Indie Musician – Where Am I Going Wrong?
In my indie musician past I’ve been in some fairly successful bands, and some really unsuccessful bands.
It dawned on me recently that the wins I had achieved in my career were usually when I was either:
a) In the hands of a professional manager; or
b) I was piggybacking off somebody else’s success – somebody who had already put in the hard yards.
Whenever I took it upon myself to manage my own project I really had no idea what I was doing and became frustrated pretty quickly at the lack of immediate success. Especially given that I’d tasted it before and it seemed so easy!
So where was I going wrong?
Indie Musician Career Tips!
After spending a couple of years working as an in-house producer for a Major Label development company and alongside my partner in the App Ian, who runs DIY musician site, Make It In Music, and a digital music marketing agency , I learned a lot about the industry behind the scenes, on top of a whole bunch of stuff I had previously learned through trial and many an error!
I now work in digital marketing (alongside music, of course!) and that’s also been such an eye-opener. How social media can work has blown my mind. More on that in the future (I’m going to do an online tutorial uncovering some of the trade secrets, sign up if you want to be involved!)
If I knew 5 years ago what I know now, being in a band would’ve been much less of a grind.
So, if you’re in a group, or you’re a solo artist, who feels like their career has plateaued, here’s some of the dumb things I’ve said and done, and what I’ve learned from them.
I’m sure you’ll recognise a few of them yourself, but I hope you can avoid them where possible!
As always, I welcome any feedback and your own suggestions in the comments. These are just my opinions and experiences and I’m sure there are things I’ve missed or perhaps you disagree with.
“I’m Giving Up!”
This sounds like a glaringly obvious one and a terrible way to start an article (and it is), BUT it’s without doubt the most sure-fire way to stop you in your tracks!
If you really want to make a career out of anything you have to stick at it.
I’d go as far to say if you are not prepared to commit 10 years to it, you might as well give up now, because that’s how long it could take to make it really work!
Ohio band The National didn’t really break the mainstream until their FIFTH album, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ which ended up being nominated for a Grammy that year.
Green Day formed in 1986 (!) and didn’t have any commercial success until their 3rd record ‘Dookie’, 8 years later in 1994. The band are still going now of course, more successful than ever.
Hell, even Katy Perry couldn’t get arrested for years and she had some of the best representation in the industry.
Every successful musician I know personally has been doing the same thing for about 10 years. Not just ‘music’ but THE SAME THING.
Build your brand and keep building – eventually the numbers start to add up.
Persistence is key!
There’s a whole list of examples of other artists who made it later on in their career here.
A music career is like any business – Rome wasn’t built in a day!
Even if you don’t ‘hit the big time’ within that decade, if you follow the right steps there’s no reason you can’t gain enough traction to have a sustainable career as an indie musician.
Think about this; you only need 5000 people to give you £10 each in a year to have a very respectable salary. That can be from an album sale, a gig entry, or perhaps a donation through a crowdfunding campaign?
When you get a minute, why not check out this article from Music Think Tank on how to promote your music to your fans independently.
In my previous career as a musician I have, pretty much like clockwork, spent about 3 years on each project before becoming bored, bitter & disenfranchised before blowing it off. Does this sound familiar?
Looking back, it WAS moving forward – things always are!
Every single move you make gets you one step closer.
But when you begin to feel like things have stagnated, it’s back to the drawing board with a new exciting project, and starting right from the beginning again. Which really only sets you back another 3 years!
Have you ever come across this?..
Once you stop a project because ‘nobody gets it’ that 2 years down the line, everyone is doing it!
You would have been a pioneer!
Basically, a simple rule of thumb here is, don’t give up. You’re only going to have to do all the same shit all over again. Enjoy the small victories as they appear and keep moving forwards.
“I’m Releasing An Album!”
Don’t make an album.
Unless you have, like, 1000 pre-orders, just don’t.
It costs a small fortune and it will just end up being a bunch of CDs in a box under the bed haunting you, constantly reminding you of your inability to make a difference in this world.
You’ll be so sick of the sight of them that you’ll end up trying to give them away at gigs, but people won’t even want to take them off your hands for free. This will make you feel pretty worthless and question your existence.
You will also realise that after making that album, and having no-one review it or buy it, you’ve pretty much wasted 10 pretty decent songs.
On top of that, since you finished the record, you’ve improved those songs 10-fold. So you can’t even listen to it any more as it’s not as good as you know it could have been.
You still really want to make an album though don’t you?
Of course everybody wants to!
It’s one of the reasons you got into music. But these days there are pretty much zero positives in doing so, so early in your career. Your songs will continue to evolve, so why waste them now? Wait until people are banging your door down for a long-player!
Blogs and print media tend to only review albums by established acts, so if you don’t want yours to fall by the wayside – wait ’til you’re established!
‘A box of LP’s & EP’s by my old band The Solicitors . Anybody want one?!’
You may have also noticed that when taking submissions, music blogs want ONE song, typically either a SoundCloud or YouTube link.
If you want some top advice on how to submit your single to blogs there’s a great article HERE.
A number of music blogs are now also using a program called Submithub, which some blogs give priority to over a direct email. Worth checking out!
Just release singles.
Perhaps an EP (although, word to the wise – they are pretty redundant now too).
With a single, you can throw everything into that one song and promote the hell out of it. It only takes one song to make a difference.
Have you released an EP recently? Or know someone that has?
Have you heard anyone proclaim in the last 5 years “Wow, what a brilliant EP!”?
The usual positive sound bites you hear are things like “TUUUNE!’, “WHAT A TRACK!” and “BANGER!” – because they like that song.
If you can get listeners hooked with one song, they will tell you when they want more.
Electronic musicians and producers have been doing this for years and years, and the rest of the world is catching up.
Release solid track after solid track and wait until you have a captive audience before you try and sell them something. Club tracks are like a DJ’s business card, and you need to think of your single as a representation of why people should come and see you live, because that’s where the money is these days!
IF a label is interested in something they have heard by you (as well as your looks, style and personality), they don’t want your full, finished product delivered to them. Labels like to get in on the ground floor and feel like you’re growing together.
I always thought that by having a finished album a record company would be over the moon that there were zero recording costs! Nuh-uh. The label wants to influence the record, they might even want you to go in with a particular producer or writer.
Save your money for now. Put everything into your strongest song at that time. EP’s & LP’s tend to over-face people these days so just give people a taste.
If you want, you can always bundle your singles together as an EP or album later.
“The Style Isn’t Important – We’re Unique!”
Look, everyone thinks they’re unique, and in some small way they are.
But you need to pay attention to the small details of your styling.
One small anachronism can be all it takes to really put off prospective A&R, Management etc.
For example, if you’re a metal band with long hair, black jeans, ripped sleeve Metallica t-shirts playing heavy riffs, great, that’s what you want from a metal band.
But, if your bass player rocks up to the gig with a Paul Weller hair-do and a Fred Perry polo-shirt you’re going to look SO wrong on stage. People cannot process that kind of shit. Even if you sound amazing they’ll take one look at you and think, “They don’t quite know who they are yet”.
Think about the most successful acts you can. There is a very keen eye for detail in the styling. First of all, the look has to match the music. If it doesn’t, it confuses people.
You also need to look like you belong together, to convey an image of togetherness, of a ‘gang’. These are the acts that people want to get on-board with – the ones that already look like they have something going on within themselves. Not just a bunch of mates turning up to a jam session.
Be aware of your ‘brand handwriting’. This is a term used in fashion, but is very applicable to your music act.
• Who is your potential audience?
• Who are you hoping that your music reaches out to?
• Who is your current fanbase?
• What do they look like?
• What do they buy into?
• Who is YOUR fan?
Really think about that before you decide on wearing your spiked collar and mohawk to your heartfelt-acoustic-indie showcase gig.
It seems fickle but these things can make the difference.
They look like they sound, they look like they belong together,and they look like their demographic. An easy sell.
“The World Is Out To Get Me!”
The world is full of shysters and the music business is no exception.
But there are also a lot of people out there who can help you, and sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who, so I say err on the side of caution with any meeting.
Nothing will turn prospective partners off you and get their back up quicker than you pre-emptively acting like they are the enemy, or ‘the man’.
They will run for the hills. There are plenty more musicians out there willing to put their trust in them.
You may have heard some horror stories and urban legends about copyright infringement and stealing other people’s songs but honestly, stop worrying, it really doesn’t happen very often, if at all.
If somebody ‘steals’ your song, there’s a 99% chance you will be able to claim copyright on it. Everything recorded in the digital age has the embedded data of exactly when it was recorded, you don’t need to post songs to yourself and leave the mail unopened any more.
How would you feel if you turned on the radio and heard Justin Bieber singing one of your songs? Personally I would be well chuffed. It would certainly open some doors!
Of course, in life, it is good to be cautious, but be trusting also.
You might be about to embark on a wonderful, prosperous relationship with a new partner, so leave your doubts at the door and go in with an open mind.
Not everyone is out to get you.
As a side-note, be aware that ‘Artist Development’ used to be an in-house procedure when you signed for a larger label. That was in the days when labels had money to develop artists. Those days are gooooone.
Forget what you learned. Artist development is now outsourced, often to companies formed by ex-industry professionals who know the game, and can get you ready for a shot at the labels. And yes, sometimes you will have to pay for these services, as that is how these companies stay in business. Be wary of some, do your homework, but also don’t run a mile because they are asking you for money. Not everything in the industry is a scam! (yet…)
“I Know What I’m Doing, Thanks!”
If someone with a good track record and who knows their shit says to you, “This is good but it still needs work”, focus on the first part of that sentence.
Now, go back and work some more.
You’ll often find that you aren’t always right and that a little tweak here and there can really bring your song to life.
Do not be precious.
It’s a pointless trait to have in the music industry.
Your songs, opinions, voice & looks will be questioned, criticised, even slandered in some cases. Whether it be by a trusted member of your team, or by a snotty blogger reviewing your new track.
You need a thick skin to start with, but eventually, if you can just detach yourself slightly from your art and see it more objectively, you often get a clearer view of the bigger picture that everyone else sees. It can be easy to miss this because you are so close to the material.
Your songs are your babies I know!
But sometimes your judgement can be clouded by what you put into a particular song. Perhaps the lyrics are about the ‘ex’ who you can’t get over, maybe it’s a brand new song that feels really fresh and you still buzz off playing that riff.
Before you release something, get some outside opinions.
Producers, managers, other bands, friends, whoever. Give people 4 songs and do a poll. Ask them to put them in order of their favourites and you might be surprised at the results. (You also might be gutted that actually no-one really likes your new song…)
Sometimes you need to stop white knuckling and take your hands off the wheel.
For instance, a producer is there to produce you, to get the best out of you (and wants to do the best job they can for their CV too remember!).
Ultimately you as the artist have full creative control, but sometimes letting go and putting yourself in the hands of someone else is the best thing. You won’t realise it until later down the track, but when you relinquish a bit of your control, not only do you become more relaxed about the whole process, but you realise that you only have to do what you’re good at – writing and performing music.
“We Don’t Need An Online Presence!”
I’m going to touch on this a little now, but expand hugely in an blog post / online tutorial in the near future. If you’re interested in learning mind-boggling social media techniques sign up here.
I didn’t ‘get’ this until recently, but really all most social media channels do are create brand awareness, and different paths that all lead you to one place – your website. And every indie musician should have one!
The two magic bullets you need to take into account here are your Landing Page & Mailing List. You might need a little lesson in using your online presence to get fans, keep them and, eventually, sell to them. Remember what I said before – you only need 5000 people to give you 10 bucks each a year to have a very sustainable career.
So how do we get these 5000+ people?
Well, how many ‘likes’ on Facebook do you have?
That’s a start!
Shame we haven’t we got their email addresses, huh?
Reach out to your existing fans and offer them something, a free download of an old EP, or a new track, from your website, in exchange for their sign-up.
(Alternatively you can use something like Artist Union which exchanges sign-ups/social shares/reposts etc. in exchange for downloads)
Fans will give you their email addresses when they want to hear from you, but you need to make your mailing list visible.
Make sure it’s on the first page of your website, maybe integrate a pop-up on the page? Go old-school and have a clipboard at gigs and actively try and get your fans email addresses. Offer giveaways and special offers on your Facebook, Twitter & Instagram etc. that lead your fans directly to your sign-up page.
Once you have an engaged email list, you can send out mails about new tours, special ‘subscribers only’ offers, you can even ask them their advice on what your new single should be!
Engage with your audience but DO NOT try to sell them stuff too early on. The fact that they are there following you should be enough for now. You need to earn their trust and then, when the time comes you want to release a new single or whatever, offer it to them first, at a good price.
An email is the best way to keep in touch with your fanbase, a letter direct to their inbox. I’m sure you’ve already come across how difficult it is to reach your audience with a Facebook post and it’s ‘reach’ algorithms, right?
Speaking of Facebook, posts there should be done sparingly, and should only include good, engaging content. The way Facebook’s algorithms work is that one post can cannibalise another; e.g. if you post a great blog article about your band that people want to read and it gets a lot of likes and comments, that will rank you higher in people’s feeds. That can be instantly undone by a photo of your drummers new sticks that no-one cares about.
So think about what you’re posting.
If you have a new video out in a few weeks, make sure that everything you put on your page leading up to it is getting some traction. Ask questions of your audience, make something that is shareable. Sad as it seems, memes are still the most shareable content online!
This really is the tip of the iceberg and I haven’t even gone into any of the programs you can use to manage your social media effectively to grow your numbers. But I will soon, I promise!
If you want to be notified about this and other opportunities sign up here.
“I’m Going To Leave Stones Unturned!”
To quote one of my favourite ever movies, ‘Over The Top’ (Sylvester Stallone kidnaps his estranged son and takes him on a truck-driving and arm-wrestling mis-adventure of a lifetime):
“The world won’t meet you half way”.
As I touched on in the previous section, you really want to be everywhere you can be and this is going to mean some really hard work that you must keep on top of. Organisational skills and (where possible) delegation of tasks are your key friends here.
When you release something and it doesn’t quite take off, do you ever feel like “I could have done more?” – well that’s because you most definitely could have!
It’s impossible to do everything but if you have the drive and determination you can accomplish quite a lot with limited resources.
One such resource I can not recommend highly enough is The Indie Bible. We managed to get a special 70% discount especially for our readers from them at that link!
It’s a 2500 page directory of music print magazines, blogs, labels, publicists, PR, you name it! You could spend a week at your computer with the Indie Bible plugging your new release and you still probably wouldn’t even scratch the surface.
I also recommend having a look at Hype Machine where you can explore the world of music blogs, by country or genre, and do some research into which relevant blogs you should be targeting to suit your genre.
You should also be visible on all online platforms. To get your music out to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, etc. you need look no further than companies such as CD Baby or Ditto Music . In fact Ditto have recently launched a Record Label In A Box. Which has everything you need for releasing your own music independently online.
As well as those platforms you should have your music on SoundCloud, Bandcamp and YouTube, and basically anywhere that you can be discoverable!
And it doesn’t have to be only online.
Do you tell everyone about your band? Or are you ashamed of it? Be loud and proud because you never know who you’re speaking to!
I once worked in a coffee bar in Melbourne, and was chatting to one of our regulars and mentioned I was in a band. It just turned out her son was in a very very cool band who we ended up supporting when I brought her a CD in the next day!
I used to think of my life in two parts. My ‘day to day living’ and my ‘rockstar by night’ entities.
Then ‘Boom!’. It hit me.
I should just always be the musician, regardless of what I was doing.
Some of my best contacts over the years have been through chatting with people in coffee shops, bars, shops etc.
So always be on, and always be looking for a way to tell people about your music.
Online, and in real life!
Leave flyers at coffee shops, put posters up in shop windows, carry around download cards that act as your business card, but with access to your music on! Give them to anyone who is interested.
A download card like this one from Dropcards.com is a perfect way to network and give people your music at the same time.
Leave no stone unturned!
Making yourself visible is one thing but don’t get it confused with my next point, something I had real trouble with for a time…..
“I’m Going To Say Yes To Everything!”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. He just said “Leave no stone unturned”.
And I meant that, but saying ‘yes’ to everything straight away can often turn out to be counter-productive, and have negative effects.
Gigs are a big part of being an artist, and getting out there and exposing yourself to as many people as possible is a course of action that should be explored, but also considered before jumping onto any old bill.
Have you ever said yes to a gig months away and then later been offered a much better show?
I’m sure it must have happened to you, and, like me, you probably felt like you had to honour your original agreement. When the time came for your gig, it was empty, the sound sucked and you couldn’t take your mind off being at that other gig, which had sold out a much better venue.
If you’re anything like me you get excited about music, about being a musician, and your musical calendar couldn’t ever be full enough! Sound familiar?
Well, I’ve got news for you – it will burn you out and drag you down eventually! A few bad gigs in a row are all it takes to feel like you’re moving in the wrong direction.
Take your time when deciding on whether to do a show or not. Research the bands on the bill, check out the venue. Discuss the pros and cons with any of your fellow band mates in a band meeting and don’t worry about replying to the email straight away – nobody expects an instant answer.
When you get an offer, say “Thanks for thinking of us, sounds good, let me check with everyone else and get back to you”. DON’T say, “Yes we’re in!” and then end up having to convince your bass player to cancel their holiday plans to save face.
No-one would jump the gun like that really though would they? I used to. And my band haaaated it! Be honest, maybe you can be a little hasty too?
This point isn’t just for gigs either, but all facets of the industry. Music is a lot like relationships; It’s very tempting to say yes when someone shows an interest in you. The fact that that particular person finds you an attractive prospect makes them more attractive in your eyes.
But we’re supposed to be with Mr. or Mrs. Right! NOT Mr. or Mrs/ Right Now!
This is really applicable to record labels.
Everyone wants a record deal, right?
Someone to shoulder some of the responsibility, to promote you, to front some cash etc.
Well, let’s be honest, a lot of indie labels now only have access to the resources you have yourself, they don’t have much money, and aren’t exactly time-rich as they likely have another job and other acts to ‘take care of’.
It’s a great feeling signing a contract and being able to say “I am signed to blah blah records”, but it’s that bloody ego again playing tricks on you!
Definitely, 100% take a deal if it is going to work for you.
But do your research.
Look at the bands on the roster, make contact with them and ask them how they find being on X label, what has it done for them?
And take your time.
If you rush blindly into it, you might find you end up shackled in a poor deal for a period of years or records.
Get someone to look over the contract and don’t be disheartened if it transpires it isn’t a good deal. Consider yourself lucky!
You can always negotiate terms, but there are some red flags to avoid when being presented a recording contract. You can read about some of them HERE.
If someone digs what you do that interest isn’t going to disappear overnight, and who’s to say they are the only interested party? You never know what other offers are going to come your way!
Prince warned young artists against becoming a ‘slave’ to a record label
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and it might help you along your path. I will return soon with Part 2.
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I like to open up discussions about being an indie musician, and I love to learn from others stories and advice.
I welcome all feedback, opinions, additional tips and even the occasional “You don’t know what you’re on about, mate!’ comments.
I’ll be back soon with Part 2. We also have some really exciting things planned for the near future. The social media tutorials I mentioned before, a TAD Independent Musician Podcast (I will want your music!) a remix competition and some wicked giveaways. To stay up to date with posts and opportunities just sign up here.