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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Blissful Ignorance And Songwriting Success

originally posted Jun 25, 2010 4:19 PM by Scott Cooley 

Some people think they’re better songwriters than they really are and we feel sorry for them.  Could we be them without knowing it?  It is possible that I don’t recognize how bad I am at songwriting and so rate myself as being better than I really am?  This article attempts to explore why that could be.

Since I haven’t had success in a traditional sense – achieving “cuts” or “holds” or being able to go into a major record store and buy a popular CD that has a recording of one of my songs on it – it could be that I’m not really able to realize that my strategies for becoming traditionally successful are not good ones.  If I keep repeating the same behavior hoping for different results, am I just stupid?  Na├»ve?  Clueless?  It’s possible – and I’m just barely smart enough to conceive of this.  I think.  Of course, my Dad has always said that “you can convince yourself of almost anything.”  It’s a scary proposition.

I am probably guilty of thinking it was so important to represent myself in a favorable light that I’ve convinced myself that I am better than I really am.  The common advice to “act like a pro until you become a pro” that I’ve taken might’ve made me not only say things about myself that are not entirely truthful, but actually start to believe them as well.  That would be sad, I know.

One need only watch the popular television program American Idol to realize many people in the world truly believe they are great singers when clearly the feedback of experts says they are terrible.  Which proves an obvious theory that the lack of skill or talent that makes you incompetent can be the very thing that makes you unable to recognize that you are incompetent – an “ignorance is bliss” type of thing.
On the other hand, your taste in music is based on a lot of things – your personality, where you grew up, where you live, your experiences, etc.  Your opinions about what is a good song and what isn’t a good song is shaped by these, so you literally hear what you want to hear when listening to a song, you imagine what you want to imagine – and appreciation of art is always that way – different for every listener (except for twins maybe).  

So even if I am honest, fair, and objective with myself about my own abilities or about the quality of the songs I write, I’m oblivious to the things I don’t know about songs.  I have a personal theory that too much knowledge about music could hinder my ability to write good songs.  A lot of people I know who took music lessons and understand music theory can play someone else’s music well, but seem to have difficulty improvising and creating their own music.  Just an observation.  What I don’t know can’t hurt me, right?  If people liked my songs that would be true – but I’d need some measurable success in a traditional sense to prove that I suppose.  I don’t have that yet.

So if I’m generally ignorant of what the traditionally-successful songwriters know, I don’t really know how I am ignorant.  To quote Edie Brickell, “I know what I know, if you know what I mean.”  If I don’t try to educate myself about what makes a Lennon/McCartney or a Dylan song good, then I’m not burdened by the influence of that knowledge.  If I can’t even begin to understand how I would compose a piece of music like Mozart would write, what’s wrong with me sticking with what I do know?  I know how to play a few chords on a guitar and I know how to play them in an order that pleases me, and then I know how to come up with some words and rhymes that please me and fit them together into what I consider a pleasing song.  So I guess my ignorance of how fancier songs are written is a factor in me writing songs the way I do know how to write songs, without me knowing it really.  I’m ignorant of my own ignorance.

I may be incredibly mediocre without knowing it, because I’m simply not aware of how to be any different.  We’ve all heard about successful songwriters and musicians who’ve never had formal training and who’ve never learned to read music.  Popularity matters.  On the other hand, we’ve all heard about record companies who “buy success” for artists who aren’t that good, focusing on marketing and videos and payola to achieve success for incompetent singers and musicians with bad songs.  I guess the only thing I can do is to continue to listen and learn.  I do notice that I learn things about music simply by listening to music that I wasn’t previously aware of.  I try to listen to the great songs by the great songwriters – the ones who have had that “traditional success” I’m after.  In the process, I know things now about songs I never used to, and would like to think every bit of knowledge helps me get closer to the potential to achieve traditional songwriting success myself someday.

The beauty of this all (or, the bliss of it, if you will) is that I am a non-traditional success in that I’ve written many songs that I think are good and I’ve had fun doing it.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor for simply that reason, yet I can’t help but think that there are valid reasons I haven’t gone beyond that yet.   I may be better than I think I am, and haven’t had the luck of being in the right place at the right time yet.  Or maybe I haven’t focused on the marketing and pitching enough yet, or maybe I haven’t focused on producing better demos yet, and these have been the barriers to that success rather than my lack of skill.  It’s nice to think of these as possibilities instead of thinking I’m in denial of reality like those American Idol contestants who are terrible but think they’re great.

For that reason I am very careful to not take the feedback I get – positive or negative – too seriously.  I would hate to give up on a hobby I find so enjoyable, and yet I would hate to be someone who has an unrealistic, inflated opinion of themselves without justification either.

I conclude by saying ignorance can be bliss, when mixed with the desire to learn and improve at one’s own pace.  If I can recognize my own little improvements in my songwriting, then perhaps I’m on the road to writing some that many would consider good.  If I keep trying to discover new things about good songs, then apply them, this could be good, provided it’s not plagiarism.  So I’m going to continue to tell myself some things:  Don’t stop writing, don’t stop learning, be careful to not lose whatever it is that makes it fun to do, and be careful to not ever go thinking you’re any good until you have some measure of “traditional” success.  That said, in the event traditional success does not show itself, don’t give up the hobby, because any free time spent doing something so enjoyable is always worth it.  The big risk?  Someone will feel sorry for you, but will be glad that you found something you liked and had a good time with it.  Not that big a deal in the grand scheme.