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The DIY Music Scene: A Blessing and a Curse?

The following is an excerpt from the e-book Take Charge Of Your Music Career: Learning To Think Like a Music Entrepreneur. I wrote this e-book a few months back for the purpose of helping DIY musicians think differently about the changing music market and finding their place within it.  What follows below is the first chapter of the book.  If you’d like to read more, the entire e-book is currently available as a free download here.  Enjoy!

 

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A few years ago, no one could have predicted that the music industry would be completely turned on its ear.

 

A few years ago, no one could have known that cheap digital technology would enable independent musicians to create recordings in the comfort of their homes—recordings that can rival the quality once only attainable in recording studios. No one could have anticipated that these same independent musicians would post their work on the Internet and gain sometimes millions of fans, all without the assistance of record labels or the music industry “establishment.”

It’s an exciting time for the music community, one that is filled with possibilities. It’s also a scary and unpredictable time, because the pathway to success has become much more vague. If the road to becoming a successful professional musician were an actual road, it used to be a clear, paved road with plenty of road signs, and now it’s basically become a labyrinth of unmarked trails. There are more ways to get where you want to go, but finding the right path can still be a challenge. This is a general way of saying that the new DIY market can be both a blessing and a curse.

 

HOW IT USED TO BE

A decade or two ago, if you wanted to become a serious musical artist, the goal was fairly simple: get noticed. The music industry establishment—that is, the record companies and their network of promoters and distributors—were pretty much the gatekeepers to fame and fortune. These people were the tastemakers—the ones who decided who would get heard by the public. So if you wanted to gain a national or international following, the primary focus was to get the attention of someone within the establishment who would rally to your cause—in other words, to get “discovered.” Sometimes this happened by performing in clubs where talent scouts were known to visit. Many other times, it involved recording a demo and sending it into the A&R departments of record companies.

The good thing about this system was that it was a fairly simple strategy to understand. The bad thing was that a great many people were pounding at the door, and only a few managed to get through. The collective fate of millions of aspiring musical artists was basically at the mercy of a few gatekeepers who decided which of them had the potential to become financially lucrative for the record labels. The odds were incredibly stacked against you, no matter how talented you were.

To make matters worse, as more and more people started pounding on the doors of the industry establishment trying to get noticed, the record executives got more and more selective. At the same time, as the music industry got bigger and more corporate driven, the record labels strayed from their original missions to be risk-takers on new talent, and began playing it more safe and going by formula, only signing new artists that they were reasonably certain would turn a profit for them. Eventually, it got to the point that record labels wouldn’t even look at new artists unless they were already drawing huge crowds to their shows or selling thousands of their own self-produced records (which, of course, required a huge amount of investment money up front from the artist). This made the process even more selective—and it also meant that more and more of the music coming from the industry establishment was starting to sound the same, because the labels weren’t taking risks anymore.

 

THE SHIFT

 

Right about this time, two huge developments began opening up more opportunities for small-time musicians. The first was the advent of digital recording, which could yield a high-quality sound at a far lower cost than traditional analog recording. The second was the rapid expansion of the Internet. Since both of these technologies could be accessed through home computers, the combination of the two meant that musicians could now access high quality recording technology, record their own music, and then share it with the world, all from the convenience of their laptops.

In theory, at least, this meant that musicians no longer needed the approval of major music industry executives to reach their audience, because they were now able to create records on their own and make the music available to an audience through outlets like MySpace and YouTube. In short, musicians were now able to bypass the establishment without having to get “discovered.” At around the same time, music fans were getting increasingly bored with the music that was being allowed through the established channels, and the Internet now enabled them to find and connect with these new do-it-yourself musicians. Over the span of a few years, this trend mushroomed, and the modern indie music scene was born.

 

THE GOOD NEWS…

This shift has had positive results for musicians everywhere. For some, it has simply provided a new avenue for them to attract music industry attention (an increasing number of indie musicians have still managed to get “discovered” over the past few years through their success on MySpace and YouTube). But many other indie musicians have realized they do not need the approval of the music industry anymore, and they have forged successful careers as completely independent musicians. (So prevalent is this trend, in fact, that a growing number of label artists have ditched their labels and “gone indie” in the past few years.) The impact this is having on the musical landscape is so profound that today we have notable indie acts like Bon Iver and The Lumineers drawing crowds of thousands, selling millions of records, and receiving Grammy nominations and awards, all without the support of major labels—something that was unheard of only a few years ago.

 

THE BAD NEWS…

While these new realities have opened many doors for musical artists, not all the news is good. The other side of being a do-it-yourself musician is that—well—you’re doing it all yourself. While label artists usually have the luxury of a team that handles their promotion, booking, management, marketing, and the recording/production of their music (leaving them to focus more on their performance), indie artists are left to figure out how to manage these other aspects of their careers. If you are an indie artist, you either have to handle all these things yourself, or you have to hire someone to handle them for you—and if you’re like most indie artists, you’re not that rich. So you end up shouldering the burden yourself.

Another pitfall associated with the wide-open indie market is that in many cases, there is no one to teach these new free-agent artists about the ins and outs of the music business. They can do their own marketing, but they don’t really know the first thing about marketing. They have the ability to record their own music, but they don’t know the first thing about audio engineering or producing a record. They are responsible for booking their own gigs, but they don’t know how to make a press kit or reach out to venues. In short, artist development is largely left up to the artist—and the artist is often clueless. Some have given themselves a crash course in the new music business, figuring stuff out as they go, and some of these have done all right for themselves. But many others, unfortunately, end up floundering and frustrated, not understanding why the tactics that worked for others don’t seem to work for them.

Yet another obstacle to consider is that because it is easier and cheaper than ever before for indie musicians to get their music into the marketplace, there is simply more music available than ever before—more music, in fact, than the average person could ever listen to. This means, in effect, that as an indie musician, you have a lot of competition. If you try to convince yourself that you aren’t in competition with anyone when it comes to your music, you are being naïve. Music fans only have so many dollars to spend on music, and only so much time to listen—and thanks to cheap technology, more bands and artists are clamoring for those dollars and that time. You will have to find creative ways to stand out among the throng.

 

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

The reality of today’s new musical landscape is that while it has opened up more opportunities for musicians, it hasn’t necessarily made life any easier. The music business is still an extremely difficult field to break into, and it will still require a great deal of stamina and work on your part if you are serious about breaking in. That’s not really news—this has never been an industry for the faint of heart.

But while the cost of success (in commitment level and “sweat equity”, if not dollars) has not really changed, the rules for success have changed dramatically. If you’re willing to put in the effort, the odds of success are actually more in your favor than they were a few years ago. But to navigate this new path, you can’t simply think like an artist waiting to get discovered. You have to think like an entrepreneur. You need to take personal responsibility for your success, and think in terms of forging your own career instead of waiting for someone else to help you.

And this is perhaps the greatest blessing of the new DIY market: you really do have more control over your destiny. Indie musicians are now empowered to take charge of their careers, instead of waiting for some industry gatekeeper to deem them worthy. You still have to put in the work, but if you can think like a business person, you will be able to see opportunities in this new market that others may have missed, and use those to your advantage.

You can make it in this business. You just have to think a little differently.

 

For a free download of the entire e-book Take Charge Of Your Music Career: Learning To Think Like a Music Entrepreneur, click here.

 

 

 


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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Posted in: DIY Music


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