Dominic Mancuso has been independently making music for 20 years, as a singer-songwriter, performer, film/TV/ theatre music composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Last year, he won a World Music Album of the Year Juno Award for his current recording, Comfortably Mine, which transcends cultures and borders, combining traditional Italian music with North American influences. He and his visual artist brother Vince have also created MANCUSO2, a production combining music and live digital art. It’s been staged at Toronto’s Distillery Jazz Festival and Nuit Blanche, and been commissioned by Pfizer, Cadbury/Adams and Bell World. Here, Mancuso offers some thoughts on how to take control of your independent musical career.

In today’s demanding music industry, it takes much more to “make it” than having some good music under your belt. The reality is, music is only part of what’s necessary for long-term success. You also need to arm yourself with technical, visual, marketing and branding skills. I’d like to highlight a few of these “extra-curricular” pursuits that have empowered me to flourish in my musical career.

Build sonic savvy
Early in my career I realized that being “just a musician” wasn’t enough. I wanted to learn about all aspects of the creative process. So while my bandmates were shooting pool in between takes at the recording studio, I’d be sitting next to the engineer watching and learning. We were paying the person to be there, so why not get double value by extracting tricks-of-the-trade?
This attitude paid big dividends as recording technologies advanced. I created a home studio and applied years of these informal “lessons” to make professional recordings within my means. Ninety percent of Comfortably Mine, was recorded at mi casa, and engineering and editing the record in my own studio allowed me to invest instead in the best musicians and a world-class final mix engineer, mastering house and co-producer.

“While my bandmates were shooting pool in between takes at the recording studio, I’d be sitting next to the engineer watching and learning.”

Go Photoshopping
Developing skill sets outside your medium is also a must. Basic proficiency in Photoshop software is an example. We’re living in a visual world saturated with images. Do you grasp the concept of 72dpi vs. 300 dpi images? Can you format your photos for various contexts?
Many of my peers haven’t harnessed the visual side of their careers, but more than ever, success is about selling a whole package. Micro-manage all visual aspects, from font selections to band attire. Don’t post poorly designed or low-quality images – you’re only hurting your brand.

Define your own unique brand
The idea of “brand” can be awkward for musicians. But if you’re creating a product and selling it, then you have lots to learn from the advertising and branding industries.
The sooner we musicians accept the principles and approaches associated with those disciplines as integral to our own success, the sooner we’ll advance our position in the marketplace. Know who you are and carve out your own identity.

Find ways to market your music
Did you know that corporate investment in music is quickly approaching the level of traditional labels? Corporations are the new record labels. Feist had great success with her Apple campaign. Natalie MacMaster placed a song in a Tim Horton’s commercial. These are smart pairings.
Seeking the right relationships to enrich your brand can have multiple benefits. Endorsements provide financial rewards and viable distribution, hard to achieve without paying for advertising.
I realized I had a niche product in Comfortably Mine, an album of traditional Sicilian-Italian songs re-invented. After exhausting conversations with record labels and distributors, I realized the Canadian music industry didn’t really know how to promote it. So I came up with the idea of teaming up with a winery to help disseminate my music.

Since my record was sung mostly in Sicilian dialect, I researched wineries in Italy and Ontario and found Pillitteri Estates in the Niagara region. The bonus: the owners and company name are of Sicilian origin. Bingo!

I met with management and a partnership was struck: They commissioned 10,000 CDs of my music for a promotional campaign. The CDs were attached to bottles of Pilliteri wine and sold at Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlets throughout the province.

Consumers bought a $13 bottle of wine and received a CD of my music. The response was incredible, and I was able to leverage Pilliteri’s popularity and distribution network to reach a completely new audience.

While you may be an expert in music, you’re probably not an expert in production, design, branding and marketing. In these fields, hire the best available to you, learn from them, and understand that their contributions are integral to your career. That’s how I was able to achieve much of my success – by seeing the big picture.