Recently, a friend and I discussed the public perception of the concept of “indie artist“. That friend expressed her growing discomfort over the term being used in the first place, as it seems to get burdened with a number of preconceived assumptions about its nature that aren’t exactly beneficial to the cause of seriously, hard and professionally working independent artists. So let’s look at what makes an artist “independent” in the first place and how that is to be distinguished from artists, who are signed to a major record label (such as Sony, Warner Music Group, Universal Group etc.):
At the very least, an artist is defined by what they do, e.g. music, poetry, literature, movies etc. The better they are at what they do, the bigger their chances of getting wider exposure, i.e. appeal to more people. For the sake of this post and for reasons of feeling better qualified to speak, let’s focus on music as an art form. So at a very basic, oversimplified level, there is no real difference between a signed and unsigned aka independent artist in nature. The better their music sounds, the more people will be attracted to it (we’ll look at quality further below). Very simple. Or not? Which brings us to the next aspect:
Let’s say, your music is so great, you are sure the world will be a better place for getting a chance to listen to it. How do you get the word out? Distributing free samples, e.g. handing out free CDs to friends, co-workers, family? Posting free music on all major digital outlets on the web? Buying ad space? Playing gigs and concerts every weekend in your local vicinity or touring the county, state, country? Good question. Let’s look at this:
An independent artist bears all financial risks out of their own pocket, at least in the beginning and for a long time to come. Unless you come from a generous, wealthy family with a benevolent, supporting member, who act as your “angel investor” (term used with kind permission from April Sims), a good supporting friend or otherwise supporting party, who are willing to invest into your talent – you’re on your own. Which usually translates into: Saving enough money to produce your music at first, and saving some more to get the word out (marketing). How do you do that? Unless you have that benevolent donor throwing money at you, you have to sustain yourself (and/or family) by holding one or more day jobs. Whatever spare time is left – and which is usually “spent” on socializing, being with family, working on overall health and fitness – often goes into practicing your instrument(s), writing music, booking studio time to get it recorded (unless you are lucky enough to have your own studio, which most only do after they’ve had substantial success), scheduling band rehearsals, booking live appearances, producing marketing materials of all kinds… there is a ton of activities involved. In a nutshell: An independant artist, who is serious about eventually making money with their music, is or has to become a full-fledged entrepreneur operating in a self-employed manner. If you have never been self-employed, allow me to digress for a minute and give you an analogy as an example:
Let’s say, you’re holding a white-collar type of job in a corporate office somewhere (easier for me to “showcase”, as I come from such a background). You show up anywhere between 7.30 and 8.30, pour yourself another cup of coffee at the machine in the hallway or kitchen, while the computer boots up, you come back, there’s a post-it on your phone “call head of department first thing” (uh-oh…), a co-worker waits in your cubicle upon your return, informing you of the meeting scheduled for 9.30, while you listen to a message on your answering machine to return that client’s call asap. In other words: There is a bunch of infrastructure in place for you to work with. All that infrastructure doesn’t exactly come for free. Someone paid or is paying for it – usually your employer. You ONLY get to use it in order to make them some money. If you don’t deliver – you might find yourself getting fired. In which case your only “liability” is the missing pay-check (and that can be devastating enough). I have not heard of a case yet, where a fired employee was charged for having used that infrastructure – unless they were excessively using it on behalf of personal matters. In the case of music artists – and that goes especially for signed ones! – you are prompted to return the expense the company has put out for you in getting you “made”. Read this again and let it sink in: If you fail to generate the anticipated sales from your record(s) when signed to a label, they will request a good deal of their initial expense (e.g. signing “bonus”) back – from YOU! Which means in our analogy: You just got fired and on top of it, you find yourself being faced with bills from your former employer for having used phone, fax, computer, coffee machine, locker rooms, the corporate parking lot, cleaning services… etc. etc. – get the idea? (It’s an analogy – for reasons of making a point, I may not be ALL accurate as far as details, but the major idea applies).
Fine. As an entrepreneur the same principle applies. However – YOU have to figure a way of establishing that infrastructure FIRST and BEFORE there is even a chance of a return on investment (other than having faith in yourself and your art to make the limelight in some way). How? By saving money from your office-job. Or by applying for a loan with your local bank and a payment plan to return it. Probably some of both. Which brings us back to the top of this paragraph…. In case you fail – no money being generated as in: No records or concert tickets sold – guess what: You’re sitting on a pile of debt in addition to the mortgage, car payments, health insurance plan, your 401k plan, money sent to Mom’s and Dad’s …
You now have a bit of an idea as to what some of the “back office” processes are. Ok. Being quite the optimist you are and still feeling great about your music, you are sure to beat all that with major, major success. Because your music not only sounds great, it can live up to any of the big names’ music easily. And this again, because you made sure that the quality – technical as well as musical – is stellar. Well – as shocking as it might be: That is a prerequisite! In other words: We shouldn’t even have to mention it. Much like showing up for your day job: When you show up, your boss will expect you to perform at maximum level. They don’t want to hear of an onset of flu that’s currently roaming your children’s school and got half of the neighborhood infected in the process. They don’t need to know about Mom going to hospital for yet another operation with an uncertain outcome. They couldn’t possibly care less about you having partied on the weekend and feeling “under the weather” from it. Same goes here: Trouble getting stellar sound quality? Couldn’t convince your extra-talented drummer friend to play on your track? The studio’s engineer was on a different assignment? Or for live situations: Mixing board had some dysfunction? The club’s walls are made from brick instead of covered with wall paper, which had your band sound all different? Your favorite live mixing engineer couldn’t make it for traffic, so the soundcheck didn’t really happen? Nobody needs to know that. They paid a cover charge or concert ticket and came to hear you being at your very best. How you manage? None of their business. So, quality – simply has to be there, no matter what.
Fine – WHAT is an indie artist then?
OK, agreed: I gave a lot of analogies and examples to depict the situation and hopefully make it more apparent to people outside the music industry. Now, for the answer to above’s headline: An independent artist is an entrepreneur acting on behalf of their own. Major difference to a signed artist is the fact that they have to create, sustain and operate the entire associated infrastructure by themselves and at their own expense. So, an indie artist is anything or ALL of the following: Composer, musician – or many musicians, if multiinstrumentalist -, arranger, recording engineer, producer, marketer/public relations expert, sales person, booking agent, promoter, band’s music director, technical and personal facilitator, accountant, part-time lawyer, general manager of publishing company (in case they have their own label/music publishing company), in short: The mulitple hat-wearing, jack of all trades, 360 all purpose, one-face-to-the-customer, all-knowing, all-handling, omnipresent, omnipotent, supernatural… human power-plant, running on personal faith, drive, ambition, vision and – love for the cause.
Any questions? Hit me up.
wesbound, June 2010
P.S.: I’d like to suggest the term “autonomous artist” from now on.