The Rise of the Indie Music Artist

Last week I read an article on the popular music tech blog Hypebot that stated that indie artists account for 50% of the Grammy nominations this year. According to the indie trade group A2IM, independent artists are nominated in 88 of the total 108 Grammy categories.

Before we make any conclusions as to what this means for the state of the music industry, we must define what we mean by “indie” artists. Director/producer Dave Cool, of the documentary What is Indie? A Look into the World of Independent Musicians, defines an indie artist as an unsigned artist. Cool says that everyone has their own interpretation of what an indie artist is, but at that end of the day an unsigned artist is an indie (independent) artist no matter what their stature in the music business. He goes on to say that he does not discriminate against Paul McCartney or Robert Plant, who in their own way, are also indie artists if they wish to claims themselves as so.

Regardless of the fame attributed to the indie artists nominated for Grammys, the nominations still give you a clear picture of the trajectory of the music industry. Even if by Cool’s definition of an indie artist we also include famous artists who happen to be independent, we can recognize the fact they were nominated for the Grammys despite lacking a major label backing.

Perhaps in the future the record labels will be so fragmented or completely different in the way they operate now that we will not make such distinctions between signed and unsigned artists. Distribution deals and promotion will be less and less about whether you are signed to a major label and more about how well you can reach your audience no matter what the medium you engage in with your fans. As mobile adoption increases and online technology becomes more seamless, expect the lines between indie artist and "famous" artist to blur further.

Although the Grammys are not respected in the underground scene to the same extent as with the mainstream pop artists that receive most of the major awards, they are progressing in a way that is friendlier to the independent or more underground artists. Back when they first started giving away awards for best hard rock/metal performance, people were shocked when Jethro Tull (a much softer sounding band) beat out Metallica for the award in 1988. In part because of that controversy, the Grammys now offer awards for hard rock and metal separately. You can see bands like Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Slayer, and others gain notoriety for their heavier-than-normal music in the metal category. Although not all these bands are independent, many of them share the same mentality as independent artists and worked their way up the industry ladder.

Going along with Dave Cool’s definition of the indie artist as the unsigned artist, it might be a bit overzealous to lump more underground artists (whether signed or unsigned) into the same category as indie artists as a whole. However, I think it is equally important to notice that both unsigned and underground artists are receiving more Grammy support than in the past, which is a partial recognition of the evolving music industry where smaller-time artists can work their way into mainstream consciousness. If the Grammys are noticing the changes in at least a partially significant way, at least we know the rest of us are beginning to experience the era of the indie artist more fully.

What does "indie" mean to you? A genre, style, or only a distinction of independent status?


Nifty Music Websites Around the Web

After recently doing an interview with GrungeCake, I decided to go on a little online scavenger hunt for nifty websites. What makes a good music website? Some websites combine a love for art and music with simple and aesthetically-pleasing design, some have really cool premises, and some are just about the content. Here are a few websites I came across that offer a variety of music and artistic indulgences:


GrungeCake describes itself as “an independent, inclusive New York based printed art publication that deals with social issues in a thematic manner, expressing and showing views-resolutions through art.” GrungeCake lives up to this description starting with its tagline “Where Art Lives!” all the way to the large-sized, high quality images on its pages and in-depth music interviews.

The site is fun to navigate with its Flash interface, but it doesn’t jump in your face or distract you like some other Flash-based sites. The site is built with Wordpress – it is elegant in its layout but not formulaic like many other blogs using the Wordpress software.

The website is pretty new and updates on a frequent basis. Try GrungeCake out if you have an interest in not only music, but also cherish an artistic lifestyle in all senses of the word. The name of the website alone warrants a visit, no?


Mo ‘Gravy

This one is another one of those hip tumblr blogs (not being too sarcastic, tumblr is cool). Unlike many of the cat-infested, and arguably useless, blogs, Mo ‘Gravy is practical, fun, and has a search capability to boot.

What’s the premise? Take those cool funk tracks from back in the day and display a list of artists who sampled the songs. Why is this useful? If not just to satisfy your curiosity for music’s rich sampling history, you might want to check out some of the newer tracks and see if you can pick out the samples yourself. When artists sample other artists, there is the possibility that the newer songs add something new and interesting to the mix. Time for a warped sense of nostalgia.

If you’re too lazy to compare songs, you can still enjoy the funky grooves already playing on the site. Make my funk the P.funk!


The Black Cab Sessions 

Ever wondered how music would sound if performed in a moving cab? No, me neither. If you were one of the few people waiting for someone to create a site where you got to see intimate performances of cool artists playing in the back of a black cab, then your wait is over. I found the site for you!

The Black Cab Sessions sticks true to the taxi cab theme with a black and yellow color scheme and a long list of artists with close-up pictures linking to their taxi cab session. The videos are hosted on Vimeo, ensuring superior quality to the YouTube embeds that are ubiquitous on the web. YouTube is a little more convenient to reach a wide audience, but if you want an artsy destination site like The Black Cab Sessions, then Vimeo is the way to go.

With great artist and design choices, The Black Cab Sessions will impress those looking for a unique music site that is also visually and sonically rewarding.

How to Engage Your Audience Effectively

I recently came across a great article by music industry and PR expert Ariel Hyatt on how to write engaging newsletters (take a look at the piece on MusicThinkTank). Hyatt points out a study that found these interesting statistics:

“Overall, 86% of survey respondents said they used email to share content, while just 49% said they used Facebook. Broken down by age, the preference for email is more pronounced, as users get older. And only the youngest group polled, those ages 18 to 24, reverses the trend, with 76% sharing via Facebook, compared with 70% via email.”

Email newsletters, as she argues, provide a lot of opportunities to effectively target your audience by keeping up a relationship while also providing many possibilities for bringing in revenue. What distinguishes email newsletters from your stand-alone website or blog is the ability to maintain fan relationships over time. If you don’t have the time to blog on a daily basis, chances are you won’t be able to keep people coming back to your website because they know content won’t be updated on a consistent basis. When you finally want to ask your fans to buy your new single or t-shirt, you might have already lost part of your audience. The beauty of an email newsletter is you don’t have to send one out every day (and if you did, it would probably be too much for the average person—they would unsubscribe or delete the messages without even opening them). If you send a newsletter out every week, you know the people on your email newsletter list will be there because they check their email all the time.

One important thing to remember for email newsletters and other content you produce online is maintaining the right blend of personality, information, and calls to action. As Hyatt explains, calls to action involve asking your audience to help spread the word about you as an artist or they are for asking fans to buy something from you. You don’t want to seem like you’re just trying to sell to your audience and you don’t want to desperately ask for their help either. Asking your fans for something is best done after you’ve already engaged them on a personal level. You probably connect to your favorite artists on a personal level, not just through music, so why not do the same with your fans. Make sure your fans already know you personally before you try to solicit them for cash.

Each medium of communication has its own rules and etiquette for engagement. On Twitter, most of your tweets should be geared towards communicating personal anecdotes or links you find interesting—selling and promotional tweets should be used sparingly. When you are using Facebook, you should be aware of the dynamics of people’s news feeds. The more actively someone participates in a fan page, the more often updates from that page will appear in their news feed. If all you do is promote the same music profile and links over and over, chances are your audience will get bored and you will have a smaller and smaller presence on their Facebook news feeds. Keep a close eye on how people participate and communicate in each different medium (email, social networks, YouTube, mobile, etc.) so you can reach them in the most effective and non-spammy ways.

If you want to start an email newsletter, I suggest using Mailchimp for their incredible features, ease of use, and analytics. It’s free to use up to 1,000 subscribers!



10 Music Facts You Probably Never Knew

1. Reverend Run of RUN-DMC fame is an ordained minister with the New York Pentecostal church Zoe Ministries.

2. Termites eat wood twice as fast when they are listening to heavy metal.

3. Sonny and Cher originally called themselves Caesar and Cleo.

4. The harmonica is the world’s best-selling music instrument.

5. The composer John Cage wrote a piece called 4’ 33”, which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of pure silence.

6. The song “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” by Wham! was inspired by a  sign Andrew Ridgeley used to place on his bedroom door to remind his mom to wake him up before she went to work.

7. Leo Fender, the inventor of the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, did not actually play the guitar.

8. The only hit song that is both a palindrome by title and artist is “SOS” by ABBA.

9. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was the first CD pressed in the United States for commercial release.

10. The song “I Write The Songs” was performed by Barry Manilow, but ironically it was actually written by Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys.



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Tips to Get Rid of Writer’s Block for the Everyday Musician

At some point musicians and songwriters will inevitably get a brush of writer’s block, which is the all too familiar feeling that you will never be able to write another good riff, lyric, or melody again. Every time I wrote a new song on guitar as a teenager, I thought to myself, “Hey! I really like this, how am I ever going to come up with anything else?” Sometimes that “anything else” didn’t come along for days or even weeks. For successful artists with hit records, the standards are even higher so writer’s block can be a severe distraction to the creative process. Here are a few tips to help you muster through it:

1) Acceptance – Mimic Alcoholic’s Anonymous! I’m not saying go out and apologize to all those you have wronged (although that can be cleansing in its own right), but you have to come to terms with the fact you have writer’s block. Curing your writer’s block means accepting its stranglehold and doing something to proactively combat it.

2) Be spontaneous – Do something spontaneous that doesn’t directly relate to your songwriting process. Adventure, new surroundings, and general curiosity of the world might lead you down a path of inspiration that will later reflect itself on your music. Maybe this means going to see an artsy movie, listening to street musicians, or spending a few days in the wilderness taking in the sounds of nature.

In the words of the hit TV comedy Family Guy: “Peter, inspiration doesn’t have a schedule.” Your next best song could be right around the corner.

3) Collaborate – Sometimes it’s tempting to sit in your room and bang on your guitar or computer until you get the riff, beat, or song you like. You figure the more time you put into trying to make music the better the outcome. This is often antithetical to the creative process. Sometimes you just have to take a break. When you’re ready to return to songwriting you could benefit from outside help. Go out and find other musicians to collaborate with in the real world. If you want to stay at home, there are a number of options online to collaborate with other musicians. Reach out to someone to bounce ideas off of or take advantage of all the free music online that you can either remix or use as inspiration for your next work. Change someone else’s music little by little and you might end up with a completely different song that’s your own. You can also piece together music using samples that are licensed under Creative Commons.

4) Switch It Up – Part of curing writer’s block is getting out of your comfort zone. If you usually write trance music, try giving dubstep a chance. If you’re into electronica, how about adding a tinge of industrial? For the metalheads out there, add a synth or two to beef up the mix and give yourself some added flavors. Try new chord progressions and melodies that you normally wouldn’t experiment with. If you tend to be very melodic, experiment with dissonance and enter new sonic territories. Doing the opposite of what you normally do could lead to something better when you transition back to your normal sound. Knowing what else is out there in the music world will make you a more well-rounded musician and will help with writer’s block.

The Year Apple Says Goodbye to the CD

Have you noticed that the new iTunes logo is a circle with a musical note and no longer has an image of a CD? Did you hear the new Macbook Air won’t have an optical drive? All signals point to the fact that Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple) thinks that CDs are a thing of the past. While many are quick to point out CDs still have their place as a cheap mode of storing data, I can’t help think of past mediums for storing music that were replaced over time.

The physical CD will inevitably be gone like floppy drives at some point in the future and we will consume all our music via downloads—music will be transferred exclusively through bits not atoms. There will be no mass distributed physical form of music. The question we can’t answer is how long the shift will take, but Steve Jobs and Apple seem to want to push this gradual shift along at a steady pace, inserting a dagger into the life of the CD at any possible time. Apple’s tendency to embrace minimalism in design will keep moving us one step forward in technology and away from CDs. The iPad doesn’t even have a USB port, so we can’t be surprised that optical drives are no longer a requisite for computer hardware in Apple’s new product lines.

If artists can’t convince fans that music should be purchased in the physical form, then the price of music makes its way down to zero. Because people don’t think of music as a physical object in the same way they did in the past, there is a gap in the market for what artists can sell to their fans in the physical form. This means artists have to become innovative in their marketing techniques. Either you have to sell other physical goods like merch or you have to sell access (e.g. backstage passes, exclusives, etc.).

In an interview this week with musician and entrepreneur Chamillionaire, venture capitalist Mark Suster discusses with the rapper the various ways to market to a fanbase. Despite music moving from CDs to online data transfer, there is still a viable market for physical goods for music fans. This doesn’t just mean merch like T-shirts, but also unique items that can make stand out as an artist—one example of this would be a flash drive with your music, but the flash drive is designed to look like a machine gun. Anything that looks cool and makes fans keep a physical item will make you better able to attach your music and image as an artist to a physical object. If you can somehow connect your music and DVDs to a physical item that cannot be replicated through peer-to-peer sharing sites or iTunes, you will have a better chance of selling your work to your fans. Provide an experience!  

Music Careers and How You Can Still Make Money Doing What You Love

I came across an article on Music Think Tank that addressed 20 ways to have a lasting career in music. The list includes the various methods of forming a sustainable career without necessarily striking it rich as the next hip-hop phenom or pop star, a goal that many musicians aspire to (and often times rightfully so). However, just like it is difficult to get a business off the ground, becoming a successful musician does not happen overnight. In music, every overnight success was more than likely a 10+ year process of learning and struggling to hone one’s craft.

Here are some examples from the article and why I think they are suitable alternatives or complements to your ultimate pursuits as an artist:

1) Music Teacher:

As the article I mentioned points out, many music teachers need a degree to have a well-paid career for teaching private lessons or teaching at the high school or college level. For those just trying to make a buck while pursuing other music goals, picking up some lessons on how to teach music properly can help you prepare to instruct students. With the right tools, you can teach many students per week and still make a decent pay. Even Joe Satriani, the world-renowned guitarist and shredder, taught Kirk Hammett (lead guitarist of Metallica) and fellow guitar virtuoso Steve Vai at one point. Teaching an instrument will in most cases help you become a better player of your own instrument as well.

2) Music Producer:

Many successful musicians tour for the better part of the year but often have some downtime where they can return home to their studio and produce other artists’ music. Adam D. of metal band Killswitch Engage is well-known in the hard rock and metal community as a producer for many of his close peers and recorded artists such as All That Remains, Unearth, From Autumn to Ashes, Underoath, Every Time I Die and many more. Hip-hop artist and producer Timbaland is as well-known for his career as a studio producer and collaborator as he is for his own work. For the deejays and rock musicians who have mastered their skills in the studio, they might want to lend a hand to the less experienced artists who do not have the resources or skills to record a finely polished album. They can also help the pros who want another set of ears outside of their own helping with the recording process. Producing music can help pay the bills in between your live performances and can help you gain exposure for yourself as an artist. You will at some point want to have an extensive network of artists who you collaborate or converse with so you have more opportunities in the future no matter what the end goal.

3) Film/Video Game Scoring

A lot of the money artists used to rely on to make a living is gone due to poor music sales and the collapsing music industry. Although the situation is grim, there are still avenues for music composers to still make a living creating art. Whether you are an electronic artist, rock musician, or in any other genre, there are possibilities for making music for movies, television, or video games that enable you to still enjoy music while making money. You might find the constraints of working for someone else to be anything but liberating, but you could at least be making money creating something that will provide value for the end user (i.e. film/TV viewers or gamers).

Some other alternative career possibilities listed in the article include licensing music, live performance, band manager, studio/session musician, pit band for off-Broadway productions, instrument repair technician, gig booker, house band, page turner, music transcriber, ghost songwriter, and freelance music journalist.

Has Technology Made Modern Music Too Polished?

Many people complain about the tendency of modern music to sound too polished. The proliferation of increasingly more sophisticated and precise recording tools allow artists to make everything sound perfect in the studio: auto-tune, click tracks, drum triggers, pitch correction, compression, and effects are all examples of tools that help artists sound cleaner and more powerful in their musical delivery.

The question that music enthusiasts debate is whether these tools make music better or they strip away some of the natural life that used to be present in older records—that is to say that over the years music has lost its soul. I think there is a happy medium between the two extremes where you can satisfy your need to sound polished with the desire to keep your music from sounding too mechanical or processed.

In a recent article I read, the drummer from the metal band Lamb of God describes the process by which the band records albums and maintains the natural essence of the music they write. Instead of choosing a tempo for a song and setting up a click track that the band plays to, the band records the song first and defines the click track based on what they already played. Lamb of God does not conform their playing to the click track, the click track conforms to the music. In this way, Lamb of God gets the benefit of playing in time with a click track when recording the final tracks, but they do not let the tool ruin their original intentions and vibe. It is not really a compromise, rather it is the best of both worlds.

Lamb of God’s recording strategy can be applied to all of the potential “shortcuts” of using studio tricks to make artists sound more polished. Some artists, unlike Lamb of God, will go to any length to make their records sound as mechanical and processed as possible. Many fans want an idealized version of their favorite bands because they will be listening to the songs hundreds of times. Even if the band cannot live up to its studio sound, does that mean the band should sacrifice sounding good in the studio for the sake of managing expectations for their live performance?

Many fans complain that vocalists are often unable to hit the same notes in concert as they do in the studio. I, on the other hand, would prefer to have the studio track (which is recorded and imprinted into physical or data form for eternity) to sound as good as possible. Sometimes and for some bands, sounding as good as possible means being a little sloppy, dirty, or “not perfect.” That is perfectly fine if that is how your band should sound in your mind. I am not the first person to say music is subjective, so I will leave you to decide how far you want to mutate your sound in the studio.

Make Your Fanbase Into a Tribe

In the last couple days I’ve been listening to the audiobook Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. Throughout the book, Godin describes the passion and risk-taking needed to truly lead your own tribe. The tribe that you have the ability to create is analogous to your fanbase. Think of the droves of people who flocked to Grateful Dead concerts, called “Deadheads”, who kept buying tickets even though the Dead were not Billboard chart-toppers. The Grateful Dead created a tribe out of their fans, that is, a loyal group of people who followed the band throughout their career. The same goes for Slayer, Phish, and the Dave Matthews Band because they created an aura about them where fans felt like they were part of the tribe.

One of the key points that Godin makes in his book is that you don’t need to have thousands or tens of thousands of followers in your tribe. The magic number Godin says is 1,000. Imagine if each one of those 1,000 dedicated people could convince just a few friends to come to your concert or buy your music or merch. Those 1,000 people could make a true difference—admittedly, that many followers is still a big number for new artists.

Start off small! No one said creating a tribe (or fanbase) would be easy. Create value where there was no value before. Distinguish yourself from the pack by adding things that most people don’t spend the time to release to their potential fans. Here’s a few ideas to get things rolling:

1) Make remixing easy

If you have a song with many different and interesting tracks (whether  with electronic music tracks or conventional instruments), offer the stems for each track in separated files. That way if other artists or music enthusiasts with access to recording software really dig your song, they can play around with each individual track on their computer and maybe even post a remix of your song online. I know I’ve found many good songs after first discovering a memorable remix. You can widen your audience with just a little extra work.

2) What about the gear?

Some gearheads and DJs really like to know how you recorded your music. Depending on the genre of music you produce, there might be many people in your fanbase that are hardcore recording geeks. Let them in on your tools of the trade! It’s not like it’s a secret.

3) The power of art

Many up-and-comers are quick to upload their music online, but often never put in any time thinking how they want to present their music BEFORE a listener actually presses ‘play’. Most people are drawn in by a visual, so if you don’t put a picture on your profile or create some sort of representation of your image as an artist, chances are many potential listeners will ignore your music. If you had the choice between listening to someone’s music who also had an interesting display picture on their profile or to someone with a stock photo or blank image, who would you listen to? Who is probably the more serious artist?

4) An engaging bio

Keep it short and sweet. If it’s not, then at least make it entertaining along the way. Thanks!


Are Paid Subscriptions the Future for Fan to Artist Relationships?

With musicians scrambling for new ways to monetize their content, some companies and artists are creating new ways to interact with their fans and make music a viable career. A subscription plan for fans to build relationships with their favorite artists is an interesting concept for future business models in the music industry. As more and more artists decide to go this route, we will see if it becomes an efficient way for artists to make a living.

Last year I came across a website called MyBandStock that promises exclusive access to your favorite artists. Fans become shareholders in the artists of their choosing and are then given perks and preferred access to exclusive media, meet and greets, mobile apps, pre-sale concert tickets, and more. Although they have not yet finished developing the entire site or making deals with some of their first artists, the MyBandStock team have secured an undisclosed amount of funding for their project and opened up a Los Angeles office. One question that comes to mind is whether this is something the fans actually want to participate in.

Touring musician and recording artist Matthew Ebel has already been using the MyBandStock model for quite a while without help from an outside music platform. He successfully manages to keep music as his prime passion and also his full-time job (not a small feat). On his website, fans can pay to get access to a subscription section that offers new live recordings every month, invitations or free tickets to special events, members-only downloads, and a chance to win custom-written songs. There are a variety of pricing options, starting at $5 per month, depending on the level of access you want. If Matthew Ebel can make this model work in combination with other monetization streams, many other artists will follow suit.

Personally I like the idea of a subscription model on band websites. However, I feel that this “new” model for gaining access to artists is just a glorified version of the outdated fan club. Street teams are still a good way to galvanize your fanbase, but fan clubs in the conventional sense have not been popular for a long time. MyBandStock adds game mechanics as a way to spur fan engagement—now that you can own shares in your favorite artists, you have a way to compare yourself to other fans who may or may not have as many shares as you. Those with many shares in an artist can maintain a sense of prestige that goes along with showing your commitment to an artist. Time will tell if the model gains steam or if it remains a niche in the music industry.