It’s arguable that the music industry has, over the last twenty years, undergone its most radical transformation since the invention of the vinyl record and the emergence of the teenage market, way back in the 1950s. As the internet burgeoned, record companies, initially, sought to combat, rather than exploit the new market, aggressively targetting Napster and other online ‘sharing’ sites. Eventually, and inevitably, the industry re-aligned itself. Modern streaming services are the culmination of two decades of advancement and experimentation and are now the main outlet for musicians. Sony, Universal and Warner reported combined revenues from streaming of over $4bn in 2020 alone.
Away from the majors, online services for independent artists, such as CD Baby and Bandcamp, together with platforms such as Spotify, appear to open up a world of opportunity for smaller acts, but what is it really like to be a musician, in practical terms, without the backing of a label? Stories of overnight success abound, but in an overwhelming sea of content, getting noticed is ninety percent of the battle. Moreover, with the UK government now carrying out an inquiry into perceived unfairness in the distribution of online earnings, and a recent report by The Trichordist revealing artists earn on average a scant £0.00348 per stream, the future is far from certain. With live music venues a difficult market for newcomers to break into, is there a danger that independent musicians might find themselves squeezed out altogether?
I talked to six such artists and bands, drawn from across the musical spectrum, to find out.
Of Stone & Earth, aka Ian and Alex Atherton, are a progressive-folk duo based in Dartmoor, UK. I asked them how their journey into the professional music world began.
Ian and Alex: “Once our songwriting started to snowball, we couldn’t stop it, and we wanted people to hear what we were doing. We did our research on where to record locally, being mindful of cost and what we wanted from the recording. We found a small studio in Devon, sympathetic to our sound, and we laid down nine tracks that became our debut ‘promo’ album ‘Strangely Beautiful’. We now knew that we were on our way and that music was going to be a big part of our lives.”
And the benefits and drawbacks of being independent?
Ian and Alex: “Benefits – you are your own boss, your own creative director. And that is a very freeing feeling. Drawbacks – getting people to listen to what you are doing and to take you seriously. Getting yourself on the scene is difficult. Established performers tend to dominate, which is understandable when festivals and venues need to guarantee full capacity. Taking a punt on an unknown independent with no backing of an agent or promoter is a difficult decision for organisers, and of course since we started our duo, lock-down has played havoc with performing anyway.”
Are they able to make a living from music alone?
Ian and Alex: “In a word, no! For us, we can see that this will always be the case. Knowing many professional musicians, we are realistic that making a living from music is a difficult reality. Also for us, our ages and commitments in life also play a part in that now. If we were doing this twenty years ago, I think we would think differently and would give it a go. We completely love what we are doing and we believe that we are doing something unique and original, which isn’t always easy. We would basically like a balance between being relatively successful and respected for what we produce, but still have the space to be creative.”
What of the online aspect?
Ian and Alex: “We think the digital revolution has many benefits for independent artists – it has completely democratised music and so you can write, record and produce, and with Zoom even perform your music, without ever leaving your bedroom! For us, we have been able to get on and record some of our songs and sell our music on sites such as Bandcamp, which in the past would have just not been possible, unless you had been discovered and signed to a label. And combined with other social media outlets, we can promote ourselves potentially to a wide audience without the expense of agents and management.”
“However, the downside to all of this, obviously, is that there is just so much music out there now, good and bad, and it is hard to get yourself noticed and heard. People seem to gravitate to what they know. Clearly, regarding streaming, there is a major problem with artists not being paid properly for their music – and this will become a major problem in future where there is little money around to support new artists and to pay for touring, etc. And again, with streaming, it is very difficult to have to compete directly with all the classic established artists who appear to take the lion’s share of revenue.”
Singer-songwriter Adam Lanceley is more positive:
Adam: “In all, I think the shift to digital streaming offers more of an opportunity than a challenge. Granted, it makes the industry more accessible, which means there’s more competition, but I think that it’s easier to make yourself noticed now and once you’ve done that you’re well on the way.”
Adam’s journey has been quite different to that of Ian and Alex. He started down the path of professional musician at a younger age. Following a traumatic car accident, he’s had to overcome serious physical and mental health challenges along the way.
Adam: “At college, where I was studying a BTEC in Performing Arts, another person on the music side of my course was in all honesty a genius in the field! Aside from being an amazing guitarist, he could play pretty much any instrument, was a seasoned live performer and a sound engineer. We stayed in touch and shortly after college he opened his own recording studio. This paved the way for me.”
“The benefits (of being an independent artist) are that you do what you want, when you want, without having to take orders from anyone. On the down side though, it’s a very hard area to make a substantial amount of money quickly, and you have to be confident in your ability to motivate yourself however low your mood is. If you can’t motivate yourself you won’t get very far at all. It’s a very difficult industry to make a living in, and I consider myself fortunate that I have other sources of income without having to do multiple jobs. “
Adam: “Personally, the bigger the better! In terms of music, I just want to keep making it as long as I’m enjoying it. I think when I run out of ideas and it becomes an effort it might be time to stop. Fame and being in the public eye is not for everyone, especially when you factor in mental health issues. For me, though, I think the more exposure I get, the more grounded and secure in myself I’ll be. It’s just the way I am.”
R&B/Pop artist, sV, is clear in his view that fame is not a primary motivation. sV comes from a background of travel, having lived in Germany, London, Ghana, New York and worked extensively in China and Korea.
sV: “The ideal outcome for me would be to be able to travel and perform my music. Thriving as an artist, leaving my mark. I put my entirety into my work. Each and every tune is a presentation of me. I don’t really make any income from my (own) music as of yet. I work as a mixologist and music producer for others.”
sV started singing at a young age, winning his first competition in 3rd Grade. He trained as an attorney before finding himself back in New York, competing again. There, he met his partner, Aaron, who introduced him to the world of music production.
sV: “I guess I always had a feeling that this was what I wanted to do. Aaron and I started a YouTube
together where we would do covers and original content. We won a global K-Pop competition. I never liked my voice, so I was never really certain I would want to fully commit to music. But I did end up taking vocal lessons from Anhk Ra, a Grammy nominee, to help me adjust and control my voice.”
Another artist I talked to, Los Angeles-based pop singer-songwriter iLana Armida, is under no illusion as to the hurdles ahead.
Ilana: “The only thing that has become easier for artists is releasing music. Cutting through and actually making money as an indie artist is harder than ever. There are a lot of opportunities for indie artists, but you have to constantly be ready to pivot as the industry continues to change.”
Like sV, iLana fell in love with music when she was very young. iLana: “My dad plays the drums, my mom sings and writes music and my brother is a producer/DJ. My parents would play loud music in the house when I was young and I remember being mesmerized by the voices of Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Later, I became obsessed with pop performers/bands like TLC, Nsync, Spice Girls, Janet Jackson, Aaliyah. I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but It wasn’t until college that I started to really focus on writing and recording my own songs.”
Concerning ambition and the practicalities of life, iLana is balanced and yet focused, echoing sV in her outlook.
iLana: “Having creative control is the biggest benefit of being an independent artist, but it definitely feels like there is a bit of a ceiling on what I can do without resources from a record label. Right now I am fortunate enough to do music full time but it definitely has been a struggle! My biggest goal is to go on tour. I want to be able to travel and share my music with people from all around the world. As long as I can get to the point where I can be comfortable and can take care of my family while doing what I love I will be happy!”
The issue of touring and live shows also crops up in my conversation The Ampersands, an art-pop duo from the Twin Cities / Bay Area, USA. Bringing us back full to circle to Of Stone & Earth, The Ampersands, it seems, are also motivated by creative, more than financial, ambitions.
The Ampersands: “We don’t have any ambitions of being famous, nor would we even necessarily welcome that (if it happened by accident) in our current lives. But we love putting out music on our own terms, we love having a small base of loyal fans, and we do want to grow it. Getting label interest would be probably our “big” goal at this point.”
Do they make a living from their music?
The Ampersands: “We both work 9-5 jobs, and have gone further in our professional careers than we have in our musical ones. This does allow us to take more time with our music. The benefits are total control over the songs and the sound, so we can make our records sound as close to what we want as possible. The drawbacks are the lack of financial support and the difficulty we can have securing reviews and airplay without a label doing the promotion for us.”
For Elizabeth Kearney, who records as Elfin Bow, diversity is key.
Elizabeth: “I am a visual artist as well as a musician and the two go hand in hand, so I tend to have lots of irons in the fire, as it were. I do teach at the moment too, while I continue to build my ‘creative empire!’”
She is under no illusions as to the changing nature of the music business.
Elizabeth: The record label in the sense of ‘making it’ once you have been ‘signed’ is a thing of the past. Deals are little more than bank loans with extreme terms that disadvantage the artist. There are smaller labels who support artists to be independent, but it still remains up to the artist to run their own business. You have to make peace with wearing all the necessary hats, including PR and marketing. I try to see those things as an opportunity to engage fans and develop life-long supporters of your music. I think it is increasingly important to maintain creative control and ownership of your work, unless you are collaborating with other amazing artists.”
As (it seems) is the case with many independent musicians, at heart, Elizabeth is driven mainly by creative impulses.
Elizabeth: “My ambitions have nothing to do with fame, or even money. They are to do with being able to keep making music, collaborating with amazing creatives, having very meaningful experiences with people who support me and performing in amazing venues around the world.”
Her thoughts on the future make for a fitting closing statement.
Elizabeth: “The only thing we can guarantee is that things always change. We have to be like water and flow into the new cracks and crevices that are formed with the landscape changes, sometimes quickly and beyond recognition. I am an eternal optimist so I always tend to look for the opportunities and surround myself with people who are forging ahead, despite the challenges – the can-do types. I’d always rather try than give up. Keep learning, keep growing, just try to do your best and be yourself. There’s an audience for everyone and enough love to go around.”
Any comprehensive look at the life of an independent musician would, of course, require far more extensive research, but the interviews above are certainly illuminating. Ease of market access, in any field, brings increased competition and, it seems, the inevitable rise of a select few to the top. As with all businesses, the music industry is a pyramid-shaped structure – there must always be a broad base and a narrow pinnacle. Then too, there is the desire, or otherwise, for fame and fortune, and the exposure which accompanies this. Those who do not wish to follow that path, or who are not pushed along it, are of course far less likely to find themselves in such a position.
But is it possible to strike a balance, whereby a creative artist can support themselves independently at say, the average income? Undeniably, there are more opportunities nowadays for a musician to make their work available. Without relentless touring and/or the backing of a label, however, one can all too easily end up shouting into the void. What effect the shift to digital sales will have, in the long-term, remains to be seen, but without a fairer revenue split from streaming services, the road ahead for independent musicians looks challenging.