with guidance on their career. I cannot wait to get into all of this stuff. I love goal setting, time management, productivity, and income streams. All the stuff that I know Melissa also loves. We’re going to get into that but first, I would love for our audience to know more about you, Melissa. How did you get started working with musicians? What’s your story arc to get to where we are now?

The origin story. I love it. We do have a lot in common there. For sure, I have always been a singer, a songwriter, and an artist. I did the Indie artist thing in the early aughts. At one point, I was playing 200 shows a year. I also ran a little radio show for a few years with a friend of mine called the Songwriter Circle. I was always obsessed with vocal training and vocal coaching and just the human voice in general.

I found my way into vocal coaching while I was performing full-time. It was a nice supplemental income, those multiple revenue streams, but I also loved it. I recall, I had played a solo show out by myself and had to put up with being flirted with by the venue manager in order to get paid at 2:00 in the morning. You’re carrying speakers out of the back door and your heels, “Going this is not my dream for this $200.” The next day, I was exhausted. I did not want to teach and this young girl, maybe 10 or 11 ran in from the rain with the biggest smile on her face and hugged me. She said, “This is the best hour of my life, my week, every week.”

I was like, “Oh crap, I like this better than what I did yesterday. I’m going to be one of these people.” I know it. I was like, “I’m not ready but I know I’m going to be one of these people that has a second act to their career that they love even more than the first act.” I felt it in my bones and I was almost mad. I’m like, “I know I’m not going to be touring in my 40s.” I know it. That was me.

I fell in love with vocal coaching. I still played for years after that, but I started to become popular in the recording industry in New York, LA, and Nashville because I’m such a contemporary music obsessed coach. I’ve trained with opera trainers and musical theater people but I am not an opera person and a musical theater person. I like pop punk, emo, hip-hop, metal and country. I like contemporary vocals so much.

There aren’t a lot of us in the field who prefer it who are obsessed with how do you get that cry in your voice or that grit or that lilt or that Billie Eilish whisper in your head voice? There aren’t a lot of people who like that’s their world. I believe that artists who sing hard and weird deserve healthy voices too without having to alter their signature sound. That became my real entry point into working in the music industry, which I still do regularly, tour prep and studio work with signed and touring artists.

Through that work, I started having these amazing conversations with labels, managers, producers, songwriters, and experts. Everybody was complaining at me, “Young artists today don’t understand that they have to do this, or they don’t understand artist development. They think they’re ready before they’re ready.” I’m thinking, “Yes, but they’re out there. They don’t have access to you. They don’t have access to these conversations.”

With the birth of Spotify, streaming, and social media happening all around that time. I was like, “What are these artists going to do?” They’re going to figure out how to market themselves, build a following, tour independently, pay for it all, and figure out what makes them special, unique, and authentic and what they need to work on musically all at the same time. That’s not going to happen. That is when I roped some of my colleagues in to form Music Career Mastermind. We started that in 2017 to be holistic, soup to nuts, and one place where you are working on every aspect of your artist development. From your music production skills to your songs, your artist identity, what business model you want to operate under, and fan generation. That’s a strategy to help you get where you want to go as you were saying, the goal setting and getting clear on your vision. That’s how it all came together. A bit of a squirrely journey.

I love it and I love the second act thing. I love that story about the little girl. I feel the same way. I met with my, I call them my OG group because they’re the original Academy members. I started back in 2015 and I still meet with them separately because they all know each other so well. I love keeping up with them and it makes me feel like everything that I’ve done is the ripple effect. It’s that feeling like, “I’m able to have an effect beyond myself when I work with other people.”

That’s what you experienced that day in the vocal studio. That doesn’t mean that we’re giving up the performing. I’m glad you said you still did that and I still did that too because you still need to have your foot in that because otherwise, you might completely lose touch with what it is that you’re trying to work with your students on.

I’m glad you said that. I hold myself accountable to still record and perform. It’s when I can and when the spirit moves me. I try hard to make sure that I don’t lose that vulnerability that we’re all asking our artists to have that we work with.

On the other side of that, I have to say, when you get busy and when you get popular and people are seeking you out for this stuff. You don’t have a ton of time for that. The fact that you can do it a few times a year, that still means that you are keeping your foot in the game. Sometimes I feel like artists are like, “I only want to work with someone who’s in the trenches.” If they’re in the trenches, they don’t have time to help you. They’re focused on their thing. There’s that balance, but we do need to keep our foot in the game a little bit, but our focus is now how we can pass it forward and help other people.

As an Indie artist, I was in the trenches, but I was not in the trenches as a signed artist. I am now with my signed artist. I can speak to what’s happening in the industry and the trends that I’m seeing because I’m in it. There’s no way that I could do both.

What you do in Music Career Mastermind sounds a lot like A&R that people don’t get because they don’t have labels and budgets for artist development and that thing anymore. These artists now have access to the future. things that they didn’t have when they had to wait around for a label to pick them up. They can get their song out there tomorrow on Spotify, but yet they’re missing this big piece. They’re going to do that like, why not do that?

Misconceptions About The Music Industry

They might realize, “This isn’t working because I haven’t thought through all the stuff, the branding stuff, or the repertoire stuff.” That stuff that you guys are helping them with and even the business side, which is what I helped with. What do you see as some of the biggest things that people come to you with they need help with or misconceptions about how they should be working in the industry?

There’s so much. I often see artists who want to release every idea they have as soon as they have it. The way that a business like management or label or anybody does it as you know. Music will get held for a while until you have a strategy, a purpose, and some measurable results that you’re looking to get. I also see just a lot of misconceptions around why artists feel they need to be active and successful on social media.

If you ever reach out to me or anyone reading ever reaches out to me and asks for feedback, you’re not going to get it. You’re going to get ten questions. You’re going to be like, “What do you think of this?” I’m going to be like, “Where do you want to go with it? What do you think you want to do?” I’m such a questioner. People will say to me, “Mel, my goal is to build engagement on all platforms.”

My question is, “To what end? For what purpose? What business model are you operating under? Are you somebody who wants vanity metrics because you think it’s going to make a label come running to you? Is it because you’ve heard a bunch of YouTubers and TikTokers tell you that the only way to have a career is to build a fanbase? What do you want to do with that fan base? Do you want to magically monetize it? If so, how? What’s on the other side of that strategy?” It’s a strategy and a tactic to build engagement. It’s not a result in and of itself. That’s the main thing that I see is artists are trying to get tips and tricks as to what to do to get results but the dots aren’t being connected because there are so many options and there are so many different goals that everybody has.

The Profitable Musician | Melissa Mulligan | Music Career Diagnostics

Music Career Diagnostics: Artists are trying to get tips and tricks as to what to do to get results, but the dots aren’t being connected because there are so many options and different goals that everybody has.

 

I want to speak to that for a second, but I did want to mention what you were saying about how artists are like to throw everything out there as soon as they create it or as soon as it leaves their brain. It’s a good point that you said about regular businesses. There is an R&D department. They are researching and doing all these things to create. Some of those products never go to market because they’ve done their research and realize it’s not a good fit, or maybe they just could never hone it the way that they wanted to for different reasons.

You need to be that way with your songs like, “Have I gotten enough feedback on this song? Is it the way that it should be? Do I have an audience for this song or that thing?” Before you release it. As what you were saying about what artists’ motivation is. My brand is Profitable Musician and there’s different levels of that. It’s, do you want to make a living with it? Do you want to just recoup the money that you spend on your very expensive hobby? Do you want to do this part time while you also teach?

I also find that sometimes their motivation isn’t money up front. Their motivation is they want people to listen to their music, enjoy it and share it with other people. Where do you find people who are on the spectrum of like, “It’s more important for me to have my music heard and loved by people,” versus wanting to make money with it? They need to make money to keep going.

I don’t know about you but I would say an overwhelming majority of the artists that I work with, at the heart of it, the primary motivation is not the finances. The primary motivation is being a member of the club, being a music maker that is respected, that is valued, and found their audience. Also, they would not like to have a desk job or sling pizza. Thank you very much. The necessity is, “I don’t want to do anything else but this. I want this to be my life. Therefore, I need to figure out a way to monetize it and make a living.”

It’s more just the desire to live the life of someone who makes music, to be seen, heard, and valued is the primary motivation. There are people I work with who are like, “I’ve got a day job. I don’t hate it. I don’t care about the money. Help me get out there. Help me figure out a way to get some shows and get an audience and whatever happens happens.” Certainly, I would say most of the younger artists I work with are hoping to avoid that fate. To them, they’re like, “That is not what I want. I want all of my money and all of my revenue to come from music and some form or other.”

I agree. When I first started this business, I thought it was all about let’s make a living from music. As I worked with artists, I discovered that it’s more about, as you said, the legacy and the wanting to be part of the club. I like how you said that, knowing that what you do matters to other people and following your purpose. You need the money to finance that.

Again, my brand is profitable musician. To some people, they’re like, “I don’t want to be a profitable musician because that’s like corporate. It’s not cool and bohemian.” The point is we need money in this world to keep doing the thing we want to do. I’ve also discovered that it’s a secondary motivation but unfortunately, it is a necessary motivation.

It’s a secondary motivation until it becomes a primary motivation for whatever reason until lack thereof starts to eat away at your ability to even participate in the craft.

Music Career Diagnostic

I love that you focus on career diagnosis. As you said earlier, someone reaches out to you and you ask them ten more questions. You did mention them a little bit earlier, but what are the main things that you’re trying to figure out in this diagnostic to see like where their career goals need to be in order to get where they want to go?

I start by making sure I understand the artist’s values, which is some of what we’re already talking about, being seen and being heard. There’s many different types of values as possible, whether it’s financial stability or freedom like the Bohemian travel lifestyle, family, artistic integrity, social justice, political commentary, anti-capitalism, and full-on capitalism. Every artist comes to me with a different set of values that I want to honor inside of that conversation.

I like to discern what the unicorn jumping over the rainbow dream is. If you could control the outcome, where’s your story going? Where’s the storybook ending or next level chapter ending for you? We start to dive in, then I need to understand, how soon do you need to monetize this? Do we have time right to invest time and/or funds in the longer-term vision? Is there a short-term need? Sometimes, the activities that are easily monetized are not aligned with an artist’s long-term vision.

Sometimes, the activities that are easily monetized are not aligned with an artist's long-term vision. Click To Tweet

Your long-term vision is to tour as an original artist but you’re spending all week playing at a piano bar. Playing covers at a piano bar because you got to pay the bills. You’re eighteen and your long-term vision is to get signed by a label. Therefore, your tactics need to be largely digital and online, but you’re playing a ton of local gigs and trying to sell CDs so that you could make $100 or $200 at the gig.

These are things that’ll take you sideways if you’re thinking, “I need to monetize now.” We talk about that and then we start to talk through the various pathways that could lead you to want to go. We’ll explore all those together, see which ones light you up and what skills you need to build. Big on artists, at least being their own producer. You don’t have to become Pharrell Williams but you’ve got to participate. You’ve got to be at least intermediate level in a DAW. If you’re not, I’m going to make sure you do that. We start to unpack the skills and the next steps. I lay out a couple of different options then we’re off and running.

I’m curious what you said about home production. Is that so they can self-release or they can get their songs from ideas to something that a producer can understand well enough to do what they want to do in the studio?

Both of those and a couple other reasons. Most artists will need to write, record and release regularly for a long time. It’s typically not financially sustainable to continue to have to hire other people to write, record, and release regularly for years while you’re building up to real money coming in. I also love it for creative control/contribution as you’re developing your sound and you’re figuring out who you are.

It’s very practical if you want the industry to be interested in you because they’re going to be like, “I loved what you did. Someone else produced that. Can I hear your demos? What’s your vision? Let me hear your portfolio. I need 30 more songs.” The industry pretty much expects you to be pretty solid in a dog. I love to collaborate and build your network.

Somebody hits you up to be a guest vocalist. They’re going to send you stems and want you to participate. It’s the way of now. I see the lack of technical comfort holding a lot of amazing artists back and it’s not rocket science. If you work with me at all and you’re not on a daw, you will be because there’s no reason not to get comfy in it, in my opinion.

Is there a specific one you recommend? Do you like logic?

It depends on what type of music you’re making and where you’re comfortable and what type of computer you have. If you’re on a PC, we see a lot of Ableton and FL Studio.

That’s what I use.

Some old schools are still on Pro-Tools. If you’re on a Mac, Logic Pro for sure is super versatile, but why not learn more than one as well? They’re all good at different things.

That’s cool. I love what you said about them being able to use that to be creative and explore their sound and have that. I did that. I’d say it, but like way back in the early odds as you said. I realized I built a lot of relationships by doing that and as you said, being able to pump out a harmony vocal real quick for someone as a favor. They might think of me next time when someone says, “Do you know anyone that can do this or that?” That’s how I got some demo jobs then eventually found a producer. Many things that just snowball that you don’t realize will just because you can record from home.

When you’re collaborating with other producers. Ideally, at some point, you’re not having to hire someone and trust what they say. When you’re working with other producers, no matter how famous or successful they are, you can speak the language and say, “There’s a little bit too much delay on that or too much decay on that reverb.” You can speak the language and take yourself seriously in the room and not be like, “I guess you’re the expert. Even though I don’t think I love this, I know how to steer it in the right direction. I’ll let you go ahead.”

Later, you’re annoyed because you didn’t speak up. Now you feel like this sound is not you. I had some friends that that happened too because they’re like, “This producer knows so much more than I do.” They’re trying to mold you into something that’s the sound of the day and that’s not you. You’re going to be mad when you listen to that recording every time because you’re going to feel like it’s not you then you’ve wasted that segment of your career. You got to learn how to speak up.

Live Singing Versus Recording

Let’s segue since we’re talking about the studio and recording, I know that you have a ton of experience helping musicians with their vocals in the studio or at home studio or wherever they are. I do think that recording there’s definitely a difference in how you sing and technique in recording versus live. What have you found that is the most helpful when you’re working with artists to try to help them understand the differences between live singing and recorded singing?

When you’re recording, it’s not a recital. It’s not capturing the way you normally do it live. It is its own work of art. I often say, the acting metaphor would be like, if you’ve ever done anything on stage as a kid. They’re like, “You’ve got to go big, and you’ve got to project to the back wall,” because you’ve got to sell it. Compare that.

Compare middle school or high school theater camp to a movie scene between James Dean and Robert De Niro. Two actors who can move an eyebrow or an eyelash and you understand what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling. Recording vocals is this very nuanced art form and it’s not about singing. It’s about you making the hair on someone else’s arms stand up. It’s about you making someone else’s heart leap out of their chest or stop beating for a second.

You’re not going to get that if you’re showing how well you’re singing if that’s not what’s going to move people. I’m not saying that you can’t belt it out or have something gritty, but it’s difficult for singers to stop worrying about pitch, chest voice, versus head voice, like, “Am I belting? Am I flipping technique?” If you’ve been trained. Am I singing this well or right to make sure that the lyric, the feeling, and the rhythm in the pocket are all coming through?

That is so true. On the flip side of that, I’m always telling artists because they think that when they’re performing, they need it to sound like the recording. I’m like, “If they wanted to hear the recording they’d turn that on.” They’re coming for a different experience, but I haven’t talked about the opposite and that is so true. There’s so many opportunities for nuance and getting emotion across in a very subtle way in the studio that you can’t do live.

Even if you can, great, but it’s not the purpose. The recording isn’t about you. It’s about the recording. Does this work of art convert somebody’s heart and transport them into a different space and time. It’s not about, your vocal is the vehicle but your vocal isn’t the destination. I made that up. How’s that?

The Profitable Musician | Melissa Mulligan | Music Career Diagnostics

Music Career Diagnostics: Your vocal is the vehicle. Your vocal isn’t the destination.

 

I like that. You’re saying it’s more about the song than it is about the vocal.

The song and the record as a whole like how everything in the record, the instrumentation, the beat, the vibe of it, and how is that all working together to make somebody feel something, to transport them. it is something that’s going to be played over and over again. Not like a live performance, which hits you at 60 miles an hour, then that’s it, that’s your experience.

Honestly, why there is a different copyright for a master versus the song itself? That master is its own work of art and people can do one song so differently. Do you work on things, I know for me, especially as a home recorder. I’ve had trouble with blowing out the microphone. If I want to be able to belt, are there techniques on being able to do that in a recording space?

For sure and I mean, what I would do is I would have you show me your setup and what you’re doing. Let me hear you in real time and we would figure it out because sometimes, it’s audio interface optimization, what mic you’re using, and what’s the room look like. There are the tricks of giving yourself more space from the microphone or turning your mouth to the side or even belting with half as much intensity as you think you need to in order to get the intensity to come across in the record.

Classical Versus Contemporary

I know you mentioned about, there’s not nearly as many people focusing on the contemporary vocal sound. I was classically trained, so same experience. I always loved contemporary music. Sometimes it was so hard to translate what I had learned in the vocal studio into a contemporary sound. Do you work with a lot of singers that are a little bit stuck in those classical ways?

Classical and also the musical theater tradition. It’s the tradition of vocal coaching, isn’t it? It comes from that bel canto and the Broadway style. A lot of singers get stuck with extra vibrato, where it’s not deliberate or necessary stylistically. It’s masking pitch or helping you hit a higher note. That can make you sound decidedly not contemporary. Not the vibrato can’t be used. It’s freaking awesome when it’s used well.

Also, another habit is singing through the phrases and coasting over the beats rather than locking into the pocket. The example I always give, and I know my clients get so annoyed with me because I do this one all the time. The hook to any song is in the rhythm. I always use irreplaceable by Beyonce as the example. The opening of that song is, “To the left, to the left, umm.” Where that is umm placed and how long and how short all of those notes are. That’s where the hook is.

If you take the rhythm away from it and sing it, it becomes, “To the left, to the left, umm.” That is so dumb. It’s not cool and a hook. It’s just a singer being self-indulgent. That’s an extreme example, but I hear it all the time. Singers who are opening up and trying to do so much with their voice that we’re not hearing the lyric. We’re not locking in with the beat and not moving. Less can be more in that contemporary world if you’ve gotten a lot of classical and musical theater training. More is more often.

Less can be more in the contemporary world. Click To Tweet

I’m a worship leader at a church and I even see this as I work with singers that are going to be singing on the worship team. They are classically trained. They’re used to singing hymns and they cannot get the rhythmic side. They think I sing everything straight or that they’re singing everything straight or don’t understand the offsetting rhythms. I’m like, “I don’t know how to teach them how to do that.” I get it naturally. If you listen to contemporary music, you pick it up but if some people don’t.

It’s another reason why I like working with people in a daw no matter what you’re doing because then you can see it. We can draw it in together in MIDI, in your session. You can literally work to that. You can sing to it, practice to it and subdivide beats. Rather than hearing it, you’re physically creating it, watching yourself do it, then going in and working on it

You could even show them like, “This is a triplet feel here and this is what this looks like.” Interesting. I like that.

A lot of songwriters are coming from this beautifully organic and free association space and all the best song. We all love that, as songwriters when that happens. It can help to go back and go, “Am I syncopating this or not because it’s halfway in between. I haven’t committed with this phrase. What am I doing rhythmically here or even note wise, what am I doing? It’s a little bit soft and slushy because it came out of me organically.” You got to go back in and tighten that up.

That’s true. A lot of times, when they’re writing a song, they’ll sing that phrase differently every time. It’s like, “Are these notes?”

At some point, we make a creative decision for the recording.

I like it. This has been some great information and I love hearing all your expertise that you’re able to work with people individually in the studio. Is there anything else that you want, going back to the career side and anyone that might contact you after reading or watching this episode? What do artists nowadays need to understand or know about the current state of the music industry?

Create A Meaningful Musical Career

The most important message that I want artists to know is that you can create a meaningful music career that doesn’t burn you out and break the bank. You truly can. What that is for you, I wouldn’t be an egomaniac enough to say because I don’t know you. I don’t know what creates meaning in your life and what type of career you want but it can be done. You can create a career that you truly enjoy even in this crazy landscape that we’re in now.

The Profitable Musician | Melissa Mulligan | Music Career Diagnostics

Music Career Diagnostics: You absolutely can create a meaningful music career that doesn’t burn you out and break the bank.

 

For anyone who wants music industry involvement, please, remember that your path now needs to be the same exact path as an Indie artist in order to get a great opportunity. You need to figure out over the long term how you are going to write, record, release, create a fan base, create a fan funnel, and probably make some money off of it so that it’s sustainable for you. Get yourself to a pretty successful level before you’ll have great industry opportunities.

The days of being discovered and funded early on is done. You might get discovered and talked to, which should feel great. Getting funded and getting a real deal early in the game is done. It also means that you can outwork everybody. If you have a good work ethic, you love this and you figure out a solid path. You can do it.

I’m glad you said that, so people are not waiting around for the magic record deal or manager or whoever is going to sweep them off their feet and say that they’re going to pay for everything while they get their crap together. That is not happening. You need help from people like Melissa to know what your goals are, what your focus needs to be, and who you are as an artist. You need help setting up a solid business because you are going to be a business. As she said, you need to do all of that stuff before anyone’s even going to look at you. That may be a big bummer for some of you that are reading, but that’s how it is.

It’s empowering, though.

Some people are like, “This is terrible. Let’s go back to the ‘90s.” I’m like, “No,” because the number of people that got to put their music out was so small.

I don’t miss that. I don’t miss having zero access to help acknowledgement of the fan base. It’s always been tough guys. It’s always been hard. We should not romanticize the ‘90s, except maybe some of the music in the clothes which are coming back anyway.

That’s true. They are. That’s awesome. I know you’ve got a special gift for everyone that’s reading or watching. Can you tell them how they can find that and also how they can connect with you more online?

I created a special link for friends of Bree Noble. It’s MastermindRoad.com/register-bree. You can also find me on Instagram, @Music_Career_Mastermind. I’m also on TikTok with the same name. What you’ll get when you click on that link is you can register to get my free masterclass, which is called Creating Your Meaningful Music Career. Also for friends of Bree, you’re going to get an invitation from me soon to join a free music career diagnostics workshop, where I’ll take some volunteers and do a little music career diagnostics session with you all.

That’s very awesome. Thank you for that gift. Go check that out, connect with Melissa online. Thank you so much, Melissa, for everything you’ve shared. I love having this conversation because we have so many of the same views on the music industry and how musicians can make the impact and create the legacy that they want in the world.

Thank you so much for all you do, Bree. You are a beacon of light for entrepreneurial musicians as we all should be. I can’t thank you enough. You’ve been doing great work for a long time. My audience loves you. They’re going to be so excited that we got to connect.

Thanks.

 

Important Links

 

About Melissa Mulligan

The Profitable Musician | Melissa Mulligan | Music Career DiagnosticsFor 15 years, Melissa Mulligan has been one of the most trusted vocal coaches and vocal producers in the music industry. Her clients have Billboard chart-topping hits, platinum and gold records, sold-out arena world tours, and billions of streams on Spotify. She founded Music Career Mastermind in 2017 to provide world-class artist development, music production mentorship and music career road mapping to music makers across the globe.

 

 

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