Hello, I’m ShaoDow. Tom, the good man that he is, asked me to write a guest blog to offer some advice and inspiring words on how to succeed as an independent artist in this country. Because that’s what I am; a full time rapper living entirely off my music and merchandise; no label, no manager, no outside funding just some cool supporters who enjoy what I do enough to spend some money on it. So here goes:
The music industry … Erghh … Can I start again? Ok. The music industry …*sigh* Two words that really shouldn’t go together, creativity and business. They say it’s not what you know or how talented you are but rather who you know. I’m not sure who ‘they’ are but in this instance ‘they’ speak the truth. I’m often asked what advice I have for aspiring artists who wish to make a career out of music. I normally respond with DON’T DO IT, IT’S NOT WORTH IT! GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN!!!
Please note the use of capitals and exclamation marks – because in all honesty this industry is corrupt. If someone isn’t trying to make money off you or take money from you, then you’re being blocked and frustrated by industry ‘professionals’ ‘tastemakers’ and ‘DJs’ (imagine sarcastic air quotations) who have little love for the actual music and even less of a clue about what they are doing.
Really all you want to do is make music. But instead you have to befriend these people, play the game, watch X Factor and make your music as palatable as possible in the hope that a mainstream radio station will play your music or a label will offer you a deal.
Have I scared you off yet? No? Ok well then hopefully that means that like me you have a love for music and creativity so powerful that it literally burns in your chest; that the thought of not making music is in itself akin to life in prison. I don’t want to fill your head with boring stats and figures about the state of the industry or how artists today are struggling to sell a quarter of what their predecessors did. So let’s instead make this more fun and discuss one of my favourite subjects.
Seriously – how the hell did I manage to get to a point in my career where my music pays my bills? To be honest even I’m not entirely sure how I’ve managed to pull this one off! When I graduated university with my law degree, I was at a crossroads; do what was expected of me and become a lawyer or take a risk. Yet 5 years later, I’m a full-time rapper with a loyal, growing fan base. I’ve sold over 18,000 copies of my albums independently, had a couple UK tours, 2 self funded albums, a merchandise range, a couple documentaries about me and – for some reason – my own range of wireless headphones.
Add to this the fact that I also manage and run a pop up shop in a major UK shopping centre with my business partner Zuby that ONLY sells our music and merchandise, and you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m taking the p***. In truth I’m nowhere near where I want to be in my career; only a small handful of people know and care about who I am, I still struggle to get any real support from major radio stations and DJs (Tom excluded!).
I STILL spend every penny I have on my music and music related activities. And because I’m self employed and running most of the major aspects of my business solo; I work an unhealthy amount of hours leaving very little time for any semblance of a social life.
But I’ll be honest with you reader (can I call you reader? Good) I love it. I love every minute of it, even the struggle that I complain about because you know what, it’s my struggle and it’s on my own terms. If I succeed it won’t be because I got some sort of lucky break or appeared on the right TV show, it’s because I learnt my business, worked hard and made some damn good music.
As I’ve been known to say; overnight success can be taken away from you as quickly as it’s given. But if you take the time to build your house, brick by painstaking brick then you’ll be able to sit back confident in the fact that it’ll stand the test of time. And when your neighbours come knocking because the easy build straw houses they were sold fall over at the first gust of wind, you can draw the curtains and pretend you’re not in.
So my first piece of advice to you would be to learn your craft inside out. If you insist on being a part of the music business make it your business to understand it. Learn how to build and update your website, how to manage your finances, how to book a tour or how to get your album onto iTunes. At the very least have a working knowledge of the process so that if/when someone else is doing it for you, you’ll know if/when they are screwing up.
When it comes to the actual process of making music, first and foremost always make something you enjoy. If you make a track in order to get playlisted or for the purpose of charting or garnering some industry attention then you’re already doing it wrong. Making music solely for the industry is one of the easiest ways to fall out of love with the magic of music creation. The industry aren’t the ones buying your music, putting your posters on their wall and dragging their friends to your shows; that’s your fanbase and they are your lifeblood.
So as controversial as it may sound, I say forget what the ‘music industry’ and all these so called ‘professionals’ think and demand of you. Make good music for the people who appreciate what you do. Take the time to understand them and what they want, and give it to them to the best of your abilities; without significantly compromising who you are as an artist.
Ultimately, you should be making music for yourself first. Mastering your craft, pushing yourself as an artist and creating the best material you possibly can. I believe that honesty and love for the art attracts true supporters, people who care about your journey and growth as an artist not just about that one song they heard on the radio.
My fanbase is small, but they send me uplifting messages when I’m questioning my sanity. They come to my shows, recognise me and get me to sign stuff when I’m out and about minding my own business and perhaps most importantly, they love what I make and are willing to spend their hard earned money supporting it.
In an industry where artists with 20,000 twitter followers are struggling to get 100 people to buy their latest release, it’s a liberating feeling to know that I can do what the f*** I want (within reason!) because of my supporters. And that’s what makes this journey more than just a job. Too many get lost in the politics of the industry that they lose sight of what they really should be doing:
Making music and connecting with their fans.
So… identify your fanbase, understand them. If (say) they’re skaters who’re into metal and prefer to listen to music from YouTube – then why are you even trying to get radio play? Try playing a gig at a busy skate park. Film it, stick it on YouTube with your newest track laid over the top and some directions to your mailing list for details on the next show (I expect my royalty cheque for that idea).
But I also believe we’ve become too reliant on the internet. An artist’s worth is judged by how many YouTube views they have long before the actual music is heard. That’s why almost every day I leave my house with a bag full of albums, travelling to cities in this country I don’t live in just to talk to human beings about my music and sometimes sell them my CDs.
I even taught myself to speak French just so that I can build my support base abroad. Full-time effort yields full-time reward. I think that personal touch makes a difference, it’s certainly evident from the way my fanbase has grown. I treat music like my full-time job because it is. And if you’re able to; I’d recommend you do the same. To you I’d also say leave your house and stop relying solely on the internet to build your fanbase. It works for some. It can’t work for all.
With all of that said, I’m conscious that I’m painting some sort of revolutionary ‘fight the power’ type picture over here. And whilst it’s true that I’m a lot happier being independent, it’s far from easy. It’s frustrating to be constantly overlooked for opportunities or to know that the “gatekeepers” will likely ignore you because you don’t play by their rules.
It’s less fun having to accept that you’ll probably never make it into the official charts or that every financial obligation is your responsibility. As difficult as it all is, I believe it’s all part of the struggle that separates a good artist from a great one. When it’s all said and done, you own your music and you are responsible for your musical destiny.
I believe the industry is heading towards a place where an independent artist can achieve the same levels of success as their signed counterparts (take Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for example). If you can build a team of people who’re willing to work with you (not make you work for them) and secure finance to fund your projects through investments and/or business loans you’ll know how to make more out of more because the struggle trained you to do more with less. So what do you need a label for?
And that, dear reader is the DiY Gang ethos: Do It YourWay and – if others won’t help you – then Do It Yourself.
So that’s it, hopefully my rambling has inspired you a little bit. Until next time, don’t just be responsible for making your music. Be responsible for making your career.
I have a new single releasing on 17th November with fellow artist Ricky On Guitar, it’s called ‘The Rise’. Take a listen (above) and if you feel like supporting it please grab it on iTunes here. A new documentary about what I do as an independent artist was recently released. It’s called ‘ShaoDow – 2 Years Later’ and is definitely worth a watch (see below). Finally, if you live near Southampton, the The Blue and Purple Store will be open from 19th of November until 24th December in Westquay Shopping Centre so come by to see me and say hi.
Peace and God Bless
ShaoDow aka The Kung Fu Kid