By Derek Webb, Co-Founder of Noise Trade.
As I'm closing in on the end of my second decade as a professional, indie-minded musician, I've been thinking about how I got here. Through the starting and leaving of a moderately successful band, ups & downs navigating a solo career as an almost hyper-niche artist, and the all but accidental founding of a music distribution company (NoiseTrade.com), I've identified a few characteristics that have been invaluable to me along the way: I'm highly adaptable and I have an instinct for disruption.
But I don't think that makes me at all special. I think those two qualities are a few of the hallmarks of the indie music community as a whole (both the artist and the business side). Having an eye for new and creative solutions to old problems and seeing places for growth and improvement where others see impenetrable guardrails are what defines 85-90% of those currently gathered under the banner of "the new business of music" that has been slowly rising from the ashes of the old model (the last 10-15% wind up there from sheer momentum or luck).
And that's why I believe no one is better suited, positioned or incentivized to dream up creative solutions for the modern (and ever-changing) challenges of making, distributing and marketing music than the artists themselves. The problem is that creative people (unlike business people) often don't realize when they've stumbled upon a gap in the services of their particular marketplace (which is where the opportunity is) let alone how to articulate a solution they've discovered that could fill that gap. Even if an artist gets that far and actually develops a tool to address their particular need, it's unlikely they would have a vision for how that solution might generate serious revenue or be aggregated to the benefit of the rest of the creative community. They might have instincts, hunches, or 'wild ideas', maybe even proof of concept for their idea based on being their own guinea pig, but no such thing would survive long around a board table laden with refreshments provided by a VC-backed expense account.
But that's how NoiseTrade was born. I was looking for a way to give music away for free in exchange for meaningful fan connection and information (email & zip code) and there was no one in the music space offering a service like that, so I built it. It almost didn't make sense and certainly wasn't a revenue proposition. As an artist, I just needed it to (and knew it would) work. So I tried it. And man, did it work. But it still took me and a few friends several more years and an investment of our own money to develop it to the point where anyone else could use it. Thanks to the hard work of a handful of folks our site is still running strong and growing.
But not everyone has access to (let alone friends in) the business community. Most blue collar musicians don't have extra cash on hand to invest in a start-up. But I guarantee you, the week before Kickstarter launched there were indie musicians sitting at a coffee shop describing Kickstarter's exact functionality and wondering why no one had yet thought of it. In the same way, at this very moment there are dozens of those same artists needing, detailing, and describing all of the services that could define the next wave of our business.
The point is, entrepreneurs who are keen on riding into the wild west of the current music space often have resources to provide solutions without really knowing what the problems are, while artists are in the unique position of being able to identify both the problems and their solutions instinctively but lack the expertise or resources to do much about it.
In my opinion, this provides the perfect recipe for evolutionary progress in the indie music space. If there could be some intentional interaction between blue collar artists and entrepreneurs with the goal of extracting the goldmine of ideas from the heads of those artists, vetting those ideas from a business standpoint, and protecting those artists as their ideas are developed and brought to market (turning those starving artists into small business owners, which - shh, don't tell them - they already are), suddenly the inmates would be running the asylum. But in a good way, the best way, because of how it binds those artists up with the broader health and survival of the future music business while becoming an additional source of revenue for the artists, if not a retirement plan.
The bottom line:
Entrepreneurs, trust me, you want your future clientele helping build and design your businesses. Plus, you'll never think of the solutions that middle-class artists dream up everyday.
Artists, trust me, you want to have a voice (and some founder's stock) in the future of this business. It's time you learned to apply the same creativity to the distributing and marketing of music as you do the writing and recording of it.
Let's move boldly into a world where suit coats and fedoras can hang on the same rack. Let's work together to build a better, stabler and more innovative industry for the sake of making more and better art while generating more sustainable revenue.