Often life as an independent artist has been regarded as a one-way ticket to Smallville: great college crowds, a great college student quality-of-life, and a double lifetime supply of beer. This career choice is known to be, at best, difficult-- offering a menial and even thankless role in the music world.
Whether you happen to be in the industry or just an innocent bystander -- also referred to as a fan, many will measure the success of an artist in simple terms: how many units have been sold; how much exposure has the group received; how many can they pack into a room or concert hall? And whether you want to admit it or not, EVERYONE regards the mainstream media as an indicator of whether a group's success is significant or marginal.
Many of us in the industry ask ourselves, repeatedly: how can independent artists reach a broader audience? We respond with great certainty, declaring the internet as the artists' newfound Mecca. And then some will go on to lambast MTV, the radio industry and music store chains for refusing most independent artists access. "That!" we say, "is the 'Great Barrier' to independent artists reaching a broader audience and a successful career!"
So we are left with this simple recipe:
Internet = Good: the music "Promised Land," offering endless opportunities to attract hundreds of millions all over the world! An artist's direct link to potential fans, knocking out the middle man.
Big Business = Bad: The bad guys who ignore good music - except for the moments they take a calculated risk with a great new discovery for MTV's "Road Rules."
The problem with this recipe is that it gives us a false view of the real industry playing ground.
First, a brief look at the Internet: the Internet can be an excellent business and marketing vehicle for artists. But look no further than Google and you can find endless case studies on the "dotcom bust," proving that the internet is NOT a business model, whether you're a farmer or a world-class media company. It is only complimentary to your product, your vision and your marketing strategy.
So, let us say, for all intents and purposes, that there is an artist who is pretty talented and has a good product to offer unsuspecting eager listeners. From here, we move on to the vision: following the "thinking with the end in mind" approach, we establish that the artist would be very happy with regional airplay, a six-album record deal and limited exposure on MTV2.
Now unless this artist majored in Business, Marketing and Entertainment Law, his or her marketing strategy might remain a bit unsophisticated, making it highly unlikely that he or she will ever see the day that one of the songs will receive regional airplay, let alone a six-album record deal or MTV2.
And anyone who has managed to "break into the business" or has landed a record deal can tell you: turning your music into a business can be an extremely risky, and sometimes disturbing, venture. An artist is simply an entrepreneur full of passion, ideas and creativity. The music might be good and the concert crowds might love it, but it will never generate huge amounts of money until the artist is ready to work hard at developing a sophisticated focused marketing plan and whip out 4-minute industry-friendly jingles.
But, even then, the artist needs to be savvy enough to survive formal collaborations with producers and record labels. No producer or record label looks out for the interests of the artist. That is not their business. Their business is maximizing and exploiting a consumer-friendly product. Nothing more, nothing less. The bottom line is all that matters. Once there is no more bottom line, there is no more artist.
Even musicians who have had some significant success with their music are still hesitant to claim that success as an independent artist is possible. Tor Hyams (www.tor.net), a well-respected singer/songwriter in Los Angeles, has successfully written music for motion pictures and network television and still has grave doubts about making it as an independent artist.
"It is almost impossible to achieve success anyplace as an independent artist. What I truly think about the Indy scene is that it is important and crucial to the evolution of music. Though I become less jaded every day, I must be a realist and insist there is truly no future at this point for independent artists except for the rare occasion when all the stars align and luck is a lady tonight.
"Even if you just look at raw figures (Sound Scan numbers, ad dollars spent each year on records, etc), you would literally have to be a millionaire to make it right now. It is simply impossible to have anyone know who you are without mega-bucks. You are competing against the major labels and Indies with a lot of money."
And this is someone who has relied heavily on the internet for establishing his business. He even has a cyber claim-to-fame:
"I was the first indy artist to acquire financing for a record online... Billboard wrote an article about me and the event and so did many other internet and print pubs. There was a lot of hype. I got 35K to make a record, spent 6 weeks at one of the hippest studios in the country making it (Fantasy Studios in Berkeley) and then it all went South.
They (industry managers/producers) said they were going to make big things happen, that I should let go of control and they would act as my managers, etc. Zippo. They dropped the ball. I had another business contact who was supposed to get commercial radio to play the record. Again, ball dropped. The label that got me my deal went bankrupt. Nothing happened and the investors never got their money back."
But even though he had some pretty strong words for his own record deal experience and the state of the industry today, he has still found a way to carve a niche in the music world and make a good living out of it.
"Am I bitter? Not really. I actually got to live the dream; 6 weeks in a major recording studio with a real legit producer doing my songs. Not bad. What I realized later on was that I was actually pretty satisfied with just that part of the dream.
"I suddenly didn't need to be rocking out at Madison Square Garden. I realized that I was a good songwriter, but that my particular brand of performing was just not being accepted. People wanted Justin Timberlake, not a 30 something pop rock singer."
And sometimes it just takes staying true to the brand and sitting it out long enough so the trends shift back in your favor.
"Ironically, my 'brand' is actually coming back to be trendy. People have actually started buying my record again and playing it on the radio without me having to do anything at all. At the same time, I am finally writing and producing commercial records as a living. Life is good and the path I took here (including this whole Indy thing) was correct because now I am here and I like it here. I feel like I have gained a lot of knowledge in a very short time and that is certainly a privilege."
So is there a simple recipe for success as an independent artist? Definitely not.
But there are just some words to live by: stay true to the product, search out a niche to exploit, and get a damn Business / Marketing degree!