As many major-label records as I’ve engineered and mixed over the years, I have to say that the projects I’ve found most satisfying were artist-funded independent ones. I’m a big fan of the underdog and there’s nothing I like to see more than an artist’s drive and desire paying off, propelling them from anonymity toward superstardom. It’s this creative spirit and enthusiasm to overcome the odds that gives hope to every reclusive songwriter out there who’s locked in the basement with a multitrack recorder and something to say to the world.
Who do you think you are?
Unfortunately, the entertainment industry doesn’t hand out record deals to the most talented. It’s not even enough to be an outstanding songwriter and recording artist anymore. It’s about treating what you do as a business and integrating yourself into this dysfunctional music scene. In a sick twist of irony, many musicians who have successfully dodged the conventional office job are finding themselves submerged in clerical work for their own projects. Acting as PR person, sales rep, and radio promoter in order to sustain this so-called “easy” career path, it seems that it’s not what you are willing to do to succeed as much as it is who you are willing to become to get there.
Being an indie artist used to be the undesirable consolation prize of the industry—what you did if the major labels didn’t want you. Now it’s less of a parting gift and more of a viable way to sink or swim based entirely on your devotion to your craft.
If you’ve concentrate d solely on music and neglected the business/networking side of your career, it’s possible that you’re sitting all alone with a sonic masterpiece, without anyone to hear it. If you shift into your artist manager alias, there are ways to have your material heard at the big labels, but brace yourself for disappointment. Optimism and positive thinking aside, given the state of the music industry, you should have a contingency plan if the majors don’t hear your future Grammy-winning songs with the same level of excitement as you do. Most people’s plan B is to release their music independently, often with the thought that this is an intermediate step between obscurity and signing your multi-million dollar deal. And it can be, but you should know what you’re getting into first.
The question is: Are you really willing to suffer for your art? And by suffering I mean literally taking on the skill set and personality of an artist manager and an entire record label staff in order to introduce your music to its potential audience. It’s a daunting undertaking that would deter most artists if they were fully aware of the aggravation they’ve signed on for. However, this reccurring scenario has spawned a whole new breed of business-minded recording artists who take personal responsibility for their serious career as an entertainer. Not only must you embrace do-it-yourself music making, but do-it-yourself music selling as well.
The following paragraphs will serve as a crash course in taking on the music industry all by yourself. It’s not about winning the major-label lottery—it’s about legitimately earning your place in the business by adding value to the artist you are and the music you create. This doesn’t happen overnight, but there are ways to fast-track the process by building your team and not getting hung up on things that don’t matter.
Become that which you hate
So you have the modern equivalent of the Beatles’ White Album on your hands and you’re willing to take a bullet for it—and believe me, gunfire may be actually tolerable when compared to the hours of self-promotion and inevitable rejection you’re up against as a do-it-yourself indie artist. It is as if you’re crossing the ocean in an inflatable raft while those with major-label backing are getting there in a yacht. While making it to the opposite shoreline may be the common goal, you should be most concerned with not letting the waves take you under—the fact of the matter is that you won’t make the entire journey on your own. In all likelihood, you’re going to need help along the way. The catch is that you don’t know when or in what form that help may come, so you need to conserve your energy and resources.
At this point it’s about coming up with a plan that will keep your music afloat as long as possible—because remaining active in the game is half the battle. The longer you’re out there promoting your music, the better your odds will be that you’ll encounter opportunities to advance your quest for musical world domination.
It’s difficult not to look at the major labels as the Antichrist, especially after every A&R guy systematically belittles your life’s work with a single passive-aggressive brush-off phrase like “it’s not for me” or “I’m not feeling it.” But as evil and inefficient as they’re often made out to be, you may have a greater appreciation for what the major labels do, especially when faced with the overwhelming task of doing it all yourself.
In yet another cruel dose of irony, it seems you must become a little more like the one that you hate. Yes, you need to be your own major label for this to work. The difference is that you’re at a financial disadvantage and lack the decades of experience and promotional muscle that the majors possess. As much progress as there has been made by and for independent artists lately, mainstream outlets such as major press, touring, retail distribution and commercial radio remain part of an élite, closed-door club that most indie artists are simply not allowed into.
Know when you’re not wanted
National magazines don’t run pieces on artists without major distribution or without being on a major tour. No national promoter will give you an opening slot unless you can draw a significant crowd in every city. You can’t reach potential fans in regions that aren’t racking your CDs at big record stores and spinning your single on the big radio stations. Unless you have money to buy your way into major distribution, kick off a commercial radio campaign, or get onto a great tour, you have to inch your way closer to being accepted into this VIP club by playing good local shows, selling at indie record stores and over the internet (CD Baby, CD Street, Amazon), servicing college radio stations in your area and embracing local and internet press.
Granted, this seems unfair, but just remember: anyone can put out a CD—there is no formal quality control or system regulating the indie music scene other than a crude sort of natural selection that eventually kills off the undedicated and the unmotivated artists out there. The longer you’re able to hang in there, the more you’re carving out a space for yourself that you can build upon. With a little luck and continued belief you may one day transcend your indie status and graduate to worldwide exposure.
Your way to the buzz
So how does one single-handedly function the way a major label would? You can’t. But you can learn from the model that they use and apply a scaled-back version of it for your CD release. Because the conventional promotion outlets are largely unavailable to you and you can’t afford national advertising, you must rely on building your following more organically by concentrating on a specific region, with live shows, word of mouth and massive internet promotion. There are countless indie music websites that are more than happy to review your CD, and local college radio stations can usually be persuaded to spin your music. In fact, for a few thousand dollars you can hire a promotion company for an eight week, several hundred station national college radio campaign.
If you put in a little extra effort and personally call and email the station music directors, it’s possible to crack the CMJ 200 chart, which can stimulate some solid industry buzz. These radio stations can be great allies when you look to tour through their town at some point in the not-so-distant future. For your radio campaign and internet and local press, it’s a good idea to set an arbitrary release date for your CD launch. Make sure it’s far enough in advance to give yourself a chance to send your disc to the reviewers and prolong the ‘brand new’ period when you can give someone a pre-release copy. This will also give you time to nail down internet and limited retail distribution (they often want a 6–8 week lead-up before your release date).
When you take on the personality of your imaginary publicist you’ll need to have an angle or a story that is compelling enough for people to care about what you are doing. If you’re an unknown artist without a story, what good reason would people have to feature you in their magazine, TV show or website? Just being a new artist with a new record coming out isn’t exactly newsworthy or even interesting. I’m not suggesting you should fabricate your bio, but objectively rearrange it so that it highlights the strengths that set you apart from the thousands of artists out there who are trying to get press. Keep in mind that a lot of times the information that you feel most insecure about exposing is what people find the most interesting.
All’s fair in love, war...and indie promotion
Companies spend millions of dollars every year to promote their products and stimulate brand recognition. It may take years for a product to become instantly identifiable and ultimately a household name. You should be viewing your music in much the same way. Of course you don’t have quite the advertising budget or the marketing staff, so you must cut some corners to make up for the deficiency in these areas.
First of all, you can be more directly in touch with your demographic than most corporations could ever be. Your personal contact with your fan base is one of the strongest ways to build loyalty, performance attendance, and ultimately, CD sales. Whenever you’re awake you should be promoting—in internet chat rooms and in peer networking sites. You should have CDs and show fliers with you at all times. Wherever you go you should always have a way to play a snippet of your music to prospective fans on your iPod or portable CD player.
Push like the pusherman
It’s even better if you can afford to give away samplers with one or two songs from your record. If you think like a drug dealer and give away the first hit of your music for free, you can let your music speak for itself and hopefully hook in the fans. You can actually compensate for your lack of funding and personnel by putting in longer days and becoming a veritable self-promoting machine.
As you get into this headspace, you’ll adapt similar methods employed by most companies, capitalizing on a consistent artistic direction that connects your music to your promo materials, photographs and an easily recognizable logo or symbol. This common thread should appear on html emails to your fan database, CDs, merchandise, posters, correspondence you send to industry contacts, and most importantly, your website. Along with everything that you print up, hand out or email you should always be featuring your web address. It’s important that your site look professional, with easy access to listen to your music.
Ultimately my suggestion is that you should employ the same kind of creativity that goes into your songs to devise new ways to promote your music. You’re independent, so you can actually get away with doing things that the big guys could never do, so take advantage of that. The worst thing that could happen is that you get arrested or fined for being a little too creative...and you can’t buy that kind of publicity, so there’s really no downside.
Becoming a complete artist
There is good news if you’re not fazed by wearing several hats and putting in a lot of hard work for the cause. Being indie has its advantages. You retain 100% creative control and you keep all the profits. This is your chance to prove that you’re worthy—doing it yourself is like you’re conducting your own focus group to evaluate the commercial viability of your music. If you manage to single-handedly sell a few thousand CDs, chart at college radio, tour wherever possible while exploiting your image in all media—you’ll be an indie hero.
Ultimately, if you succeed at this level, you’ll naturally attract more powerful managers, publishers and labels that are instinctively drawn to the prospect of making money. Ironically, you’ll find that the best way to get to these influential industry players is to stay away from them. They’ll come to you when you’re ready and the best part is that you’ll be in a better bargaining position then.
You’re a part of an evolution that requires you to be more than just talented musically. The sooner you embrace the marriage of art and commerce and make it work for you, the sooner you can be on your way to a more stable career in music. If you can deal with the impending identity crisis of becoming all of these personalities, you got a shot at having your songs reach their audience so they can be accepted or rejected based on what real, music-loving people feel, not because some label exec in a tall building assesses their—and your—artistic worth. This is the music industry on your terms—it can be a bit scary out there, but it’s good to get out of the studio for a while and take in a big, deep breath of reality.
Frank Gryner is a recording engineer and producer in Los Angeles. His list of credits includes Rob Zombie, Tommy Lee, The Crystal Method, A Perfect Circle, and RPM.