#GoIndie: What Does Independence Mean to Musicians?

February 6, 2014 // by Ross Barber

GoIndie - The advantages of being an independent musicianWelcome to the beginning of the #GoIndie series, which aims to explore the benefits and challenges of being an independent artist. I wanted to create this series to give musicians an opportunity to express in their own words exactly what being an independent artist means to them.

I think it’s valuable and useful to hear from working artists themselves as it helps to give us a further insight and different perspective into what it’s REALLY like to be writing, recording, touring and promoting music independently.

I hope you enjoy the series, and encourage you to get involved in the discussion both in the comments and on Twitter, using the #GoIndie hashtag. I’ve also created a #GoIndie Twitter list with all the artists featured so you can find them all in one place.

What are the advantages and benefits of being an independent musician?


Terra Naomi
Website / Twitter

Terra NaomiMy favorite thing is being able to make the music I want to make, and release it in whichever way I choose. I can do all kinds of creative things which would have been a nightmare to organize when I was signed to a major label. Music supervisors, advertising agencies, and film/TV creatives can contact me directly, and I can license my music to them in as little time as it takes to return an email. I’ve also been able to say yes to situations I’m pretty sure would have been shot down when I was signed to Island Records and Universal. I played the first concert of Western music in Kashmir, and it was a beautiful experience. However, there were certain risks involved, and high security, and as we drove through the kinds of angry protests I’ve only seen on BBC news, protected by a jeep carrying three heavily armed “guns for hire,” on our way to a rickety chairlift up the Gulmarq Glacier to perform “Say It’s Possible” at the top of the mountain, I definitely remember thinking “Hmm…I don’t think my label would have agreed to this!” I am so grateful for rare and unique life experiences like that.

Oh — I also love being able to take as much time as I need to “go inward” and create at my own pace. I took the last year to dig really deep, and work on parts of myself, and I gave myself as much time as I needed. I wrote dozens of songs — it’s not like I just sat around and meditated. But if it had felt right to do that, I would have, for as long as it felt right to do so! That is the artistic process — not the feeling that you have to get another album out immediately, so the press doesn’t die out, and you’re not “gone too long” and people don’t lose interest — there are so many things we do out of fear. And those fears were definitely emphasized and played upon by certain people when I was signed to a major label. And I understand it — it’s a big business, and it’s about money. But the best art is not created in this fashion. I love giving myself permission to honor my artistic process.

I love being able to honor the FACT (and yes, it is a fact) that we’re not here for the end result. All that stuff about “the journey”…that is The Truth.

Laura White
Website / Twitter

Laura WhiteThe best thing about being an independent artist is the fire that is in my belly to get my music out to the world.. every success is something I’ve worked so hard for so it feels amazing when things happen! For instance, when the EP [What My Mother Taught Me] was number one on the iTunes singer/songwriter chart, it just made me so, so proud, and I’m so thankful to every single one of my fans, too. We are a family! Also, that creatively, I can write and do what I feel and love.

Tyler Hilton
Website / Twitter

Tyler Hilton

The best part about being an independent ANYTHING, is the independence.

Literally the sky is the limit and you’ve eliminated any kind of “permission based creativity” where you’re creating for someone else with the money.

Billie Myers
Website / Twitter

Billie MyersDefinitely the autonomy that it gives you. You are given the opportunity, for better or worse, to control the direction that you go in.

You have the freedom to decide what kind of songs that you, the artist, want to perform.

Dion Roy (Fire and the Romance)
Website / Twitter

Dion Roy / Fire and the RomanceThe freedom. When I get an idea for a song there’s nothing stopping me from running with it. If I focus on it, I can have it done in a week, write a treatment for a video, or do nothing.

Having 100% creative control and freedom is a very powerful (and sometimes scary) thing.

Marcio Novelli
Website / Twitter

Marcio NovelliMy favourite thing about being an independent artist is the control and freedom I have over every aspect of my art from concept to creation to completion and even how it is released and presented. There is no one to answer to besides myself which is sometimes difficult but, most of the time, it’s wonderful. Art is about creative expression and when too many people get involved in the creative process, it’s no longer an art form but rather a business venture.

Ewan Grant (Algernon Doll)
Website / Twitter

Algernon DollThe freedom to make the music you want without restriction. I wouldn’t know anything else though.

I like being able to accept shows without a middle man. Bands should not be put, or put themselves, on a pedestal. It’s humbling and exciting to be able to create and achieve albums and tours with like-minded friends from our scene without compromise.

Sinead McNally
Website / Twitter

Sinead McNallyBeing able to make the final decisions on things is definitely a huge bonus to being independent and the satisfaction is extra special when things work out well.

I also really enjoy learning and knowing more than just the music end of things. As my own manager, it is so important that I know the business side and whilst it is inevitable as an independent artist that you will make lots of mistakes, it is so liberating to also understand the aspects that you wouldn’t normally know and understand as just the artist only!

Charlotte Eriksson (The Glass Child)
Website / Twitter

The Glass Child / Charlotte ErikssonThe best thing about being an independent musician is that I am in complete control of my life and my career.

As an independent artist you’re not doing music (or any other art form) as a job, but as a way to live your life.

To know that I can shape my life and my days in a way that makes sense to me is the best thing I know about being independent.

Phoebe Dubar (Passerine)
Website / Twitter

PasserineIt may sound predictable but… FREEDOM! It’s as simple as that. I am free to create whatever music I want to create. I’m not beholden to a label, whose sole aim is to make as much money from me as possible, I am able to make the music that I want to hear, with the producers I respect and using the musicians I think work best with the recordings. And I have the FREEDOM to choose to have my music used however I want it to be used. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t love the support of a record label to help with costs, promotion, to help drive sales, tours, etc, however the fact that I have the agility and freedom to do whatever I want to do is so great at the moment, as it means I have the opportunity to find my voice/sound without too much outside influence.

Mitchel Emms (MisterNothing)
Website / Twitter

Michel Emms / Mister NothingAlthough my band is now signed to an independent label, I’ve pretty much been an independent artist since I started music at the age of 9. Everyone wants to be on a major label or to be part of something more professional or whatever, and there’s many downsides to your music career when you’re absolutely relying on your decisions and choices, but the freedom to do what you want and release what you want is the biggest perk. I wouldn’t have been able to have released my own album entirely from my bedroom otherwise! Let alone getting away with an 11 minute piano instrumental/post-hardcore outro.

Esnavi
Website / Twitter

EsnaviThe best thing about being an independent artist is… the creative control and freedom.

Ray Tarantino
Website / Twitter

Ray TarantinoIn a word: independence. I’d say the fact that no gatekeeper has the power to determine the path you take. Success comes in various degrees, some say freedom is a kind of success and others require the cash element to value it. What I like about being in charge of my own career is that I can outline my own objectives and find my own path to get there. I also like being the only one to blame for things that go wrong; it makes life easier and keeps it interesting. Being an independent artist is a constant challenge that turns into an endless learning experience.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve worked for a major label and I’ve seen the alternative, it’s awesome: huge marketing budgets, worldwide distribution, tour support, business class flights and sold out arenas are all ingredients for a marvelous world. Unfortunately there isn’t enough space for everybody to be at that level, and – most importantly – it’s not a mechanism that works every time. The success stories we read about are only the tip of the iceberg, there’s a mountain of trial (and failure) behind the charts. That slam-like failure – determined by somebody else’s priority list – is what an independent artist does not face.

Pat Ryan Key (I Do Declare)
Website / Twitter

I Do Declare / Pat Ryan KeyBeing an indie artist offers a lot of flexibility. I’ve been able to learn at my own pace and not make hasty decisions in the better interest of other people. And if you utilize your resources and apply yourself (i,e, The internet & other forms of various modern technology from home recording equipment, GoPros, etc.), you may be surprised how far you can actually get. That’s what record labels want to see today. How far can you take yourself as a self-sustainable model? If you can show labels that you have a large audience, you can sell your music, and you have the road experience; you find yourself with a contract in your hands. Just depends how far you want to take it (the dream), and yourself.

Rita Payne
Website / Twitter

Rita PayneYou only have to answer to yourself (yourselves). You can rely 100% on your own judgement.

If you do well, it’s all because of the hard work you yourself have put in. It promotes a real sense of achievement.

Debs and Errol
Website / Twitter

Debs and ErrolErrol: Well, I have a lot of favourite things about being a musician, but in regards to being an independent musician, I do enjoy that we can focus on things that we enjoy when we write our material. We are fully aware that our tastes are niche and that it would not appeal to a large number of people.

Debs: Yes! It gives us control over everything – where we play, who we play with, all of the content we produce, and how we engage with people. Being independent means that we can be our true selves and I think that our relationship with our audience, and our music, is better for it.

More from the series

I want to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below and tell us about your experiences. What do YOU like best about being an independent musician? Let’s keep this conversation going!

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  • Rowen

    I love what Terra Naomi said about her experiences, although many of the things mentioned were echoed by other artists too. I think not having the pressure to release new work according to someone else’s agenda is key. Also, nurturing your own growth as a person alongside writing new material and exploring new ideas must be wonderful. I would love the freedom to set my own timetable more, but I realise you have to reach a different level in your career than I have so far to get to that stage. I don’t think the early stages of being an independent recording artist relinquish you from the ‘results’ orientated focus necessarily, because there’s still a desperate need for money to live on in certain cases, so I know I find myself caught in the, “I need the RESULTS, goddammit!” mode now and then. It’s inspiring to remember that whoever this pressure comes from, it’s all just fear and it’s not helpful. And it’s not kind to yourself to think in those terms. Thanks for this wealth of insight and opinion, Ross! This is a great read. I’d love to see a “best quotations” blog at the end of this series!

    • Thank you for your comment, Rowen!

      I think you’ll find the next post particularly interesting, where artists discuss the challenges they’ve faced and how they’ve overcome them; time and finance feature quite heavily!

      And yes, I think the pressure and fear is largely from within ourselves. I know that I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve certain things but really, it doesn’t help. I think we all need to take a step back now and then and just focus on enjoying what we do. Obviously we can’t do that ALL the time, as we need to make a living, but it’s important to do – we need to remind ourselves WHY we do what we do, and to stay in love with it… otherwise, what’s the point?

      Thanks again – I’m really looking forward to posting the next instalments!

  • Lisa Tagaloa

    Such an awesome start to a necessary topic Ross! And I love what you’ve done to make it so interactive with the links, # and lists – I LOVE your UI :-) The only thing I’d say about the awesomeness is that there’s too much for my brains to make the most of, all in one hit lol. Each act has pearls that deserve to be absorbed – but at least I know where to come back to when I get some time YUSS :-)

    • Thanks, Lisa! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I’m really looking forward to posting parts #2 and #3!

  • Matthew Brammer

    People’s jaws always nearly hit the floor when they ask what I would do if one of my projects was ever offered a major label deal, and I promptly tell them that I’d turn it down. Obviously, there’s the lack of pressure, no timelines (except the ones you hold yourself to), and zero need to do what anyone else is doing, but a very overlooked part of it is that YOU DON’T OWE ANYONE ANY MONEY afterwards. A lot of people (musicians included) don’t understand that the nice $100k or more advance you get from a major label, recording costs, and everything else is RECOUPABLE. The label takes that money back out of already diminishing royalties before you get paid a single cent. If your album flops, you’re stuck owing a lot of money to the big man, or you’re stuck in an unhealthy option contract while the label forces another release or two to try to recoup the losses…whether or not you’re happy with the label. It’s just a bad situation overall.

    As an independent artist, I have the capability of working with whoever I want, however I want, and I have direct control over the finances and timelines without any overhead or having to worry about contracts, recoupables, or anything else.

    It’s just like anything else….the financial and personnel backing is nice, but the debt is not. Plus, it teaches you the value of hard work.

    —Matthew Brammer,
    The Challis Effect, Agony by Default, and solo country artist.

    • Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Being independent definitely has many advantages over being signed to a major label. One point that you, and many of the artists interviewed mentioned was the creative freedom – this is so true. You are able to really take time to create something that you like rather than following trends or doing what someone else wants you to do.

      Major label deals can be a good thing – but like Ray Tarantino says, the successful artists are just a tiny percentage of those who get signed to majors. The “failures” (for lack of a better word – I don’t necessarily see them as failures) are what we don’t see, or hear about. A lot of artists still think that being signed to a major label is the “break” they need – however, this only works out for such a small percentage of artists. In my opinion, you have a greater chance of achieving financial and creative success by being independent.

      I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off. If you know your target market, and consistently create something that they love, then you’re on the right path.

      Of course, the financial aspect is one of the challenges to doing things without a label backing… but that’s discussed more in the next post, where artists discuss the challenges and how they have (or are working to) overcome them.

      Thanks again for your input! It’s appreciated.
      -Ross

  • Melic Band

    Melic is an eclectic four piece band that write a range of different tunes due to the band’s disparate influences and musical backgrounds. Being an independent band with an independent label, we have the freedom to write what we want with no pressures on song style or formula. We’re not asked to churn out 3 minute pop-rock songs time and time again with financial pressures hanging overhead. We can continue to evolve our sound and brand as we wish. We like writing an array of all sorts! Our label is very supportive of what we do, where we’re headed and what we stand for, and most importantly, they really enjoy and believe in our music. We value their opinion and input of course, and they’ve always added their knowledge, support and sheer hard graft to the mix – I think we’ve been fairly lucky there with a good label match.
    We can’t really comment too heavily on “major label” antics, without yet having had any experience on that front.
    Creative control is important for an artist if they want to keep an honest representation of their identity on show. No doubt some major labels have a clear idea as to what formula or sound will make big money and likely allow the act to “go large” – I’m sure there’s often pressure put on some acts to write to such a mould, which must be a common predicament for new signings to find themselves in – stick to their guns or run with what the label ask for.
    Another key benefit to mention is having control of touring and recording schedules. There’s a lot to fit in these days; family, friends, travel, work (if you still juggle “the day job”), etc… – all requiring valuable time and money, so it’s nice to be in the driving seat with these decisions.
    Mark – MELIC – http://www.melicband.com

  • Bobbofallenstar

    Loved this article.

    Something I love is being able to do more than just one thing and not being boxed into labels.

    Acoustic joint album with a singer/songwriter we met on tour in Europe (he’s from Australia)

    An EP Trilogy of songs inspired by the TV show Firefly.

    A new album of Americana Rock (whatever that means to us)

    All coming out this year.

    • Ooooh, Trilogy of songs inspired by Firefly? Awesome! ^_^ Huzzah!

      • Bobbofallenstar

        http://www.thefallenstars.com and click on the Browncoats page. If you’re a fan of Firefly, I think you’ll enjoy this. It’s done with lots of love!

      • Aah, I’ve never seen Firefly! I do love Joss Whedon though, so it’s something I will get around to watching one of these days! :)

        • Bobbofallenstar

          Never seen Firefly and love Joss??? How is that possible? 14 episodes and a movie. Netflix. You have your assignment. ;) What’s great as you watch each episode, you can tune in to our videos on Youtube that go along with each episode. They make more sense that way!

          • Haha, I know right!? I’m letting the team down! Sorry, guys.

            I was initially put off by the fact that it didn’t have a proper ending… but does the movie round it off in a satisfying way?

            I like the sound of the assignment. It might get in the way of my work though ;)

          • E: To be fair, the series is sitting on my desk waiting to be watched. ^_^ I have just finished Who, so I’m on to Firefly next. I have a ton of friends that love Firefly.

            Anyway, I’m all for geek bands (being the only geek band in the above list!) Huzzah!

      • Bobbofallenstar

        <3

    • Thanks for your comment, Bobbo!

      The creative freedom is definitely a major positive factor in being independent. The fact that you’ve been able to do so many interesting and varied things is amazing – and probably something you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do had you been signed to a major.

      Looking forward to hearing the upcoming music!

      -Ross

  • Joy Mover

    I really enjoyed reading these artists’ perspectives on the state of their chosen indie state and see that the major thread for everyone seems to be ‘control of their art & control of their peronal lives’ and schedules. This rationale resonates strongly for me as being the primary reasons for assuming this position rather than seeking a company to produce my music… Liberty rules creativity & personal freedom is also a strong component to that. Whatever one has to do to retain personal and artistic freedom is worth the struggle since in the end, you can’t take it with you and all that matters in this world means nothing _______…(fill in the blank:-) However after the music is produced and needs to be distributed, reviewed, airplayed, digitized, HDized etc, then all of these functions involve ‘other’ people. So one’s independence works less well on the other side of production – after the music has been created. Once the music is released, it has only a very short lifespan in today’s world. That CD that took you your life savings and your last 5 years every extra moment to produce, now has to be born and raised in the world of ‘reality’, ‘materiaiism’ in other words, making the investment pay. And that is where the real challenges are once the music has been created and is in the bag. Most artists that have the skill-sets to produce music don’t have the skillsets to sell it. That is the other side or should I say the underside of the indie artist world, because Everything costs Money.

    • Joy,

      Thank you for your comment!

      Creative and artistic freedom is definitely the common theme between all of the answers here. I think in many ways, if you’re in the music for the music (which really, any musician should be), then that is of course going to be important.

      The business and financial side of things is unfortunately an area where many artists don’t have the required expertise. And that’s ok – we’re not all born business people, just like many business people don’t have much in the way of artistic talent. Of course there always exceptions, but that’s a whole other tangent ;) This is where putting a solid team together is crucial. Ultimately, I believe that musicians should always have an overview of the business side of their career – a musician is a creative entrepreneur, after all. But I don’t believe that a musician should have to do it all themselves – a team is vital. Everyone will need to put together a team at some point; it’s different for everyone.

      The financial aspect is something that does come up more in parts 2 and 3 of the series. Everyone overcomes this challenge in different ways – so hopefully there will be some points in these upcoming posts that will be useful to you!

      Thanks again for commenting. Appreciated!
      -Ross

  • Mark,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The creative freedom is definitely one of the biggest advantages to being independent. Not having to answer to anyone else, and being able to create what YOU want to is so important to so many artists (and rightly so).

    Of course the financial backing of a major label can be a good thing (if things work out), but in many ways there is less risk and more freedom when you’re creating, releasing, touring etc on your own terms. Like some of the artists interviewed mentioned, the major labels can offer a lot in terms of marketing budgets etc, but if your record doesn’t perform to their standards (not yours – theirs!) then you could find yourself without a deal, and sometimes with a lot of debt… which is never a good situation!

    Thanks again – hope you’ll join us for parts 2 and 3 of the series which are coming soon!

    -Ross

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