Two local South Carolina projects I received notice of this week illustrate a question I’ve been trying to ask, and perhaps provide the answer, about what goals a musical artist ought to have in today’s version of the music business. The first is a new song and video from Fat Rat Da Czar, “Tryin’ To Make It,” from his forthcoming album Cold War 3; the second is a new album from Danielle Howle, New Year Revolutions, recorded entirely on Garageband at her Awendaw cottage.
The question is why anyone’s first impulse or desire as a musician these days should be to ‘make it’ in the sense of signing that mythical record deal instead of doing it all themselves? With all of the tools out there to direct one’s own career at whatever level or ability, what’s the point of handing over control to a corporation that returns so little back?
I can point to several South Carolina based artists in the recent past and present who have taken the bait and come out of the major label water with little more than the hooks in their back to show for it, either self-destructing from the experience or simply returning to playing the same restaurants and bars where they played before their stab at the big time. I-Nine and Eddie Bush (With the country group One Flew South) at least released albums; Boxing Day‘s never officially came out and I’m probably not the only one wondering if Weaving the Fate‘s will suffer the same fate.
Fat Rat and Howle are not the point/counterpoint of this argument, for each has been doing it themselves in their own way. “Tryin’ To Make It” isn’t really saying he wants to get that major label contract, though hip-hop may be one of the last places it would almost make sense. Instead, he’s pointing out to his friends and fellow rappers that he’s working hard toward his own version of making it in music.
Howle’s new album is a perfect example of how the new music business model can work to an artist’s advantage. With no label to tell her she can’t do it, Howle took the new backing band she started touring with last year, Firework Show, into her two-room cottage in Awendaw, South Carolina and within two days they had a full length album’s worth of recordings. Some of the songs are older ones re-arranged with the current ensemble in mind, some are entirely new tunes, and one, “Being Poor” is a cover of the late SC musician Chris Conner‘s band The South which Howle has been opening her live shows with for a while.
The amazing thing is how there isn’t much difference between this computerized home recording and the bigger studio productions Howle has released on various indie labels in the past, sound quality-wise. The barriers to entry within the recording process have fallen so low that a no-budget project like this one can easily suffice for a truly independent artist such as Howle, who plays constantly and thus needs a more frequent way to provide some new take-home music to her fans. I’m not even going to get into the argument about whether you charge for the music or give it away free, because that’s not the point here—the point is that if you’re in control that decision is yours to make or not make.
I’m not an independent musical artist like Fat Rat, Danielle Howle, or any others you might be a fan of, but if I were here is a very simplified version of what I would be doing instead of signing with a label (Assuming I had the talent and ability to produce music that others might like and want to hear/have):
1.Give away the music digitally via Bandcamp or other online means that allows for ‘name-your-price’ distribution.
2.Do small production runs and sell physical copies at gigs, they’re not much more than souvenirs or coasters these days anyway.
3.Offer package deals to fans with added perks for more money either prior to the release to help with production and distribution costs, or after the fact just as a thank-you. See Graham Colton and Amanda Palmer for excellent examples of this kind of promotion.
4.Concentrate on playing live shows as much as possible, and get paid for them as often as possible—learn to book yourself and promote yourself until you get to the point where you need professional help, then and only then should you worry about a booking agent or manager relationship.
5.Create a presence online through various channels—not just Facebook, though that’s the obvious one. Twitter’s a great place for relationship building if you put the time and effort into using it regularly and interacting constantly. Your website isn’t as important as it once was, but you still need a presence out there with your name on it. Are your fans posting video of your live shows on Youtube? Share those clips with your mailing list, Facebook friends, on Twitter, etc., especially if they’re good quality—you’ll gain a loyal fan in the videographer by getting them hits on their Youtube channel and you’ll encourage others to share the clips amongst their own friends. Make your own videos (Like Fat Rat and others locally have already begun to do) and promote them the same way.
6.Try new and different things—work with filmmakers, visual artists, writers, and other creative types because you never know what kind of ideas and opportunities might come out of it.
The bottom line isn’t the bottom line anymore, in other words it isn’t about how much money you can make this year or with this album or even this tour. It’s about how you can build your brand and your career by expanding your fan base gradually with people who genuinely want to help you and who will spread the word about your music for you. That kind of exponential growth comes not from limiting your fans but by enabling them to share what they know and love about you. How you do that is up for grabs, just know that you are the one who has to do it.