D.I.Y. Music — When Artists Become The Product

UPDATED: This guest post is by (@wgruger) William Gruger. And read a reaction to this post from Tunce Core CEO Jeff Price here.

Diy It seems like there is an Internet outlet that allows individuals to be whoever you want to be.

People who think they're writers start blogs, photographers or fashionistas start Tumblrs, and people who think they're film makers make YouTube accounts.

For prospective musicians, however, there exists not just a smattering of sites, but an entire online industry dedicated to earning money and exposure.

There has been endless press about how ReverbNation, TuneCore, SoundCloud, Kickstarter, etc., have innovated the landscape by crafting the tools to turn musicians into efficient and effective music businessmen, allowing everyday people to become full time musicians, or so it seems.

However, this new type of exposure doesn't necessarily lead to fans opening their wallets and, it certainly doesn't mean it's worth it for artists to invest any amount of money into online marketing.

Anna Rose Beck, a folk singer/songwriter from North Carolina who first started with YouTube videos, was able to garner an audience and begin gigging in the area after heavily investing in a mix of these online tools. Her web efforts were effective in helping build an audience, but less so when it came to covering her first album's production costs (the album is set to be released this April).

Despite raising over $2,100 with a Kickstarter campaign, her Myspace and ReverbNation exposure failed to lift her out of the red.

"Relatively nobody knows who I am, but if I'm going to start charging people online then absolutely nobody is ever going to know who I am." she says.

Devin Fry, a musician from Austin, Texas agrees. "You have to make convincing music, and lots of it, and talk about it, and give it away. If you're a D.I.Y. musicmaker or bandleader and you're worried about the lost revenue of someone downloading your songs for free, you're ignoring the bigger picture."

Devin and his band Salesman play what Denver Thread describes as "What would've happened if Jeffrey Lee Pierce hadn't died, and instead invested in a little voice coaching? Or – maybe a lot of voice coaching."

"I'm fed up with band self-starter programs, as you succinctly call them. Because they come at you trying to sell you shit you don't need, promising to 'increase your fan base,'" Fry says. "Insidiously enough, they're targeting modest, broke, D.I.Y. musicmakers and bandleaders, people exactly like me."

Indeed, ReverbNation claims that a budding musician will accrue more fans with "an arsenal of free viral marketing tools for Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and your homepage." As if a broadened fan base weren't enough, musicians can profit directly by using the Reverb Store to hawk "T-shirts, CDs, downloads, hats and ringtones directly to fans on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and your home page or blog."

The way these companies phrase their offerings sound completely absurd.

TuneCore sports even loftier promises that you'll be able to, "Join Nine Inch Nails, Drake, Keith Richard, Jay-Z and tens of thousands more musicians just like you to get heard, shared and discovered."

People are all aware of the marvelously positive impact digital distribution has had for tens of thousands of musicians trying to get their material out there. Never before have music consumers had a better chance to discover artists and niches of flavor that appeal the most, but also never has the amount of noise and clutter been so high. The idea that an internet tool will provide hopeful musicians with the same marketing power as these major label signed artists is extremely over-ambitious. 

"I've wasted my time creating Salesman accounts at ReverbNation, Myspace, TuneCore, iLike, etc," continues Fry, "and I've learned that my promotions time is better spent outside flyering. Talking to people and setting meetings with people I want to work with."

The bigger picture is gaining exposure, not trying to monetize every move with overcomplicated and cost ineffective online merchandise stores. While it may be true that "being a musician requires so much more motivation than it used to … motivation to be a self-promoter and an entrepreneur and to actually market for yourself" as Anna puts it, it doesn't mean that musicians should buy into what are often lofty – and false – promises.

"Baseline: it's important for a band to have an online presence that looks and sounds the way you want it," says Fry, "something that gives the flavor of what to expect at a live show. If your show is badass like it should be, you only need one such supplement."

And musicians can certainly supplement their online shows for free. Hell, the guys from Odd Future did it with just a Tumblr and YouTube, which are both free to use. Sure, D.I.Y. platforms can certainly increase a musician's chances of being discovered, but on a mass scale, turning page views and video hits into sustainable income simply is not a reality.

Are we simply spinning our wheels with trying to make an industry out of manufacturing musicians?

Read a reaction to this post from Tunce Core CEO Jeff Price here

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  1. Before the comments roll in, I want to say that I published this essay because I think William asks a bold question and starts an interesting conversation.
    By all means, he says a few controversial things and steps on the toes of a few companies Hypebot highly respects. Some of said companies may even correct him on a few of his points in the comment section.
    I expect that.
    This is his first post at Hypebot. Rather than ask him to be more general in the companies he named, I decided to let him engage with some of the smartest and most dedicated executives that I’ve ever met.

  2. Good one and something that definitely needed saying.
    Here’s a simple suggestion for starting artists: set up your web presence for streaming (y’know, get a ReverbNation embeddable player, a YouTube account for your videos or something along those lines) and focus your selling efforts offline. Ticketing revenues aside, you stand a much better chance of selling a CD at a gig for ten bucks than selling a single song on iTunes for 99 cents. Same goes for T-shirts, by the way.

  3. Anna Rose Beck is using MySpace & Reverbnation…not a surprise that there’s no lift with those two tools. There’s such a drastic shift to Facebook right now, with tools like BandPage paving the way for musicians. Keeping up with the times is definitely important, and with everyone on Facebook it just makes sense. It’s the network where everybody is, so having a presence there is important.
    And if you look at Odd Future’s success, there’s something to be said for pure prolific-ness. Even Lil B! Ambition, talent, wit, cunning … the music market operates just like every other free market. Pure capitalism based on supply & demand & the ability to fit yourself in there accordingly.

  4. It’s all about how you use the tools. But before you even get there. Having great content and a plan with direction is the key.

  5. Hi Kyle,
    Very interesting article. This is pretty much what the music industry is all about and where it is heading. If musicians look at themselves from a business perspective, they may be more successful than they realize.
    Every artist is a unique brand (or product). When an artist produce a single, EP, LP, or album? They are creating, crafting, and developing the image of their brand. A lot of issues I believe artist are having may not be the efforts of online marketing but how they view their fans.
    Fans are simply customers of the product. Whether they buy, stream, or even promote the brand, they are consuming to what motivates them. If artist can view fans as customers, I think they can potentially create their own ways of harnessing their online marketing.
    Services like CD Baby, TuneCore, ReverbNation, and even my company (Venzo Music), we’re all portals that can enable each brand/product to be well presented to the customers (fans). Whether or not the artist sees it that way is their own opinion.
    Kevin Rivers
    CEO, Venzo Music (VMG)
    Twitter: @kevin_rivers

  6. Think with allot of these companys,it really boils down to a numbers game….Ive always found no matter what number you fans are at,your looking at a support ratio of 1%.
    With that Said,Ive always found most of the hands on approach to be better,when it comes to using any of these companys.
    Even back in my hayday of being the number 1 heavymetal band on mp3.com,it still was strictly a numbers thing …and to this date,none of these companys match the traffic that came in from the old version of mp3.com.
    and I think thats where some of the”nickel and dime you to death”thing comes into play.
    their charging you for minuscule exposure,while whacking you with large sums of money,while spending very little in their own exposure…
    Whats worked for us I know,doesn’t always work for everyone,and we’ve always been outside the box.
    with that said…
    Aside from the obvious,facebook,reverbnation,theirs very few companys i have allot of faith in to do more,than really slowly bleed me to death,unless I have about 5 grand to blow in marketing.
    Don’t listen to the”Groundbreaking crap”you get spewed to every other day online.
    (example……a large artist with a fan base in the millions,goes solo,breaks away from the record company,of course they are going to make money….christ 1 million,even going at 1% your still going to more then break even at a dollar for cripes sake…..and they are usually charging more than that.
    so dont believe everything you see…)
    stick to hands on as much as you can……
    And I’d be willing to put any of this so called ground breaking company’s up to the test,if they cant break an unknown with great material,Id say move along to the next…..

  7. I understand artists’ frustration, but from a marketing standpoint these services provide artists with the right tools needed to grow a fanbase & earn (some sort of) money from products/merch.
    I think part of the problem is that most people (not just artists) expect traffic & money to come flowing in once they’re all set-up. That is not reality. It takes a while & a lot of persistence to build a steady flow of traffic and fans coming to your site/profile.
    I can tell you from personal experience that most (not all) artists put a lackluster effort into their online marketing. Artists must understand that these sites & services are usually distribution partners only; meaning it’s up to the artist to provide the marketing of their own content. Artists would be well advised to start following some marketing experts outside the music industry. The people that earn a living from marketing online everyday know what they’re doing & what they’re talking about.
    Social media is not the answer, it is only one of many tools to assist in online marketing efforts. Artists who really want to learn about marketing online should learn about SEO, niche targeting, link placement & colors, link popularity & exchanging fans & visitors with other like-minded musicians/bands. All the social media marketing in the world will not do much unless you already have a solid foundation (your own website) optimized to sell an artist.

  8. sh*t, most of the musical instrument & music education businesses also exist by “selling you the dream”.
    Fry’s advice is good. Building a fanbase is a process of addition, one, two, three at a time, and it’s best done by getting in front of peoples faces and creating a connection. The tools can be used to build on, amplify, or as a reminder of that connection.

  9. I really love this piece’s title, and the idea behind it, but like some of the previous commenters, I think you’re not quite aware of the real nature of some of these services.
    Reverb Nation is a platform. It’s not a services company. They offers tools. They are not like a distribution company or a label or a publisher that has an in-house marketing team. How could they be? If $15 per month paid for effective marketing services (and I mean that in the “team of people who are out working a record every day” sense of the term), the world would be a very different place.
    I also think that blaming Kickstarter, Reverbnation, and Myspace because some artist failed to recoup on her album expenses is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.

  10. This was a very bold question and an interesting conversation…I really enjoyed having it in 2007, too. Most of the people I was talking to had already seen it coming for 2 years.

  11. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, “People who ‘THINK’ they’re writers start blogs, photographers or fashionistas start Tumblrs, and people who ‘THINK’ they’re film makers make YouTube accounts.” Sure, there’s some amazingly awesome stuff out there, but for the most part, it’s an amateur offering.
    In this case, it’s not about being a musician, it’s really about being a marketer. An internet marketer, in particular. These DIY tools (and of course, the Myspace era) have brainwashed many into ‘THINKING’ they can achieve the same results as an experienced music marketing or PR firm!
    Don’t get me wrong, some of these formats are a Godsend, and really do provide a shortcut for many artists. If you’re on a budget, I say use them up, but don’t expect to achieve what you could if you paid a pro marketer to run your campaign!
    Max sums it up pretty good with, “If $15 per month paid for effective marketing services (and I mean that in the “team of people who are out working a record every day” sense of the term), the world would be a very different place.”

  12. Amen. They’re just tools–nothing more, nothing less.
    Use the tools. Don’t let them use you. Be great–that’s the hard part. Eventually, find a team of qualified people to help you.

  13. Thats’s a great article. Really is.
    What Gregg said;
    “Ambition, talent, wit, cunning … the music market operates just like every other free market.”
    Hit it on the head.

  14. Musicians rarely have enough money/time/resources so they have to think carefully about everything they do or spend. I’ve always been very conservative and feel musicians should never invest their last dime on anything. Leave yourself some room. And only invest in incremental amounts and wait until you have some indication that it is working before you throw more money at it.
    For example, I’ve never been big on paid radio promotion because it can be expensive, there’s no guarantee you’ll get results, and even if you get results, if you don’t have money to tour to hit those radio markets, you can’t capitalize on your success. So I’ve always told musicians to use whatever money they have to tour rather than to pay a radio promoter. At least with touring, you know immediately if you are having success. You can see how many people have turned up at your shows. And even with touring, start locally, then regionally, then nationally. Start small first.
    Similarly, a few years ago an artist friend of mine paid a name producer to do the album to prove the artist was now “big time.” It was a nice album, but I think the money could have been stretched out for a much longer time by working with a local producer/studio and keeping everything as affordable as possible.
    A lot of the services pitched to musicians now are at least much cheaper than the services that used to be pitched. Relatively few DIY artists spend much money on recording, promotion, marketing, and so forth anymore. Time may be the bigger issue now. Trying to do everything may not be worth it. I think it is better to do a few things well and see if they work before adding more.
    At any rate, my message is: You can’t do it all, so prioritize. Start small and see what works. Drop it if it doesn’t. Expand it if it does work.

  15. “I’m fed up with band self-starter programs, as you succinctly call them. Because they come at you trying to sell you shit you don’t need, promising to ‘increase your fan base,'”
    I am totally with you on this!
    I actually think many of these things just create more noise, although I use a few of them. Just work hard on your regional fanbase and go from there.
    Aaron Gibson

  16. Interesting post. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the tools for artists inability to use them to market themselves effectively.
    We have a debate about this going on right now on No Depression. Artists often post promotional blogs that do nothing to engage the readers. It’s just “buy my cd” with a bunch of links to the tools mentioned above.
    We often use the analogy that it’s helpful to consider the site (and any site for that matter) like a big cocktail party full of artists, fans, DJs, labels, publicists, etc. It works better to socialize and get to know people, engage the community, etc., rather than just showing up and pushing fliers everywhere.
    The tools are great and a valuable asset for helping artists promote themselves when used properly but please don’t blame the tools for operator error.
    Here’s a link to the full discussion that was started by one of our artist members was unhappy that his promotional blog was deleted: http://www.nodepression.com/forum/topics/advertorials-on-no-depression

  17. William,
    I think your main point is that Artists shouldn’t depend on tool providers to deliver success.
    I couldn’t agree more, and my guess is that I speak for every company in the category (although I am not claiming that I do).
    Whether its our “…arsenal of free viral marketing tools for Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and your homepage” or other tools from Tunecore, SoundCloud, TopSpin, BandCamp, Nimbit, Sonicbids, Songkick, etc, the fact remains that while a tool can help Artists more easily and quickly construct an optimized facebook fan page, or a nice looking email newsletter to send to fans, it cannot twist the fans’ arms and make them open it or click the links and buy the products. It’s the Artists’ content and relationship with their fans that will weigh heaviest in determining that outcome. It has always been the case, and likely will never change.
    Tools are just that – tools. Some Artists buy expensive, rare guitars. But that new tool won’t likely change the # of people who turn up at the next gig. But… if the Artist is skilled enough to use the potential it provides, the assumption is that they might make a better product with that guitar over time, and eventually develop more fans in reaction to the better music product that is output by the guitar.
    So once we are all agreed that tools are just tools, it begs another question – one that I think Suzanne Lainson was asking. How should Artists be spending their time in order to maximize their probability of success (if we can even come to an agreement on what ‘success’ actually is)? Should their time be spent on choosing the right tools and getting those tools setup, or on the product that will be amplified through those tools? This is the crux. It’s the key question every Artist should be asking.
    I’m sure that people will answer that question a hundred different ways, but the right answer will always be ‘it depends’ – on the type of artist, where they are in their career, their current relationship with their fans, their history, their financial situation, their core skill set, what the tools actually do, etc, etc. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to prescribing where an artist should be spending their time, I’m afraid. That said, it is the right question to ask and one that could encourage appropriate introspection.

  18. Let me guess, William is an American.
    Am I right?
    This whole “We’re cross because some companies are good at selling us their services and we still don’t get famous” line is tired and bullsh%t.
    Honestly, do you think that you can buy everything? Including fame and popularity?
    I just bought a new phone, but I don’t expect to get calls from labels looking to sign me as a result of buying a new phone, even thought the commercials suggested to me that I could be a better person with it.
    Seriously, this is just a spoiled baby crying. you shouldn’t print this drivel.

  19. Um, Reverb nation has a facebook app that is similar to bandpage, except its free and does more things.
    @gregg R U behind the times? 🙂

  20. The tools are designed to share the story. They are amazing if used to do that. Useless if not. Fans have a million ways to buy things and fund things and as such most artists miss the point and therefore will not succeed.
    Artists should not treat themselves as a brand. Should not ask for or solicit donations. The artists that succeed are the ones that invite their fans on a journey and then use the tools available to share that journey and experience with them. There are better tools than there have ever been. They are just being used for the wrong purpose. Simply funding and selling things misses the point. It’s not exciting, it’s not new and it rarely works. If you are sharing something exciting, engaging and interesting and giving fans a way to share it they will. If you are just trying to sell them something that they can get for free – well you are just another voice in the crowd of people trying to do the same thing.
    My 2c!

  21. At the end of the day, you can’t blame companies for marketing to their potential customers, they are always going to make their services sound as exciting as possible.
    Musicians tend to be dreaming of “making it big” and so offers that make them closer to that dream are always tempting. They always seem to be looking for a quick fix, be it getting signed or making a viral video.
    It’s always been easy to get distracted from the core business of making music and growing your fanbase, be it mailing out hundreds of CDs at your own cost, setting up a myspace page and spamming the hell out of other peoples pages to view yours or even, as I have found difficult, spending far too much time reading about and looking into new tools when a lot of these companies are offering much the same.
    As a musician, you need to decide on what tools work for you and then concentrate on making music and content to put out there. Everyone has their own mix of online and offline promotion that works for them with varying degrees of success.
    At the end of the day if your going to be in a band and spend too much time dreaming and not enough time working your ass off, your going to get drawn in by this kind of thing. It happens in many, many other industries.
    As ever, it is hard work and innovation that get you attention and recognition, not what tools you use get there.

  22. As with every other walk of life, people are looking for a magical big red button they can push and be excelled into the lime light.
    But this doesn’t exist.
    And there’s a lot more to online marketing than just getting an account set up on reverbnation and myspace.
    I’m surprised myspace got a mention in this article, for a good while now the majority of myspaces userbase seems to be bands, I logged into my old account yesterday to find 900 messages from bands “oh join my mailing list” .. “check out my stuff” – Yes but what will make me want to listen to them and not the other hundreds of bands trying to grab my attention?
    I think the way most bands go about their marketing is totally wrong, and I think Kevin touched on a very good point – bands need to shift to treating fans as customers and look at themselves as a brand.
    Online marketing can be made to work, but it needs to be used with traditional methods too, oh and they need great music too.

  23. Of course I use Facebook heavily as well… in fact I’d say it’s where I spend most of my time. I think Gruger just didn’t mention it because it’s so ubiquitous that it doesn’t necessarily need to be said…?

  24. As a musician who is trying to make it in the music business I feel this is a beautiful article! Definitely something that needed to be said! Thank you so much!

  25. I’d like to set the record straight here on the issues covered in this post. When William interviewed me, I was under the assumption that this article was going to cover how I, as a DIY artist, use online tools to my advantage. I would first like to say that ReverbNation, CD Baby, Facebook band pages, and the like provide an amazing set of tools, either for free, or for what, in my opinion, are very reasonable prices for the services they provide. All of ReverbNation’s basic features are completely free, and artists are only charged around $5 a month for the more advanced features that they themselves elect to sign up for. I have an enormous respect for these companies and the people behind the scenes brainstorming and creating brand new tools that allow artists to connect with listeners in ways that are more personal and more instantaneous than has ever been possible. Which is why I chose to intern at ReverbNation for about three months this past fall – I wanted to be part of the action.
    My time spent working at ReverbNation, as well as my experience as a VERY new-to-the-industry musician, as well as simple common sense, have all taught me that simply creating accounts on these websites and then expecting them to somehow magically garner attention and allow me to rise to fame is completely ridiculous [insert big fat DUH]. I agree with everyone who has posted to say that these sites are simply tools – valuable ones – that, if used in proactive and creative new ways, coupled with traditional grass roots efforts and live performances – can reap enormous benefits.
    To me, raising $2100 on my Kickstarter project for my first album was a huge success – my original goal was only $800. For that I can only give a huge thanks to the folks at ReverbNation – the site to which I primarily referred potential Kickstarter backers – for giving me the ability to post music that folks can stream easily and for free. They also helped me to spread word of the Kickstarter project by leveraging the email addresses I’ve collected through their free mailing list feature. Those tools, in addition to my connections with people on Facebook and YouTube, helped me to achieve something that I never would have thought possible a year ago. (And when Gruger says I “invested heavily” in YouTube and other online tools, I assume he is referring to the time investment – not monetary investment – because I have spent relatively little or no money on each of these sites.)
    I am lucky in that I had the means to spend more than $2000 on the recording and production of my first record – what Gruger refers to as being “in the red” – but what was, in my opinion, a necessary investment needed to take my musical career to the next level. (And as an aside, a quality record could have easily been produced for less than $2000).
    My main point is that the object at this point in my career is not to be making money. It is to be making connections and developing a reputation for making good music. And far from “exploiting” me, websites like ReverbNation, CDBaby, Facebook, etc. are allowing me to do that. So to them, I really can only say a big “thank you.”

  26. Here’s my comment. Through my social networking online and live shows, my fans have begun to buy my music. I don’t just have a facebook, twitter, or Reverbnation profile without conversation. I build a rapport and relationship with my fans. The only way people will begin to purchase and support your musical journey is if they feel they have some type of connection with you. I say hi to them, we converse about different things, and I make them feel that they are apart of my journey. In actuality, they are. Without that relationship, you won’t turn a profit. Kiss is a prime example!

  27. I like all the ads on the right side of the page, advertising things this article is talking about… irony. 🙂
    I also completely agree with the content of the article, very well written. Always someone who wants to make a buck off you, online or in real world.

  28. Maybe a more balanced story would be one that has information from an artist who was able to get traction using these online tools? I could talk all day about my opinion of these various platforms and I have very strong feelings about all of them and how they have worked for me. Don’t get me started. I just had a conversation last week about this with an executive of a company offering a service to artists. What is missing from all of these is the “belief” that artists can make it. That the $15 is well spent. That they really “can” be successful. Over the decades I have been pursing my music, I have met countless people who don’t have support for their music from home..husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, siblings, parents, you name it. Even the industry does not want to remain in the trenches and have to talk to those on the way up. The moment one of these services sees the need to support their platforms with real one on one, grass roots, face to face support for artists…they win. What is lacking is support..emotional support…DIY artists have money to spend..they just want to believe it’s worth it.

  29. money Money Money …. what a double edged sword it is!
    but it’s gotta come from somewhere if a musician or singer wants to go anywhere. Blessings to all the passionate creative people!
    a New Style REGGAE …. impulsive lust ..
    (link above)

  30. I couldn’t agree with this article more in most ways. But you really can’t blame companies for targeting their customers. The same reason us musicians look into these companies and online tools is the same reason that they make unlikely promises – we all want to make a little money doing what we do.
    The online indie music landscape is a double-edged sword. More and cheaper access to marketing and distribution means more artists able to release their stuff, so the market is crowded with much more competition. So does it really make it easier? It’s so easy to get left in the dust unless you have the money and/or connections to get featured on these sites and use their services for everything they’re worth.
    Also remember, this is all relatively new to everyone: the industry, fans and artists are still figuring out what works and what doesn’t in the online community. Myspace was an amazing place for both artists and fans not too long ago – now it’s on the verge of extinction. It’s all trial and error in a rough economy, so those who make it big using these online tools are definitely the exception rather than the rule.

  31. As mentioned earlier by the esteemed fellow commenters, the tools are merely tools and should not be risen to the decisive status that this post tries to give them.
    Online presence is essential, outlets are important, keeping a finger on the pulse is crucial. This is something I see plastered all over the Internet. What I don’t see is how to be a musician worth being heard. How to make music that is something more than a generic disposable mash-up up of the insipid influences. Business is cute, what is even more cute is having a worthy product (a.k.a. “art”) to apply the business knowledge to.
    I have a long rant on the subject at Dragonfly Lingo’s web site, I won’t reiterate it any further. What I can’t stress hard enough is the importance of music above, before and beyond that of all business considerations. Tunecore-, ReverbNation-, Facebook-ise all you want, rubbish music, even given away for free, will eventually perish. “Clutter” and “noise” isn’t always “them,” it just might be you.

  32. I believe he’s arguing that artists indeed should not rely on products, that they should rely on talent, creativity, or at least salability. He is arguing against the notion that one can buy musical success.
    You didn’t read the article.

  33. I heard a well known Producer tell a band to go out more, drink beer and meet girls instead of worrying about their digital presence.

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