Indie Artists Might Spend $2 Just To Make A Dollar.

image from www.moviecynics.com This part two of my interview segment with Dave Cool, who is director and producer of the documentary film “What is INDIE? A look into the World of Independent Musicians.” In it, he chronicles the experience of being an indie artist in the music industry and strives to define and challenge the term "indie" itself. In part two, Cool talks about the rapid evolution of the toolkits and websites available to indie artists, whether or not we're fostering communities that support creativity, and his optimism for the future of indie artists of all distinctions.

Can we create a middle-class of musicians?

Dave: There are some who would argue that the middle-class of musicians already exists, and this is actually the exact topic I want to explore in my next film. So if anyone reading this knows of any unsigned artists/bands making a full-time living from their music, please get in touch: dave@davecool.ca

Have the toolkits and websites available to indie artists evolved rapidly?

Dave: Incredibly quickly, yes. When we made “What is INDIE?” in 2005/2006, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, simply didn’t exist in their current format, so they didn’t even enter into the discussion. And now MySpace looks like it might be dying out, so the evolution is certainly happening quickly. And I think there are some amazing sites out there that are genuinely trying to help artists, but it seems that everyday a new website/service hits the market aimed at the indie artist community.

I would love to know the numbers, but I would guess that there is a multi-million dollar industry riding on the backs of starving artists, and I wonder whether the best way to make money in the music industry is to convince artists to spend money they don’t have on a product or service that might nominally help their career. Maybe I’ve grown cynical, but I really question how many full-time artists even use half of those websites/services, and I feel for artists who have to navigate this industry trying to figure out who and what to trust.

It must seem sometimes like you have to spend $2 just to make a dollar.

Are we fostering communities that support the creativity of indie artists?

Dave: I’m not sure, but I think many online communities are forcing artists to become more creative in how they bring attention to their music. Just look at social networking sites and how creative artists have become in the content that they post, whether it’s text, audio or video. It is raising the bar of creativity in terms of marketing your music. But as far as artistic creativity, I’m not too sure, one can argue that all of this extra time spent online is taking away from rehearsal & recording time, when artists can feed their artistic creativity.

Is the future for indie artists in the music industry bright?

Dave: I am definitely an optimist. You know, recording an album used to cost tens of thousands of dollars, now it can be done with a laptop. Distributing your music used to have to be done through a record label distributor, now it can all be done online. Reaching your fans used to have to be done through advertising and commercial radio, but your fans are all reachable for free online through social networks. But marketing music is the next challenge for indie artists.

With the democratization of both production and distribution, it has brought with it an unintended consequence, which is the increase in costs of marketing. With a level playing field, you are now competing with thousands upon thousands of other artists who all have access to the same tools and cheap methods of production and distribution, so then the key becomes how to stand out from those other thousands of artists in a creative and unique way. So I think the next evolution in artist services is going to be marketing services, as well as filtering services for potential consumers, which we are already seeing with companies like Topspin and Pandora Radio. But I honestly believe indie artists are better off now than they were 5 years ago and will be even better off 5 years from now.

Progress takes time, but I think things are heading in the right direction.

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  1. Oh, he feels “for artists who have to navigate this industry trying to figure out who and what to trust. It must seem sometimes like you have to spend $2 just to make a dollar.”
    Well, it’s the price DIY artists pay to operate in a market that used to have a lot of competence possessed by labels and other industry partners. There are limits to how many percentage-based deals that can get artists through the market. Maybe labels’ money wasn’t so bad after all…

  2. Really what has happened is that we now have a new set of gate keepers, they have just moved online – ie podcasters and bloggers. No one can maintain the number of relationships required through social media to be friendly with the vast number of bloggers so its hard to break out of a niche audience.
    The old method of a few key media empowered by relationships with pluggers was easier to “get big quick” (if you had the cash behind you) but at least indie artists now stand some kind of chance – we posted something about the is recently on our blog.

  3. Thanks for your comment, and I totally agree, indie artists do need to realize that they need to invest some $ in their careers like labels did. My comment was more speaking to the industry that has been created around indie artists with countless services/products/experts who are making money from indie artists, some are good, some are pretty sketchy.
    And I am certainly not anti-label, they do have an important role to play, and I’ve helped negotiate deals for several indie artists signing to small labels. If the deal makes sense for both the artist and the label, then I would always advise an artist to take the deal.

    Dave Cool
    “What is INDIE? A Look into the World of Independent Musicians”
    Twitter: @dave_cool

  4. “but at least indie artists now stand some kind of chance”
    Exactly 🙂

    Dave Cool
    “What is INDIE? A Look into the World of Independent Musicians”
    Twitter: @dave_cool

  5. That’s the point exactly – paying 2$ to make 1$ is an ARTIST mistake – a real ENTREPRENEUR would never indulge in such self-sabotage. The fact is, a disproportionate amount of aspiring musos are not entrepreneurs – they are ANTI-ENTREPRENEURS. Music is art so it’s not commerce.
    Then, enter the Freetards – OMG WTF everything for free on teh intertubes. Shit ain’t free – and neither is the MySpace that was going to save us all. If you want anything to work, you put in mega hours, even if you work smart. You keep doing it because you love it, and eventually, it works. Time = money. Oh, and Indie Musician Currency Converter: $1 = 1$

  6. Dave, welcome to world of “The Long Tail.” There are now thousands of acts who can sell a few dozen to a few hundred CDs or downloads. That doesn’t make a career. The few clubs that still hire live acts pay barely enough to cover gas. The era of the middle-class musician is gone.
    Oh, you forgot to mention that if you do actually manage to find the right marketing and break through the competition, pirates will steal your music and you still won’t be able to make a living.
    I don’t believe it has ever been harder to be an artist. Sure, production and distribution costs are low, but the chances of making a living have never been lower. If all you want is to hear your music on a CD, you’re fine. Anything more, and the odds are against you.
    All that said, I am about to venture back out into the market again. We’ll see if my business degree and experience in other industries can make a difference.

  7. As far as I can see, there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a very catch 22 type of situation the digital age has put upon us. Yes it has made things more affordable to do recording/producing and marketing, but there is still a cost there. To really be able to make a living you still have to sign with a major label that has the connections and financial backing to put you above all the other bands out there. Since they aren’t signing like they used to, you already have to be somewhat successful, but you can’t really obtain that kind of success without a label’s support. It’s all very frustrating to someone who plays every gig he can get, emails every potential lead that comes his way, and contacts every possible mode of advertising… The effort so far is by far not equaling the reward/justification/goal. 🙁

  8. Indie acts that whine about lack of economic traction are often missing the one point that matters most: not every artist is a great artist.
    Thousands of mediocre bands, singer-songwriters etc have started careers & then eventually quietly disbanded every year that you will hopefully never have to hear of. Not every song is meant to be heard…
    Those are the odds my friends. Thousands of Dry-Cleaners, Web Designers, Muffler Repair Shops, Diners & Cafes will go belly up and you won’t hear of them either.
    Some will prevail… Most will not… simple truth

  9. Yes, Indie artist do have some what of a better chance than they did 5 years ago; but to reiterate what Mike said, “not every song is meant to be heard.” If you have a hit song that really is a hit song and you market it properly through the basic marketing outlets you should be fine. It’s like when Apple introduced the first concept of an ipod that weight about as much as harry poter novel. It tanked. But Appel perfected the device and consumers not only bought it for themselves but friends and family. Bottom line is lets get back to make’n hit songs that people can’t wait to tell there friends and family about.

  10. This is the first person who I think has it right. Opening up a band is like opening up a business now. You can produce your product (music) for cheap but now you have to reach your clients. And I agree, there is an industry now that is borne off the backs of starving artists. For example, we had a band website on bandvista. Terrible for what we wanted to do. There is sonicbids which forces you to pay for an opportunity. That is annoying. But, the internet affords a huge opportunity. There are a billion people on the net, I reckon as a band you need a dedicated fanbase of about 20k…gives you great chances, but you gotta find the people who’ll like your music. so I totally agree with Dave. The opporutnites from a business standpoint is marketing services for bands and filtering services for listeners. The former is easier than the latter. Anyways, I’m trying to get my band to be able to live off of our music. Our added challenge is that we all live in different states… 🙂

  11. Great article. Indie musicians who want to be successful HAVE to focus on business/marketing at least til they can afford to have someone else do it for them. It is a challenge, for sure. One thing that’s helped me so far (and I’m basically just starting out) is a book called “Selling Music is Easy” (www.sellingmusiciseasy.com). I’d highly recommend it. I am a virtual no body but I’ve sold a few hundred downloads in just a couple months and to people all across the U.S. (not just my family and friends). Every musician has their own mix of marketing methods and the tricks I learned from that book are definitely working for me so I’m just throwing it out there. I think I’ll join the ranks of middle class musicians very soon – hope to be making a full-time living within the year. Thanks again, Dave, for a very insightful article.

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