There was shock, bordering on disgust, in the indie music community in reaction to the results of the recent ReverbNation/Digital Music News survey that found that 75% of artists still want to get signed to a record label. I was actually not shocked at all by the survey results. Yes, there are a certain % of musicians who still want to be a rock star or pop star, and they think that “getting signed” will help them to realize that dream. But most musicians I deal with on a day-to-day basis want to sign to a label for 3 reasons:
1) A team
This is huge. They simply want a team of people that will help them with the day-to-day running of their career. And yes, they are willing to give up a little bit of freedom and some money to have access to that kind of team.
Most established labels have solid contacts with radio, media, bookers, festivals, conferences, etc. By signing with certain labels, artists instantly have access to those gatekeepers, which can help bring their career to another level.
This is the obvious one, but again, most artists I know don’t see signing with a label as a blank check and don’t expect to receive millions of dollars. What they do want from a label is some kind of investment so that they don’t have to keep paying for everything out of their own pocket. Even just $10-20,000 can make a huge difference in a DIY artist’s career. And if an artist strikes the right deal with a label that is more about partnership rather than an ownership, then it might be the right move for their career. I’ve personally helped/encouraged DIY artists to find these kinds of deals, which might be surprising as I’ve developed somewhat of a reputation for being “Mr. Indie”.
=> Are we blindly promoting the virtues of ‘indie’?
Just as the idea of being signed to a label might sound sexier than what the reality is, is it possible that the idea of being “indie/DIY” sounds much sexier than the reality on the ground? I think for all of us working in this domain, we need to be very careful about blindly promoting the virtues of being indie, and even more careful when condemning artists who do want to sign to a label. Can an artist make more money by being “indie” than by being signed to a label? In theory, yes. But are indie/DIY artists actually making more money than their counterparts on labels? I’m not sure if anyone really knows. But I think we all need to do a much better job at providing concrete examples with hard (verifiable) data from DIY artists who are making a living from their music. Otherwise what are we selling to artists? Are we merely promoting the indie/DIY ethos so that we can sell more memberships/consultations/services/books? And this is just as much a question for me as it is for anyone else. After releasing a film about the experience of being an indie artist, and writing a book of marketing advice for indie musicians, I’m very much a part of this industry that caters to indie artists.
One person that is doing some great work in finding artist success stories is Ariel Hyatt through her ongoing series of articles “In Defense of 1,000 True Fans”. But Ariel is just one person out of many that could be sharing these kinds of stories. The fact is that there are companies out there with memberships in the tens of thousands that could be doing research to find out just what the reality on the ground is for indie artists.
On my end, I’m struggling to find more than a handful of success stories for a new film I’m working on; it’s frustrating, and a little disheartening. Some artists I’ve spoken to simply don’t have verifiable data to back up their claims, or once you dig deeper you find out that they make most of their income from a side job or teaching. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what we’re all talking about when we promote being indie/DIY and the idea of the “middle-class musician”, which is making a full-time living from your music. In other cases I’ve found that the artists have just started to recently make a living from their music, and usually a very modest living, not anywhere near a truly “middle-class” income. And in a few cases, after only 6 months, I hear back that the artists have been forced to find a part-time or full-time job because they simply could not sustain the full-time income from their music career.
=> Amanda Palmer and Matthew Ebel
There are two DIY success stories that keep popping up over and over again, which are Amanda Palmer and Matthew Ebel. Like many people, I admire what they are doing. Matthew Ebel is a brilliant and charismatic artist who makes the majority of his income from subscriptions to his website. It’s a truly amazing story, but are there many other Matthew Ebel’s out there?
Amanda Palmer has made huge waves with some of her incredibly creative fan-funding initiatives which have netted her tens of thousands of dollars. But how much of her fan base was created from her days with the Dresden Dolls, who were signed to Roadrunner Records for several years? How much money did Roadrunner invest in marketing the Dresden Dolls? Again, no one can really say for sure, however, it needs to be part of the discussion.
What’s clear is that even in her days with the Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer seemed to be very accessible to her fans and communicated with them directly, which has no doubt contributed to her success today, where fan interaction and engagement is key for any artist; label or no label. So I am by no means trying to take away her ‘indie’ cred. What she’s doing is indeed a model for all artists out there, but my question is about the relative scale of her success and whether it would have been the same with no history on a label.
=> And what about Radiohead and NIN?
On a much larger scale, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are often touted as “indie” success stories. What they did was innovative and amazing, providing a giant f&%* you to the major labels that made us all smile. But they had millions of dollars of marketing support from those very same major labels for many, many years. Can an artist who has never been signed to a label in the past duplicate those kinds of results? The model might be there in theory, but are sustainable long-term careers being created on the DIY level yet? We can’t on the one hand state that we’re living in a “post-label” world and then give examples of artists successfully using DIY tactics who benefited greatly from that very same label system.
=> OK, but what about the Internet? And social media? And the amazing tools for artists?!
Yes, we are living in a truly exciting time in the music industry, and there are more opportunities for artists than ever before, there’s no denying that. The technology, distribution systems, promotional tools, direct access to fans, it’s all there. The models for success are clearly present, and in theory it should be resulting in thousands upon thousands of indie artists making a full-time living from their music. But are the results on the ground there yet? I, like many out there, would love to know with concrete examples. Not 1, not 2, but dozens, HUNDREDS of examples.
I guess my frustration has boiled over because it seems like almost every week a new product or service comes out aimed at indie artists claiming to be the key to a successful career. Or another author releases a book claiming to know the “secrets to success” for indie artists. Or another industry expert demonizes artists who want to sign to a label. Is it really that much more risky to be signed than to be DIY? Maybe the discussion should be more about how the music industry in general is a tough place to succeed, with or without label support. It seems to me that there are success stories and horror stories on both sides of the label divide, and maybe, just maybe, this debate has more shades of gray than we all like to let on.
Don’t get me wrong, most people working in this industry who are trying to help indie artists are genuinely trying to do just that: help the artists. This blog post is not meant to be negative, nor is it meant to criticize any one person or any company in particular. It’s meant to be a call to action for all of us who work in this ‘indie’ music world: the companies, the service-providers, the authors, the so-called experts in this field need to do a better job of moving from the theoretical world to providing more tangible examples of artist success stories. And yes, success is relative, but what I’m really talking about are artists generating a full-time living income from their music careers that resembles the “artistic middle-class” that many believe exists.
Panos Panay of Sonicbids, who strongly believes in the existence of this artistic middle-class, recently stated that he would be willing to work with other companies to commission a comprehensive survey of their respective memberships to find out just what the reality is on the ground. I really hope this kind of survey happens, as companies like Sonicbids have the membership base to be able to get a much clearer picture of what’s really happening out there. I’ve reached out to Panos to let him know that I’m willing to donate my time to help with that initiative if it materializes.
How much income are DIY artists making from their music? How many are actually making a full-time living from their music career? And maybe just as importantly, how long have they been making a full-time living from their music? After all, it’s not about making a living for a few months or a year, it’s about sustainable, long-term careers.
These are all questions I think we need better answers to on a much larger scale before anyone can claim that the indie music revolution, or the era of the middle-class musician, has truly arrived. And my hope is that in the comments to this blog, in further discussions, and in the results of future surveys, the answers will become clearer.
(Another so-called indie music ‘expert’)