The Indie Idealist: Figuring It Out in the Real World of Independent Music
Idealists are people who just never grow out of their childhood dreams. Some idealists believe that they can achieve world peace, join a top ballet company, or cure an incurable disease. Others think that if they ignore that parking ticket for long enough it will go away.
Then there are the artistic idealists who believe that, despite massive financial obstacles, ever decreasing record sales, and a heavily saturated market, they can find a way to beat the odds and build a successful career selling and performing their own original music.
My friends, that is me. If you are reading this it's probably you too. While we can be notoriously narcissistic (hard to imagine why) and impractical, I'm convinced there is a way to dream big and still be realistic about what being an independent musician means. I haven't quite figured it out yet, but that's what this blog is for. To write about me figuring it out. In real time.
I'm a 23-year-old indie musician fresh out of music college trying to make my way through a business that is, not surprisingly, much more complicated than expected. As I step into the real world, I have found that the 4 years I spent in school taught me very little about the business side of music. Now, a year after graduating, I've enrolled in a class at Real World U: DIY Music Business for Broke Twentysomethings (and you get to audit it!).
A few things I have learned so far:
1. Starting over sucks, but it is essential to art.
When it comes to writing songs, choosing a band, or recording an album, if it strikes you one day that it's not turning out how you thought it should....start over. If you have a vision of what you want to sound like and who you want to be, you have to adhere to your standards of musical integrity, even if it's painful at the time.
I started recording my first album last year with a local studio and band. Although they were great musicians and the studio was nice, we were not achieving the sound I had been imagining. After several months of work and several thousand dollars spent, I finally realized that I had to make a change. I started over with new musicians, a great new co-producer, and a new studio. I even wrote all new songs.
The album is finished now, and I feel giddy every time I hear it. It's exactly what I wanted my first album to be. Yeah, sometimes I cringe when I think of the money I spent on recordings that will never see the light of day, but I have never for a second regretted the decision to start over.
2. The start-up costs for an independent artist are enormous.
Major labels sometimes spend a million dollars or more developing new artists, focusing $200,000-$300,000 on recording the first album. I don't have that kind of money. I have student loan debt and a job teaching music lessons. Luckily there are cheaper options.
I won't go into the specifics of how much I spent on my album just yet, but let's just say it cost about as much as your average mid-sized sedan. From hiring musicians, an engineer, a mixer, a producer, and a mastering engineer, to paying a studio and manufacturing the discs, the costs come at you from every angle. If you have to sign a contract of any sort you'll have legal fees. You'll need to hire a photographer and/or designer to create your album art. You'll also want a professional looking website.
Then you'll have to buy hundreds of t-shirts/posters/objects with your name on them and hope they don't end up in your living room for the next five years. You're going to need a band for live performances. Sometimes you can find the right people who will be in your band for free, but, realistically, most good musicians want to be paid for rehearsals - especially for shows.
The list of costs is kind of staggering, and I haven't even talked about PR and advertising, hiring a manager, or booking a tour.
3. The key to all of this is developing personal relationships with people and asking them to help you.
You're still going to fork over everything you've saved for the past 4 years, but you might actually be able to make it happen.
The people who worked on my album with me were also passionate about it, which means they were willing to do more work for less money. Crowd-sourcing is also a great way to fund an album. Last July I launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $5,000. I didn't just raise funds, though. I built a network of people who are invested in my career and don't just send my email updates to the spam box. Turns out those are the best kinds of fans.
So what next?
Well, in the next few months I'll be delving into the murky waters of PR and advertising. My album, Sun & Mirror is currently unreleased. When is the best time to set a release date? When should I release my first single? How do I get that stubborn venue to email me back? I honestly don't know yet, but I'll find out.
Keep coming back here to follow my very real education as an independent artist and find out first-hand what you can do (and inevitably NOT do) to help further your own musical goals!
Kaela Sinclair is a 23 year old indie musician from Denton, TX. She is releasing her debut album "Sun & Mirror" late 2013. It features producer and drummer McKenzie Smith (Midlake, Regina Spektor, St. Vincent) and names like Buffi Jacobs (Polyphonic Spree) and Daniel Hart (Broken Social Scene, St. Vincent). Listen to her music and see upcoming tour dates and news here on Facebook.