What Does It Mean To Be An Independent Artist?

“My Independence Seems To Vanish In The Haze”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      –The Beatles

            In today’s music industry, many are unclear as to what it means to be an independent artist. The most basic definition of an independent music artist is a undiscovered group that is not signed to one of the big four labels. Artists under the big four record labels, Sony, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and EMI are generally defined as “Major Signed” artists. Beyond the major label artists, independent artists include everyone from the high school music prodigy who is dropping his first album to the accomplished indie artist who now owns his own label to maintain creative control over his music. According to SoundScan, the company responsible for tracking music sales, independent music makes up 18% of the total music market share.

Yet, the ambiguous definition of what it means to be an independent artist has led some to refer to major label artists as independent based on their sound, genre, or the type of fans the artist attracts. A primary difference between these “major label” independent artists (for lack of a non-paradoxical term) is that they have multi-million dollar promotion and music budgets funded by the label that signed them. This extra marketing cabbage makes it difficult for newer artists to gain attention and exposure among the clutter of major artists. Independent artists tend to have smaller production, promotion, and distribution budgets than their signed counterparts, and, for that reason, there are several unique tips Independent Artists need to know. The philosophers, Wu Tang Clan, explored this important message when they said “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dollar dollar bill yall”.

Quality Songs: One of the great benefits of being an independent artist is the artistic freedom. Independent labels and artists are able to explore lyrical content and innovative musical styles that are excluded from the mainstream. As an artist, take that opportunity to express yourself in your lyrics and your own individuality in your music. Our music, and all other art we create, is a reflection of our own unique experience. Do not be afraid to try something new, experiment with different ways of wording or singing your lyrics and composition. The reason we all know Lupe Fiasco’s name now in the hip hop game is because he had the courage to release “Kick, Push,” a song about skateboarding, at a time when everyone and their mother was rapping about money and bling. The point is, there are no rules for what a song can be about or how it is done, so be open to the fluid process that is the art of crafting the song. Once the music and lyrics are all finalized, it’s time to practice, practice, practice. And then once you finish practicing, practice some more. The most legendary songs of all time, whether it is incredible guitar solos or singing of revolutionary lyrics at unbelievable pitches, all have flawless execution. It is the practice before those artists are ever heard that make their music so excellent that it will have eternal cultural significance. The best tip I ever got regarding practice, besides doing a lot of it, is that every artist should practice like they are performing in front of an audience. Doing this during practice ensures that when you are recording or performing you will bring the same or more energy from when you practice. This also keeps an artist from developing bad performance tendencies like being off pitch, having poor body language, or miscommunicating timing of the music between band members.

Quality Recording: Once the song is fully developed, it is time to get into the recording studio to prepare either a demo or album for live shows and individual sales. In the past decade, there has been a huge expansion in the quality and number of home recording. Depending on the type of sound you want to achieve and the budget at your discretion for a home studio, a home recording solution can be excellent with proper music production knowledge. Also, there are small unidirectional music recorders that cost less than $100. However, if you are a poor college student like myself or if you don’t have $1500 dollars lying around to build a home studio, there are plenty of independent labels and recording studios for indie artists (usually costs between $25-$75 per hour). As this is a common option for independent artists, having plenty of prior practice and a clear schedule of what will be recorded is crucial to minimize recording time and costs. Also when recording, put your full energy into the song as if you were performing at Madison Square Garden; you never know who might hear that recording. That person could be the one who gives you that big break just from hearing the potential in your voice. After all, that is essentially the story of how we found out about Eminem, and it is often that friend of a friend in the industry that can help the most. And finally, once the recording is completed and mastered, it is important to attain copyright for your music at http://uspto.com/ or at least a “poor man’s copyright”. Poor man’s copyright is when you use registered dating from a postal service as proof of ownership and creation date. You get this Poor Man’s Copyright by sending yourself a copy of your album with an official date stamp which then verifies when you put the work in physical form. Disclaimer; poor man’s copyright does not provide all the benefits of true copyright and should only be used as a last resort.

Quality Management: When first starting out, an independent artist will often times need to function as musician, singer/songwriter, publisher, label, manager, and promoter. However, there is a great value to having a manager outside of the band. A designated manager for your band not only functions as a point person for band activities, but also acts as an objective promoter in the minds of consumers and business sponsors. I can tell you all day how great I am, yet it is legitimized by having a manager to represent the band. However, if the band is not yet ready to sacrifice the standard 10% of revenue for permanent management then there are two options. First, the band can appoint an “acting manager” who is a friend or family member who fulfills the functional need for a manager yet does not gain control of band or revenues. The second option is for the band to self-manage by each member having a band leader or equal control between members of band decisions. The most important thing is that a band has a clear image of how decisions are made and who to contact to discuss further opportunities. Also, whatever management structure is determined to be best suited, it is important that the management team is effectively meeting the aspirations of the band. The value of having a manager is that they act as a spokesperson to promote the brand of your music. Employing management who think of your band and music as a brand that is being marketed, can help in constructing promotion goals that takes your band to the next level.

Quality Performance: Prior to any performance it is crucial to do a run through and sound-check to ensure that the music quality is optimal. Organizing special deals with the venue or bar can be an effective way to draw a crowd for your shows. Also, it is important to have albums, t-shirts, and other merchandise to sell at shows. During the performance, act like you are expressing it for the first time. Think of the moment that made you write the song in the first place and convey from your heart the emotions you have connected to the song. In performance, there is nothing more important than for the performer to keep the piece fresh. The same emotion and involvement in performing music is what makes a performance all the more captivating.


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