What To Do As An Independent Artist

Long Story Short

Really short. You’ve written a collection of songs that you’re proud of. You record them. You shoot a video for 2 of the singles. You release your music on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube etc. You start performing them at open mic nights and other cool venues that will let you perform without guaranteeing 100+ people. At each show, a few people really like what you’re doing and ask where they can find you. You hand them a simple card with your website, and social media pages. They follow you’re social media and get updates when and where you’re performing next. You do this over, and over again and slowly develop a local following. Your shows start to grow in attendance and some of the larger venues in town start to book you. By now you’ve written another collection of songs. You’re ready to record and start performing album #2, capturing new fans at each performance and continuing to grow.

If you made it to the end of that you’ve probably got some of the following questions:

  • How do I get my music on iTunes, Spotify, etc?

  • Where can I perform?

  • Do I need a full band?

  • How do I make a website?

  • Is Social Media important?

  • How do I write a song? or, Are the songs I’ve written any good?

  • How do I get my music recorded?

  • Do I need a producer or an engineer?

  • Should I go to a big major studio, or a small local one?

  • Do I really need a music video?

Being an artist in 2019 is weird.

No one’s printing CDs.
Distribution is confusing.
Social Media is overwhelming.
Everything is expensive.

It’s a lot.
Let’s clear it up.


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Songwriting

Your songs are your product. Without them, you’re still a talented singer, guitarist, pianist, etc. but, your songs are what make you a Songwriter. They give you something to perform, sell, stream, give away, listen to, and most importantly, something to remember.

Being a successful artist is all about making each part of the puzzle work for you. You might have the most beautiful voice in your entire state, but it’s your song that’s going to get stuck in the audiences head when they leave your show.

If you’ve never written a song before, your first step is to dive in and try. You may find that you’re amazing at the entire writing process - or that you’re better at writing lyrics and melodies than you are at pairing them with chords and musical arrangements. This is why co-writing is so great. Personally, I can churn out a pretty finished instrumental in just a few hours, however, I’ll spend weeks trying to write the lyrics. Once I started writing with people that specialize in lyrics my song output skyrocketed.

The best part about the songwriting stage is that its completely free, and as an independent artist there are going to be a few things later on that you’re going to need to spend a few bucks on. It’s also the foundation of everything that is to come, so take your time and make sure that your songs are the best that they can be. It’s a good idea to start making a list or playlist of artists you like that you think you share a similar sound with. I like to say “what Spotify playlist would I like to be on?”. We aren’t looking for people to copy. We’re looking for a general sound, style, and genre. Don’t worry about “sounds” or “production techniques” or anything other than the core song structure during the writing phase. Later we’ll talk about aligning yourself with the right producer that shares your vision and can help you craft your sound.


Budget

Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. Everything costs money. There are going to be people you’ll need to hire along your musical career. If you’re the DIY type and want to produce, mix, and master your own music, you’ll have to invest in equipment, and if you' think microphones are expensive - do a little research on cameras and video gear. The solution is budgeting. If you go and spend all of your money recording, you’ll have nothing left in your budget for a video. Luckily things that come later, like distribution, have gotten much cheaper and easier to do.

So how do you budget? This comes down to people and planning. Like I mentioned above, you’ll need to be thinking of all of your future expenses from the beginning. You should be researching music producers/studios as well as videographers for quotes for your music video at the same time. Once you have an idea of what these things will cost, you can scale them to your needs.

When I work with an artist, I bill per hour - but I make sure we talk about how much they would like to spend per song. That gives me, the producer, a breakdown of how many hours they would like to invest. Then we can talk details on the production and what will give them the best results within that time frame. A great song is in the writing. The production is how we package it up to be listened to. Budgeting and being honest with your producer will help you make decisions like “should I spend money and hire a string section?” or “should I save and use a virtual string library?”

I also think it’s always better to do fewer songs at higher quality than many songs at lower quality. 3 great songs where you took your time with the vocal performances, used the right instrumentation and got a great sounding mix is going to serve you better than 9 songs you rushed through.


Finding A Producer & Studio

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This is the part of the process that I do personally. I am a music producer, recording, mixing, & mastering engineer - so I’ll do my best not to self promote! However, I will be speaking from experience here. And that’s a good thing. I’ll be telling you my positive experiences to replicate, and negative ones to avoid.

Always take a meeting. I am all about relationships to the point where I consider all of my clients my friends - which they tell you to avoid in almost everything other business. We grab drinks in town and see concerts together all the time. I have very few clients that call to schedule “recording time” and come in to work on our first meeting. The one’s that do tend to bounce from studio to studio, and it’s a very impersonal relationship to me. The benefit to them is convenience. If I’m not available, they can call another studio and stay productive. However, these types of sessions lack the feeling of creating something together. The people that take the time to come in for a meeting, which I always offer, are always the ones that continue to make music with me song after song, album after album They know that I care about their project. I took the time to hang out, listen to music they like, chat about their project, and get to know them - all without charging them a dime. If you can find someone that wants to make sure that “they” are the right fit for “you” just as much as you do, you’re probably in good hands. Also, listen to examples of their work!

I built my career as an in-house engineer at some of the best recording studios in NYC. What I can tell you is, 95% of the gear in a large recording studio isn’t being used at all. For example, one of the most high profile artists I ever worked with booked our studio for an entire week. They used a single microphone, recorded to a laptop that they brought with them, and tied into our speakers. That was it. When I built my own studio, I bought only the tools that I need, put them in a room just big enough to fit a few people comfortably, and I pass those savings on to my clients. It’s important that you know what your personal needs from a studio are. If you’re a singer songwriter, you certainly don’t need a massive recording console and 1000 sq ft of recording space. However, if you’re an 11 piece band - you might. I also think its more important that you research producers and engineers (the who) than just the studio (the where). If you listen to example music on a studio’s website and hear a song you really like, find out which one of their engineers or producers worked on that song and make sure you’re able to book that person.


Distribution

One of the things I see over and over that artists either have no idea what to do, are doing incorrectly, or are paying to much for, is distribution. How you get your music out there into digital stores and streaming sites is now a very simple process due to a company called Distrokid. I am not affiliated with them at all and get nothing in return for recommending them, I just really like their services.

Distrokid took what used to be an expensive and mysterious process through companies like CDBaby, and Tunecore and made it affordable and simple. I don’t like to speak badly about the other companies, I just don’t recommend using them. Many artists who do have found that their music ended up on another artist’s Spotify page because they have the same name (there are many Scott Martins out there). This is something Distrokid will check for and allow you to select your existing artist page, or make a new one if you it is your first upload. You also pay a fixed cost per year ($20 at the time I’m writing this) and keep 100% of your royalties. If you have a cowriter, they make it simple to split royalties with other Distrokid users. You can choose what stores and streaming sites to use, upload artwork, add credits to your producer, studio, writers, performers, etc., and provide lyrics all within their easy to use interface.

You’ll need album artwork for everything you release. For this, check out Canva. I’m amazed at the graphic design you can quickly throw together for free on this website. They have size templates for everything you’ll need from Instagram posts, Facebook Headers, CD cover art, etc. They also have a great mobile app You can literally design your cover art on the subway. I’ll reference Canva over and over again when we get into social media and branding.


Video

Should you make a music video? I think so. People aren’t really listening to things all that much without a visual anymore. Sure, Ariana and Drake can pull over 500 million streams per song on Spotify alone but, have you ever tried to get a friend listen to your demo? Their eyes start wandering around the room and 2 minutes in they’re not really paying attention. Give them a YouTube link and I promise they’ll watch the whole thing.

Music videos are also great marketing tools, which we’ll cover in more detail later. You have a much better chance of a new fan watching your music video ad than a still image with a streaming link. Video is the future. Google likes video on your website. People prefer videos while they scroll.

Just like finding a producer, you’ll want to find a videographer than understands your vision, you’re specific needs, and how those needs tie into your budget. The video can be huge, over the top, cinematic, Hollywood (expensive) - or - simple, performance based with some studio, or everyday life B roll footage spliced in (affordable). Find someone who understands what you need at a price you can afford.


Website & Social Media

Your website should be your hub. It’s the place you control every aspect of how it looks, and what information you want to provide. Your website is your press kit, and where you can direct people to get answers to any question they might have. If someone asks you a question that pertains to you as an artist put the answer on your website. Here are a few example questions and how their answers can be turned into content on your website:

  • Q: Where are you performing next?

    • Have an events page

  • Q: Hey, we want to feature you on a local music blog. Do you have an artist bio and some photos we can use?

    • Bio page.

    • Media page with downloadable photos cleared for release.

  • Q:Where can I find your music?

    • Music page with links to all major online stores and streaming platforms.

There are endless questions people might have so keep track of them and make them something you can answer by directing them to your website. Your URL should be easy to remember. For an artist I always recommend your name or artist name, or adding “music” to the end if thats already taken. For a band, same deal but use your band name.

Social Media is important because its popular. That’s really it. It’s a good way to reach people and a good place to direct people to follow you.

As of right now Instagram is the most popular, and so I’d invest the most time building a following there. Your friends and family will follow and support you I’m sure, but you really want to engage with people who will become actual fans. One of the best ways to do this is to get involved. Here’s how you get involved with people worth talking to on Instagram. Find a popular artist in your genre. This could be Ariana Grande, Walk The Moon, Ice Nine Kills - someone who you could live on the same Spotify playlist as. Follow them, then click the three dots to the right of their Insta tag. Click Turn On Post Notifications. Next time they post you’ll get a notification. Wait for a few comments to come in and jump in on the conversation. I find it best to reply to people so that they get a notification and will hopefully reply back. Repeat this for a few artists in your genre, and you’ll be collecting followers organically that you already know support musicians like you.

A Facebook page is much better for directing people you meet in real life. Instagram has more active users, so for building some digital engagement you’re better of there. But, for people you meet who want to know where to follow you for updates, you want to try and get them to follow your Facebook page. That’s because there’s so much more that you can do with a Facebook page. It’s basically a mini website. While Instagram is just photo and video sharing, Facebook has bios, photos, music, and best of all - events. If you can direct a few people from each gig you play to follow your Facebook page, then they’ll get an invite when you post an event about the next gig you play. This is a repeatable process to grow your audience of actual fans.


Performing

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Performing is still important in this ever growing digital age. The key is balance. You’ve got to perform to get out in front of people, and you’ve got to have a digital presence to direct build your following and keep them as fans. We’re no longer printing CDs and selling them at shows. Social Media replaces the tangible item they used to leave with.

The biggest challenge to performing is finding a venue. In NYC there are probably a over 500 music venues. The trouble there isn’t finding a place a to play, it’s finding people to come see you. Most NYC music venues will make you guarantee a certain number of people come out to your show which for them means a certain amount of people buying tickets at the door and drinks at the bar. They used to be cool places to go hear live music that would put on acts they believed in. Now, they use artists to fill their bars and otherwise empty rooms. So, until you can guarantee a large draw, The Bitter End might have to wait. What you can do is get involved in your local music scene. You might have to get creative in your research, but there are open mic nights everywhere. If they don’t exist, partner with a local bar or coffee shop and set one up! I live in Astoria Queens, and could give you a list of places to play almost every night (here!). They’re out there.

When you do perform, you want to be ready with your music, and your marketing materials. I highly recommend making a sign with your name, website, and Social Media handles. You can pick up an inexpensive trendy little letter board from target for $14. Also consider making very simple business cards with that same info. You can use Canva to easily design a logo, and Moo Cards to easily put together a design that stands out.


Simple Right?

Lol.. no. That list doesn’t account for the amount of time you’ll need to invest in yourself to do all of these things, or the determination and hard work that its going to be, or will power to wait until your business cards arrive before you get out there and start playing the music that your so excited about! But that’s the truth. It’s going to take time, determination, and a lot of work.

Hopefully this sheds some light on some topics you might have been confused about. If you have any questions, want to chat more about a specific topic, or want to talk about working on some music together - hit the questions button below! Or, you can head over to my studio website to hear some of my work and meet some of the people I work with.

-Michael Wuerth