Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Experiment Explained – Confessions of a “True” Indie Music DIY’er

Can a non-performing recording artist sell music online without anyone’s help?  This is the big question that I’m working on finding an answer for.  It’s an experiment at this point.  I’m trying to see if it’s possible.  I wonder if I’m the only one like me out there!  Could it be that I’m the only digital solo recording artist attempting this?  What is it exactly that I do myself, you might wonder?  I’m an independent recording artist who has released several albums & singles (both CDs and MP3s) for sale in major online stores like Amazon and iTunes.  I know I have lots of company in this regard.  

However, I wonder if there’s anyone else out there who single-handedly does all of these related things:
  • Writing the words and music for the songs
  • Publishing the songs
  • Singing the songs
  • Playing all the instruments – guitar, bass, drums, etc.
  • Recording the songs
  • Producing the songs
  • Mixing the songs
  • Mastering the songs and albums
  • Packaging the albums (including all artwork)
  • Delivering the music
  • Advertising, marketing, promotion, pitching, press, publicity, etc.
  • Web site design, authoring, content, publishing & maintenance
  • Social networking, mailing list communications

I do these all totally alone, by myself, without any help from anyone.  A few caveats are in order before I go on:  I pay for a distribution service to get the songs into the online stores;  my lovely wife Lenore has taken an album cover photo, has played accordion and marimba on a couple songs, and has provided background vocals on a couple songs.  Another is that I don't claim to be particularly good at any of them yet, and am better at some more than others.  They say creative types aren't good at the business aspect of music, and so far that is true for me, but I'm trying.

Most indie solo artists I know typically get a lot of help with many of the above.   Bands obviously have an inherent separation of duties.  For the solo acts though, quite often they play a single instrument themselves – usually a guitar, and usually they sing the vocals, and write some of the songs, but that's about it.  

They are prone to getting help in the following ways:
  • They are signed to an independent record label
  • Co-writers write either the music or words or portions of both
  • They pay a company to have their songs published and promoted
  • They hire background vocalists
  • They hire studio musicians to play the other instrument tracks
  • They book studio time for use of recording facilities and equipment
  • They pay for a producer
  • They pay for a recording engineer
  • They pay for a mastering service
  • They pay a professional photographer
  • They pay a graphic artist to design album art
  • They hire a duplication service to burn & package CDs
  • They pay for a web host, web site design service & webmaster
  • They hire someone to manage their social online presence
  • They pay someone to handle press, promotions, PR, marketing, etc.

The list above is just for a recording artist, and doesn’t even get into live performance-related stuff like booking agency, merchandising or tour management.  It almost goes without saying that touring acts have less time for all of the above activities.  Similarly, however, in my case I have a full-time day job, which at least cancels out the fact that I’m not a live performer in this regard.  I'm proud of my accomplishments as a recording artist so far, and it occurs to me that it might be rare that someone is able to figure out this many different aspects with limited free time.

You have to spend money to make money, they say.  So far my modest investment includes:
  • Guitar, bass, drums
  • Audio interface, headphones
  • Computer, recording software
  • Domain name registration
  • Music distribution service

Everything else I’ve literally done for free, and I've taught myself all of it with only the occasional assistance of free information I've found on the web.  The domain name registration (a nominal cost) and music store distribution service are ongoing annual expenses, while the instruments and recording equipment are paid for – they were far from premium-level, by the way.  The paid-for stuff I wanted anyway, so that was worth it.  Overall, I’ve spent a few thousand on this experiment, and the ongoing cost is a few hundred per year.   So, the only major expense is distribution, some of which I could do myself, some of which simply isn’t possible for anyone to do without the service, but regardless, the cost would be about the same.  Have I earned the few hundred back in sales royalties yet?  Not even close, but I'm not giving up.  Is it sad or embarrassing to admit this?  Maybe a little, but I've only been at it for three years.

Now, where I fall short is the advertising.  We all know major record labels spend millions breaking new artists, and those artists often end up broke.  The music is out there, available for purchase in all the right places, but getting people to discover it is a challenge.  Heck, getting people to discover this blog is hard enough!  This is the part that could use additional investment (barring a lightning strike and an accidentally viral youtube video).

It’s probably strange enough that one person could self-educate enough to pull off all these different aspects of the music business on their own, but it’s odd to then also feel comfortable about self-promotion. There’s a side to me that is a behind-the-scenes guy, and by nature, my personality is such that I’m almost embarrassed about people hearing the music I create.  Yet on the other side is a person who wants his music to be heard.  Gigging out / touring would no doubt help – if I could get the work – but as of yet that’s not something I’m willing to attempt as part of this grand experiment.  I should mention that I love to write songs most of all, and would love to have them recorded and released by popular artists signed to major labels or placed in film soundtracks.  The pitching of the songs themselves is a separate DIY thing from being an online-only recording artist, and something to be covered in more detail in a similar, but separate article someday.

What none of this takes into account is recording artist publicity.  Paying for a publicist or a music PR specialist is something I’ve considered as a logical next step.  Why should I do it?  Without a marketing plan and real promotion beyond the free online services, I may continue to be dead in the water.  Someone has been buying my music – I suspect Facebook friends mostly, but I’m not even close to recouping my investment yet.  Luckily, that investment has been a small, affordable one.  The more specific question here is obviously how to actually turn a profit.  The desire to have the music heard and appreciated is ever-present, and I'm slowly but surely learning to identify and undertake tasks to make it happen.

I've heard it said that no one can be good at everything in the music business, and although I'm gaining noticeable knowledge and skill as free time allows, it might be time to increase the budget for and start taking more action in enlisting the services of someone who is a professional in music marketing.  I'm always on the lookout for ways to gain a larger audience, and aside from my own time for labor, would love to hear about more free online marketing methods.  Until I decide to pull the trigger and shell out for for pro music promotion services, I hereby welcome the advice or sharing of similar experiments from anyone else out there that I might take into consideration as I plan my next steps.  In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.  I’m planning another album release next year, and will continue to keep you posted on my progress from time to time, whoever you are.