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While the foundations of DIY music may have been laid by bands like Fugazi back in the 1990s, the music industry landscape in 2019 has changed so much that, rather than a radical decision, choosing to be independent is often the most profitable, sustainable way of earning a living from music.
The internet has given artists direct access to their fans, and has toppled record labels and distribution companies as the industry gatekeepers that they were 15 years ago.
However, while releasing your music independently has never been easier, there are still a number of essential skills you need to hone if you’re going to give your music the platform it deserves and make sure it reaches your fans.
They Know the Value of Their Music
If you’re going the independent route, you need to become a businessperson as well as an artist. It’s important to recontextualise your music and think of it as a product, just like any other business does.
This is where the music industry has traditionally differed from other industries. When they sign to a record label, artists sign away the licences to their masters (and often publishing rights) in return for an advance and a smaller share of royalties, as well as the reach, connections and platform that a label provides.
However, since traditional distribution channels have declined, the function of labels has shifted to a being more of a marketing and promotion role. Despite the role of labels changing, the deal structures remain the same—something that doesn’t make a lot of sense for most musicians in 2019.
In no other industry would a business sign away the rights to its product to a media or marketing agency in return for 20% of net profits. It’s unthinkable that Nike would give away the copyrights to Air Jordans to a media company in return for exposure, yet this is what most artists do.
Going independent means that, while you don’t get the support and industry connections of a label, you get to exclusively profit from your music, keep the rights to your masters and control your own sales channels.
Once you begin to build a dedicated fanbase, this is a very powerful asset and is often a more sustainable, long term source of income than going with a label.
They Know How to Run Successful PR Campaigns
Without the backing of a label, getting your music in front of your target audience becomes much more important.
However, you don’t need large budgets to run successful PR campaigns, with a little skill and effort you can get your music in front of the right people using just an email account and some tenacity.
Knowing how to put together a good press release that looks professional and captures the attention of industry figures is paramount. You need to not only sell your music but also give compelling reasons for them to feature you.
Make sure that you target only the bloggers and journalists that really care about your genre. One good way to get ideas is to look at the coverage similar bands in your genre have got.
Often, hyper-targeted niche specific blogs will have more of an impact than larger, more generic blogs and magazines, so don’t neglect them.
Take the time to personalize your outreach to each writer. This not only differentiates you, but also demonstrates that you and your music is relevant to what they write about.
Be patient. Media will always dedicate more coverage to bands that already have followings, as that brings more readers and clicks. For that reason, getting coverage early on can be difficult, but good PR is about more than just coverage—you’re building relationships and recognition with important tastemakers that will be useful in the future.
They Control Their Distribution Channels
While the majority of music is consumed digitally, there’s still an important place for physical releases and for many artists this can be the most profitable revenue stream. Vinyl sales have been on the increase, while CDs still represent a small but vital slice of revenue for many artists.
Therefore, knowing how to best distribute your physical music is hugely important for DIY musicians.
While distribution networks such as Plastic Head can get your releases into record shops, this massively cuts down on your profit margin. In addition, less people are buying their music from brick and mortar shops than ever before, which often makes traditional distribution channels costly and ineffective for independent artists.
For most DIY musicians, direct to consumer sales from the internet represent the bulk of sales, and for this reason it is essential that you make sure your distribution channels are set up and accessible before you begin releasing music.
Options like Bandcamp and BigCartel make selling physical releases online very easy, with no knowledge of websites or eCommerce needed. In addition, such platforms tend to be very SEO friendly, so that your fans can find and buy your music when searching for it online.
However, as your sales and profile grow, most artists invest in their own websites and eCommerce platforms, as this gives them much more control in terms of paid social media advertising and data collection.
They Have a Fulfillment Process in Place
Once you begin selling merch and physical copies, this presents a new challenge—fulfillment.
The internet has globalized your reach, which means that you’ll have fans all over the world wanting to buy from you. Therefore, you’ll need a network in place that allows you to ship product internationally with rates that your fans can afford.
At the beginning of your career, you might not be selling large enough volumes to justify bringing a fulfillment partner on board, which means you will be handling postage and packaging yourself.
Research the best international postage options before releasing pre-orders. Speaking from experience, I’ve undercharged vinyl delivery in the past, resulting in losing £1000s in international delivery costs.
As you grow, the volume of sales and international orders will make a fulfillment partner necessary. When choosing a fulfillment partner, research all aspects of pricing as you’ll not only need to pay for packaging, postage and handling costs, but also inventory checks and warehousing. These “hidden costs” add up quickly and can seriously eat into your profit margins.
Don’t solely look into music fulfillment companies, as often they charge more than generic eCommerce fulfillment.
If you have a very international audience, look into fulfillment companies with global networks, as this tends to be much easier to manage than various different companies based in different regions.
Know When to Get Industry Support
Just because you’re an independent artist, it doesn’t mean that you can’t work with industry figures as well.
By investing in experienced professionals, you can build a platform similar to what a label provides, but on your own terms.
At a certain stage, you’ll need the clout and contacts that come with an experienced, well known press and publicity firm. While good music PR companies can be expensive, it often more than pays for itself in the long term, as they’ll be able to secure you better exposure than you could yourself.
An important caveat is that you should already have some existing profile, earned with your own DIY PR efforts. Even the best PR company will struggle to get you significant exposure if you don’t already have a good foundation of coverage and an active fanbase.
Booking agents are another important partner for many DIY musicians. While you can have great success by booking your own tours and shows, booking agents can help secure you better support slots and festival appearances. Most booking agents will take between 10 and 15% of the fees from gigs they secure you, which is a very good trade off for the exposure it can bring.
By choosing to work strategically with music industry partners, you can raise your profile and get bigger opportunities, while still retaining control of your music.