How to survive as an Indie artist in a corporate music world

You don’t need a Bachelor’s in Music Business to make it in the industry, but there are some things that every musician needs to know to survive on their own.

by Angela Tyler of SoundFly

When I think of DIY musicians vs the corporate world, I’m met with the image of Matthew Lillard battling his dad in this completely iconic scene from the movie SLC Punk.

Now, you may be too young for that reference, or perhaps you’ve never seen that movie (please change that immediately), but the comparison remains true. DIY music is, by nature, at odds with the corporate music world. Musicians themselves are often at odds with the corporate world. 

How many brilliant songs or movies have been written about rebelling against the masses? How many bands were started under the pressure of trying to break free? How can art and commerce co-exist to truly create something special?

Even more these days, it can feel really overwhelming to be the little guy. After all, it can feel like the corporate world has all the power and resources. It can feel like an impossible task to compete with that.

But actually you don’t have to compete with it. And actually, you can co-exist. In fact, your biggest super power might even be your commitment to doing things DIY.

While it can often seem like you’re constantly fighting artists with giant budgets, or having to learn a new social media platform every six months, there is strength in being DIY in a truly corporate music world — and it’s not as hard as you might think to do so.

1. First things first — recognize the power of DIY.

No one is saying the corporate music world is awful. It has its place and without it, some of our absolute favorite artists wouldn’t exist. They wouldn’t have the platform to change lives, raise money and raise awareness for truly important causes, and inspire the millions of people to be great. We wouldn’t have songs in movies, making us feel all kinds of things, and we wouldn’t have heroes and opportunities to look up to.

Corporate, mainstream music is not bad. But it’s not for everyone.

For the musician who wants total creative control over their music, for the artist who likes to experiment and try new things, for the artist that loves the art more than the business, you probably want to remain DIY. So first, appreciate that for what it is. 

2. Learn who you are, and build your core around it.

This is honestly just a good life lesson. Knowing exactly who you are and what you need in order to be happy both as an artist and as a human being is a crucial part of remaining DIY. Don’t get swept up by every trend, every get- followers-quick scheme, and every single new thing that comes along. You’ll constantly be bouncing around, exhaustedly trying to keep up, and it will be very difficult to grow your career.

If you know who you are then you’ll be able to stay on track. If an opportunity that doesn’t align with you pops up, you won’t be tempted to get distracted and chase it. Or, if a social media platform you hate becomes popular, you won’t feel like you need to immediately jump on it just because everyone else is — so long as you keep building a following where you had success before. 

Knowing who you are is freedom. 

3. Know what you’re willing to do.

Some bands will happily play club nights and covers at bars and be thrilled to just play every night. They don’t want to make it a full-time career and deal with all that goes with it, and so they’re happy to do the bars, because they know who they are and what they’re willing to do (or not do).

However, if you’re an artist that wants to have a full-time career that’s totally possible. But you have to be willing to work for it, and that means knowing what you’re willing to do so that you never have to feel conflicted about it. That looks different for every artist, but it does require you to be clear on what you’ll give. 

For instance, if you decide that you’re willing to play free shows for a year just to build your audience, then you automatically know you’re taking every opportunity that comes your way. But if you know that it’s not worth it to you to take a show with less than 50 people in the room or paying less than $200 dollars, then it makes finding (and accepting or turning down) those opportunities a lot easier.

When it comes to what you’re willing to do, usually it’s more than you want to, and that’s where it can get tough. But, there are no rules here so if you decide something isn’t working for you, you can always change it. This is your career, you make the rules.

4. Embrace your community.

Your community is your bedrock. You know this. Just because you’re staying independent doesn’t mean you don’t want to embrace your community. In fact, they’re the ones who will lift you up the most when you need it. 

A perfect example of the power of community are political campaigns. The volunteers that get politicians elected are often working long hours, for free, because it’s a cause they believe in. They take their precious few hours and little energy and pour it into this person they believe in. If you are conscious about building your fan base, they will do the same for you. 

So, embrace them for it. And pour into them. They’ll be your biggest supporters.

girl performing for a crowd

5. Carve out a path that is uniquely your own — tune out the rest.

It’s so easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing or what seems to be working for others. You can become resentful that certain tactics aren’t working for you and at times, even consider throwing in the towel. But to be truly DIY you need to learn to carve out a path that is uniquely your own and then ignore the rest. 

It doesn’t mean being naive or not listening to other ideas, especially as your own life and priorities change, but it means being clear on who you are and what you want, and then making it happen. No distractions, just progress.

6. DIY doesn’t mean “Do It Alone.”

I know, I know, you’ve heard this one a million times, but it’s true. Sometimes indie artists make the mistake of thinking that they have to go it alone. But the reality is that this is likely to sink one’s career over time. 

While learning to do everything yourself is a beneficial necessity in the early days, you eventually want to hire team members to help you grow. You’ll end up hitting a wall after a certain point otherwise, and eventually, creativity and motivation will suffer. So while you may start off doing it all alone, don’t fool yourself into thinking you have to stay there. 

DIY is about being in control and having power over your career, and that means being aware enough to know when you need a little help to grow. Your community is your strength. 

Final thoughts: being DIY doesn’t mean being a starving artist.

Somewhere along the way we started thinking DIY meant having to be a “starving artist” — that you either had to take the path of major label artistso you could have all the funding and support that comes with it, or you’d simply be DIY and maybe kind of poor, but hey, at least you’d have your creative freedom.

Not true. 

Artists who forge their own path have proven that you can create thriving fanbases and profitable music careers while building a career you’re proud of. So enjoy being DIY, and make it your own. In the end, you’re here to make music and make an impact. And don’t forget to check out Soundfly’s newest online course with Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan and Suicidal Tendencies when it goes live. It’s going to be a blast. 

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  1. Why do you talk down to artists like this? Most of them are actually smarter than anything in this article.

    And the pithiness of the seriousness of this situation, no one needs to hear the majors are great and we should be thankful for the major label wreckage just so Beyonce was able to break thru to us all… She would have found a way one way or another.

    You all need that major label system to exist, so stop trying to grab traffic with these soul-less attempts at preaching what DIY is from like a decade ago.



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