DIY Is Dead: Seven Suggestions For Indie Musicians In 2016

“How do musicians move from the investment stage to the revenue generation stage of their music careers in 2016?” is the question I hear most often lately. In other words, “When can I stop spending so much money on my music career and start making money from my music career?”

Identifying the sources of real music income with high margins is becoming an even more urgent issue this year as technology has enabled the production of more and more music and digital distribution has driven the consumer price for recorded music to zero. Everyone knows you don’t make a living on streaming, downloads are down, and pressing CDs is a cost of promotion. Vinyl is unlikely to fill the revenue gap for most.

The good news is that more free information on how to be a “musicpreneur” is available online than ever before, and paperback books on the subject of DIY musicianship abound.

“Easier said than done” has gained a new and profound meaning, however.

Maybe you are reaching year 10 of your 10 year music career. Maybe your subsidizing parents, grandparents, spouses, small labels, 401K accounts, and core fan bases are getting a little fatigued, too.

I think 2016 is the year many musicians are asking themselves:

  • What is the single silver bullet [platform, technology, program, technique, skill set, niche, tribe, cause, creative project] that will separate me from the crowd and elevate the visibility of my music in 2016?
  • How do I continue to cobble together a living financially?
  • How on earth can I get it all done myself in a 24 hour day: be a social media maven, blog every day, design perfectly branded website and merchandise, update my ReverbNation page, and still have time to write, perform, record and produce music – and also eat and sleep? Unless you can hire the likes of the Santa Cruz web design team, there will be no sleep for you.

To help answer these questions, here are seven things I believe indie musicians should focus on in 2016 for success. [Credit goes to Kara Kharmah of Engage Your Fanbase for this click-bait post title. I spoke with Kara on Blab recently about music marketing, generating revenue for musicians, and some of the content of this post. You can watch the replay here]:

  1. Do It Yourself is dead. Do it with a team. But choose carefully. Doing it yourself is exhausting. Instead, attach yourself to others in your circle who have a complementary set of musical skills (songwriting, instrumental, arrangement, production) or find trusted contractors and consultants on the business side (PR, digital marketing, entertainment law, social media, management). A team can start small with just one other writing partner, it can be a free support group like a local songwriting circle, a musicians union, or an online tribe that “meets” weekly via Twitter chat or Facebook group. Invest strategically. Hone your performance skills in a bootcamp, hire a vocal pre-producer, pay a good producer, pay a good publicist to help garner interest in a new release. Find people through recommendations from other musicians you trust. I’m not talking about paying for online music business and marketing courses (although there are lots of those out there as well). I think you are better off educating yourself about the music business online for free, and putting your investment dollars into partnering with real human beings 1-1 who have proven experience, existing wins in the business, and are practicing making music and making money. [Tweet “Figure out what you have to offer of value and partner up.”] But put some thought into picking your partners. As Stevie Rennie says, “picking your partners in the music business is a little like getting married. It’s much easier to hire your partners than to get rid of them.”Picking Partners Stevie Rennie
  2. Don’t put any music online without metadata. As I and many other smart people in this business have said before, having correct metadata associated with the music files you release online is critical. As streaming platforms become the dominant form of music consumption in 2016, correct metadata is vital to both compensation and discovery. I believe a strategy for fixing the increasingly more obvious ugliness of the metadata issue is going to congeal in within the industry this year. There have been some significant developments in 2105, including Imogen Heap’s effort to promote Blockchain with mycelia and David Lowery’s class action suit against Spotify. Spotify even Imogen_Heap_Pop_Techsays it will be setting up its own comprehensive publishing database. None of that will matter if your music files are floating around online without your name on them. [Tweet “Don’t put any music online without metadata”]
  3. Use data from services like Spotify and Bandsintown, your own website and social media traffic to understand your fans. Figuring out who your target market is and what they want is one of the hardest things for indie musicians (who don’t yet have established fan bases) to do. For bigger artists, digital marketing tools exist and the data set is large. The labels just crunch the social media data, profile the fans, target ads and lead fans through the sales funnel. I admit the easy-to-use comprehensive “big data crunching” fanbase tools aren’t quite here yet for smaller artists. Fan data collection for indie musicians is still evolving, but streaming companies like Spotify are starting to offer glimpses of their data to musicians. Bandsintown too. Benji Rogers has it right when he says that the promise of Direct To Fan could be greatly enabled by Apple Music Connect, although we have not yet seen that pan out. I think we will see new solutions enter the market in 2016 to serve not only those musicians with large fan bases and digital marketing agencies, but to integrate social media data with email lists and ticketing data to help those with smaller fanbases to target their marketing activities more effectively. Just because you don’t have big data doesn’t mean you don’t have any data. [Tweet “Use fan data to target your music marketing”]
  4. Focus like a laser on how and where to make money – but in a way that is personal to your existing skill set. What makes money for you now? Do more of that – as long as it has a decent margin (margin is income in minus cost to produce). What skills do you have besides your music (that relate to the music industry)? Try marketing those. Musicians can make money in a variety of ways, from studio gigs to lessons to crowdfunding. Not everything works for every musician, however. Finding your “popcorn” is a personal journey, is like keeping yourself healthy, is no one else’s journey only yours, you have to do the exercise and eat healthy, maybe find the best place to buy kratom and other healthy supplements also. You may not be able to tour. Your music may not be well-suited to licensing. Technology has an upside, however, because in the 21st century, you can make money online if you have skills others deem worth paying for. Revenue-generating platforms like Fiverr, TakeLessons, or GigSalad are at your fingertips if you have access to a computer and the internet. It’s a gig economy, but the gig doesn’t have to be in a club. [Tweet “Focus like a laser on how and where to make money”]
  5. Combine live and streaming events to maximize revenue. ConcertWindow, StageIt, Periscope, Meerkat, Flipagram, Snapchat, Blab and the new streaming Facebook feature can turn a living room concert, a small venue show, or a house concert into a global event. Whether you’re touring or not, whether you’ve got a living, breathing, live audience present or not, online streaming video services like these can build the fanbase, pump your social media, and make you hard money through tipping, premiums, and merchandise sales. Even some digital piano reviews can bring over traffic.  It’s worth it, once you hit a certain level, to hire a company like the Memory Tree of Austin, pros’ make you look pro. You can also collect email addresses. Read my howto indie artist case studies on StageIt, ConcertWindow and YouNow if you want to learn the basics of live concert streaming . [Tweet “Combine live events with online streaming”] Amy Gerhatz on Concert Window
  6. Get your music on Spotify (and others’ ) playlists. Playlists are like getting radio play, they’re the name of the game for discovery and revenue generation on streaming platforms. So make your own and figure out how to get on the ones other people make. Maybe you can’t afford to pay to get played in the new payola for playlists that is rumored to exist, but Chris Robley wrote a great post on this on the CD Baby blog for the rest of us. One more thing: Don’t ignore Soundcloud. Recently settled legally with the UK PRS, I believe Soundcloud remains poised to become a serious contender in the paid streaming music market if they complete agreements with the major labels on licensing. 175 million unique listeners every month is significant. 2016 could be their year. If you are in rap, hip hop or EDM especially, check out Soundcloud as a promotional platform. [Tweet “Get your music on playlists”] Peter Hollens
  7. Figure out what kind of crowdfunding works for you. Patreon, Kickstarter, Pledgemusic – these are all different options for essentially doing pre-sales and in-time sales of your recorded music and “music experiences”. Figure out what your target market actually wants to pay money for that you can provide, and use an existing platform to set up a stable source of revenue. I think we have yet to see if Patreon really meets the needs of more conventional musicians (think the typical rock or pop vocalist, guitarist or band), or if it’s primarily a performance art platform for musician types who do a lot of cover songs recorded “candidly” in the studio or sung in layers of a cappella. If you can create super cool and inventive videos of other people’s music every week, aren’t you really primarily a video producer, not a musician? Look carefully at who is successful on Patreon and make sure your “product” fits the platform. Otherwise, stick to the more project-based platforms like Kickstarter, Pledgemusic, RocketHub and IndieGoGo. I have even seen musicians using GoFundMe successfully in 2015. [Tweet “Find the crowdfunding platform that matches your skills and target market”]

Studies have shown that musicians make a living in a variety of ways. It can be done. Maybe 2106 is your year to do it.

What about you? What has made you money in 2015 as a musician? What did I miss? What promising new sources of revenue for musical artists do you see on the horizon? Please feel free to leave your comments below.

From the City of Seattle’s study This Is a Real Job: How Three Seattle Musicians Are Making It On Music Alone:

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11 comments

  1. Lots of great idea sparkers here Soveig. Really need to tighten thinking cap particularly on merch, licensing and exploiting better the live intimate show experience. I sell several times more CDs when I give speeches than at shows, an example of knowing your unique gifts. THANKS!

    1. Thank you for leaving that feedback, Paula! You are definitely unique, and you have a great and uplifting personal message that is true to your core – no matter whether it’s your corporate self or your musician self. Evangelizing your music to your existing “fanbase” at speeches is a great way to carry your new career in music forward on the wings of your corporate skill set!

  2. Solveig, thanks for all the great tips. I plan to implement and expand on quite a few of them. Thanks to GoGirls I was able to connect with you here.
    Be well!!

    1. You are so welcome, Classic! GoGirls and #ggchat were exactly what I was thinking about when I was writing about free online support for musicians. Let me know what other expansions you implement – I’d love to hear about them here.

  3. Great article thanks! Diversifying income definitely works best for me. Being self employed I don’t have much money to invest or to hire people but at the same time, I’m more flexible than a larger company and can adapt faster to situations. Things also change faster with the web these days.

    + That Seattle graph is interesting. The indie artist makes a lot on licensing. Not sure that’s a reality for most indie artists at least here in Portland….

    Happy New Year to you!

    Eric

  4. I love your page! Great article! Last year, I created opportunities for myself. For example, I produced my own Unplugged show at a beautiful local studio here in Buffalo, NY. The Soundcloud piece is relevant. I just don’t quite understand how to navigate Soundcloud and network with other Artists. Please post any links if you have them. Thanks again for helping us!

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