The Great Indie Music Conspiracy

image from spokenrap.files.wordpress.com If I understand this "theory" correctly, an entire cottage industry has been erected around indie music and companies and bloggers like myself and others have been leading these poor and helpless musicians off a cliff like buffalo, only to be taken advantage of by businesses and gurus more than willing to take their money. We’re peddling nothing more than illusions and dreams of a musical middle class that doesn’t exist and perpetuating the myth of the DIY musician.

In giving a platform to the thinkers and professionals in this field, all we’ve done is falsely educated and advertized products, services, and philosophies that serve to promote the movement and encourage musicians to give their money to a bunch of greedy and self-serving hypocrites whom preach empowerment in one breath and utter the words “idiots” in the other. That the principles and practices these people speak of have nothing to do with a sincere interest in creating a more sustainable and healthy digital ecology of music culture—one that gives strength to those musicians who may not have made it in the traditional label system.

Instead, they advocate for the digital revolution and the disappearance of class lines between professionals and amateurs purely in hopes of convincing another musician to join their growing customer base.  After all, it’s false hope that sells widgets, distribution, and website management platforms, not the dark and cold reality of a media landscape that has been pillaged by soulless fans and an onslaught of digital technologies that have convinced them that music should be free for eternity. The talk of the end of the gatekeepers is just wishful thinking.

As a new elite is simply raising higher gates in more places. All the while, saying that the playing field has been leveled when the gaps between the upper and lower class of musicians have never been more predominate. Us digital utopians and tech-evangelists have no interest in music at all, nor do we care about musicians in general, we’re simply here to proliferate the fantasy of living off of your music and having a thousand true fans—whatever it takes to sell Premium memberships to our sites and dupe you into paying for our services.

That’s some heavy and scary stuff, yet it’s the impression that I’ve been getting from a few comments lately. Now, all online publications have their fair share of cynical commenters. But, that’s one of the most pessimistic views I have ever read and I don’t subscribe to it either. I think there are some amazing people and companies that inhabit this space. Many of whom are musicians and run by musicians themselves. Every now and then I see a website that promises to reveal the secret to success, create revenue streams almost overnight, and turn just about anyone with the money and time into the next big internet craze.

Sentiments about those kind of sites I get. It’s questionable what value they provide. Some of them are backed by smart and caring people—only trying to help. Others, not so much. But, to place that claim against the entire DIY and indie musicians movement is pure speculation. Bruce and I speak rather fondly of these times and optimistically look towards the future, hoping that all of these cultural shifts will turn out for the best. We’re not, however, trying to fool anyone into thinking that the digital music scene is all peaches and cream; it’s not.

Things aren’t so bad that we need to run around preaching the great indie music conspiracy either.  Are we too hopeful some days? Maybe. But, who on earth wants write about gloom and doom, day in and day out? Especially when there’s plenty of things to be excited and curious about, as well as, big questions to ask.

Share on:


  1. Good post, and great positive spin in the end, however, I do have to say that while I like to be positive as well as you do. Some of the things you wrote about on top do resonate with our community of Indie Artists, and we do feel frustrated day in and day out because of the things described above, so having said that there is nothing we can do about it, all we can do its try to make the best out of a difficult situation.

  2. I must agree with Chris above. But, there is something we can do, we can make sure we don’t get sucked in by those out there “who preach empowerment in one breath and utter the words “idiots” in the other.” They do exist.
    We can check with each other before getting involved with dodgy dealings. Use free trials of things before handing over your hard earned cash. Use your head in general.
    I did put out a few tweets with similarities to some of your post. Part of the problem I see, is that there are so many top 10 tips, so much ‘advice’ being shouted out, so many ‘new’ platforms for finding out your fans intimate details, that it can be a real distraction from actually getting on with the job if you’re not careful.
    No offence intended, if it was indeed me that may have offended.

  3. That’s a whole lot of rhetoric and not sighting a single example. WTF are you talking about?
    I see lots of bands moving forward in their careers every single day. The middle class is growing…with bands that are talented, original, dedicated, and of course lucky.
    It doesn’t happen overnight, it often doesn’t happen in a year or two or three. Look at most small businesses, they take 3-5 years to turn a profit.

  4. The inclusion zone used to be largely impenetrable. You needed a major deal to break into the music biz. However now you can buy your way into the dream no matter how malnourished, underdeveloped or useless your musical offering, for a few bucks.
    In the old days the original gatekeepers would have said ‘Needs more work’ or ‘Come back when you have some songs’. Nobody wants to go back to the days when some idiot had to give their say whether you’d be given a shot or not.
    However, the freedom to bypass the gatekeepers now gives everyone the chance to act on a whim, pay for the idea of the dream and ‘legitimise’ themselves and their musical career regardless of talent.
    It’s incredibly democratising, but that is a heck of a lot of people. The dream has become a multi million dollar industry. Is it enabling the artists of the future – or ripping off the dreamers?
    Probably a bit of both. But without the dreamers, the chancers and the no-hopers these services wouldn’t exist. They have the perfect model – and it’s actually the INVERSE of a major label. Sign up anyone and everything that mostly hasn’t got a hope in hell of selling and make them pay YOU.

  5. Come to Philly. That IS how it’s done. Bands are treated as disposable here, both by the audience and by the clubs. The promotion companies are in charge of all the good clubs (which are hole-in-the-wall bars for the most part), and only a handful of small independent bands stick out (and they’re in tight with the promoters).
    Everyone else is fighting for a draw-minimum-of-25-people-to-get-paid, pre-sell-ticket shows and stuck in mismatched bill hell.
    The bands the make it here are the ones that consistently play outside of Philly. And they’re broke too. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great bands and great promoters here. But the bands really aren’t scraping out a living here (except possible the cover bands).
    This represents our reality:
    And this is one of the reasons why there’s no money in it: http://www.theprp.com/2010/07/27/news/oh-sleeper-guitarist-explains-why-mid-level-bands-make-no-money/
    And read about the pitfalls of touring on Gavin Castleton’s blog (of Gruvis Malt fame): http://gavincastleton.blogspot.com/2009/11/keys-to-failure-tour-edition.html
    The proliferation of Indie bands has put the power in the hands of the venues and promoters on the performance side. There’s so many bands that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle and increasingly difficult to gain momentum.
    And I still love local music.

  6. A lot of points I disagreed with, but really damn great bloggery, Kyle. This was provocative, interesting, a lot of food for thought. Thanks for this.
    And, co-sign on Gavin Castleton, he’s a dope human being.

  7. YES! it is important to be hopeful, but not cross the line to delusional.
    with any business, there has to be a product or service….something to sell….
    today it seems, in the music industry that those with services prey on those with products….and everyone one involved is preying on the consumer…but the rub is, WE are the consumer…we all consume. and if we wont buy it, why would the next guy? or girl….and is also true to some extent that people expect their ‘music’ to be free in the digital age … but most artists fail to give ” a reason to buy” … most artists think that by putting up a status update saying ” new album out now” that they have done their online marketing/advertising/promotion job. it takes a lot more to win over fans than just saying “buy my album” and concurrently, it takes more than the mirage of fame and fortune to get a musician to part with ANY money and “pay’ for a service….
    the way it goes is like this.
    guy makes album.
    guy hires service.
    guy feels taken advantage of.
    guy faces long road for a decade or more.
    guy realizes he has to start selling to “kids” with non discretionary income
    guy doesnt want to sell his music to kids 10 years younger. (wants “real fans, who know about music)
    guy doesnt make records anymore soured by experience, but wants to stay in music business….
    guy starts a service. and starts selling to “kids” or “bands’ ten years younger than him preaching “experience in the biz”
    and on the cycle goes.

  8. This post presents an real trend that is amplifying, but has always existed in music and every other “celeb” oriented industry. The reality is that music lessons, guitar stores, sheet music, and today’s Tunecore, ReverbNation all cater to different elements of a vibrant music hobbyist community. There is nothing wrong with a company selling a guitar to a 10 year old who wants to learn. A skateboard shop doesn’t exist only to service future Tony Hawks. And providing a distribution service to a band that wants music available at digital retail is equally legitimate. But industry press does have a responsibility to frame and analyze the distinction between music as hobby and music as business. I think that articles and coverage of the industry requires a bit more analytical eye. Indie musicians reading this site I presume want to be heard and discovered and embraced. I would argue that most digital products out there do not help that, but some services do. Most of all it is the talent and drive of the musician that enables success, and companies covered here, as well as mine, are catalysts for that underlying strength.

  9. Great Post. Finally some reality!
    The existing hype that MIDEM and the Billboard conferences are touting with all of the simple easy solutions is exactly that. They are the old business model at work only this time the musicians are paying for it rather than the labels. I have yet to see anything new from anywhere. The great “new” ideas have always been around in one form or another and merely porting them over to the internet does not make it new.
    The industry needs a new paradigm and analytics and widgets are not it. They can be of immense help but touting them as the new business model is not it.
    That some indie bands are doing ok is nothing new either, but there are much larger beasts to slay, once again I will mention NET NEUTRALITY, then DIVERSITY.
    The solution will begin when enough powerful people stop trying to jump on the major media trains and begin to earnestly build a new railroad rather than giving it lip service. I am one that is willing to do it and am lucky that I have very powerful artists who will do it with me even if it means turning down a big paycheck. How about you guys?

  10. Everyone can make music or at least participate in music. But very few can make a living from music alone, especially if they don’t want to teach music or play wedding and corporate gigs. The more people are told making a full-time living at music is an attainable goal, the more people will try, thus slicing the pie up into smaller and smaller piece.
    Most people who take photos have no illusions about becoming professional photographers. Most athletes know by the time they are in high school whether they have any chance to make it to the pros. Once they realize it isn’t an option for them, they may continue to play sports for recreational reasons. Most little girls who take ballet lessons aren’t going to be groomed to become professional dancers.
    But for some reason, there’s never much talk about how rare it is for musicians to be able to support themselves without a day job.
    That’s the real world for most musicians, especially local musicians. The amount of great music coming from indie bands in Colorado is astounding now. But most of them will continue to work at day jobs and play gigs as they can. Some will be able to tour a bit. Many more won’t be able to get enough time off from work to tour extensively.
    The reason I keep stressing this scenario over and over and over again is that it is what most people will face. And it doesn’t necessarily mean these musicians aren’t talented enough or aren’t business-savvy enough to make it. There simply aren’t enough fans to go around to support all the artists/bands who hope to make it.
    And keep in mind that if the money is supposed to come from live shows and merchandise sold at shows, you are only going to reach a small group of fans. Once people get jobs that require them to get up early in the morning and once they have kids that require babysitters, they quit going to clubs all the time. So you tend to lose a lot of live music fans in the 30-50 age group. If they go to a show, it’s going to be an occasional thing. And it becomes even more occasional if they don’t have much money because of the recession.

  11. he’s talking about the opportunity to open for the goo goo dolls sponsored by $5 footlongs.
    JK I am a choir to the hypebot preacher

  12. Simple economics dictates that everyone is “in it” to better themselves. The prestige that came with record label affiliation pushed more people to pursue the path as a musician– living the rock star life sounds great. This idea manifested into a dilemma; there is now more music being made than there is being listened to. Now there are many entrepreneurs jumping onto the technological band wagon which services the over-populated pool of artists. How can one point a finger at either party?
    Clearly there are subdivisions of each party at fault. There are the many truly gifted musicians that are being overshadowed by many so called “artists” that are cutting corners. Likewise, there are many entrepreneurs genuinely interested in the fate of the industry.
    Let it be clear that times are tough on both ends. With time, maybe this dilemma will force out the bad seeds on each side– natural selection of sorts. I like the positivity Kyle. Something’s gotta give.

  13. Well you get what you focus on, that’s a time tested principle. Focus on negativity and you’ll create a self fulfilling prophecy that shows up time and time again, and you’ll remain broke forever.
    Too many musicians believe that they are not capable of great things, when in reality if they had a little more faith in their abilities, coupled it with hard work and determination then they’d actually make some real progress on their own. The music industry is a tough business if you want to make some money, but so is every other business endeavor on the planet.
    If music is not a monetary activity for you then just enjoy the ride and forget making the money, if music is about making a living then wake up and smell the coffee, get entrepreneurial and use these great tools and services that are out there to your advantage
    The more optimistic you are about things, the more you’ll attract the people who can help further your career.

  14. Kyle, great post.
    I think what people need to take away from this is that indie musicians need to be as careful with where they get their information and advice from as they should be with promoters, managers and other bands.
    Hunter S. Thompson’s thoughts on the industry still apply to this day and really should be taken seriously.
    There’s a couple of blogs and people that are doing the hard sell – teasing you with promises of riches and then charging you for their secrets.
    Ignore them and I’d say don’t ever pay for this kind of advice.
    You can get as much info and advice as you need from sites like Hypebot, MTT, WAMM etc. for free. That’s the whole point of the web at the moment – all the conversation you could ever want for free from experts, amateurs and everthing in between.

  15. Beautiful post!
    There are a lot of sharks out there, but there were just as many before the digital revolution. So many artists signing deals they had no true understanding about (even beatles selling mercy rights for $1m)
    And as far as this digital mess goes blame RIAA and the 4 majors for nit working with napster, choosing rather to panic and shut him down. Think where music would be if iTunes revenues were going back in to labels to reinvest in talent. Instead we now have terrible pop because it will always be a safer option to see an OK return.
    I have to disagree with you about an illusional middle class though Kyle.
    Example: Enter Shikiri
    Thanks to Myspace and forums they were able to work up a sweat with adolescent kids. No label was looking at them, so they went DIY. They grew such a following online they sold out The Astoria in London with no aid of a label. These labels took notice after that and the band hand picked the deal they wanted.
    Labels simply don’t have the money they are used to for investing in new acts. The entrepreneurial intelligence of a band is almost a must for getting a good record deal. DIY helps artists obtain that vanguard audience that will levy their next steps to bigger things.
    God writing on an iTouch is tough work.

  16. I think anyone who wants to go into a creative field should understand the odds against making a living doing it full time. THEN if you still want to proceed, more power to you.
    A lot of the advice given to musicians today is about all the stuff you need to do other than actually making music to generate income.
    But if you stop and think about it, why not do other stuff, like having a day job, that pays the bills and then play music because you love it? If you have non-music skills that can make you a good living, it might make a lot more sense to do that for income rather than to do stuff like sell t-shirts to make money as a musician.
    That’s where I see so much indie music advice getting bogged down. I know someone who got accepted to med school, went for a year, then took time off to do music full-time, and now is back in med school. He still puts out CDs and performs locally, but he decided not to shut the door on becoming a doctor in order to do music full-time. And he’s a good musician. His songs have been on TV shows. He has a following. Etc.
    It’s possible that all the effort that musicians now need to do to promote themselves, often with relatively little financial return, may take the joy out of making music.
    I recommend that people look at everything they can do for income and for a creative outlet. They don’t need to be in the same profession. Have your day job and play your music.
    There’s still the perception that you aren’t a real musician if you aren’t doing it full-time. I think that’s unfair to a lot of musicians.

  17. It’s been obvious for this music lover for a while that there is sort of a gold rush going on in the DIY part of the music business. And as in the real gold rushes, the makers of the digging equipment are making more money than the diggers, read: artists for the most part. Yet, to say that promoting the DIY model just to sell more equipment, as the conspiracy theory postulated above does, goes too far. Still, there has never been an “enter at your own risk” sign at the front door to the music business. As a music listener with no ambitions to become a professional musician, I must say I do not care about widgets and a lot of stuff that some of these shovelmakers provide. Instead, I care about great music in the best possible quality on a format of longeivity, and there is no way around the CD format at the time when that is needed. That’s why I see the assumption that “the CD release complex is dead” is somewhat misleading because it devalues good sound quality releases, which are something that definitely is monetizable for every independent artist; instead, the assumption opens the door to the Apple business model that it’s not the artist or the brand that’s cool but only the gadget that the music is played on – and it doesn’t say anything about the fact that mp3 is outdated and that at the time, there is no definitive format to release your music on.
    Consumers like me are confused by the variety of formats and not content with the limitations of mp3 – and that’s why they buy less and less new albums. It’s the smallest number of music fans that go so far as I do when I really enjoy an album that’s only available in a lossy format: I go to the artist’s myspace page to try to talk them into selling me a full CD quality burn of their album so I can listen to their music in all its lossless glory.
    Whenever such a big effort is needed from me to get what I used to get in the store down the street a few years back, I get the feeling that the people who own the rights to the album do not really see me as their target audience. But luckily for me, so far they have always been happy to deal with me. Doing that, I might come across as some kind of a nostalgic relic to ambassadors of the new hyped digital business models in that I stick to the CD format which you proclaim as being passé, but the fact that all of the artists I did get a semi-official CD-R from for the average list price of CDs have emailed me that they would love to have their stuff out for sale on CD one day. So there clearly must be some kind of an agenda looming behind all this talk of going all-digital would be the definite way to go for music distribution, even if it’s just that just like everybody, the digital distributors want to promote their own product.
    I’m sorry for any language problems that may have occured in this lengthy reply of mine because I’m not a native speaker.

  18. As I read this blog today, in between my job duties at my work in an office where I am a manager. I decided to go to Walmart to buy somethings I while I was walking around I decided to go to the music seccion to my surprise, the music Isle was reduced to only 1 half of a row of CD’s and they were ALL rollbacks in other words, they were cheep, 5 bucks each and 8 or 9 if new release. I could’t help to notice what I already knew the CD is dead not dying, DEAD. I happen to see a few CD’s I have downloaded for free, and then It hit me. Its like this Music Induttry if you can call it that is the equivalent of the movie industry and it’s trying to cell Betamax or VCR’s in the 2000’s. Its OLD people simply don’t want it, and don’t care for it. And I also thought it’s not about the money, hell a street beggar makes a lot more than a indi musician this day in age, a street beggar can make anyware between 30 to 90 dollars a day and doesn’t have to invest on anything. While an indie musician has to pay for studio time, mastering, and has to pay a bunch of services to help him or her gain exposure to fans that won’t buy anything from them, and in most cases aren’t even willing give their email address up for something free. So its not about the money, ANY JOB is better than being an Indie musician, really, hell if you work at McDonalds your guaranteed a paycheck. So its not about the money, It is also not about the music, because people can make great music and not have to be famous and make a dime from it and be happy just posting it up in myspace or wherever and would not have a care in the world if people like it or not cause its for the pure joy of making music. So what its really about more most people its about the inflated EGO. Thats all it is about, the fantasy of having a lot of money, and preforming to thousands of raving fans, and the fame and stardom of being a superstar. Thats what people chase and that my friends is a LOOOOOOOOOOONG Shot. So welcome to the new music reality, understand it accepted, and take risks or not, but ultimately remember what it all boils down to.

  19. Getting back to the conspiracy angle; believing in a conspiracy theory of the kind that inspired this post is pretty convenient. It allows the believer to be a victim and be lazy because there’s no point in hard work or (heaven forbid) investing money in their potential music career because the secret powers that be are conspiring against them.
    That kind of belief will have you achieve nothing in life and wake up as a senior citizen realizing that you never accomplished anything out of fear and/or laziness.
    I think we’re all better off taking our chances and investing some good old sweat equity into our business and making intelligent decisions on where we choose to invest our money. We’re all adults here and realize that there is no tooth fairy or silver bullet that is going to make us an over night millionaire rock star with no effort (or talent) involved.
    Quit whining and get to work, or just make music for fun.

Comments are closed.