Independent Artist Survival Guide
Doing It All Yourself & Avoiding Inherent Risks
by Larry Cox
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With the digital music revolution in full assault, independent artists find themselves fiercely competing with traditional music business protocol. Affording more opportunities than ever, this record industry mutiny offers artists more business, and creative, control than ever before — including a much bigger slice of the profits. However, you better be equally savvy as, and doubly more cautious than, your big-boy counterparts in order to survive and prosper. Join me for this brief tour on keeping your head above water in a business that tries to weigh you down.
In my last article you mostly read about keeping perspective, and not eluding better judgment for false hopes and desperate decisions, in an ever-changing music industry. Now, within the limited confines of article format, I will do my best to enlighten your ambitions for success as an independent artist, while hopefully protecting you from those who want to stand in your way.
As you forge your way through the independent music scene, the pot of gold at the end of your creative rainbow is no doubt a major label record deal. Despite the opportunities afforded to you as an independent artist today, the major label deal is still your huge cash cow lottery ticket to widespread notoriety and being the topic of discussion at dinner tables around the world. That’s not to say that you can’t create a full-time living for yourself as an independent artist — you most certainly can. However, whatever your aspirations, talent, hard work, money, knowledge, and intelligence are the keys to your perception and levels of success.
Some of you may be saying to yourselves, “Aren’t knowledge and intelligence kind of the same thing, or don’t they at least go hand-in-hand?” Not necessarily. An intelligent person does have knowledge. However, just because someone is armed with the facts doesn’t mean that they are intelligent enough put knowledge into action. For example, you can give a person all of the geometric theorems know to man, but if they are not intelligent enough to understand and reason through the calculations, then it becomes a “Houston, we’ve got a problem” scenario.
Knowledge is defined as facts, truths or principles. Intelligence is defined as displaying a capacity of understanding, reasoning, sound thought, or good judgment in grasping and implementing fact. Case in point: The exposing of multiple extramarital affairs will damage, or possibly end, your marriage. Steroid controversy can tarnish your athletic career. Telling lies kills a person’s credibility. Now, do you think that world-famous major league pitching sensation Roger Clemens is intelligent? Now that I have made my point, let’s move on to arming you with some knowledge.
Achievement Demands Commitment
You cannot simply assume that your music will speak for itself and skyrocket you to stardom. Don’t think for a minute that you are going to throw up a MySpace page, play a few local bars and back yard parties, and get discovered. You must be prepared to committing not only your time, but your energy and financial investment as well. It is true that you no longer need a major label to get your music heard and sold. The flip side to that wonderful concept is that YOU need to do all of the work and finance all of the expenditures.
Trust me when I say that striking out as an independent artist gives a whole new meaning to the word commitment. You must be a multi-tasker extraordinaire, a jack of all trades, and still keep those creative juices flowing — twelve to eighteen hours a day, day in and day out. It must be your soul focus. Every waking moment, and every spare dollar that you can muster up, must be geared toward your ambitions.
To successfully manage all of this requires that you be smarter tomorrow than you are today, and that includes every tomorrow as long as you continue to pursue your dreams and goals as an artist. Yes folks, this independent artist thing is a ton of work and commitment!
Always the Student
Assuming that you already have the talent and musical proficiency aspects nailed down, you must continually stay on the cutting edge of knowledge to compete and be successful in any business — and being a music artist is most certainly a business. You must constantly read, research, study, and seek advice on every aspect of your role as an independent artist. This includes, but is in no way limited to, recording, production, graphic design, contract negotiation, tour booking, promotion, merchandising, marketing, advertising, copyrights, trademarks, publishing, licensing, taxation, accounting, networking, distribution, computers, software, web design, e-commerce, and much more.
Read everything that you can get your hands on. Harness the power of the Internet, as it is a five-star university at your fingertips. You really need to become proficient in the topics that I mentioned in the previous paragraph — becoming a successful independent artist demands it. It will take time, as you complete one self-imposed internship after another.
Your Own Recording Studio
With plenty of self-education (see previous paragraph) and experimentation, the only thing that will separate your home studio from a commercial recording studio is their paying clientele booked around the clock. With today’s technology, computers, and digital audio workstations, a talented artist can generate a commercial studio sound in their own home. Of course this will require the proper conversion of an existing portion of the home, but that will be the cheapest portion of your expense, and the information on how to do it is out there for the taking.
In addition to the learning and experimentation factors, your studio will require a fairly substantial outlaying of cash. However, it is an investment in your future, and will save you a small fortune in the long run in studio and engineer fees — and can double as your rehearsal studio, saving you another potential expense. Do whatever you need to do, legally, to foot the cost of the studio. Home equity loans or lines of credit are a terrific source to raise capital for a studio, and the money spent is a tax write off for your business.
Get Your Music Out There
Take advantage of digital distribution It’s all fine and dandy to get your CD’s into retail outlets, but that almost always requires giving them the product on consignment, which will cost you big money out-of-pocket, with no guarantee of sales. Even major labels are taking financial hits in light of the digital music revolution. It’s a whole new ball game today and your team needs to get into the league.
Get your music on as many digital download web sites as possible, such as iTunes®, Napster®, Rhapsody®, and numerous others. Make it as easy as possible for potential fans to access and purchase your music, preferably right from their computers. Many people, especially kids, have gotten away from shelling out twelve to fourteen bucks for an entire CD, but they will purchase individual songs that they like for ninety-nine cents. It may seem trivial, but those sales add up quickly with the right exposure.
You can also easily get signed up with Amazon®, and other such retail outlets on the web, which only require a small amount of CD’s be sent to them at the outset, and then they let you know as they need more. This is a great way to provide world-wide access to your CD’s with minimal cost to you.
Get Yourself Out There
Hit the road and show people why they should be buying your music. Build a following. It takes a lot of research, and some serious planning, but you can set up your own tours. Bars, small music venues, music festivals, and other events are available all over the country — and all over the world for that matter.
There are many logistics involved, the most critical being your cost to income ratio. Simply stated, this is how much you will be making at each venue throughout the tour as opposed to the calculated costs for the tour. Costs such as, but not limited to, transportation, fuel, lodging, meals, advertising, promotion, employee wages & expenses, equipment rentals, repairs, miscellaneous or emergency expenses, and other unexpected expenses that may arise (you must budget a percentage for such unforeseen expenses).
Merchandising, such as T-shirts, ball caps, CD’s, posters, etc., sold at the shows are also a good source of income, and will help offset expenses. However, the dollar numbers cannot be guaranteed. Also, the products themselves require up-front money to produce them for sale. Nevertheless, you will generate sales, and every bit of income helps. Subsequently, the merchandise that fans take home with them keeps you on their minds long after you pull out of town.
You won’t have a record label A & R staff at your disposal, so you need to step up and fulfill that role as well — one of the many hats that you will wear as an independent artist. Self-promotion is a term that many artists have a real hang-up with. They feel that it is beneath them to self-promote. You may feel that way as well. Get over it!
Legendary rockers Motley Crue self-promoted themselves right into a major label record deal by handing out flyers, stapling flyers to telephone poles, etc. They, and the fans that they recruited, created so much hype in Hollywood that the record companies just couldn’t ignore them. You know the rest of the story. That is simply one example. Almost every successful artist was an ingenious self-promoter in getting themselves to a level where the major labels took notice.
Motley’s efforts were nothing more than a predecessor of modern-day street teams. Get your fans blogging and chatting about you online. Have them hand out flyers, ticket cards, or other band paraphernalia. Work the MySpace network, and the numerous other social and music networking sites.
Create media kits. If you are on tour, have someone traveling ahead of the band talking to radio stations, local newspapers and weekly magazines, local hangouts, and generally spreading the word about your upcoming show.
Find avenues, such as MuzikReviews.com, to create press releases and write reviews of your music. These types of endeavors help build your presence on the web when people try to find you via search engines. This is invaluable to your exposure, especially when people have seen you at a show, and then Google® you afterwards to see “what you are all about.” A large presence on the Internet lends credibility to you as an artist and helps create hype.
I have merely touched the tip of the iceberg regarding all of the expense and effort that you will put forth into your career endeavors. With so much at stake, this section is probably the most important set of considerations that you need to take into account as you navigate the shark-infested waters of the music business.
For every one of you out there that is chasing a dream, there are ten more who want to steal it away from you. These parasites come in all forms. Don’t be so naïve as to assume that just because you are an independent, or yet unknown, artist, that your music isn’t valuable enough to be stolen in some way, shape, or form. Unscrupulous musicians will scan the web, MySpace pages, etc., in the hopes of stealing song ideas, song hooks, and even complete songs.
Maddening as that might be, unethical musicians are the least of your predators out there among the waters. The real scumbags are those who make contact with you under the auspices of “reputable” business entities. These types of scumbags are running rampant on MySpace. They pose as marketing firms, companies looking to give you an “endorsement deal,” record labels, publicity firms, music distributors, etc. The old timeless rule of thumb still holds true today — if it sound too good to be true, it probably is.
So how does one guard against such threats? First, if someone praises you, and praises you, promises to do this for you, and that for you, and in the end it all comes with a “sweet deal” price tag, then walk away.
Be weary of individuals who approach you and express a desire to collaborate with you regarding songwriting. Their desire to work with you may actually translate into you writing a song that they can take partial credit for.
Don’t ever sign anything without first contacting an attorney. Any reputable and legit business person that is making you an offer would expect you to do so. If they are in a rush, or try to explain things to you, telling you there’s no need for an attorney, then walk away.
Make sure you copyright your material. If you re not familiar with this process, then research it online at the U.S. Copyright Office’s web site. Copyright forms are simple enough to complete and file yourself. However, businesses such as Legal Zoom® also offer reasonably-priced services as they guide you through their online quasi-do-it-yourself methods.
Also, make sure that you keep copies of your lyrics, and all other documentation of the song development process. Such additional documentation is worth its weight in gold should you end up in a court battle to protect your work.
Sign up with a performing rights organization such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), or BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated). These associations are responsible for collecting licensing fees, and royalty distributions on behalf of songwriters, composers, and music publishers. They also provide other valuable services for songwriters and artists. This is also another great way to lend evidence as to your claim to a particular song.
Wrapping Things Up
Pursuing your career as an independent artist can be a rewarding and lucrative undertaking. It can also be wrought with peril, endangering all of your hard work and financial investment. With determination, unwavering commitment, knowledge, and a discerning mind, you can notably increase your opportunities for success while greatly reducing the chance for disaster.
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