There’s this idea on the internets the last few years that if you’re a musician you must give your music for free, and then try to make money off of live performances and special packages for fans who are collectors. I personally don’t share this idea. I don’t believe that anyone can be a Radiohead or NiN. These bands are already established with a known number of fanatic fans who would buy anything. But the reality is that for the 99.99% of the rest of the artists, this won’t work. I, and anyone I know, would never buy collector’s items. It’s not our style, I guess. We follow a musician for his music only (ok, and for those dreamy eyes).
Live performances only bring so much money too, and all we know how bad music sales are these days. So, you ask, how can the music industry survive? And my answer is: it can’t, and it won’t. Why is it so hard to acknowledge that times changed, and no matter what, only a handful of artists will make it big, and the rest should keep their backup jobs? The age of rock’n'roll and Hollywood glam are over. Just like being a weldor was a cool job back in the Middle Ages, and it’s not anymore. Times changed.
Just the other day I was reading on BBC what journalists and music industry specialists suggested that should be done in order to save the music industry. They suggested from subscription streaming, to universal licensing, to anything else you can think of. And guess what: none of this will work. Nada. Reasons being: 1. Over-saturation of the market, 2. There’s already enough legally free music out there, 3. Streaming a problem in a non-100% internet-connected world, 4. Piracy.
In my opinion, trying to be a musician that can sustain a family financially, is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s only going to be more difficult. And if you happen to have a drug habit, well, good luck with your cheapo MacDonalds daily diet and still look young & sexy in your ’30s. However, if you still feel that you want to give it a try in that industry, here are my suggestions.
1. Experiment with new sounds, new instruments. If you’re just another 1 guitar, 1 bass, 1 drums, 1 vocals band, well, good luck with that. Oh, and stop seeing rock with keyboards as “pop/disco” (and therefore “bad music”). Keyboards is just a tool, it can be very flexible sound-wise, and so use that to your advantage. On the other side of the spectrum, violins are still cool.
2. Chances are you’re not a new Elvis or Nirvana. Therefore, you’ll have to play within the constraints of the current market. This means that you will have to write music people WANT to hear — even if you don’t. Oh, shut up already with your “I won’t sacrifice my artistic integrity” bullshit. Do you think Leonardo daVinci only created the stuff he wanted to create, or did he also got side jobs for governors and the church, and had to abide within the rules and needs of these employers? Because, he totally did, and you’re no different. Today’s “employer” are the consumers. And today’s consumers are so overrun by their hectic life, that they simply have no time to decode your experimental/avant-garde/whatever-weird-shit you’re writing. They need HOOKS, melodies that their brain can hold on to after a SINGLE LISTEN. The rule of thumb here is this: if you can imagine your neighbor being able to sing your song in his shower, then you have a marketable song. If not, go back to drawing board and rewrite it. Now, I am not saying that you should only write “pop” music (by “pop” I mean “easily understood”, it could be any genre, including heavy metal or punk — more explanation on all this in the comment section below). But you need to write such music in order to make a BUCK, so you can then produce the music you REALLY want to make available (e.g. Blitzen Trapper took off when their last two albums became more accessible musically). You can do this via two ways: have 3 out of the 10 songs on your album being the music you really want to make, and poll your customers what they thought about it. The other way is to give away your not-very-commercial music via your web site, and then see the reactions of your fans. If that kind of music sells, consider it for your next album. If not, keep making “pop” music, write the music you want on the side, and give it away for free, and await for another 20 years until it gets appreciated. If you’re not willing to do that, then I wouldn’t consider you a wise professional. There’s no shame in making a living. The shame only comes when you are a musical fanatic, a “purist”. Nothing good ever came out of fanaticism.
3. Learn how to use recording software, e.g. Logic, Pro Tools etc. It is absolutely possible with today’s equipment to record in very high quality on your own home. You will only need professional mixing and mastering to be done by others.
4. Design your own artwork. If you’re a true artist, it doesn’t matter if you’re a musician and not a painter or a Photoshoper. Let it come out. Improvise. Or, ask your fans to do art for you.
1. Avoid label contracts (including with indie labels), unless you’re 100% you are getting a good deal. Majors never offer a good deal btw, avoid them like the plague.
2. Avoid managers. If you need to be told what to do then this is not the right profession for you. Being a professional musician today means more than just writing music. If you’re only interested in writing/play music, then keep a day job, and play music on the weekends. Do employ a manager/helper when you become too successful and can’t take care of the daily business all by yourself anymore.
3. Hire a PR company to do specifically the TV/magazines/radio promotion for you (there are 5-6 good ones in the US), a live-show booking company, a licensing company, a distribution company (e.g. CDBaby, who will also get you to Amazon, iTunes, Spotify etc). If you’re successful, also get legal counsel.
Your side of promotion, online
1. Send ONE mp3 to music blogs from your new album. IF you can give away more, give away up to three mp3s from your album, but there has to be a 1-2 months of space between the freebies. Otherwise, overloading listeners won’t work well, and you might give the wrong impression that your music doesn’t worth much to give it away so easily. It’s a bit of a mental game. You will have to keep listeners think “oh, I remember these guys, they had this other mp3 a couple of months back“. Very important: always tag your mp3s properly, including with album art.
2. You must spend time to find the top-100 music blogs out there to send your info, mp3s for reviews or for freebie promotional reasons. The top-5 such blogs will probably ignore you, but the rest 95 probably won’t. If the top-5 can get you 1000 new fans, and the rest 95 combined can get you 2000 new fans, it’s still a good plan despite the extra work. As for the top-5, that’s why you hired the PR company suggested above.
3. While commercial FM radio might be inaccessible to indie artists (even with a PR company is difficult), college & internet radio are not. Send your free CDs or mp3s to these radios. There are hundred of thousands of listeners in these radios these days. This should also include services like Pandora and Last.fm which are not internet radios with the normal sense of the word.
4. TV is also inaccessible for indie artists, but Youtube/Vimeo are not. And I am not talking here about just shooting a music video or capturing a live performance. Instead, contact top amateur videographers and ask them to make videos off of your songs. The band Barcelona became more known in the last few months just because a videographer used their song for his video (currently, the most “liked” HD video on Vimeo ever). The interesting thing here is that this is NOT the best song off of the album, and yet, AFTER that video became popular, that song became their No1 sale on iTunes. One big thing that ticks the music industry is the unauthorized usage of RIAA music by amateurs. This is a major point that the indie artist should use against his major artists’ competition! If they don’t allow people to use their music with their random non-commercial videos, then the indie artist should! All you need to ask is for attribution, so your new fans will know who plays that song.
5. Always maintain at least a Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter account. Twitter must be updated regularly. It’s very important to actually reply to your fans there (I personally unfollow bands that don’t reply to fans). Then there’s Imeem, purevolume, hypem, ilike etc. You can use a web site like ArtistData to manage them all at once. And of course, have a main band web site, that uses NO Flash. Flash takes ages to load and it doesn’t work with mobile phones. Keep it simple, and accessible. Also blog.
6. Do shoot 2-3 official music videos from your album. There are amateur videographers out there in your area that do want to shoot your official video, for free, or for very low cost. They get to brag that they shoot real music videos for artists, and you get a music video. And if the outcome is not stellar, it’s still better than nothing. Upload to both Youtube and Vimeo.
7. Sign up for sessions with Daytrotter or HearYa, then make these sessions known to your fans so they can download them for free. Just the other day I bought the EP of ‘Magic Wands‘ after I heard them for the first time at Daytrotter.
8. Tell your label or your PR company to give away for free 1-2 mp3s to mp3 manufacturers. If you can get 1 of your mp3s onto the Sandisk players (which usually come with a few mp3s for free), or an Android or Nokia phone, then you will get *millions* of new listeners, for free. Bay Area’s Loquat made a name for themselves by giving away their single via the Sandisk players.
9. For the top-5 or top-10 of the music blogs/mags, along the CD send an actual mp3 player with your top-3 songs in there, asking for a review (and mentioning which one of the 3 songs is to be given as a freebie for the blog/mag’s audience). See, if you send just a CD, no one will rip it, it will be ignored. If you send an attached mp3 on an email, it will get wiped out by their firewall. If you send a link to an mp3, most probably it will be ignored too. But by sending an actual mp3 player, no one will say “no” to a free gadget. They will feel compelled and *obligated* to listen to what’s in there. These days, you can buy a cheap 512 MB mp3 player (which is way bigger in storage than what you need anyway) for $10. Geeks.com had some a few weeks ago for $7+tax+shipping, they are out of them now. But they might still be available elsewhere.
10. Do shows. A lot of shows. And don’t shun the rural America, since most bands don’t go there, and so you can get new hungry fans there, while you least expected it to. Not everyone’s listening to country over there.
And finally: look good. The ladeez like seeing good looking men up on the stage. Sorry mate, part of the job too.