#GoIndie: 16 Musicians On The Challenges of Being IndependentFebruary 17, 2014 // by Ross Barber
In the first #GoIndie post, 16 of my favourite artists discussed the advantages of being independent. In this second instalment, I’ve asked the same artists what they’ve found the biggest challenges are, and how they’ve overcome, or are working to overcome them.
I hope this post offers some insight into how other independent artists manage their careers. I believe that we’re all in this together and should support and offer advice and assistance whenever we can. While independence is not always an easy path, there are definitely still successes and rewards out there for the taking.
Please also get involved in the discussion both in the comments and on Twitter, using the #GoIndie hashtag. I’ve also created a #GoIndie Twitter list where you can find and follow all of the featured artists.
What are the challenges of being an independent musician?
The downside of being an independent is that sometime you make the wrong decisions. It sounds at odds with everything, but it can be good to have an unsentimental team interested more in making money. Personally I must admit I was very lucky with Universal and can’t complain at all. You hear lots of horror stories about record labels, but they were always really supportive of what I wanted to do. For longevity you obviously need to make money and sometimes it can be hard to balance that with creativity when doing it alone.
It’s about awareness, and how you can create that without having half a million pounds in your bank account for press or touring. The key to overcoming is to work very closely with your fan base and really make sure that’s connection is really cemented. It’s hard when you first start out and only have a few fans, but it’s important to realise true success isn’t based on the number of fans, but the quality of them.
Having a small loyal fan base may only lead to ten sales of your first album, but those ten sales are from people who feel close and connected to you. They are then naturally going to spread a positive message about you and your music. Ten fans then become twenty fans and it just builds and builds It’s like Ariel Hyatt says, it’s better to have 1000 true fans than 200000 who really aren’t that into you!!
You also need to make sure to be consistent. You can’t just be engaging with fans when you have something to sell. Keep connecting with them and keep them excited about what’s happening.
Phoebe Dubar (Passerine)
Balancing the admin and creative sides… I come from a marketing and music background, so naturally I tend to spend a lot of time on the admin side. It’s great, but I find I get sucked into it a bit, and I need to remind myself to focus more on creating new music. I get around it by structuring my week so that I have dedicated “admin days” in which I do as much as I can in one day. Then I set aside dedicated days to be creative… write new material, refine songs, think through the live show, practice, etc. When I have one of those creative days, I find it works best if I start doing it immediately – i.e. it’s the first thing I do when I get up – so I start focused on the job at hand. I make sure I close down my web browser, email, put my phone onto flight mode, so no-one can disturb me. It works brilliantly!
The biggest challenge has been breaking into the mainstream. However, my team and I are doing a good job at working it. My music has played on over 30 plus radio stations across the country including Sirius XM Satellite Radio, Music Choice Cable Music Station, my music video has aired on VH1 Soul, and I’ve also managed to get music licensing deals, television appearances, and beauty endorsements. So slowly but surely, I am breaking into the mainstream.
Debs and Errol
Errol: For me, the biggest challenge is the marketing aspect: How do we get our music out to people who would like it on a budget? I have heard a number of times “How did I not know this existed?” and I keep thinking to myself, “I’m trying! I’m really trying!”
And the result of that is a constant focus on self-promotion in a non-spammy way. However, that’s very tiring. A challenge we have is trying to figure out what the balance is between life and promotion, because I could spend all day coming up with creative self promotion ideas and then implementing them!
Debs: The business side of being an independent artist has definitely taken some getting used to. You go into it thinking that you want to make music. Suddenly you’re dealing with finances, production, networking, grant writing, booking, branding and, as Errol said, the dreaded “M” word. Congratulations, you are now an entrepreneur with your own start-up business!
That sounds really daunting but thankfully, there are some great tools and resources out there to help you, and a lot of other people doing it too. I’ve found that setting priorities and goals as well as making lists has really helped.
The biggest challenge with being independent is the lack of funds. The only reason to partner with bigger companies is their expanded resources including their money. It’s a vulgar and deflating thing to talk about but on the flip side so many interesting things can happen in small business and independent artist models when a lack of funds is circumvented by a innovative process that usually wouldn’t have come to fruition without the need for a new more efficient way. That’s where I’m at now; reveling in the joy of discovery on a completely unbeaten path of DIY-ness.
Pat Ryan Key (I Do Declare)
My biggest obstacle in the beginning was not having a large network of contacts in the industry. I started out completely independent — from self recording & producing, self printed & self-managed — I didn’t have any guidance or anyone in the position of being my mentor. I had to face my dream completely on wit, resourcefulness, and ambition. I was so driven and self-focused on making a great record and begin to play shows though that the reality of the situation was not so daunting. I focused on all things positive so I wouldn’t sabotage my productiveness.
From the will to succeed came opportunities. I went to local seminars for music + business, went to local shows, and I took the initiative to introduce myself to influential people in the local music scene. Fayetteville is very rich and diverse in our arts community, especially music. Because we’re a college town with a major university. And by putting myself out there, I ended up building a portfolio of contacts with a wide spectrum of expertise that I can now proudly refer to after 3 years of pursuing music professionally and passionately.
For me, the biggest challenge has to do with resources. This is not the case for some artists — some of the biggest artists around at the moment come from really wealthy families, who were able to fund their careers early on, and buy them whatever press/exposure/various other helpful elements they needed. That’s not my situation, and I’ve found it challenging to figure out ways to get my music out to people.
In 2006, I had YouTube…but that whole situation has changed a lot. It’s an overcrowded space, and very few things happen purely organically, like they did with “Say It’s Possible.” These days nearly every “viral video” has a whole lot of money behind it. It has the potential to be disheartening, so we have to just focus on writing the best songs we can, and honing our craft.
We have to be creative, and reach out to more people, in different ways. It might take longer than it would if I had many thousands of dollars to promote myself, but I believe that if I create music that is authentic to who I am, and stay focused on the reasons why I started writing songs and singing in the first place, everything will continue exactly as it’s meant to. Which basically means, I have no idea where I’m headed! Only that I love making music and I love for people to hear and enjoy the music I create, so we shall see…
Obviously if you are an independent artist, you have to fund yourself. This is by far and away the hardest thing. Raising funds works best if you think a little outside the box. From busking, to thinking of weird and wonderful bits of merchandise to sell, there are ways to raise a bit of cash. But brutally, in the long run, it is a pretty tough slog. You have to get used to being very poor, very quickly!
I would say that it’s all been me. So if I’ve struggled, it’s me who has to pick myself up. Every penny of mine has gone into my music – I’ve had no other investment. Standing up and believing unconditionally that what you dream is what you will achieve… it’s a tough, lonely journey of you having enough strength, willpower and ability to dream but it’s been unbelievable.
Charlotte Eriksson (The Glass Child)
To keep disciplined and focused even when you’re in a low or when things don’t go the way you planned them to. Some days you wake up and you’re just not inspired or motivated to do all the business stuff that involves being independent. You’d rather take a day off or just sit and watch youtube videos or whatever, but you need to be able to step up and see it as your job these days. You have to be serious about it, otherwise you won’t be able to keep doing this. I think you learn a lot about personal growth and self development when you’re any kind of entrepreneur, which you are as an artist today.
Mitchel Emms (MisterNothing)
The biggest challenge is being your own boss. Which is something I’m still learning, despite now being in a band and more people being involved. For me I have always suffered from mood swings and depression and I find it difficult to get the motivation to work on my music career, when the average musician suffers many set backs. I’ve been in various bands, appeared on TV shows, and done quite a lot but the reason why I continue and make these things happen is because I believe in what I do and I put my heart and soul into it.
Finding and securing the money it takes to record, release, and market an album has been my greatest challenge as an independent artist. Before entering the studio to record my debut full length album It’s Not An Excuse, It’s A Reason, I set up a crowd-funding campaign which gave an opportunity for those who support my music to contribute financially to the album. Although this did not cover all of the costs, it was incredibly wonderful to receive so much love and support for an album I had yet to even record.
Ewan Grant (Algernon Doll)
I wouldn’t describe anything as a challenge as this is what I love doing and what I’m meant to be doing. If you don’t love the music then there’s no point. I know bands that put emphasis on getting big and making money and that is so far from the point, it’s no wonder they don’t last.
Getting the fan base initially can be tricky but I’ve always believed that if you support the scene, it will support you.
Go to shows and help out in any way possible and you’ll find it’s pretty reciprocal. You can only achieve this if you’re genuinely into the scene too so I’d like to think that it weeds out the egotists.
Dion Roy (Fire and the Romance)
Like I mentioned in the first response, the flip side of the coin is having too many options. I get so excited about all the different ways for an independent artist can build his path- and sometimes it gets overwhelming. There’s just so many good ideas you can run with and so at times it makes it difficult to choose which one to execute with the limited amount of budget, time, and resources you have when you are wearing so many hats.
Luckily with Fire and the Romance, I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am, and they help me get some perspective on the ideas that are good, and the ones that are great. One of the best things I’ve learned to do is make a list of initiatives, and I review them everyday, that way an idea is never lost- but Im also able to check things off the list and actually make some headway and progress.
The amount of work involved can be overwhelming. When you are organising your gigs, your PR, your releases and your finances, the music can get lost for a while, plus with that amount of work, you have to be prepared to be broke for a good few years! If you can get through those times, you will have learned how to do things right, how to make money and how to be successful. It has taken me four years to start to recoup some of what I’ve invested financially but it’s worth it, if I know now how to do it for the rest of my career!
You are on your own, that’s the biggest challenge. It all starts with your own desire to do it and it lives through your intention to make it. The real problem here is that you cannot actually make it on your own; it’s impossible. At any level you’re going to have to relate to others and ask for help – or at least collaboration. This is where things become interesting, you begin to build your own team on the basis of what you want to achieve and you are totally responsible for it. You have to find the “special one” for every slot. Just like the captain of a ship picks the crew: you’ll look around and find the musicians who really dig your work and help you bring it to life; the promoter who understands your music and helps you find the right audience; the publicist that has the best language for your music and digs your stuff. Man after man you build your own team and keep the ship sailing for as long as you can.
More from the series
- #GoIndie: What does Independence mean to Musicians?
- #GoIndie: Words of Advice from 16 Independent Musicians
I want to hear from you!
Please leave a comment below and tell us about your experiences. What do YOU find are the biggest challenges when it comes to being an independent musician? How are you working towards overcoming them? Let’s keep this conversation going!