The very idea of “making it” in music has changed in the last few years. Previously the only way of making a living from music (outside of covers and more esoteric pursuits) was to sign to a label. Now many musicians make a living from a small number of fans, artists like Steve Lawson to Jonathan Coulton.
However, you need to have certain qualities to gain an audience for example:
A great live show
An interesting image (or one people can relate to)
A consistent brand
Perseverance and a hard work ethic (and many other skills)
Perserverance is the one that sometimes people miss. In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell talks about people putting in 10,000 hours of time to achieve a level of skill to be able to hit the top level of any activity. For example The Beatles performed live in Hamburg over 1200 times amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, this experience gave them the skills that made them world famous. Many bands are performing and playing for years before finding their audience. Also some of the best bands give up before they even start because they don’t have the required work ethic. Here are some examples of how bands have persevered and managed to build a career:
Radiohead – They formed in 1985 but didn’t release a record until 1992. How many other bands would have given up in those first seven years?
Pulp – They formed in 1978 and did a Peel session in the early 80s but didn’t gain an audience until the mid nineties. The music industry and fans finally came round to their sound in the end.
Elbow – Formed in 1990 they changed their sound numerous times until they finally released their debut album in 2001.
Seasick Steve – Born in 1941 Steve didn’t release his debut record until 2001 and won the MOJO award for best breakthrough act in 2007!
So much so called “success” in music is really just keeping going, doing what you believe in until you find your audience or you get so good people can no longer ignore you. Listen for feedback from others, if people outside of your circle of friends say you are doing something good then keep going. This perseverance will eventually pay off if your music is good enough.