Rise Above: The Challenges Of Today’s Independent Musician

Sad_woman_guitarGuest post by Justin Herring of Sidewinder.fm.

At this point, it’s safe to say that a lot of musicians aren’t sure what the future holds. There are numerous paths they take, and only hope to come out successful on the other end. Whether it’s a new marketing service that promises to identify your “superfans” or an Internet radio service that promises to grant you millions of new listeners within the first week, there’s a surplus of startups claiming they can fix the many problems musicians face.

Each year the online community and the outside world become more integrated. With the ease of social media and growing hunger for up-to-date information, musicians seem to be forced to deliver fans news on what they’re doing, thinking, and planning every step of the way. 

For every kid who picked up a guitar and wants to dive into this world as it stands today, there are three times as many articles giving them the guidelines of how to thrive in this social media dominated world. “Don’t worry kid,” they say, “just focus on those Facebook Likes and all will fall into place.” But the question most of them end up asking after following those guidelines is: What happens if none of that works? 

It’s hard to say what steps a musician today should take in order to reach their desired level of success. When faced with a vast online world at their fingertips, it’s easy to forget the importance of focusing on the outside world as well. To those growing up in this new online environment, this digital frontier is home; it’s the universe young bands are familiar with. To them, the stories of other bands in their infancy sitting in a van day after day, month after month—those are simply a thing of the past. Who needs a van if they have thousands of people to post Facebook and Twitter updates to? The reality is that such hardships are more prevalent today than they ever have been.

The web has been flooded with an overwhelming amount of music, leaving most listeners to thumb through hours of Facebook pages and poorly recorded material. New recording equipment and software have given young bands cheap and affordable voices to distribute across the web; but music lovers still exist that endlessly search for new group to kick-start that flame of inspiration they so desperately crave. They’re looking to connect in the physical world, and not through a computer screen.

Young bands, regardless of genre, need those fans in order to thrive in this ever evolving, dare I say “new” music industry we see arising. The responsibility of putting music in front of peoples’ faces has quickly fallen into the musician’s hands. For bands of today, they’re starting to see just how creative they mustget in order to push through the hordes of independent musicians that are clamoring away to get to the top. Their lifestyle is quickly becoming akin to that of salesmen who must, above all, sell themselves to create that personal experience through face-to-face interaction, not just an MP3 download.

If there’s anything the Internet has given young bands to use as a tool, it’s contact information for venues and promoters. With websites like IndieOnTheMove.com, booking information for the majority of venues in cities and states around the country allow the chance to book tours independently, establish connections, and build relationships. It breaks down the barriers that were in the way decades ago, giving opportunities to create roads to go down instead of simply waiting to be approached by a label. Now, local acts have the ability to transform themselves into regional acts with more ease.

While the Internet allows everyone to stay connected, a musician’s knowledge—his or her education as a performer—still lays waiting out there on the road. It’s where every band truly learns how to become a band. As long as there’s youth, passion, desire, and fury, music will be just fine. There will be those who tough it out in a van going from town to town building their fan base up little by little. And those who use this method while properly utilizing social media will be the ones that outlast the rest.

To musicians today, I say this: Hopefully, you get used to the smell of that van; you can handle losing a few more pounds while out on the road; you figure out how to budget your money; and you’re willing to sacrifice a night out at a bar to afford the next batch of merch. Because with every new Internet radio service, mobile app, or social media site that arises in this digital landscape, it’s going to funnel the onslaught of young bands aiming to get their play counters higher than yours. While they fight for popularity based on artificial numbers, it gives you an advantage. Most of these musicians are sleeping in a bed somewhere far away from the harsh realities of independent touring, leaving plenty of open stages for you to play.

Justin Herring is an artist manager and booking agent that has over a decade of experience with the music industry, in both bands and business aspects. His strong and controversial opinions have grown out of a love of music and the desire to see musicians treated fairly. Find him on Twitter and Tumblr

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  1. What? Both the real world and the internet are over-saturated with “musicians”. What every musician needs to hear right now is this: Grow up and get a day job.

  2. Alex, just because I didn’t directly mention the importance of having a day job, or education, doesn’t mean it’s not implied in the article. Funds for upkeep on a touring van, merchandise, recording, etc, must come from somewhere. Those who are aware of the real world status of musicians know how little payouts can be. This leaves the only option to be everyone having reliable, consistent work outside of music.

  3. Too long, didn’t read.
    I’m sure whatever you said has nothing to do with music other than new, crappy metal bands. If they want any money, what-so-fucking-ever they need to give up the metal dream. The fact someone ever thought they could make money playing music is a laugh. Even rather big name metal bands “Cannibal Corpse” has to have second jobs to help supplement tour income. The dream and industry are dead. The only assclowns who make it in the world are the “radio elite”. Change your music or change your dream if you want to bank.

  4. Asshat is right. Rise Above? Challenges of todays independent musician….Coming from some guy who probably has over 5k in illegal downloads. Way to support the craft, dick.

  5. That’s a mighty fine negative attitude you guys got there. I hope it brings you much success.

  6. I think you really have to love what you do and be very determined to get somewhere anymore, and it’s those people that will succeed, and they’re consistently not looking to “bank”.
    I can prove this because I’ve talked to a few people, all very inspiring, at different stages of musical success, but with a common thread
    Hard Work
    Never Giving Up
    Please take a look at a 2 part interview with Renaat from R&S Records
    Guy Tavares from Bunker Records, a 20 year underground Dutch veteran
    And The Exaltics from Germany, who talk about being on the edge of moving from the day job to full time, without wanting to destroy the music and the home life.

  7. Another point to be made…your music needs to be good. I know, I know, “good” is a relative term. But if you can’t write a song to save your life, there’s no point in blaming anyone else for your lack of success.

  8. Music is a day job. I’m a road warrior. Did a 3 month cross-country tour in my Van over the winter. Currently on a 3 week tour to Texas and got a 2 month tour coming up in the fall. Want to spread your brand? Hit the road.
    Of course, I’ve got my Van wrapped in graphics with my name, phone and website… it helps to be smart about it.

  9. This is a brilliant article! I’ve been saying for a while now, given today’s technology, there is no reason for an aspiring musician to hope for a label to sign them or to be discovered. The Internet is your manager, publicist, and distributor! YOU have to be the traveling salesman (or woman) who tries to get new clients. Sure, your Facebook, Reverb, SoundCloud, and Bandcamp pages will attract some attention, but you still have to wow those people who aren’t aware of those sites. Independent musicians have all the tools they need at their disposal, it’s just a matter of putting in the hard work.

  10. Thanks for this post, Justin!
    I think the point here (and you kind of hinted at it) is that artists can’t always be in a state of doubt. “What if it doesn’t work out?” is a doubter’s mentality. It shows that you are not sold out to your craft. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you don’t believe that it could work for you. You have to put your blinders up to any type of negativity. You can’t care too much about who’s doing what. You have to get focused on your craft and develop it to the best of your ability, at any cost.

  11. The music business is tougher than its ever been with so much competition and with the creeking descent of the big record labels everything has changed. I remember naively thinking how great it might be to make money from my music, but I never had any great illusions about fame or great fortune. I have slowly become bitter from the frustration and like you say you have to be a salesman and frankly I’ve had to learn that with some struggle. Playing a weekly gig in front of a mixed crowd of people who could care less about music to a handful of occasional genuine music lovers takes its toll after a while. I enjoy performing music for people that share my love of music, but everywhere we are bombarded by music to the point that people are frequently unresponsive to it. Perhaps I expect too much and should just be grateful that I’m being paid weekly when other musicians are banging songs out at open mics for a polite applause from fellow musicians. Well I’ve ranted enough now. I feel better I suppose.

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