How to Manage Your Music Career

How to Manage Your Music Career

Matt Urmy is the CEO and co-Founder – along with Jonathan Sexton – of Artist Growth, a mobile software platform that helps artists manage the many intricate pieces of their music careers. Matt got his start in the music industry as a songwriter, a touring musician and recording artist, both with his bands and solo. Raised in Nashville, Tennessee, he is also a published writer with an MFA in poetry and has recorded three albums. Artist Growth is a platform that provides amateur musicians and pros a suite of tools to track daily tasks, coordinate projects and grow their music careers strategically. Through the software, users can manage finances, gig calendars, inventory, industry contacts, social media, performing rights organizations and get mentoring resources from top experts in the music business through the company’s AGtv channels. In addition to launching Artist Growth, Matt also teaches creative writing at Nashville State Community College, is developing his first Broadway musical and is working on an album with Cowboy Jack Clement.

 

I recently talked to Matt about the challenges he has encountered throughout his own career as a performing musician and how the Artist Growth platform directly addresses these challenges and can help artists interested in building sustainable careers within the music industry.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

How did you find your way to the music business?

 

MU:

 

I came to the music business much like a lot of other people in it. When I was a kid, I started writing songs, and I wanted to be in a band. So, I started a band. And that turned into a high school band, then a college band. And then being out of college, I went solo and spent about a decade driving up and down the Eastern Seaboard playing gigs in bars and clubs.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Which bands were you in?

 

MU:

I was in two. I was in one called Telescope and then another band called The Whiskey Scars, which was a honky-tonk country band. It was by far the most successful band I was in. I was also in that band with Jonathan, the other founder of Artist Growth. He played bass. We founded it just as a way to pay the rent. We went and convinced this club owner in Knoxville and said, “Hey, if you pay our rent every month, we’ll put a band together and play here every Thursday night.” He went for it, so we got our rent paid for a couple years. We put this country band together, and it turned out to be this wildly successful, really fun honky-tonk band. The only problem with it – as you might imagine with a name like The Whiskey Scars – was that it was not a band that was in any way sustainable. You can’t live like that for very long before things start to go very wrong for you.

 

After a couple years, we packed it up. Both of us had children during that time, so Jonathan and I came off the road. We took a couple years off and stayed at home with our kids, worked day jobs and at about the same time came back to touring and hooked back up. So, we came back to our touring career really engaged in trying to move forward in the business. It wasn’t just about having fun and being on tour; it was about making money and understanding marketing. It was also the first time in my life I had ever worked with promoters and publishers who were actually professionals. I started learning all these things from them about how you’re supposed to do things and what the protocols are.

 

It was really one awakening after another. And having moved back to Nashville, I was meeting people who were veterans in the business. And all of that awakening and learning that happened coupled with the fact that Jonathan and I were completely dissatisfied with the online software tools available to independent musicians that we sat down and decided to design one ourselves. Once we did that, initially, we got such a positive response from people in the space here in Nashville that we kept going with it. And eventually, it turned into a product we were able to raise a million dollars to develop, implement and market.

 

As touring artists, we decided to build something for ourselves, and then we realized we had something everyone could use. So, now we’re not touring anymore once again and are instead going to be traveling around promoting this new product we built.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Obviously you had problems and experiences on the road that made you say, “I need to create something to fill this void.” And you built a product that solved these problems. Knowing what you know now, what would you have told yourself when you were just starting out playing music and touring that you’ve learned by building this solution?

 

MU:

 

The first thing I would’ve told myself is, “You need something that you can use to keep track of everything that’s easy to use and understandable.” That was my #1 problem. And each of the things I needed to keep track of was small, but they all added up to something big. For example, I needed to retain a list of every show I performed somewhere and have that accessible. And then, I needed to find a way to retain email addresses I collected at clubs. I also needed to have a way to put together a collection of every set list that I played at every club. They were all written down on pieces of paper, and I would lose them. Sometimes I would carry them around in my guitar case for a while and reuse them. But eventually, they’d get lost or I would spill a glass of wine on them. I would also lose receipts. I didn’t keep track of them, even though I had a glove box full of them. I also needed a list of how many records and how many t-shirts I sold at each show.

 

There was a lot of basic data keeping. And I didn’t have an understanding in my early 20s of how to use Microsoft Excel, FileMaker Pro or any of these file-keeping systems. They were tools that for me were really cumbersome and a pain in the ass to use. So, my solution was just not to keep track of anything. And it was so easy for me to justify it by saying, “That’s not what I do anyway. I’m just supposed to be an artist.” If I could talk to myself at 20 again and Artist Growth existed, I would say, “Yeah, you are an artist. And what you need is a tool that allows you to keep track of stuff and remain an artist and not have to learn how to use really fancy accounting software or a really fancy contact management system. You need a simple tool that’s easy to use and allows you to keep track of everything.”

 

What ends up happening is that after a certain amount of time, you do end up in a meeting with somebody who starts asking you questions:  “How many records did you sell last quarter? How many did you sell in the last two years? How much merchandise are you moving? How big is your mailing list?”

 

Musician Coaching:

 

How do you think things would’ve gone differently if you had these tools? Would The Whiskey Scars have gone somewhere else if you had access to that data?

 

MU:

I think we would’ve had the option to go somewhere different. There are always so many components that factor into whether or not a band is going to take the leap from being a concept that’s getting its feet wet on stage and in the studio to an actual act that’s invested in and becomes a business. That could be a lack of data or a lack of understanding, so you never get the meeting or the chance to meet with people who can take your career to the next level. But it could also be that your lifestyle isn’t sustainable or that you hate your drummer and it’s doomed from the beginning, or that you have a child.

 

It’s hard to say if The Whiskey Scars or any of my other bands, or even I as a solo artist in my mid 20s had been able to have access to Artist Growth, that I would’ve been the next John Prine. And of course, ultimately, you have to have the quality art to back it up.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I find it interesting, because you guys are collecting data I never even thought of. How would somebody use every set list they ever had?

 

MU:

 

What there is now is live performance royalty registration, which is a real revenue stream for somebody just starting out. You can get $200 or $500 every quarter in the mail from your performing rights organization (PRO) for performing. But you have to submit those set lists. And you have to submit those set lists with venue data. Artist Growth has over 30,000 venues in the system already. So, there’s the venue data. Now you just need a set list and a way to submit it. And that’s what we built.

 

We’ve tried to take all the ways there exist to have a revenue stream and have created a data tracking and data entry system that will be really easy for people to use. And we want it to actually turn into money for people or to help them leverage a meeting or get to the next meeting with people. Of course, the art has to be there.

 

It all goes back to the art. All the producers and managers we talk to say over and over again, “It’s all about the song.” And it is all about the song, the record and the art. If that’s there, the data just reinforces that. You can have all the data in the world. But if the music is terrible and makes people want to turn their radio off, and you can’t sing, then the data doesn’t matter. But if you really have something, and you really believe in what you do and are on a journey to discover your voice and get better, and if the feedback you’re getting is positive and it’s something you love to do and that you are passionate about, Artist Growth’s tools can help you. Artist Growth helps that kind of person start to put together the information that’s necessary to jump from the concept band or the concept artist who might have an independent record and has played locally, to somebody who is actually able to make music their career and have a team of people that are going to support that career. All that data matters now, because the landscape has changed.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You pretty much had me at “$200-$500 per quarter.” That’s pretty impressive. Explain to me how that works.

 

MU:

Live performance royalties are relatively new. But PROs collect these blanket licenses. They call it “licensing a venue.” They go out to all these venues – restaurants, bars, theaters, any establishment that plays music. They say, “You’re a business and you’re playing music in here, and entertaining your customers and guests is part of what brings in music and helps you make money. We represent the artists that make the music that helps you get business into your establishment. And since you’re using their art, which we represent, you need to pay us a fee to be able to do that.” So, the PROs collect all that money and distribute it out to the artists they represent.

 

BMI, for example, has over 400,000 artists that are affiliated with them. They collect money for all these licenses all year long from venues, big and small – restaurants, diners, coffee shops, as well as theaters, stadiums, etc. And now, with live performance royalties, what an artist that is affiliated with BMI does is send them the set lists they played at the venues that pay the licensing fees to BMI every year.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And you guys have taken this to the point where all an artist’s songs are registered with Artist Growth, and that process is fairly automated?

 

MU:

 

Yes. What you do with Artist Growth is upload your catalog. You put your registered work catalog into Artist Growth, and from that, you’re able to create set lists from the songs. You just drag and drop, make a set list and the system automatically connects it to a date, a gig and a venue. And we have the venue data built into our system. So at the end of the night when the show’s done and you’re doing your close out, you just hit “submit.” It’s kind of like sending an email. But we take all that information and you can send it off to your PRO. Once you register your set lists this way, every quarter, you get paid by the PRO for these performances. Part of the money the venue has paid the PRO is to cover the cost of the performance you did the night you performed there, so you’re entitled to some of that money. They send you a check in the mail. It’s not a ton of money. But a couple hundred bucks here and there really matters when you’re at the beginning of your career and trying to make it.

 

Part of the spirit behind the platform is also helping artists understand the business they’re in. That’s why we have AGtv and a mentoring portal. We have experts that the general public has never had access to before providing information on a wide variety of subjects, including legal issues, contract negotiation, songwriting, production, engineering, etc. Artists can go to these people whose expertise has previously been under lock and key within the business for decades and watch videos with information on their phones or tablets from some of the best minds in the business. These industry people talk to them about how to position themselves and get ready to really go for it. They tell musicians how to sidestep landmines, make a call to a radio station that doesn’t know who they are – and to navigate a lot of other challenges like that. This information really matters to artists in the beginning, because they don’t know the protocol. So, we provide career management and career mentoring.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I’m not even sure I would know how to call a radio station cold other than winging it, so that’s promising information.

 

MU:

Yes. And it’s not just information we put in there. You watch the channel and get one of the top radio promoters in the country telling you how to do it and how to follow up and when. And then the system will send you reminders saying, “Don’t forget to call that radio station back today,” so you don’t have to remember to do it yourself.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And people can check all this out on the Artist Growth website?

 

MU:

Yes. You can sign up for everything right there. And once you have your account, you go to the Apple App store or the Android Market – depending on which mobile device you have – download the apps, and you’re off to the races.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but there are a ton of artist services companies. The problem I think that’s most unanswered that you solve is the one attached to live performance royalty registration. Are there any other problems out there that your application solves that aren’t solved by the other sites out there – Nimbit, ReverbNation, etc.?

 

MU:

I think the main differentiator between our platform and those platforms is that those platforms mostly help with the distribution of content and the marketing and promotion of that content. I’ve personally used ReverbNation, and then I moved onto Nimbit. I’ve gone through several of these companies for my own personal career. And all reporting metrics that were available to me were based around the response to my marketing efforts. So, I had metrics for my email campaigns, metrics for my social media, metrics for the sales of the content that they digitally distributed for me. From a business and even a marketing standpoint, all this information was relevant. But what they didn’t have is a really integrated, streamlined system that allowed me to track my own personal data from my career on the road and details like royalties, licensing deals that I would do with a TV show, etc. They also didn’t offer me access to expertise that taught me how to get those opportunities, or once I had that opportunity, expertise that showed me how to leverage it into actual income. These services were just there to help me let people know I had a record or that I was going to go on tour and track the responses I got back.

 

And the information these other services provide is valuable and important. That’s why we don’t have digital distribution as part of Artist Growth or direct-to-fan marketing or widgets to put on your website. We don’t have website templates or an email client like ReverbNation has, because there’s already so much of it out there. What artists really need is to learn how to participate in the business side for their own career and then actually interact with the industry. They don’t need just another way to reach out to the fans. It’s very important to interact with fans, but artists also need to understand how to have a career in music and how to get in touch with people that can help them take that career to another level.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I think that’s solid advice whether you’re using Artist Growth or not. Obviously you’ve provided a solution to help carry all this advice out – keep tabs on things, make sure everything is orderly, be aware of your time expenditures and where your money is coming from, etc.

 

MU:

Yeah. And there are a lot of people out there that don’t even know what a performing rights organization is. I talked to some friends of mine back in Knoxville that were asking about Artist Growth, and I was talking about live performance royalty registration, and I was rattling off PROs like BMI, etc. They didn’t even know what those were. And they didn’t know it was free for them to go affiliate with them or that all they had to do was pay a $25 registration fee and they could start getting checks. That blew their minds. It’s easy for me to know about it because I grew up in Nashville, which is a Mecca for the music business. But when you’re living in a suburb of Decatur, Georgia, or out there in some of those places on the West Coast you don’t necessarily know what an organization like BMI can do for you.

 

And that’s part of what we really wanted to do with the Artist Growth tools. We wanted people to really understand what all the opportunities are, even when you’re at the level where you’re technically an unknown artist. There are still opportunities for you to grow a business, way beyond just Facebook and YouTube. Quantifying where your career is at is so important. It’s important to artists, but it’s also important to record companies, publishers and managers. If you have the right information, they don’t have to guess what 10,000 YouTube views means in terms of a revenue stream. They can look at your revenue stream for the past six months or two years and say, “Look at this growth. I can take this to another level.”

 

It’s about hard data. And that’s where we’re headed in the entertainment industry. The Internet and technology has taken us to a world and a paradigm where data are so readily available that there’s no reason to not include them in the process.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And how does it work for you guys on a business level? How do you make money as a business, and how much do you charge artists?

 

MU:

 

This was the biggest challenge for us when we were designing the platform, because for me, it was very important that this platform could scale. I wanted it go be valuable to a 12-year old sitting on his bed after doing homework with an iPad and his first acoustic guitar and trying to learn what it means to write a song. But I also wanted it to be valuable and useful for someone planning a large enterprise tour with multiple people on a team, multiple road teams out there working simultaneously. How do you build a software platform that scales all the way across the industry like that?
That’s how it got broken down into mentoring and management. A 12-year old doesn’t have much need for a financial and inventory and accounting management system, but he does have a need for mentoring and AGtv. What we’ve done is designed the system so that as your career grows, you can access bigger parts of the system. You can download the app from the Apple App Store for free. If you have an account with Artist Growth, you can just watch AGtv and just get the mentoring. And those channels can be 99 cents per month or $1.99 per month to subscribe to the library, where you can go in and access al the content.

 

If you want to buy into the whole system and subscribe to the entire thing and have the accounting, gig management and the smart scheduling management that has all the push-note integration, the search database, the AGtv, the quick sale and all that, it’s $4.99 per month flat for everyone. We wanted to keep it really cheap.

 

The way it scales from there is, depending on how big your team is, you can add other members to the account. You can do it in two ways. You can add members who are “read only” and don’t have access to all the financial and inventory data and contract details but can get set lists, schedules, tasks and to-do lists assigned to them and can report back with project details. Those accounts are 99 cents per member. Then, you can have an admin account added on. The way it works is that anyone else inside the system that has their own $4.99 account can be invited to be an admin of another account. So, if I was a manager and had ten bands, I would buy myself an account and all of them an account, then make myself an admin of all ten of them. Then I can manage all ten of them from a single place on my dashboard on my mobile device or computer. And then those bands can have those individual smaller members. You scale it out as much as you need. A whole management company could admin 600 artists from one account if they wanted to.

 

But if you’re a small band just starting out, you can pay $4.99 per month and have all members use the same login info to get in and out, as long as everyone is cool with everyone seeing all the information. Then as the business grows, and you’re hiring other people but don’t want them to have their finger in all your data, you can start adding on team members that have different permissions.

 

We didn’t want people spending money on features they didn’t need. So, if you don’t need accounting and inventory, you can just watch AGtv. As soon as you’re selling records and playing shows, get the $4.99 per month service and start giving people access so you can be a team. Then if you get signed to a management deal, add on an admin and let them have access. If you have to add on a road crew, you can add on some read-only members and distribute tasks for them.

 

Again,  use it to help you manage only where you are, then as you grow, the account can grow. The hope is that it’s cheap enough that anybody can use it.

 

For more information about Matt Urmy and his new platform for artists, visit the Artist Growth website. You can also follow the company on Twitter and Facebook.