Getting Back to Your Indie Roots—How to Succeed by Looking to the Past

By NationWide Source
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Sometimes I allow the past to fade from my memory too quickly. With things changing so rapidly in the digital age of music, it’s easy to forget just how different things in the music business were just a short time ago. One of my mentors always told me that it’s hard to move forward into the future when you’re focused on the past and looking over your shoulder, and, for the most part, he was right.

But not in this case.

Looking Over Your Shoulder

In the 90s, if an independent artist wanted to “make it” as a musician or performer, they had to beat the street and perform in front of real live people. How else would anyone hear their music? Artists needed fans, and live performances created fans.

Since creating fans is no easy task, that hard work was just the beginning. They spent hours writing music, picking band members, rehearsing, recording, mastering, ordering discs, and spending money—all of this just to acquire fans.

Now, the fans themselves weren’t the goal. “Making it” was the goal. What did this mean? To most independent musicians, it meant financial sustainability, which itself might lead to fame and fortune, if you were one of the gifted and lucky few.

To many artists, “making it” also meant widespread recognition. Because earning that recognition through constant touring and performing was slow and required hard work, some artists also banked on radio play, sending countless CDs to radio stations in hopes of breaking into the on-air market. Sadly, most of those CDs ended up in the trash and were never played over the air. While artists had hoped radio play would be a short cut to success, it was often a short cut to disappointment and unnecessary expense. So, starving artists either quit or kept on gigging.

The Internet Promise

The 90s passed by, and the next decade offered a whole new opportunity to artists with the launch of music sites on the internet. When the internet came, it promised easy access to self promotion and fame for indie musicians. Artists became enamored with the idea of getting their music on every internet portal for music, starting with iTunes.

The conversation changed; no longer did a musician have to work gigs to gain fame and make it in the business or wait on radio stations to pick up their music. With an internet short-cut to success, everything was finally going to be great. Fame was now possible without traditional air-play. An independent artist did not have to rely on gigging to make it any longer.

Not so fast.

The internet did deliver a wide variety of options for promotion of music, but it came at a cost. Fame was possible now, but money, which had always accompanied fame in the past, did not follow. In the 90s, more exposure turned into more revenue for artists; now, more exposure can actually turn into less revenue for the artist.

This doesn’t seem to make any sense—more exposure equals less revenue? But fans at shows today might hesitate to purchase music, since it is readily available online for free. In some cases, it seems that the more popular an artist becomes, the less likely it is that they could sell their music. But what could the artists do?

The Internet Is Not The Problem

Artists in the 90s had to make their way by touring and playing gigs. It was accepted as a necessary prerequisite to success.

Scratch that. It wasn’t “a” prerequisite. Touring and gigging were the only options available to an indie artist hoping to make it in the 90s. There was no internet, with its alluring digital tools, to distract and mislead musicians from the task at hand.

Here’s how it worked: a few gigs turned into a few more gigs; those gigs turned into better gigs at bigger venues. Eventually, gigging turned into touring and playing concerts. If you were good and lucky, you might even get radio play. If you did it right, all of this effort created fans who spent their money on your music. 

It is exactly the same today.

Let me be clear about the internet age and what it allows artists to do with their music. The age of the internet has empowered musicians with countless digital tools to expose their music to potential fans. The only problem is that most of those digital tools do not generate any reasonable income. Therefore, the problem artists face today is exactly the same as, and yet completely different than, it was 20 years ago.

What Is The Problem?

The lack of income needed to sustain a career in music was a problem 20 years ago. It is still a problem today, and it’s actually getting worse. Surprisingly, the answer to the problem is also the same, but with a little twist.

In 1995, artists fought obscurity by gigging. As their fan base grew, people purchased music, and the artist began to make a living.

Due to the internet, obscurity is no longer a problem. This sounds like good news for musicians, but an internet fan base does not necessarily turn into music purchases. That is the significant difference between music today and music in the past.

Internet Fame Does Not Equal Income

The question most artists ask when starting a career in music is, “How do I get my music out there so people can hear it?” Unfortunately, this is not the right question.

(By the way, the answer is simple: load your music onto every streaming source you can find, and bam, you’ll have thousands of people listening in a short period of time!)

The right question to ask is, “How do I make a living as an artist?”

As odd as it may seem, the answer is the same today as it was 20 years ago. Gigging is a great way to create fans that will purchase your music and merch… as long as they can’t get it all online for free.

Four Things You Can Do

If you want to find success today as a performing artist, focus on the things you need to do that will create more local fans. Here are a few points to consider:

  1. Perform by gigging and touring as much as you can.
  2. Release new music often, and sell it on your merch table.
  3. Capture your fans’ information and communicate with them.
  4. Limit how much music you offer for free online.

Here’s my last piece of advice: keep looking over your shoulder for answers to today’s problems. It may seem counter-intuitive, but some things really don’t change, no matter how different they may seem. Do not become infatuated with internet fame unless you can turn it into income.

The key to indie musicians’ success is the same today as it was 20 years ago: Find fans that will purchase your music.

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