Emerging from the Mist (Part Five)

Mountains, trees and mist

Trying to be Successful Within the Independent Music Sector

Fresh On The Net readers may recall that when the Listening Post closed for a month during the summer we published a series of articles entitled Emerging from the Mist (Parts 1 – 4). Each edition focused on a specific music-related topic. Now, with the Listening Post closed for Christmas and New Year, I am delighted to have the opportunity to continue the series with some new areas I hope will be of interest to readers.

So Part Five focuses on an issue affecting a great many of Fresh On The Net’s regulars including artists who submit tracks, managers and labels representing independent artists, others working in specific or niche areas of music and, of course, fans of independent music artists who prefer to look beyond and outside the popular music mainstream for excitement and inspiration.

I write as a practitioner within the independent music sector who, like so many others, performs multiple roles in pursuit of my livelihood and does so at a relatively low level in terms of income, notoriety and media exposure. Also like so many others I am a multitasker performing the roles of composer, artist, label, manager, live promoter, PR guy, blogger etc. When you are struggling to scrape a living you cannot afford to pay external sources to provide these services so you just learn to carry them out yourself.

Digital Has Changed The Game
The advent of digital software and platforms has completely transformed the independent music sector. As with most radical change this has tangible benefits but they come at a price. The biggest benefit, as far as I am concerned, from the advancement of digital technology has been the ability of musicians and artists to make professional quality recordings using a laptop in their own home. When I started out playing in serious bands in the nineteen eighties, the only way in which we could make even half-decent recordings of our music was to save up the pennies and book time in a recording studio.

Digital Studio

Even then we would too often find ourselves dealing with a hippy with a roll-up stuck permanently on his lip who didn’t understand our music but insisted that he carried out the mixes even though he didn’t know the songs well enough to know where to pull certain tracks up or down and so on. Accordingly the final product would rarely be good enough to even consider releasing and frequently failed to provide an adequate representation of our music for the purposes either of presenting our material to record companies or to sell to fans at our live shows.

There were exceptions. We eventually discovered a first class studio in Milton Keynes (we were from Hemel Hempstead) owned by a famous drummer and run by a sound engineer who took pride in ensuring no-one emerged from his sessions with a sub-standard demo. But even working with someone of his talent and professionalism it was still hard to achieve radio quality production and mastering in the time our limited funds could buy.

It still amazes me at times that I can put a track together in my own idiosyncratic fashion, upload it to my BBC Introducing page and to Soundcloud and, in some cases, be played on national radio within a week; all without having to leave the house. And I use a very basic set-up that reflects my limited grasp of technology. When I hear the quality of sound and the breadth of sonic innovation on some of the tracks we are sent via the Fresh On The Net in-box, I am continually impressed by the things other artists are able to achieve to make their mixes more interesting.

Of course even this huge leap forward in affordable recording and production has one downside. Namely that it means the competition with others who can produce good quality recordings without spending any money is far greater and fiercer than ever before. That is not a downside for the fans nor for broadcasters though and it is a reason why, for all the frustration I hear others expressing about the corporatisation of the mainstream music media, new music has never been in a healthier state.

Another advantage of digital technology is the ease with which artists can now release and have control over their own output. Digital distribution began with downloads and, as that market grew in comparison to the more cost-intensive and difficult areas of physical production and distribution, so new organisations emerged who have become the modern digital equivalent of the old independent distributors like Pinnacle, Vital and Proper. Now we have Tunecore, CD Baby [who, as their name suggests, began as a CD distributor but were savvy enough to switch their emphasis when the market began to change] and various others. Unlike the old physical distributors these digital ones can guarantee your releases will be available in every recognised digital store and platform across the world. And most of them charge a competitive fee and take no cut of your royalties so they offer a far better deal than the old distributors and are far more effective. Again, great news for the independent musician.

However there too we have a downside. Streaming has largely kicked the downloads business into the long grass and it is not difficult to see why. For the average fan, the choice between paying £9.99 a month for virtually unlimited streaming of music or buying the download version of each album or single at retail price is a no-brainer. So streaming is arguably great for the fans (provided they understand that they are only renting the music and will lose it all if they cancel their subscriptions) but the return on streams for the label and artist is negligible. To put that in perspective you could shift a million streams of an individual track and the revenue might pay for a really good night out!

I have had a lot of discussion with others involved in the independent sector about streaming. One of the arguments I have frequently heard is that it is unfair for artists or labels when they achieve thousands of streams and yet only receive a few quid. Well yes and no. I speak as an artist who, thanks largely to support from BBC stations, achieved £60K streams of an EP I released last year, the money for which was peanuts! But I am a realist and I know that, had my EP only been available as a download and/or CD, the vast majority of those 60K people would not have bothered buying it. Instead not only do 60K customers of Spotify and Apple have my EP in their library but the total numbers who have heard my music are even greater. So if my sole motivation had been to make money, it would have been a disappointment but, if my main motivation was to gain exposure and win over new fans, it was actually a great success. So these are the kinds of questions we all have to consider.

I know artists and labels who refuse to have their music available on streaming platforms and I respect their reasons. It is about choice. For now at least, mine has been that streaming offers a very effective means of reaching a wider audience and, provided I know I am not going to get paid well for the streams I generate, I can happily proceed on that basis.

For those who would prefer to stick with selling downloads at a price that is both realistic and fair, Bandcamp offers a great resource. You can set the price of your product and you can invite buyers to choose what they want to pay (with a minimum set by you). You should be aware, and it isn’t necessarily as clear as it ought to be if you have not used the facility before, that the buyer will be charged VAT on top of the price you set so, for example, if you say you want to sell your album for £8, fans will have to pay £9.60. Bandcamp and Paypal both also take a cut of your money but you still get to keep the lion’s share so, on a sale by sale basis, it is a better deal than streaming.

I recently used Bandcamp as a crowdfunder whereby people could buy a pre-release download version of an album from Bandcamp which would in turn help to fund the pressing of CDs and then, when the CD was ready to release, each person who bought the pre-release download would be sent a copy of the CD too. That still left the bulk of CDs available to sell at live shows. So it is worth considering doing things like this to avoid the complications of using an official crowdfunding platform.

One word of warning though. You are not charged for having an individual Bandcamp account if you are just selling products on behalf of one artist. But if, like me, you set up a label account through which to sell all the singles, EPs and albums you release, you will be charged $20 a month regardless of whether you are generating sales that make that figure worth paying. Again though, it is about choice.

Live Events & Merchandise
I remember having a conversation in about 1996 with a friend whose band were enjoying significant commercial success at the time. In fact that year they achieved a platinum album. He told me they would make a financial loss on their forthcoming UK tour but it didn’t matter because the tour was all about generating album sales. That was only two decades ago but the world was such a different place. CDs were still relatively new and a lot of fans were still buying their singles and albums on cassette tapes as this was cheaper. The internet was up and running but less than 50% had access in their homes. Mobile phones were also in a developmental phase and less than 50% of the population had them. Both mobiles and internet access were charged on an expensive call by call basis and were very expensive. As for downloads, they had not even been invented.

Man with guitar

Wind the clock forward just over twenty years and this configuration has been turned on its head. An album might make precious little money, particularly if the majority of ‘sales’ are from people streaming it on Spotify, Apple, Deezer etc. But it is the live events that offer the opportunity to make some money. Not only through ticket sales but moreover through the selling of merchandise (including CDs, vinyl and even, in certain niche cases, cassettes) at gigs when fans are having a good time, have money in their wallets and are more inclined to make a purchase if the goods are in front of them.

So if you can find or raise the capital to invest in the key elements necessary to get the merch side of your business up and running, you can build that into a potentially very useful income stream. And when I talk about the key elements, I am referring to CD (or Vinyl if you feel that is the right market for your fanbase) copies of your singles, EPs and albums, especially albums which you can sell for, say, £8.00 which should represent a reasonable mark-up and potential profit margin for you if you sell sufficient volumes and is likely to be viewed by fans as a decent price. I am also referring to T-Shirts (the cost of which can be kept down by restricting how many colours you deploy) and, if you can afford it, other items such as hats, hoodies, badges (although you may want to give badges away with other more expensive products) and similar items.

I spoke recently to a young friend who is carving out a very successful career as a singer-songwriter and has just completed her third UK tour on the back of her second album. She confirmed that, in the pecking order of how she makes her money, merch (i.e. T-shirts etc.) came top followed by album sales at gigs, ticket sales from her tours and PRS royalties from performances of her songs in licensed venues and airplay on national and regional radio stations. She had chosen not to use streaming at all and when I asked how many albums she sold through online platforms like Amazon, she told me none! So all her album sales take place at gigs.

This clearly offers a workable model for independent musicians who are playing regular live dates. It can also work for labels and management too if you are prepared to attend your artists’ events and take responsibility for ticket and merchandise sales on a deal with the artists about their split of any net profits. You may find some venues want a cut for allowing you sell merchandise on their premises. Personally I disapprove of such arrangements but compromise is often the best way to maintain good relations with those whose venues you enjoy playing and/or promoting at.

Innovating With Your Business Model
Whether we like it or not, if you are seeking to operate within the independent music sector, you need to have some semblance of business plan. I have stumbled upon some interesting models over recent times.

For example, one very good model is used by a Scottish independent label who run on a cleverly crowdfunded not-for-profit basis. How they achieve this is by building and maintaining a membership database of individuals who pay a subscription and receive a certain number of new releases throughout the year (with choice over which ones). The subscription income provides a steady crowdfunding stream which pays production costs and then the label is also able to sell a couple of hundred at least of each physical product (i.e. vinyl album) they produce. It is a great model and it drives the lion’s share of money straight to the artists. Of course the other key ingredient in their success is their talent for signing seriously good bands and artists so that their membership remains confident in the quality of what their subscriptions are funding.

Vinyl Records

I know several independent labels whose primary focus is to sell albums and merchandise at live events and they promote regular gigs in order to be able to showcase their artists in the process. Some of them also operate a mail order wing of the business whereby fans can purchase the CD or Vinyl album through online stores like Amazon (or in some cases at the label’s own online shop) and they will send it out by post. So, if you believe there is likely to be a sufficient number of people who would prefer to buy your music that way, it is worth exploring this option too.

Others focus on individual tracks so that they can have a continuous volume of material being made available to download or stream instead of waiting for albums to be completed. I have seen various ideas being deployed including giving a download version of a track away with gig tickets purchased on line or even handing CDs out to customers when they pay to get into a gig. Again decisions about all these things come down to budget and priorities but if you can afford to give out free CDs or downloads, it will inevitably expand the numbers of people who are getting to hear your music.

Avoiding Wasted Expenditure
There is inevitably sometimes a temptation to spend money on additional items that you envisage enhancing your stock. If you are making a very healthy profit and can afford to be generous with the giveaways or to offer high end products, that is another matter [although even then I would recommend researching to determine whether there is evidence of any actual benefit to you]. But when you are running on a shoestring budget, investing in extras to give away with merch products is a luxury you cannot afford especially when the market research shows the giveaway element would have made no difference to the customer’s decision to buy your product.

Calculator, pen and sums

Likewise it is not a good idea to overstretch yourself. Spending a vast sum on producing a mouthwatering range of merch options may seem exciting and classy but it might feel considerably less so when three years later you still haven’t even broken even on your original investment but you are still having to cart your huge merch store with you to gig after gig and you have to store all the unsold goods somewhere between shows. Much better if you can start with, say, 200 copies of your album and 50 T-Shirts with one colour on black in a range of [mostly larger] sizes. Then you can begin to reinvest money and start to expand your range at a realistic pace.

Also be careful not to be persuaded to pay for services you don’t need. Digital distributors like Tunecore and CD Baby offer you the chance to tick boxes to add stores, add physical distribution (pointless if your product is only available in digital form) and so on. Don’t add these services unless you are sure you need them and that you cannot provide them yourself. One UK distributor who I had a brief relationship with but parted company with for reasons I will not divulge here, charge not inconsiderable fees for registering your music with the UK and Ireland charts compilers and higher fees to add the US and other territories. I can assure you that you can do this yourself. It is absolutely free and it takes a few minutes. The UK and Ireland charts are compiled by Millward Brown and you just need to log onto their site and set up a Tornado Account. You can register with the US and Canada by going to the Nielsen Soundscan site. At present you do not need to register for other EU territories though that may change post-Brexit. But you might want to consider whether registering for charts you are unlikely to appear in is much of a priority anyway. Either way, do NOT pay a third party to do it for you.

Finally on this particular subject, there are far too many unscrupulous people out there leeching off others’ desperation for success in music. Don’t be fooled. If an offer sounds too good to be true then it probably is. If a service seems overly expensive for what it is likely to deliver, it almost certainly is. As a golden rule, don’t pay others to do what you can do yourself unless they are offering a clearly reasonable price, can demonstrate some track record and/or you already know and trust them. Take advice whenever possible if you are unsure about parting with money, signing rights over to anyone or agreeing percentage deals on any area of your activity. Read what trusted figures like Tom Robinson have to say rather than a book by someone you know nothing about that is being sold at an inflated price and promising to teach you how to make it in music.

Getting Played On The Radio
Airplay is not the only means of wider exposure for independent music but it sure helps! If you are already a regular visitor to Fresh On The Net you may well be aware of the unique service offered by BBC Introducing. It is a fantastic system and it has never been easier to get your music heard by the producers and presenters of shows relevant both to where you live and the genre of music you say you fit into.

BBC Introducing

So if you are a band or artist hoping to get your music played on BBC shows and you have not already set up a BBC Introducing page, make it your top priority to do so. Just go to bbc.co.uk/introducing, register your account and click Upload. Then follow the instructions. There are some flaws of course. For reasons that are never entirely clear sometimes certain tracks do not seem to get listened to by all those who they are assigned to. Also the genre definitions are frustratingly broad which makes it very hard to choose a category that gets your music to the right shows. Hopefully these elements will be worked on as the system continues to develop. It is a fantastic resource though and worth using.

If you are a label or manager, you should make sure your artists are using it or even set the page up for them if that is clearly what they would prefer you to do. However be careful not to create a situation where a band or artist (you or someone you are working with) is unable to access their own page because the username, password and associated email account belong to a third party they no longer have a relationship with. The same logic applies to websites, social media pages and any other platforms which the artist(s) may need to continue using after a relationship has ended for whatever reasons.

Transistor Radio

It is worth putting some time into researching the radio stations and shows who are likely to play your music if they like it enough. You can ask BBC stations to send you an Excel Spreadsheet that lists the shows and the names of the producers. Producers have a big say in what content makes it onto playlists and you should make contact with them. Most BBC producers have an email address based on firstname.surname@bbc.co.uk but there are exceptions so check. It is fine to send press releases and links to them but don’t pester people. Also be patient. These people are very busy and receive a huge volume of emails. So don’t have a go at them about not replying to previous messages and don’t bombard them with unnecessary and peripheral posts. It is a pretty obvious point but you are not going to help your cause by putting the backs up of the people you need to give you a break.

Don’t waste energy trying to get played on stations you have no chance with. For example most of the well known independents – Capital, Heart, Magic, Smooth etc. – are owned by two large groups, have central playlists, literally no specialist shows (not even at 3AM!) and will only play music that is either in the pop charts, has previously been in the pop charts or is guaranteed to make the pop charts. So it is pointless sending them your music and lots of posts, press releases, Electronic Press Kits etc.

By contrast there are a growing number of genuinely independent radio stations, many broadcasting on line, who are run by real fans and who are far more inclined to take a chance on new and emerging artists. Community Radio is a great resource, especially where you have a local connection or a connection through another element such as ethnicity, language etc. Hospital Radio used to be seen as a bit of a joke by new music artists but now many of them broadcast on line and some of their shows have worldwide audiences. So again, do your research. Internet Radio stations like RKC (France), XTended Radio (Netherlands), Radio Wigwam (UK), Lonely Oak Radio (USA) and others are a great resource for new music. Basically you need to spend some time finding out who is broadcasting music similar to yours outside the immediate mainstream.

It isn’t a direct route to airplay but obviously don’t overlook Fresh On The Net. If you make the Listening Post it is exposure to a discerning audience and if you make the Fresh Faves that is good exposure too. And you never know. If you catch Tom’s ear for the right reasons, he might include your track in the BBC Introducing Mixtape. But I did say ‘… might include’. I have heard from one or two artists recently who, despite the relevant pages on the website stating otherwise, seemed to believe Fresh Faves success was a guarantor of airplay. This is not the case! Conversely you don’t have to have made the Fresh Faves to be considered for the Mixtape. So the best thing to do is submit your track(s) if it is genuinely good enough and then see what happens. You just never know and, for the record, neither do us moderators!

Video
There was a time, not so long ago, when making a video was an expensive business but these days, if you know what you are doing, you can make credible videos using mobile phone or digital video camera footage. Apps like Movie Maker allow you to piece footage together, sync vocals with the video and add effects that improve the overall quality.

It is definitely worth setting up a YouTube channel. It costs nothing and it is another place where you can showcase your music and invite others, including media or industry folk, to experience it. You may also want to put your videos on Vimeo too which is popular with a lot of media and industry folk and often portrayed as being of better quality than YouTube (although if your videos are of the free DIY type I am not convinced there is any difference).

Social Media
If you are already a regular visitor to Fresh On The Net, you probably do not need me to point out the importance of social media in the independent music sector. That is why I am always dismayed when artists tell me they refuse to be on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Why on earth would anyone who is trying to reach the widest possible audience spurn the opportunity to have free access to these huge platforms?

iPhone screen with social media icons

Facebook, for example, makes it very easy for you to set up an event (such as your forthcoming gig) and then invite hundreds of people to attend at the click of a button. Some of us more mature musicians remember only too well the cost, effort and time it took to send mail-outs about gigs and how small the numbers of people would be who responded by turning up. Social media has removed those problems for you.

Twitter is very effective for getting your key messages out to large numbers of people and building an army of people who follow you (even if, in reality, most rarely if ever acknowledge your posts thereafter). It gives you quick and easy access to people you want to contact (though I say this with an accompanying health warning about not pestering or stalking anyone). Tom Robinson has published some great advice on Fresh On The Net about how not to go about contacting people in the media for example and I advise you to read what he has to say.

Instagram is more of a visual platform but it does offer another avenue for reaching people. I attended the BBC Amplify event in late 2017 and there was an interesting and informative panel discussion with audience questions about social media and the consensus was it is best to mix and match.

Certainly you should use the facilities for scheduling posts, publicising and inviting others to events, setting up artist pages and building their followings, getting as many photo or poster-style attachments out there too so your posts get noticed and joining in message threads where you might make a good impression. My advice however is to stay out of pointless arguments. I won’t say stay out of controversial and/or political debates but be careful not to publish posts that might come back to haunt you if you ever do become well-known and it is a pretty good principle to keep to commenting on matters where you do actually know what you’re talking about. Don’t make it easy for others to mock you or portray you as ‘fake’ etc. Not only can it be bad for you when you are trying to build your brand or reputation but it can be upsetting for you too.

Membership Bodies
It is worth my saying a few words about royalties collection bodies (PPL, PRS etc.) and membership organisations (Musicians Union, AIM etc.); also about applying for grant funding through the likes of PRS Foundation, Arts Council and Sound and Music. I would advise reading up on all these organisations though.

PPL pays royalties to rights owners (i.e. label which, in many cases, may mean you if you are releasing your own material) and artists but you need to have accounts as both. PRS pays royalties to the songwriters/composers. In the case of PPL, the royalties cover broadcasts, streams, DJ sets, video play (on certain conditions) but not live gigs. In the case of PRS, live gigs are covered if they are in venues who pay for the appropriate music license and they also cover broadcasts, streams, video plays (if there are a large enough volume) etc. PRS charge a one-off lifetime membership fee of £100 so a few plays on national radio and you will have recouped your fee and will be making money thereafter. PPL membership is free. Both organisations make their money by collecting license fees from venues, broadcasters etc.

The Musicians’ Union may seem like an expensive organisation to join but it provides a plethora of high quality advice including a raft of sample contracts available only to members, articles and advice on many areas of music industry activity, funding bodies and so on. It is also a responsive organisation who will give trusted advice to members and can provide legal representation when you most need it. They also provide their members with public liability insurance.

AIM is the umbrella organisation for independent music labels and other organisations. They too provide a raft of advice and help. Take the time to look into these organisations and see whether you fit the profile of their members and whether you feel you would benefit from membership.

You can also apply for grants funding if you have a project that is likely to be considered to be of value to others or if you are at a point in your career where some financial assistance might lead to significant success. The PRS Foundation is an option if you are a PRS member. Arts Council (for your part of the UK) is another. And there are certain avenues open via the likes of Sound and Music (the UK’s only new music charity), Help Musicians UK and others. The Musicians’ Union website has information for members on funding opportunities or you can search on google but it is worth reading up on what is potentially available and how to go about making an application. You can find information on numerous charitable trusts, foundations and other organisations who make funding available at certain times of year and on certain conditions if you search online. All these bodies are tough to get money from but worth pursuing if you have a strong enough case.

Work Ethic and Attitude
There are a lot of areas I have not covered and maybe I will do so in another article. For now though I want to end with what I am sure is pretty obvious but I will say it anyway. Nothing replaces hard work. You have to be hungry for success if you want to ‘make it’ however you define what that means in the modern world. It is also a good idea to remember that self-belief and tenacity are positive features but arrogance and unrealistic expectations of others are definitely not. So don’t be afraid to dream but don’t waste the opportunities that come your way either. They don’t grow on trees!

Neil March

Neil March is a Composer & Artist with a PhD and Masters in music composition from Goldsmiths University, who has pursued careers in the contemporary classical and pop worlds, and has been supported by BBC Introducing, for whom he performed with his live ensemble The Music of Sound at Latitude in 2017. Read more.

7 Comments

  1. Me G

    Great source of info for Artists/musician’s
    Must have taken quite a bit of your valuable time to put together.
    Have a great Christmas

  2. Thanks for your kind words. It took a bit of time but was enjoyable to write. I hope it proves useful in some small way for others. :)

  3. Sue

    Really great article Neil!

  4. Thank you Sue. That’s very kind. :)

  5. only just got around to reading this… there is a lot here, really good advice and review. You are right, Fresh Faves success does not guarantee any airtime as our own “fave” back on 30 April failed in that regard (sob!).

    Our own route was to get a ton of gig experience through doing covers… we’ve done well over 200 gigs bashing away at million sellers to generally highly inebriated punters on Saturday nights… and then gradually gaining confidence to have a go at writing something ourselves. If only we had more than a few days a year to put into that side of the venture though we might get some more success.. will try harder in 2019!

  6. That’s a good point John. I hadn’t thought about the alternative route of using covers to get gigs and then introducing your own material even though that is in fact exactly how I started out many years ago. Hopefully 2019 will be a great year for you.

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