Analysis

Independent artists talk fans, streaming and digital survival


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Around 20,000 new songs are added to streaming services like Spotify every single day. A sobering statistic for an independent artist wondering how they can cut through the noise to reach people who’ll love their music.

So how are artists using streaming services, social networks and other means to build their audiences and sustain their musical careers? A panel at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London today picked the brains of a group of musicians.

They included J. Willgoose Esq from Public Service Broadcasting; Emma Lee-Moss (aka Emmy The Great); Sam Duckworth (aka Get Cape Wear Cape Fly); James Brown from Pulled Apart By Horses; Eckoes; and ShaoDow. The moderator was industry journalist Rhian Jones, of MBW and Hits Daily Double.

The artists started by defining independence. ShaoDow has sold 25,000 copies of his album completely independently, while also running a store selling merchandise and branded headphones, and is working on a manga book. “I guess just the freedom to create and the ability to share my worldview and my love of art, whether it is audio or visual or something else, with as many people as possible.”

Eckoes: “Independence is being in complete control of my ship at the moment, being creatively free and finding the mould, and being ready to ship it out to people.”

Duckworth: “Independence for me is about working with likeminded people who are in it for a love of music and a love of the artform, and the mechanics of what makes that work… whereas my experience with major labels in that corporate world is very different. What independence means for me is it’s about people, and about allowing those ideas to flourish.”

“I would define independence as purely being able to achieve your own goals, and keeping full control of everything you do,” said Brown. Lee-Moss said that “to me it means more I don’t have to change who I am to express myself.”

Finally Willgoose gave his definition: “It’s about control: control over what you’re creating and how it gets exposed to the world… I can’t imagine anything worse than playing an album to a label and them coming back and saying it needs two or three more singles!”

The panel were asked about where their money comes from, and where it goes, starting with Eckoes. “I have no idea where my money goes!” she joked. She makes a bit of money from live concerts, and does other jobs to pay for studio and rehearsal time, at this stage in her career.”

ShaoDow talked about the importance of direct-to-fan, particularly his own store. “Not so much streaming or digital sales, I don’t really make a lot on that, but live is something I’m trying to kick up a gear this year… I reinvest about 85% to 90% of what I make on my music.”

Duckworth agreed that his income is a patchwork of royalties from different sources, although he currently has a “big band” which makes it harder to make a profit from touring. Meanwhile, Brown said that the majority of Pulled Apart By Horses comes from playing live and merchandise.

“Definitely not record sales! And PRS as well. We’re stuck a little bit in a situation where a lot of our money goes to our accountant, facilitating tours and crew… When we receive a fee for a show, probably about 70% of that goes back out to crew. We’re thinking of scaling that down a little bit, to try to take more money,” he said.

The band are also exploring making music for film and TV – production music, by the sounds of it. “When you don’t have an album out and you’re not touring, it hits a band like us hard. So we’re investigating other areas of making money, such as collaborating with other people,” he said.

Lee-Moss said she got a decent sync in October. “I promptly packed up my house to leave the country and write a novel! So everything I make goes back into the creative work,” she said. “I want to make enough money from people who have money, like big companies and movies, in order to do art that no one in their right mind would pay me to make!”

Willgoose said that Public Service Broadcasting is “an anachronism” in earning most of their money through record sales, having put out albums through their own label. “Live, because we take quite a lot of production out with us, we have bigger costs on the road,” he said. “We’re only just starting to see live shows start to really pay their way a bit more. We’re a little bit unusual in that regard.”

ShaoDow has a law degree, which he’s putting to good effect in managing his career. “If somebody puts a contract in front of me I know what I’m looking at, but I’d still hire a lawyer to look at it,” he said. “But the willingness to educate oneself helps in the career. In general, life is a journey, and you should always be striving to educate yourself… You always need input and experiences.”

“I always read every contract because my mum told me to!” said Lee-Moss. Brown talked about the importance of trust between an artist and their management company.

“If you have management and you let them look after the business side of things, that’s great, but you have to trust them with that… But it’s important to still have some input and grasp of what’s happening. Things can slip, and you need to keep an eye on those kinds of things. You need to work together, because things can slip and you could have been able to make that not happen… When we come back from a tour I’ll sit down and look at everything, see where things are at and whether something needs bringing up.”

What’s more important for a young artist: a publishing deal or a label deal? It depends on the artist, and what they want to create and achieve. “If you’re an urban artist, then publishing all the way over a record deal, I would go,” said Eckoes.

Duckworth talked about the importance of thinking for the long term, whatever kind of deal an artist is signing.  “You’re not just signing for the moment… you’re signing for the length of that contract. As publishing changes and as records change, signing with people who believe in you and in the ideology of what you’re doing… that’s got to be the most important thing.”

Lee-Moss: “You don’t need either, and it’s not bad to have one or both of those. You just have to tailor it to yourself. And it’s like a family: can you sit with these people and talk about your career honestly? And do you trust them?”

The panel also talked about how their music reaches other parts of the world. “In terms of marketing, Spotify and streaming has changed everything. You can see where people want to see you play based on where they’re listening to your music,” said Duckworth. “That consumer demand that’s come from the statistics of streaming is going to change things.”

What is the future for major labels, wondered Jones? “Waiting for Spotify to float, cashing in their shares, dissolving it and becoming a movie company, probably,” he quipped. “I know a couple of artists who signed major label deals and a record didn’t come out of it, but they did buy a house!” said Lee-Moss later. “So I guess you can make music in that house then, if you want…”

The conversation moved on to how artists promote themselves. “The role of today’s artist is to be more than just an artist. There are so many fantastic artists out there, so the question is how do you compete with that outside the music front. Okay, you make music, but what else do you do?” said ShaoDow.

Jones asked about the artists’ experiences contrasting radio and streaming services. Willgoose said that radio station BBC 6Music has been the most influential supporter for Public Service Broadcasting. “We’ve struggled to make any sort of impact in streaming or get on the influential playlists,” he admitted. “It was radio that made the difference for us, and we’ve not managed to really get Spotify away to the same extent.”

Brown said Pulled Apart By Horses have benefitted from being picked up by rock-focused playlists. “Before our most recent album, on Spotify we didn’t really have many monthly listeners. It was pretty low. I guess that’s because the way we do the band, we like vinyl and we like to push vinyl… the Spotify playlist thing has been quite lucky for us. But 6Music is such an important thing for artists, and I always tend to say that people who listen to 6Music buy music. People who listen to Radio 1 don’t buy any fucking music whatsoever!”

ShaoDow recommended Spotify’s fortnightly ‘open day’ for artists to go in and meet members of its artist liaison team and playlisters. “My last single made it onto the Grime Shutdown playlist and I pitched that myself, just by emailing the relevant people I’d met through sneaking around in Spotify and going to events,” he said.

Eckoes disagreed. “I went to that Spotify day, and apart from having a lot of lovely food, it didn’t give me very much at all. It was them selling Spotify to us verified artists: to go and get all our fans to use Spotify… 6Music has been more useful, with [BBC] Introducing to me than any playlisting.”

Duckworth praised the algorithmic aspects of Spotify playlists, with Release Radar and Discover Weekly recommending music to people based on their specific tastes.

“That’s where that platform as it continues to grow and continues to evolve is going to be a great place for artists who take risks and don’t necessarily want to be in the ‘new music’ rush,” he said, before joking: “I don’t know how to get on to Acoustic Coffee Moods, but I’m told it pays well if you do, so if anyone can tell me how…”

Will Spotify ever become a label, and if it did, would that be a good or bad thing, wondered Jones.

“That would be a bad thing, because it would be the only record label if that happened. I think labels are important: independent labels especially. If Spotify became a label, it’s just such a big machine, it’s scary to me,” said Brown.

“They can probably do whatever they want, so if they wanted to do a label they can do that. But labels are important… independent labels create rosters and it’s a whole-package thing, it’s got appeal and music supervisors and producers at radio stations know that label carries weight. I don’t know how Spotify would work as a label, because Spotify has all the bands already in a weird kind of way! The idea of Spotify as a label to me sounds pretty terrifying.”

Lee-Moss and Duckworth talked about the way streaming is affecting artists’ creative cycles, and what that might mean for their income streams.

“It seems to be an EPs world now. That’s great if that’s what you want to do. It’s a nightmare if it’s what you don’t want to do,” said Duckworth. But he added that if artists start releasing a clutch of songs every few weeks or months, regularly, and that if Spotify can pay out royalties on that speedily, it could be very interesting for their cash flow – and thus the sustainability of their careers.

Eckoes had a different worry. “Writers are starting to write for Spotify, and for the timeframe that allows you not to be skipped, and to get into the chorus. It’s starting to affect the way we fundamentally make art, and thats’ a very dark, dangerous place,” she said.

“We’re going to write a 100-song album and every song is going to be three seconds long, and we’re going to make an absolute fucking fortune!” joked Brown – although the band will need to up that to 31-second songs, since a minimum of 30 seconds is required to trigger a payout for a stream.

The panel were asked about new income streams that they see coming their way. “Last year I thought about learning to mine bitcoin, but that wasn’t really for my music career,” smiled Lee-Moss. “I’ve learned that it’s not the stuff that I expect to bring me an income, that does. So as long as I follow my nose, and my gut… I think I’m going to be fine.”

Brown: “With things changing so dramatically, it can be quite scary trying to think about. You can feel like you’re out to sea without a raft. So we’re continuing to write, and collaborating with other people to work on new projects that wouldn’t necessarily be music we’ve written before, to do something different and hopefully generate some revenue from that.” – it sounds like the kind of model production-music companies like Audio Network are trying to make fly with musicians.

Duckworth: “I’m really sick of looking and finding and trying to understand alternative revenue streams. I got into this to be a musician… and I’m increasingly finding myself thinking if I have to understand video and new video technologies, for example, I’m out. I don’t consider myself a visual artist. So I’m dealing with the problem of being an audio artist in a video world.”

Stuart Dredge

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