Thriving as an Independent Artist
We are living in an opportunistic time in the music world. Like never before, up-and-coming artists can put out endless amounts of music at any time and work to build a community of loyal followers that the Grateful Dead could only dream of.
The real beauty of the music industry today is found in an artists' ability to be independent.
Indie music was established in the 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom, initially describing artists working independently from labels. However, the music style was so distinct that 'indie' became a genre of its own. Nonetheless, the independent artist is still very much a thing and now is perhaps, more vital than ever.
With help from the internet, we've seen great talent blossom right before our eyes. Through creative grass-roots marketing, independent artists are taking over the mainstream music landscape. A report put together by Forbes dives into this theme in a 2019 article.
Not only are more musicians making their way in the business without the aid of a label, but independent musicians are actually the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business. A new report from MIDiA Research fielded in partnership with digital music distributor Amuse says independent artists generated more than $643 million in 2018, a 35% jump from the year before.
The Industry; Then vs. Now
In 1997, music went digital for the first time. And for twenty years, the industry has evolved at a rapid pace.
Music's digitization was only the first step to artists claiming control over their work, but it was a step in the right direction. Traditionally, record labels would scout talent and provide their artists with funding for marketing and production. Those who were not signed to a label would not have nearly as much opportunity as those. The relationship between record labels and the distributors created such a stranglehold on the industry that an artist's only hope was to go into business with labels.
The transition has been rapid. From radio play and the sale of hard copies, including vinyls, cassette tapes and CDs, to downloadable music through platforms like iTunes, and now streaming services, the industry is in a position that is beneficial to both creators and consumers.
The Deal with Record Deals
While the growth of independent artists is becoming more common in modern music, there are still many artists signed to labels. A record deal is undoubtedly beneficial to musicians, with many positives including greater available resources and budget, existing network within the industry, and a hands-off marketing strategy for artists.
However, the decision to sign with a label can certainly come at a cost. At the end of 2020, the music world witnessed a full-on public feud between Taylor Swift and executive Scooter Braun over Swift's masters' rights. Signing a deal with a record label often gives the label the freedom to negotiate to license and publishing deals without your approval. Along with a lack of ownership over your work, labels can limit an artist's creative control and take a greater percentage of profit from your loyalties.
As there are countless record label success stories, the goal of writing this is not to entirely diminish any potential value in working with a record label, rather to shed light on the fact that you can grow as artist independently. Retaining 100% creative control, 100% profit, and 100% ownership of your music are all valuable benefits of independence.
The benefits are clear in taking the independent route, but you miss out on the potential outreach that comes from signing with a label. So, how can an artist thrive on their own?
Thriving as an Independent Artist
KOTA The Friend is a Brooklyn-based artist who commonly speaks of independence values in his lyrics. KOTA's music and the brand have grown rapidly, all on the core values that he preaches in his music, garnered great respect from his following and fellow artists alike.
In May of 2020, KOTA's sophomore album, "EVERYTHING" sat #1 on Apple Music for some time. This release was a major win for independent artists looking to crack into mainstream music and can serve as inspiration for many. KOTA certainly has not had an easy path to get to this point, but offered words of wisdom in a 2020 interview:
When you don't have money and don't have resources, your creativity is tested, because you have to make it happen.
KOTA began pumping out music and content to put in front of an ever-growing audience. His creativity truly shines in his series of releases known as "Lyrics to Go"—condensed songs around one minute in length, filled with good-hearted bars. While "Lyrics to Go" wasn't the only ingredient in Kota's recipe, these packaged releases set him apart not only in the Indie world but the rap game as a whole.
As an independent artist living in the 21st century, you have the complete ability to put your tracks in front of the world. Thanks to streaming services including Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and YouTube, artists can upload music using distribution platforms without the help of a record label.
These streaming services are here to help, too. Spotify, for example, has an entire FAQ forum dedicated to artists' promotion. Making it easy for musicians to learn the ropes of the streaming industry, and it's accessible to everybody. While learning the intricacies of landing on the popular curated playlists of streaming services might be complicated, understanding the process is a worthwhile endeavor when the information is at your disposal.
Music is the best way to connect to listeners on an individual basis. However, the community aspect of a fanbase is something that the most successful artists understand. Creating a community is the art of bringing the unique listeners together, and perhaps, the best way to do this is with live shows. While shows aren't a reality during these turbulent times in a world cursed with COVID, social media has become the world's biggest music venue.
Countless artists have turned to Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook to live stream shows from the comfort of their homes, giving listeners a taste of the live music they've missed so much.
While the actual music takes priority, spending time engaging with fans in the comment section, through live streams, and more gives listeners a direct connection with their favorite artists. The more you practice engagement with fans on social, the faster your brand will spread.
If you're passionate about your music, fanbase, and freedom, an independent artist's path could be extremely fulfilling for a musician. Ensuring that you have an established brand and style can help you stand out in a flooded industry, your following will flourish.