Does the lyric “welcome to the machine” sound familiar? In Pink Floyd’s 1975 hit off of their “Wish You Were Here” album, Roger Waters wrote about the band’s disillusionment with the music industry, comparing it to a machine that marginalized talent and artistic expression in favor of profits. Pink Floyd is just one example. For years, an increasing number of artists felt objectified by the music industry, but most were locked into iron-clad contracts, so even when they pursued legal action, their efforts were futile. This led to artists resorting to creative ways to sabotage their contracts, so labels would be forced to drop them. However, despite heavy pushback from mainstream artists, greed always seemed to prevail. This trend continued throughout the 80’s and 90’s, until the music industry as we knew it, essentially collapsed.
I know—I’m not the first genius to point out that the music industry is dead. I’m also not the first person to point out that artists have been complaining about this for a very long time. I just can’t help but wonder if maybe—just maybe—the music industry needed to die. Just consider all of the horror stories from artists, complaining about labels robbing them of their artistic freedom. Maybe this is the price we pay for our creative revolution?
I was reading an article the other day that featured excerpts from an interview with Swedish guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen. Yngwie brought up some really interesting points about why the “machine” doesn’t work anymore and why it’s next to impossible for artists these days to have mainstream success. I included a few of these excerpts below.
“Basically what happened with the internet was that the money machine was eliminated. When the money machine was eliminated, all these people who had nothing to do with the music, and who used to make millions of dollars, started to do something else. Then everyone went “it’s fine, bands are still signed.”
But it’s not! The reasons bands were signed and new acts could get a shot was because people thought they could make money from these bands. So the fans got to hear new music while the machine was going around investing a million and getting ten million back. Now when there is no return, no new bands are being signed or exposed and no record labels are acting like they did before.
People love heavy metal, people love rock and roll and people love guitar players but there’s no money in it. Simply because the labels, the retailers, the distributors, the manufacturers’ graphic designers, and photographers and so on, they are not making money…so they say fuck this and they go do something else. The new groups that start in a garage are not going to get exposed and the fans are not going to get new music.”
After reading this, it clicked: musicians can’t make money from their music because all of the people that could help musicians market and sell their music abandoned the music industry, a long time ago. To be clear, I’m not saying it’s impossible for independent artists to turn a profit from their music, but it’s definitely not how it used to be, and with good reason.
I work in online marketing. It’s basically my job to help people discover products and services and encourage them to buy. As with any skill or trade, you follow the money. As much as I love music, I would never be able to support myself if I worked exclusively for independent artists. The money just isn’t there anymore. I’ve read a ton of theories as to what caused the collapse of the music industry, why everything has changed and why it will never be the same, but the truth is none of this really matters anymore. Instead of focusing on everything that sucks about the current state of the music industry, and how it all got this way, we should focus on how we can be successful now that the rules have changed.
It used to be that in order for an artist to have mainstream success, they would require a team of experts (lawyers, managers, engineers, graphic designers, marketing analysts, etc.) to help them gain exposure and build a following. When the music industry was at its peak, record labels served as “image consultants” for emerging artists. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I totally made that term up, but since there isn’t a collective term for what they did, let’s just use it for the time being.) These image consultants would find an artist with a great sound and they would fine-tune the artist’s image accordingly to create a brand that they could effectively market to the masses. This meant that for a portion of the album sales, labels would handle the marketing and business side of things and the artist could focus on what they did best: making music.
Now things are a little bit different. It’s not that labels don’t exist anymore. It’s just that most of them aren’t willing to take on the financial risks that they would have over a decade ago. Mainly because the potential return on investment has diminished significantly. Nowadays, it’s up to the artists to successfully market themselves. I get that music isn’t always about making money or topping the Billboard charts. But if that’s your goal, then it would help to take the time necessary to develop the full package. You know—all that stuff that labels used to do, that we don’t like to talk about. The days of waiting to be discovered at some local dive bar are over. Your talent and creativity will only get you so far. Without a solid strategy in place, you’re just spinning your wheels.
I highlighted a few points below to help aspiring musicians manage and market themselves independently. I also included some examples of how some local independent artists are successfully using marketing to grow their following (the examples I used are all based in Florida or have been at one time).
Prove that you’re unique
If you’re an aspiring singer/songwriter, with several years of experience under your belt, I would imagine that you’re pretty good at what you do. But if we were to take talent and ability out of the equation, what would make you different from everyone else? Perhaps the real question you should be asking yourself is why should anyone care?
The reason that so many bands on the radio sound the same is because record labels found a formula that worked (see: formula rock) and they’d rather not take their chances with something new. Now even the most highly commercialized rock is beginning to fade away. Depending on where you live, the rock stations are either dead or dying and the ones that are still around play nothing but the crap no one wants to listen to, because it all sounds the same. The small indie bands that make it are able to break through because they have something special. Just look at Surfer Blood. In the first 6 months they were a band, they had already toured 4 times, and that wasn’t because they had a ton of local support. In fact, they said in an interview that they felt underappreciated in their home state of Florida. But because they were driven and they had a unique sound (okay, and a little bit lucky), they were able to travel the world doing what they loved.
Every artist should have something that is unique—something they own, something that they do better than everyone else. What’s interesting about originality is that it isn’t something that you learn; it’s intrinsic. The trick to making yourself stand out as an artist is taking what makes you unique and showing it off to the world. One of the most cost-effective ways to do this is through social media and online marketing.
Marketing yourself isn’t the same as selling out
I find it interesting that a lot of independent artists vehemently oppose the idea of marketing themselves to get ahead. If you were to open a small business and you decided that you didn’t want any help from marketers, lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, etc., you would have to work twice as hard to only get half as far. Why should you treat your music career differently? The internet makes it relatively easy to tackle a lot of these projects yourself, and most of what you can’t do on your own won’t break the bank if you hire a professional to do it for you.
For starters, establish a presence on social media. Social media has really taken off for musicians in recent years. Contrary to what most musicians think, social media didn’t kill the music industry, it just changed how fans and (cover your ears) consumers interact with it. Although free streaming music may mean less money for the record companies, it also means more opportunities for people to discover you through the various social networks they use on a daily basis.
Another great way for independent artists to establish themselves in the industry is to pursue some music licensing deals. The payouts vary depending on the scope of the contract, but it’s not uncommon for local bands to gain national exposure through big-brand licensing deals. Take Beach Day for example. Their self-titled hit was used in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. They also covered The Drifters’ 1962 hit “Up on the Roof,” which was later used by LensCrafter’s. The royalties probably won’t make you a millionaire, but it usually beats the money you would make selling CD’s and merch at local shows. Not to mention the exposure of having your original music featured in a national TV commercial that’s seen by millions of people.
Create a website
This is my number one tip for independent artists. It sounds like a no-brainer, yet I can’t tell you how many bands and musicians don’t have a functioning website. Your website should be your central hub. Social media is for great building online communities and growing your fan base. But social platforms, like Facebook and Twitter can be a little restrictive in terms of design, content and functionality.
Instead of having one page crammed with a bunch of information, a website let’s you organize content so that your fans, the press and labels can find what they’re looking for, with ease. Keep in mind that your website shouldn’t replace your other channels, like SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and so on. Instead, your website should integrate these channels in a more user-friendly format.
For instance, on your “Tour” page, you could use a Bandsintown widget to display your upcoming tour dates, and on your “Music” page, you could use a SoundCloud or Bandcamp widget to add a music player. You can also add your own online store to sell CD’s and merch. The best part is it doesn’t require much html or coding knowledge, so even those who aren’t tech-savvy should be able to figure it out pretty easily. An added benefit of using both a website and 3rd party platforms is that you can make a bigger footprint on the web, which means higher online visibility.
My recommendation would be to start with the basics: a homepage, a page that lists your upcoming shows, a page that provides some background on the band (could be pictures, a bio, a video, etc.), a page where your music is available to stream or download, and a contact page. Once you build out the core, you can incorporate additional functionality like mailing lists or a blog. I bring up blogging because in my opinion, it’s one of the greatest and most overlooked benefits of managing your own website.
Blogging is another easy win that I see a lot of musicians missing out on. It’s great because it allows artists to connect with their fans on a more intimate level, and helps infuse more of the artist’s personality into their online presence. Most importantly, blogging is a good way to regularly upload fresh content to your site. Dr. Martino is a good example of a band that gets it. They first launched their site back in March and already have a ton of great content, including podcasts, album tracks, reviews and photos from past shows and community events. They’re also good about pushing all of their new content through their social channels, which keeps their engagement level relatively high.
There’s a lot that independent artists can do on their own, without the help of a record label. Yes, the music industry as it once existed is dead. But there are still plenty of artists that are getting mainstream attention and they’re doing it by wearing as many hats as possible.