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Becoming A Pop Star With Zero Experience: How To Hack The Music Industry In Under 8 Weeks

03/18/2013

in Make Money, Productivity, Travel

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This is a guest post by charts-topping musician Alex Day.

Just over a year ago, I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of life…but I had no idea how to get it. What I wanted was to be a successful musician in the UK with a Top Five single in the charts, my song played on radio and my story in the newspapers–but I didn’t (and still don’t) have is a manager, an agent, a radio plugger, a PR person, or any of the other things people say you need to succeed in music. I didn’t even know how to produce my own music without outside help, and I never played live because I preferred uploading YouTube videos where I could spend time getting it right.

Two months later, my song “Forever Yours” was #4 in the UK on Christmas Day during the highest-selling singles week of the year, having sold 100,000 copies globally. I was listening to my song played out on national radio as a Top Five track (sending Coldplay down to #5) and I broke a Guinness World Record for the highest-charting single ever by an unsigned artist.

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To do this, I didn’t get any of the things I was missing, like an agent or producer. Instead, I looked at what I could do that was different from the big artists that spend all of their time touring. They don’t have time to make YouTube videos regularly, or read through all of the rules of the charts looking for loopholes, because they get other people to do that for them. Since it was just me, I would have to get to work on my own.

In three steps, here’s how I learned how to hack the music industry:

How Alex Day Outsold Coldplay and won a Guinness Record ==> Click to Tweet

1. Set A Clear Goal

I’m a big fan of unrealistic goals, a point impressed on me by Tim Ferriss after reading his world-changing book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I had recorded songs before with other producers, so I called up the same studio and booked a session before I could change my mind. Now there was a solid date to work towards: I’d paid the money for a day in the studio so I had to be competent enough to produce by then! I listened to all my old songs and picked out what I liked. I also listened to my favorite songs by other artists and wrote out what the common elements were, and by the time of game day, I was sitting in the studio with the engineer saying “What do you want to do to this track?”

I froze. I stared forward at him, hoping I looked calm while in my head, I screamed “I don’t know the answer to this question!!!”

Finally, I said hesitantly, “The song should have…drums”.

He smiled. “Okay! Let’s load up some drum sounds.” And we were off! You do it by doing it.

alex-day

Soon after I forced myself to start producing songs on my own, I decided I was going to try for the UK’s Christmas Number One. Anyone who’s seen the film, Love Actually will know that the Christmas Number One is a pretty big deal in the UK. A lot of artists were releasing songs that week but the Christmas top spot is a very prestigious title–so prestigious that hardly anyone was actually going for it.

If I was just another artist releasing a song, my goals would have been the same as everyone else’s: “sell lots, get played, and get in the charts.” Instead, my goal became “get to the top.” Very few people were actually trying to get to the top, so even though the goal is that much harder, it gives you less competition because other people have already limited themselves below you.

I’ll go into more detail in a moment on how this campaign worked out for me, but the main point is that your goal needs to start with a big dream. Thanks to my unrealistic goal of “reach number one”, I reached number four, and I completely believe that if my goal had been “get into the Top 100,” I probably would have made it somewhere in the Top 100 but nowhere near as high as I did. Impossible goals actually spur people on to support you because people like supporting the underdog to a victory. Everyone wants to be on the winning team. As soon as my song started selling and crept up the iTunes charts, everyone suddenly thought “he might actually do this!” and so they told their friends, bought more copies, and so on.

A clear goal also helps you focus. What do you want to achieve? If you can say it in one-sentence, you can make that a filter for any opportunities that come your way.

Editor’s Note — Sign up for the Hack the System newsletter if you’d like to learn more incredible hacks. You’ll learn specific strategies to hack your body, hack travel, hack productivity, and hack fame. Unsubscribe anytime, no spam, and it’s free.

 

2. Be Strong On YouTube

I’ve been saying for years that YouTube is the most underestimated platform for new content online. In the last one or two years, it has started to get real recognition from mainstream sources, but only because mainstream content is going there. The underground world of content creators making incredible art, educational tools, smart community discussions, and independent music is still largely being ignored.

With zero help from traditional music and video people like agents, producers, directors, and PR folks, I’ve been able to amass an audience of over 650,000 people online who subscribe to my channel and are notified about every new video I create. I’ve had over a hundred and ten million plays to my videos, more than One Direction’s official channel (sitting on ninety-four million at the time of writing), with none of the label or management heavyweights on my side. Here’s one of my recent videos, “Stupid Stupid”:

The net result for me was that:

  • I had an audience ready to be excited about my goal
  • People cared about me, not just my music, so they were personally supportive of what I wanted to achieve
  • I had my own press outlet: instant access to an audience that I could announce ideas to whenever I felt the need without having to go through newspapers or TV

I’d definitely recommend making YouTube videos if you want to move forward, no matter what your goals are. But the most important thing is to do it because you enjoy it, not just because I’ve suggested it. The Internet, as we all know, is big on transparency. If you don’t like talking to the camera, make regular songs (or stand-up, or short films, whatever your gig is). But remember, people want to get to know the real you–a lot of the videos I make aren’t actually about music.

Don’t be worried about amassing an audience of that size straight away. Everyone starts at zero and it doesn’t happen overnight. The good news is YouTube is very kind to new creators. Their related videos algorithm is a great way to find new stuff and original content is featured on their home page daily and in their staff blogs. If you want to build an audience, just start with the first video and build from there. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a camera, just think of it like a conversation to a friend: we all have conversations we wish we could go back over and edit out the stupid bits we said, and when you make a YouTube video, you can!

For more inspiration and networking you should also look to other creators you enjoy and admire, and reach out to them. Most people have Twitter or a contact email and will be responsive if you have a good idea for something that you can work on together. It’ll help you because you’ll know someone with experience who can give advice (and share their audience, if they like you), and it’ll help them if you can give them a good video idea for you both to be a part of. Big YouTube names are making lots of regular content, so any idea they don’t have to come up with is a help!

How Alex Day Outsold Coldplay and won a Guinness Record ==> Click to Tweet

3. Find and Exploit Loopholes

Those first two tips are a great foundation. This last one is what gets you to the top.

What I’ve learned about labels in the last year is this: they have no imagination. They’ll do the same things everyone else does, right down to the sound of the music they release and how that music is promoted. Because the music they’re putting out is just processed the same way as everything else, nobody’s thinking about how they can exploit the rules. They’re already on top, so they don’t need to climb any higher. I was working from the ground up and needed every edge I could get.

The first thing I did when I decided to get to the top of the charts was to download the chart rules and read them. It didn’t take me long to find something interesting: in the UK, unlimited variants of a song can all be released and their sales combine to a single chart position.

Layman’s translation: If I release two, or five, or ten different remixes of my track, and someone buys all ten…as far as the charts people are concerned, it’s just like that person bought the same track ten times. It all combines to one place on the chart.

So on the day I released my song, my audience found 11 different remixes available to buy. Acoustic versions, instrumental, a cappella, the demo track, a piano track, a rap version, remixes from friends, spoken-word versions, and more.

It was a win for everyone. The people that wanted to support me by downloading multiple copies of the song could do so without just getting the same song each time. And the people who weren’t as bothered would still download some of the other tracks they personally liked (they were all free to view on YouTube).

Net result: the sales doubled.

alexday2

If you’re in the UK, this trick still works and there still hasn’t been a major label to try it. If you live somewhere else, take a minute to read the chart rules in your country: there will be some loophole you can find, and when you do, you’ll marvel at how you found it first.

That’s my story. In the last twelve months, I’ve sold over 300,000 downloads of my music while still remaining unsigned and independent (which means I also get to keep all the money). Forbes described me as ‘the future of music’ in one of two back-to-back profiles on me during the summer. I got an exclusive, physical CD deal in HMV stores across the UK through a major label without signing to them–all because the distributor’s ten-year-old son had heard my music and watched my videos online. And it all started with a clear goal and a decision not to do things the way everyone else does.

Throughout the last year, I’ve finally figured out how to do what I’ve always wanted. I’m still making music, setting goals, and looking for loopholes. This is going to be an eventful year for me, and I hope it will be for you too.

Editor’s Note — Sign up for the Hack the System newsletter if you’d like to learn more incredible hacks. You’ll learn specific strategies to hack your body, hack travel, hack productivity, and hack fame. Unsubscribe anytime, no spam, and it’s free.

 

Photo credits: Christine Hayter and Beverly Nesbit

{ 41 comments… }

emma chris October 19, 2014 at 5:32 pm

wow! What a great discovery, wel i wil try and as much as i can to follow some of these steps. Hanks

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Kristi March 7, 2014 at 3:58 am

When will you do a post on HOW he built his Youtube audience in the first place?

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May Songbird September 7, 2013 at 12:51 am

I love this! So inspiring. I’m going to make 9 more versions of my original song I wrote yesterday.

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D August 30, 2013 at 5:49 am

how did you go about looking up chart rules for your country. I’m having the hardest time finding America’s rules.

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Emi July 22, 2013 at 10:11 am

How can some one really became a music star

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Dan May 29, 2013 at 2:12 am

Fair Oaks, CA born and raised. Give it up for Del Campo cougars.

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SocraticGadfly April 16, 2013 at 10:41 am

So, he’s a suck-ass musician that just exploited a loophole.

And, again, I find it “funny” at least that Maneeth, the guy who posted this, has a “Zen Habits” primary website. It’s very un-Zen to be so attached to so many blatant materialistic rewards.

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Maneesh Sethi June 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Zen habits isn’t my primary web site.

but regardless, it’s not materialistic — and my freaking site is ABOUT exploiting loopholes. Get off if you don’t like it.

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Jonathan November 4, 2013 at 3:29 am

“Hacking” is such a misunderstood concept! It’s working at something to get a desired result, not knowing the entire subject end-to-end.

Anyway, I was looking specifically for this article and glad I found it ’cause I’m gonna try some of this out myself after years of doing the usual d.i.y. indie band stuff.

ALSO, just checked out your Soundcloud Maneesh – super chill work/writing music! And the mixes are way long = BONUS for not having to switch-task.

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Andy January 2, 2014 at 7:53 am

Jealous much? I thought this was an excellent article. It’s so easy to leave if you don’t like it.

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thomas April 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I like not just the story, but the spirit of it. One of the most inspiring thing I’ve read for years maybe.
At the end of the day, It’s about having a hacker attitude. Life is a game you play. You find uncommon strategies to win instead of doing what everyone else does-and fails at-.

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Ben April 7, 2013 at 5:10 pm
James Moore April 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Hi Alex (and Maneesh), congrats on the success and the wonderful post. The point of setting unrealistic goals is fantastic. Also, the remixes loophole is a solid one.

As far as the Youtube/#2 advice, though, I was looking for the hook. Alex has 650,000 fans on Youtube, and because of this he has a ton of support. What’s missing from the article that I think independent artists would love to know, though, is…what are some ideas as far as how to build this audience besides the obvious one given of making videos?

It would have been nice to hear some of Alex’s tactics to build this kind of massive fanbase.

That’s my only point though…it’s a very inspiring article, and the principle of “make it happen creatively” is undeniable.

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Kendal June 12, 2013 at 10:32 am

I’d be interested in learning this too…. how do you build a following?

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Maneesh Sethi August 9, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Following building can be done by guest posting :) http://thinktraffic.net/five-figure-guest-post-maneesh-sethi

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Adam June 16, 2013 at 10:59 am

Yes, I too would love to hear how Alex built his video subscriber list up. I’m a country singer in Australia and have multiple channels, some originals and cover songs of well known ones.

Some things I personally do and have read about and tried are:

1. Share the video in the main social circles like Facebook, YouTube (video replies to songs that have a large amount of views) and also link all my social profiles together at places like OnlyWire a social sharing site.

2. I ask people who are similar to my genera of music and list size to promote me to their followers and also I do the same for them.

3. I have a closer video on some videos asking them outright to share my video, but in a fun way, I got those at a site called splasheo.

4. I try and post videos regularly, but don’t and know that I would get more results faster if I did this as people come back regularly if you do it regularly.

5. Optimization of the video, i.e. try and add the name of your main keyword that people are looking for in the title, the body text and the tags… and a sneaky little thing to do is add descriptions about your song, i.e. if it’s a love song, add the terms “songs about love” etc… that works well.

Hope this sharing helps and I’m really getting a lot from this wonderful site and post.

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Shane D April 3, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Great post, and a really inspiring story. I’ve always been curious about what would happen if you applied Ferriss’ hacks to the music industry … and this answered that question.

Great job man, congrats!

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Adam April 3, 2013 at 8:40 am

Great story and congratulations on your success! Thanks so much for sharing.

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Lill April 3, 2013 at 8:05 am

So inspiring. So happy for your success. I am rereading the 4 hour work week and will start today to follow in your footsteps. Thanks for sharing!

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Mike Gee April 3, 2013 at 7:59 am

Truly inspiring story and a great motivation for others. Thanks for sharing with us, even though you must be pretty busy taking on the music world :) Good luck!

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Pete T April 3, 2013 at 4:59 am

Good story — the only piece of advice missing is the obvious one…if you don’t have any musical talent, you can kiss this dream goodbye.

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maneesh April 3, 2013 at 5:00 am

Pete — I definitely don’t agree. Hacking the system is about exploiting rules. Alex won’t win any grammy’s for Forever Yours — but he did hit the charts.

Just like how I was able to become a “famous” DJ in Berlin by exploiting the rules. http://90days.tv

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whereisthelove April 3, 2013 at 5:22 am

@Pete Do you think the current chart toppers, lady gaga, lil wayne, Nicki MInak , have any musical talent ?

Though having a talent is always a plus, but talent is infact in creating what people like to listen which is a very variable thing.

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Clare April 3, 2013 at 2:46 am

Wow I remember that song from Christmas. Never realised the guy was a complete newb! Awesome story. Just goes to show you can do just about anything if you really put your mind to it.

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Neill from GTR April 3, 2013 at 2:00 am

I admire what he has done, but the hard work was building up the fan base. He didn’t make it big in 8 weeks, rather however many years it took him to build up that fan base.

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Fernando April 3, 2013 at 1:52 am

Great advice on finding out the loopholes and striking up with the goals. I really liked the advice about using YouTube to build a tribe or follower base. Thanks for writing Alex and Maneesh for featuring this amazing article.

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Artur Krol April 3, 2013 at 1:51 am

Great story, just one significant issue – why on earth be so manipulative with the title?

It’s not “how to hack the system in 8 weeks”. It’s “How to spend a long time (how long? and how specifically did you do it – now that’s interesting!) building up 650.000 subscribers on youtube, and then how to monetize it well in 8 weeks”.

All of the other things wouldn’t amount to anything without such a strong youtube following – and from what I’ve understood, you already had that in place before you started the “8 week countdown”. If not and you’ve built it up in 8 weeks, THAT’s the interesting part and please write more about it.

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Tom April 3, 2013 at 1:19 am

Interesting stuff! Back in the physical-music era, record labels of course DID do the multiple-remix thing – Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” was #1 for 9 weeks on the back of vast numbers of remixes – and the rules were changed to ban it, but obviously not for digital product!

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nazeem April 3, 2013 at 1:33 am

What a post ! i really enjoyed reading . I feel really inspired and i feel like i can achieve any dream i want

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Padraic Ó Maille April 3, 2013 at 1:10 am

Excellent article.

The Irish language has a word for what Alex has done.

It’s called ‘Smacht’ and it means discipline – the discipline to
dream a big dream and ‘do it by doing it’; the discipline to
book a studio and record a YouTube video even though you
didn’t know how; the discipline to look for ways of being different,
and to go for them.

Well done Alex. You’re great to share your success secrets

All you need is Smacht

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Kendal June 12, 2013 at 10:34 am

Lol. I like that word. :-D Now I have to learn how to pronounce it.

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Josh March 31, 2013 at 10:05 am

This article blew my mind. I just checked the rules for the Brazilian top 100 and they are indeed similar to the UK. I’ll report back in a year or so when I’m at the top of the Brazilian music charts thanks to this post.

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Yohann March 29, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Fantastic story! End of the day, Alex took action! instead of just researching and contemplating. He created and succeeded.
Good on you Alex!

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Cynthia March 29, 2013 at 1:58 pm

One of the best exploitation of loopholes stories I’ve seen yet. I’d love to see more!

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Eddie March 29, 2013 at 7:56 am

Great story!!! This shows where dedication and creativity gets you!!!

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Tammy March 29, 2013 at 7:27 am

This is amazing!! This article felt like someone was reading my mind’s deepest desire and decided to give me some answers! Thanks for writing/featuring this, Alex and Maneesh!

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Eddy March 29, 2013 at 6:50 am

This is pure badassery

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Jason Connell March 29, 2013 at 6:47 am

Really love this post Alex and Maneesh – thanks so much for sharing. I’ve always marveled at the magic that can happen when you set your sights insanely high, let the world know what you’re working on, and then work really hard. Clearly, you can do the impossible – including break the UK’s top 10 w/out a label. Bravo and thanks for the post. You’ve got me all fired up!

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Cornel March 26, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Wow! This is one of the most inspiring posts I’ve read lately. I have just started to think about a big dream of mine and now I’m all fired-up to take on the world.

Thanks for sharing! Your words filled me with motivation and positive energy.

Cheers,
Cornel

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Ago March 24, 2013 at 8:07 am

Mate, I read the article but I was suspicious.
Guess what, I took a look to the top 100 of the officialcharts website,
and I read your name among the comments, with the people saying “We want Alex Day”.
You’re amazing! I wish you all the best!
Ago:)

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Christian Carroll March 22, 2013 at 9:48 am

woww!! incredible story and congrats on kicking ass in the music industry! really showing the world the little guy CAN push the big guys around with alot of determination and some create outlets!

Reply

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