Music Ally first encountered British artist ShaoDow earlier this month at AIM’s Indie-Con event in London. Less than a fortnight later, he was holding court at the FastForward conference in Amsterdam.
The topic: ‘The Artist Entrepreneur’ – an exploration of how this particular musician has built his fanbase and income not just from his tracks, but from merchandise and other creative projects. He was interviewed by The Rattle’s community manager Jess McCarten.
“I’ve sold over 25,000 albums independently just by travelling around the country talking to people,” he started. ShaoDow has also opened his own pop-up store selling branded headphones and merchandise, and was appointed an ‘artist advocate’ for the Featured Artists Coalition.
“Every day I can potentially meet a new biggest fan,” he said. “It’s a case of finding those people who resonate with what I do. It’s about being unwilling to wait around for the opportunity. You have to create your own ‘ins’ these days, because nobody’s going to give you handouts.”
“Nowadays the music business should be an extension of an artist’s creative repertoire, whether you’re designing your own merchandise, planning your own tour or just creating a cool PR campaign, everything should have an essence of creativity in it, and an essence of your artistic identity… It becomes less contrived and more you.”
How important is recorded music to this kind of artist? “The music has to be at the heart of it, because if it’s not, I don’t know what I’m doing… I’m just a guy who sells t-shirts,” he said, while stressing that extensions beyond that music are vital for building the sustainable income to help an artist continue working on that craft.
“You can’t make money off music these days in the same way, because of streaming. That’s just how it is… you can be dope at music but that’s not going to keep the lights on, unfortunately.”
ShaoDow talked about his wake-up moment when he realised he could make money as an independent artist, travelling the UK performing, talking to people and selling his CDs.
“People aren’t buying the CDs because they specifically want a CD: you’ve got YouTube, you’ve got Spotify, you’ve got Apple Music,” he said. “It’s because people want to buy in to the journey… The CD is now a bit of merchandise as well as a medium to purchase music.”
He also sells USB sticks, and headphones with a 16GB memory card preloaded with his music, which they can play directly. “It’s just another way of getting music into your ears…”
ShaoDow talked of his artist’s life as one of taking calculated risks, investing 90% of his earnings back into his music and other creative projects. In late 2017 he took his pop-up store to a shopping centre in Derby, working 9am to 9pm. “It was a risk to my health, but it was a risk I knew I could take,” he said. 2018’s risk is planning a UK tour, handling everything himself.
To what extent is all this ruled by his artist’s head or his entrepreneur’s head? ShaoDow suggested that the artist side of him would come up with madcap creative schemes, but the entrepreneurial head helps him to “target those cool things into a structure… what is the best thing I can do with my time that is going to take me to my goal?”
ShaoDow also talked about healthy competition with other artists at his level, collaborating with them while also responding to their success.
“The moment you get complacent, that’s when the art suffers, that’s when the business side suffers. Because you think ‘I’m doing enough’,” he said. “If you’re looking at other people thinking ‘they’re doing better, what are they doing better, how can I catch up?’ that’s how you improve.”
The conversation turned to labels. “As an artist you have a responsibility to get yourself to a point of success before a label should even be looking at you,” he said. “A lot of artists I meet, their entire goal is to get signed… You need to take as much responsibility for your career and for your artistic direction as possible, so that when other people come on board, you know exactly what they’re doing… and if they’re trying to screw you over!”
ShaoDow suggested that development deals with labels are thinner on the ground than they used to be: rather than release some music and see what happens, there’s a bigger pressure for immediate success. He also talked about a loss of the ability to use the funds from initial sales of music to fund a longer, gentler development period.
“When I started, people would either buy or ask if you’re on iTunes or on YouTube,” he said. “I’m told that in the days before YouTube, everyone was buying CDs!”
But independence was the running theme of the session. “By taking responsibility for your direction and being in control of your artistic destiny, you are not so beholden to every single person who comes along waving a contract at you. You don’t have to sign the first thing that’s pushed in front of your nose,” he said.
ShaoDow also talked about his latest project: a manga graphic-novel inspired by the books he picked up in Japan. “It’s only now that the music and merchandise is selling well that I’ve got a bit of residual income. I could buy myself a new wardrobe or a new car, OR I could make manga!”
He wrote the story and collaborated with an artist to produce the book. “The book is about my journey as a musician,” he added. “It just has more fighting and special powers!”
ShaoDow admitted to mistakes, like an expensive, poor-performing PR campaign for a single last year, and also talked about the importance of building – and rewarding – a team around him.
“My merchandise manager is one of my most important team members. He facilitates the making of the garments which I then sell, which is the bulk of my income, which then funds other things,” he said. “For the tour, he’s one of the number one people who’s being looked after financially. He will get a set amount of money, but he will also get a percentage of what he sells, as an incentive to make sure the merchandise is selling.”
What are his longer-term objectives as an artist and as an entrepreneur? “I just want to be happy and proud of what I do,” he said. “To inspire and entertain, and largely to have the freedom to do what I want to do in the creative field… I don’t want to be super-famous, I still want to be able to go the supermarket and buy milk. Even though I’m lactose-intolerant so can’t!”
ShaoDow was asked what he finds the most effective way to build his fanbase. The answer: going to where the people are. “Half of the secret to why my fans are genuinely so plugged in not just to my music but to my journey or my career, is because they’ve met me,” he said. “I looked all of those people in the eye and explained to them my journey, my ambitions, and said ‘here is my music'”
“The point is I went to them. In the world we live in now, where technology is so easily accessible, you can get complacent: thinking you can just post online… But it’s like being a politician. You don’t just see [Jeremy] Corbyn on Twitter saying ‘Vote for me please!’. He goes out there and knocks on doors.”
His parting shot of advice for fellow emerging, independent artists: “There’s always a way around things. For every no, there’s a yes but…”