I am an amateur musician. I love creating and performing original music, but I have never found the nomadic lifestyle of the touring musician attractive and therefore I have never pursued a professional career as an artist.
Having said that, I have been taking the business side of music more and more seriously in recent times, and I have been self-releasing my music since 2016. One could describe me as a semi-professional musician nowadays, even though the income I get from music generally serves to sustain and fund future musical activities and promotion, rather than funding my lifestyle.
As I have found out over the years, releasing your own music as an independent artist is not any different than marketing your service or product as a solopreneur, small business owner or therapist. In order to be successful, you need to do the things successful business owners do.
This year I released two albums of bands I am a member of. I did this through my own label, which is but an alias I use to separate the promotional activities surrounding the albums from my own artistic name (hey, no one likes a bragging musician constantly talking about the great music they make!) Doing so I learned some important lessons, which I am sharing below:
- Your Story is What Connects Your Art to Your Business
Similarly to how you can not apply your therapist or cake baking skills to how you run your business, it is not possible to apply your skills or craft as a performer or music creator to how you market, sell and promote your musical activities. In order to get people to buy your stuff or service you need to get into their minds. What makes them tick, what is it about your offer that is different and unique and why is it something they need in their lives? Create a consistent story about your art and the process that led to its creation, and use that story to connect with your audience.
2. Separate Emotion From Financial Transactions
Artists are generous people. In their avid enthusiasm about their music, they tend to give away their merch for free to friends and family, or, after a certain amount of intoxication at a live gig, to pretty much everyone (as I have witnessed on several occasions).
Generousness is without a doubt a positive trait that helps your audience to know, like and trust you (especially in the early days when you are building your name as an artist). However, it can be a detrimental and wasteful trait if you don’t have a clear strategy as an artist in order to sustain yourself financially. Figure out what you need to do to sustain your musical career, and act accordingly. Only give away what you can afford to give away.
When you have decided on your pricing, stick to it and don’t cut any corners when it’s time for the payment to be made in order to please people. True fans will happily pay the actual value of an item when they know that it will support and sustain you as an artist to keep making music. After all, wouldn’t it be a shame if you were to give up because of running out of funds, and deprive your keen followers of your unique artistic talent?
3. Set Your Pricing Right
I am at the risk of becoming Captain Obvious here, but I think the obvious is often overlooked by artists: you can not know whether you are making a profit from your music if you don’t understand what your overheads are. Your overheads are the total sum of all your costs, many of which are often overlooked.
How much did it cost you to record, mix and master your music? What was the cost of printing your CDs/vinyls/merch? How much did you spend in magazine adverts, promotion, Facebook ads, videoclips? What recurrent costs do you have (e.g. monthly Bandcamp, Hypeddit and annual Tunecore subscriptions in my case). What transaction costs do you need to take into account? E.g. Bandcamp charges you 10-15% per sale, and Paypal charges about 6% in merchant fees per transaction (for a professional Paypal account).
Knowing your one-off, monthly and annual fees, will help you understand how much money you need to earn on an ongoing basis in order to cover your costs. Knowing your individual sales and transactional costs, will help you monitor how much progress you are making towards your overall financial goals.
4. Set Goals and Plan in Advance
Following from the previous point, you now hopefully understand the importance of setting yourself clear financial goals rather than going where the wind blows. It is simply not possible to run the business side of your artistic career if you are not able to set yourself daily, weekly, monthly and annual goals (and beyond).
How much do you want to be earning from your music on an annual basis? What will you do with any profit you make? Knowing this figure, you can then work out how much you need to be earning on a monthly, weekly and daily basis. Breaking down annual goals into daily goals is very helpful, as it makes the task look less daunting and gives you a clear action plan on a daily basis. Once you know what you need to do on a daily basis, you can then work on developing good daily habits which will lead to sustainable, long-term results.
5. Hype Always Works
In the musical underground circles where I frequent, there is a lot of talk and bravado about how individual, sophisticated and unique everyone’s musical taste is. Listeners of less visible musical genres tend to define themselves as different from the rest and see their musical taste as something that has grown spontaneously, as a result of their own research and individual journey.
While I don’t dispute the value of personal research and recommendations (streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music have developed sophisticated algorithms that are very helpful in discovering artists similar to your musical taste), I think people strongly underestimate the importance of hype in the success of a musical release. Labels that are good at hyping their artists, create an impenetrable veil of positivity around their releases. This positive PR creates in turn an expectation in the listener’s mind that the album in question is going to blow them away, and that this is the music they need in their lives.
Music appreciation remains an abstract and subjective process, and hype helps to create an air of ‘objective’ approval around a new release, pre-framing the idea in the listener’s mind that this album will be better than other similar releases of ‘lesser gods’ (read: less hyped artists). And once the listener’s social circle has invested in the idea that this is a worthwhile release, it will be difficult to disagree and lose face in your ‘tribe’.
6. It’s Always About the Long Game
I remember about ten years ago, talking to people in the musical scene (including labels of smaller labels) who would orate convincingly about the importance of the first month after release. Apparently it’s make-or-break time, because once the initial hype has evaporated, everyone turns their attention to another new release and that’s it. The opportunity to promote your new work has expired! You will now have to wait another three years or so in order to release and promote a new work in order to create interest around your studio output.
I can confidently say, having been playing this game for over two decades now, that this is nonsense. Yes, the initial period after release is important as it sets the tone for the response to your release and you need to take advantage of the momentum created in that period. But at the same time, you also need to draw a long-term strategy for evergreen promotion. I can guarantee that the majority of people who potentially appreciate your music is still out there! With thousands of new albums released every year, it is just not possible for everyone to hear every album that would potentially appeal to them.
So keep promoting your music, set up some ongoing Facebook/Instagram/YouTube ads and keep telling the story of your record to new audiences. You will continue creating new fans and once they get to know you, it won’t matter whether you released an album a year or ten years ago. They will want it all the same.
7. You Can’t Do It All On Your Own
I have been guilty of this myself in the past. I believed that I could and should do everything by myself, because somehow ‘I knew better’. This belief is the result of a fixed mindset, and there is research showing that this mindset seldom leads to sustainable success. It stems from the idea that in order to be good in something you need to be somehow a ‘natural genius’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Long-term success is mostly derived by experience and hard work. The more time you spend improving your skills in something, the more successful you are likely to be.
This means that in a complex and time consuming activity as that of creating and releasing music, you are simply not good enough to do everything by yourself, as you haven’t spent enough time to be good at everything, including writing, arranging, producing and mastering music, creating the artwork, maintaining the website and your social media, writing compelling promo copy, building up good distribution channels, marketing your art etc.
Humbleness leads to the best long-term results, so stick to what you do best and get others to help in the areas you are lacking because you haven’t invested enough time in mastering them.