Indie Labels

Cullah’s Open Source Path To Indie Music Success

Genre-bending, Milwaukee, WI-based independent artist Cullah shares insights on his open-source approach to music, balancing branding with authenticity, and effectively engaging with audience data.

Guest post by Rutger Ansley Rosenborg of Chartmetric

Chartmetric is ringing in the new year with a new tier that’s just for artists, which you can sign up for here for about the price of a cup of coffee per week (if you don’t already have a free Chartmetric account, sign up for one here first before clicking that link). So, on this episode of How Music Charts, we’re talking music analytics and career strategies for independent artists with genre-bending indie artist Cullah.

Cullah is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, based independent artist who has released an album every year on his birthday — April 27 — for the past 14 years. For his 30th birthday this year, he’ll be releasing his 15th album, ½, as a testament to the fact that he’s released an album every year for half of his life.

The son of a classically trained jazz musician and a farm-raised mathematician and computer scientist, “Cullah was brought up with the awareness of the balance between the creative and logical aspects of natural law.” As such, he studied Computer Engineering at Marquette University and Music & Media Technologies at Trinity College Dublin, working briefly as a web developer at a web design firm before turning to music full time. He’s been described as, “One part Jack White, one part Dan Auerbach, and one part Jeff Buckley,” and he was kind enough to carve out some time to discuss how to be a successful independent artist by leveraging music data and music analytics.

The Open-Source Approach

As a self-described computer nerd, Cullah subscribes to an “open-source” approach to his music, which means that the music he releases is available to use, with attribution, under a creative commons license.

The MIT licensing and the open-source licensing mentality of just collaborating with folks and just watching…. To me, it felt like a virtue … like sharing…. When you create something open-source, you create an industry around your thing that you share….

Open-source doesn’t necessarily mean free. What it means for Cullah is that his music is available to other creators to use in their own creations, which offers him the opportunity to reach new audiences and increase brand awareness.

Balancing Branding With Authenticity

In order to increase brand awareness, a brand is usually a prerequisite. But the tug of war between authenticity and self-promotion isn’t always easy.

For branding, authenticity is huge. That’s really a core tenet of any person who’s trying to succeed as an artist or as an independent entrepreneur. It’s still a question I’m wrestling with. I struggle less with it, because I interact daily with people who I give my music to for free for their own creations and they monetize their own things and they give back…. Trying to do more direct to fan stuff as opposed to trying to pay some firm over here to do XYZ with all this money and who knows what’s going to happen…. Speaking more directly to the fans, being the leader in the brand.

For Cullah, artistic integrity and authenticity always comes back to the relationship he has with his fans — even when it comes to data.

Engaging With Audience Data

One thing that Cullah is pretty adamant about is that data, in itself, is only one piece of the puzzle. What really matters is how data can help you connect with your audience and foster authentic relationships with fans. Here are three big takeaways from Cullah’s use of data throughout his music career:

All these people on Spotify, they might think this song’s dope and it’s on one of their playlists, but there’s still no real way to connect with them. The relationships are much more important for sustainability…. Focus on relationships…. Keep grinding online trying to build those relationships. As soon as someone comments on something, comment back and get to know that person…. Spotify just feels so anonymous…. The only way I can tell who is listening is if they’re tagging me on Instagram – it’s not Spotify that’s telling me any of that.

As soon as people started emailing, I put them in a spreadsheet…. Every one of those interactions, write it down. Having my own website is huge…. I can have all of the relationships there, directly through my site…. I’m on my third year fundraising and I’m working on trying to get it into a regression table, where I’m trying to keep track of specific people…. And because of that, I’ve been able to realize that part of the facilitating the relationships is that as soon as someone gives anything to the fundraiser to pre-order or anything, I immediately will blast out on my social media thanking them specifically…. I’m using the data of who’s interacting with these fundraisers more often than others and where are they coming from and how are they changing their things from year to year.

Data is not going to all of the sudden, by itself, solve all the things, but it’s so important to have. It’s almost another task to learn what to do with it, but it’s so important to have it…. Spotify [for Artists] can tell you overall trends…. Instagram won’t even tell you anything past 28 days…. Facebook has a little bit more…. The only time I ever saw more helpful data was probably in the Chartmetric dashboard…. I was able to log in there and see everything. I was blown away; I was totally blown away with how much was in there and how comprehensive it was.

In essence, music data and music analytics is best leveraged after the music creation process – not to game the streaming and social media marketplace, but to find your audience and connect authentically with that audience.

To get started, sign up here for our new artist tier for about the price of a cup of coffee per week(if you don’t already have a free Chartmetric account, sign up for one here first before clicking that link).

Listen to How to Become a Successful Independent Artist With Cullah on your favorite podcast listening platform here.

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