From Me To You is unlike most music-industry conferences in that it’s aimed squarely at independent artists. Indeed, it was founded by one, British musician Roxanne de Bastion, and makes a point of having artists moderate each of its sessions.
The latest FM2U took place in London on Saturday. Music Ally was a supporter of the event, including sitting in to report on the day’s panels and keynotes. Here are some of the key talking points.
The conference’s first panel focused on ‘scaling’ – how independent artists can sustainably build their fanbases both offline and online.
In the latter case, there was an emphasis on forward planning: for example, knowing when you will release each upcoming track, and having the supporting assets and social posts prepared.
“We have these hooks that we’re already aware of, so how do we structure our social media plan around those releases?” as Jeffrey Courtney of label Mute put it.
Artists Dilys Uwagboe (aka Eckoes) and Lyla Foy agreed, but stressed the need to complement all this with more personal posts. “It’s nice to have it punctuated with the important stuff but then the day-to-day stuff around it, so it doesn’t feel like an automated computer,” as Uwagboe put it.
Alex Mattinson of management firm Air MTM added that flexibility is key. “On the macro level you’re mapping it out and understanding where your campaigns’ going to go across the release schedule,” he said. “And on the micro level being adaptive to the nuances of wherever the campaign might take you. You might get some press in, or alive opportunity or a session opportunity… and you feed those assets in to the campaign.”
On the planning side, visual assets loomed large in the conversation: with Mattinson suggesting that the more coherent an artist’s “visual identity” is, as early as possible, the better. He acknowledged the challenges.
“We demand perfection of everything we see from our artists. We ask them to be perfect from the get-go, we ask for their assets to be as beautiful as Frank Ocean’s budget, with minimal budget!” he said, of the industry in general.
Even so, when the question came up of whether artists should be hiring a PR or radio-plugger at an early stage, Courtney said they’d be better off spending money on their visual assets – video in particular – and then perhaps putting a bit of money on advertising to get them in front of people on social platforms.
Mattinson agreed. “I don’t think you have to have PR, if you have £500-£600 to spend, should you spend it on getting three or four reviews?… We talk about declining engagement on social media, but the engagement on blogs is even lower, it’s tiny. But yeah, I would make incredible assets and put spend behind them, and often those blogs come aboard anyway.”
There are many different sources of data on an artist’s growth in 2018, particularly streaming and social analytics.
These can be very useful – Courtney said that he doesn’t see enough younger artists using ‘smart URL’ services to point fans to their music while also getting valuable data back – but the panel warned these emerging artists off getting too mired in their metrics.
“If you’re an emerging artist and you’re sitting around all day looking at your data, you’re doing the wrong thing. I would be sitting around listening to music or making music,” said Mattinson. “I would not worry about it… and often if you’re starting out, the data looks shit!”
There was concern that focusing too much on data may distract artists from their craft. “Just keep writing. It’s annoying to hear, but it is the truth. Songs, songs, songs. Please don’t get distracted by the data,” said Foy.
“The take home should not be that you look at your data and worry about your socials. It should be that you make great music… and that will attract people [who can help with the other stuff],” agreed Mattinson.
Likewise Courtney, who said that rather than over-thinking a social strategy, an artist is “much better off going to a room, writing 100 songs, picking five of the best of them and saying ‘in the next 16 months I’m going to release these five tracks, because they’re the best ones I’ve got’.”
While not every artist may be a live act, for those who play live it’s still hugely important to get out and about – not least to develop the performance skills that tempt online fans to come and see a band in the flesh.
“Just be really fucking amazing live, and that is it, really. Preferably have someone film you being fucking amazing live, and then show everybody it,” said Mattinson.
Foy said that artists can think inventively about how to build their audience through collaborations and partnerships: including tour support.
“Some good old-fashioned audience theft! Getting someone else’s audience on board with you. I like reaching out to people asking if I can support them on tour: that’s been successful for me,” she said. Co-headline tours can also work well: recently Foy toured with fellow artist Bryde, including selling their CD albums as bundles.
A panel titled ‘flailing’ explored the darker side of music: fear of failure, and wellbeing issues that can come from that. “The people who work in music are about three times more likely to be experiencing anxiety and depression than the general population,” said Kezia Racher of Help Musicians UK, which conducted its ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’ study in 2016.
“It’s important to remember that it’s not normal to stand on a stage in front of people and do something that is hard!.. Even popular bands seem to think it’s in some way weak to be nervous or scared to go on stage. But it’s just not a normal thing: to stand on a stage and do something difficult!” said musician Matthew Reynolds, who has been an artist for 18 years, but after struggling to get on stage, stopped playing live five years ago.
Fears and anxiety are common for musicians, then, but the fact that people have felt restricted in talking about them has been harmful, argued the panel.
“We’re always switched on as artists, which is great – that we push ourselves and it’s something we’re really passionate about… but we don’t ask each other how we are enough,” said artist Katy Pickles (aka Pillars), who talked about her past breakdown and anorexia diagnosis, which saw her took a year’s break from music to focus on her health.
This is one reason why it can be hard to understand the scope of mental-health issues in the music industry. “People are often dealing with them alone and not talking about them, so it’s difficult to talk about what flailing looks like. Because nobody’s admitting to it,” said Reynolds.
Well, this isn’t a surprise at all: there has been increasing discussion of the potentially-harmful effects of social media on people’s wellbeing this year. And for musicians, particularly those with a higher profile, some elements of this can be magnified.
“Having to put forward this kind of idea that you’re a demi-god all the time is exhausting, because nobody is,” said Reynolds, citing the example of a prominent band he’s worked for as a guitar tech.
“The band members themselves really struggle with constantly feeling pressure from label and management and all of the people behind them to constantly be seen, when some days you don’t want to be seen. Some days you want to… watch Netflix and chill,” he said. It was notable that in the pause after ‘want to’ several artists in the audience completed his sentence out loud with ‘hide’.
Another thing the panel agreed on was that the music itself can play a positive role here. “If you’re feeling lost, return to your music,” suggested the panel’s moderator, artist Jake Morley.
“That’s what it’s all about. It’s not your social media, it’s not your YouTube stats… Return to the music, go back to the song that you’re writing or the recording you’re working on. Hopefully you’ll find something there that gives you nourishment.”
Pickles suggested that the team around an artist should be alive to wellbeing issues. “The team around you should have your back, and if they don’t, it’s probably the wrong team… my team didn’t tell me that I was flailing. They didn’t point it out, and I think they could have done it a lot earlier,” she said.
That extends to the lifestyle around music, with Reynolds noting that the music industry is still “very forthcoming” with alcohol, drugs and other things.
“All kinds of vices that you might think are fun at the time. And they are fun! Believe me, they are fun! But I think if you’re starting to struggle or starting to become aware that you’re overly anxious or feeling more depressed than usual, as humans we need to learn to take a step backwards,” he said.
“Am I eating properly? Am I drinking water? Am I going to sleep at night? Simple things, but I think we all know people who aren’t doing those… It’s glorified through the way that pop music is written about, and the history of pop music: it seems like it’s cool to be some sort of lunatic. But it turns out it’s not that cool.”
The dream of striking it big immediately, with little effort, remains seductive for many young artists. In a keynote speech, artist Jenny Bulcraig – aka Rookes – outlined why these expectations can be harmful.
“Oscar Wilde and his fellow dandies inn the 19th century were responsible for perpetuating a trend: that their gift, their talent, was dropped from the heavens, and that it cost them little to no effort whatsoever. They were just vessels for the muse! And of course, it was all total crap. In reality, artists work very very very very very VERY hard,” she said.
“No matter how talented you are, unless you have a ton of cash backing or a load of connections already, you are looking at three to six years’ craft, minimum, before you get anywhere.”
From KT Tunstall busking for a decade before her break, to Grimes’ four-year graft before she even got on a national tour, even what seem to be overnight success-stories invariably turn out to be a longer-term tale of hard work.
The earlier topic of artists’ visual identities resurfaced in Bulcraig’s speech, but for a different reason. She said that developing a strong brand early on is vital.
“For those of you in the room who identify as ‘not men’, this will mean nobody else can make your body your branding,” she said, noting that artists who have been shepherded down this route have often struggled to achieve long-term success.
Bulcraig also said that 2018 is an important moment for artists who aren’t white, straight cis-gendered men.
“For the first time, the spotlight is very much in our direction, and the world is waiting for our move. There have never been so many of us visible, and that number’s growing,” she said.
“And representation is important… in a high-stress industry like this one, it sounds like pressure, but it’s actually opportunity. So take the time to get to know yourself. Reflect, appreciate and do not live in competition with one another. If we raise each other up, if one of us wins, we all win. Because through representation we pave the way for our own mobility within this industry.”
Not social in the ‘social networking’ sense, but in the ‘getting out and meeting people in the real world’ sense. Bulcraig said that personal relationships remain vital to any artist who wants true longevity.
“Take your time to find people in this industry who are not just good at what they do, but who are good people. Because people are more inclined to ignore red flags when they’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry. Don’t just choose the people who you think can get you where you want to go,” she said.
And on the social aspect: “If you want any kind of opportunities to surface, you have to, in real life, grow some social skills. And physically put your face out there in the world. This can be workshops: free workshops, industry events, other people’s gigs,” she said.
“And you don’t necessarily have to have a personality transplant to do this… The main thing is just don’t be a dick! I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve had through following that simple rule. And it’s remarkable how quickly people can forget it, when they start operating in this industry.”
Dealing with the dicks – “there are varying degrees of dickishness, like a scale of one to dick!” – was a point that Bulcraig elaborated on further: from lower-level dickishness like gig promoters who only want to deal with a man when making bookings; through denying the only non-male on a bill a soundcheck; to higher-level harassment.
“Cultivate a bullshit detector. The ability to say no and to stand firm in it. And most importantly an aura that shouts ‘FUCK OFF’ which you can switch on and off if necessary like an anti-harassment Patronus!” she said.
A panel on ‘failure’ yielded some fun stories of misteps by artists, from Lisbee Stainton’s memory of playing a gig in Germany to a single fan (“but he was wearing one of my t-shirts!”) to CJ Thorpe-Tracey’s decision to turn down a tour-support slot for an artist because he thought he was better than them (“Yes, it was Adele!”).
Martin Mills of Beggars Group said that often, what seems like a failure can simply be a case of poorly-set expectations. “If you set the expectations right, then failure becomes success,” he said, before challenging artists not to waste time on bemoaning failure.
“As an artist, if the product is you, you’ve got to face the fact that almost everything is a failure… but it can’t matter. You can’t let it matter. You have to ignore the failures and build on the successes,” he said.
Thorpe-Tracey said that artists should always keep in mind that luck is a huge element in what the industry considered to be a success.
“In every genre, and for every style, there’s an artist who is a global smash. There is a superior artist that isn’t a success… you could find a Seasick Steve and find a Charlie Parr,” he said. “So how are we defining success and failure?”
The panel offered some constructive advice to artists who may still be struggling to feel optimistic. Stainton talked about separating the artist from the music – a particular track or project may fail, but that doesn’t mean the artist themself is a failure. “The project is not YOU,” she said.
Fellow artist Laima Leyton talked about how meditation has helped her: that rather than feeling like a failure, to start accepting that other factors are in play: a label may have other priorities for example.
She also stressed the need for perspective: in her case, she has brought up five children through an income based on music alone: a success, regardless of the performance of any individual project.
Stainton admitted that it can be hard to embrace failure. “Part of it’s a survival code. It’s a primal thing. If you fail, you’re the weakest member of the herd, and that dinosaur’s gonna eat you!” she said.
She also suggested that the demands of social media – getting back to that expectation for artists to present themselves as ‘demi-gods’ – can play a role too.
“We are expected to present ourselves as this almighty being constantly on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. That is a lot of pressure in itself, and put that on top of a creative person as well. You have almost no room to admit when things are going wrong,” she said.
Mills offered this viewpoint: “In every area of life, great people are people who fail, and they fail because they take risks.”
Those risks can pay off: he talked about The Cult’s decision, for their second album, to ditch the reberb-heavy sound that had given them such a big hit with their first. “That [second] album was as big as the one before, and it sounded completely different. They took a real risk, and it paid off,” he said.
Stainton talked about the act of songwriting itself being a risk, and one that can be hampered if the songwriter is thinking too much about whether what they are writing will succeed or fail. She cited a quote from Ed Sheeran describing songwriting as like turning on a tap.
“The whole point of that is… you need to find all the crap. You need to get through all the twigs and the mud and the rubbish, before you get to the clear water,” she said.
Thorpe-Tracey wondered whether too much knowledge – or skill – can also impede creative risk-taking.
“Craft is a problem. We get better at our craft over time.. and there is a risk that getting better at your craft means you lose those moments of taking a total [risk]… when you press a button and don’t know what’s going to happen. 10 years later, you know what all the buttons do!”
Meanwhile, Leyton talked about the importance of collaborations – which can feel like a risk in terms of giving up (or at least sharing) control. She worked on one project with women in places of conflict and crisis.
“Music for them is also getting out of the places they are, and the situations they are. It’s the escape valve of ideas,” she said, while admitting that working with a large group was challenging in some ways.
“It is more all over the place. But you have a go: you have an intention… And then we take the risks,” she said. “That melting pot, some things come up, and then you have to be very wise on what you choose. A lot of dark water came out of the tap first. Very confusing, very all over the place. But also very honest.”
The second artist keynote came from Jeremy Pritchard of British band Everything Everything, who talked about their decision to avoid conforming to the expectations in the music press of what a ‘Manchester band’ should sound like
“We knew there was always going to be a commercial ceiling on what we did… we could have ironed out a lot more and maybe got further commercially, but what’s the point? The whole thing is hollow as soon as you start doing that… and the road is littered with the corpses of artists who have chased trends and done well for nine months. And then they die!” he said.
Pritchard added that “patience and loyalty and tenacity” are crucial for a band to stick together for a longer-term career. “People diversify as they get older and the trick is to harness that to the good really, rather than allow that to divide you.”
He later returned to the theme of sticking to your guns musically. “Keep making the music that you’re making, and let it be about your identity and not to chase trends. Because as I said, the road is littered with corpses,” he said.
“Success will come to you if what you’re doing is good, and it’s true. And crucially it will be long-lasting if it’s been carved out of your own identity.”
Pritchard’s memories of the early days of Everything Everything, touring the UK before money had started coming in from the band’s recordings in any meaningful way, will ring bells with many bands.
The band would book a single Travelodge family room (maximum sleepers limit: four) and then smuggle all five band members in, for example. Meals were also shared.
“You could get a beer and a burger from Wetherspoons for five quid so you could share one of those between two and that would be the meal of the day, and otherwise we were basically subsisting on lager and crisps,” he said. “So that remains the same!”
In 2018, Pritchard has other worries when it comes to touring: the potential impact of the UK exiting the European Union, if it restricts free movement for musicians. He noted that figures show music contributes £4.4bn to the UK’s economy, exports included.
“We can’t expect that to continue if we can’t export the goods – the goods being the music. We just simply won’t be able to tour any more,” he said about the prospect of a harder Brexit.
“Anybody who has ever applied for a US visa knows ho expensive and time-consuming that is. If we’re going to have to do that every 60 miles across Europe… it’s just not going to happen. Younger artists certainly don’t have the money.”
That applies to European artists coming to the UK too, potentially. “We’re not going to be able to see Daft Punk! Specifically! Or Kraftwerk. It should have been on the ballot. Those opportunities are already fading…”
The final session at From Me To You gathered a panel of industry experts to answer questions from the audience of artists. It was thus a grab-bag of topics, but the opportunities for label-less distribution and hanging on to your rights was one of the most prominent.
Artist Eckoes gave a ringing endorsement for AWAL, who she works with, while Lewis Silkin‘s Cliff Fluet described the options for artists who want to release outside of traditional labels as “dizzying”, citing AWAL, Believe, The Orchard and FUGA as key examples – not to mention Spotify’s moves towards enabling direct uploads by artists without a distributor at all.
Fluet predicted that Spotify will only grow its services for artists. “You’ll be able to look at things like merch and manage your live career. There’ll be a whole range of tools available,” he said. “In another five years, most artists are going to think ‘hang on a second, why have the unsigned artists got a better deal than us?’”
Eckoes warned artists against putting all their eggs in one platform’s basket: “Spotify is just one platform,” she said. “My last single was Apple Music best of the week in Japan. If I didn’t have a distributor that distributed to everywhere, I wouldn’t have found that audience.”
Lucie Caswell from the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) advised artists to stay flexible, rather than looking for a single ‘advised’ path that they should follow.
“It’s about finding out what your fans buy in to… and taking one step at a time as you discover what that route is,” she said. “It’s figuring out what is going to monetise and grow in the way that you want it to grow.”
She also noted that labels of all sizes are increasingly striking deals with artists that involve licensing their music – meaning that the artist owns the rights rather than the label. Fluet agreed, and said that even emerging artists can make this their goal.
“If you do end up in a world where you can get 50% from Spotify, monthly, with clean accounting, I think that things are going to pivot somewhat,” he said. “People are going to look and understand why an independent artist that owns everything [can succeed].”
Fluet cited Stormzy as the perfect example of an artist with his own team around him, who resisted the “BFC – the big fucking cheque!” to sign his rights over to a label in favour of a licensing-based deal.
“Fair play to Stormzy’s people. I’m sure they were offered a lot of money by Warner Music to do a classic deal, and they’ve decided to trust in themselves… The question I put to managers is how much do they want to bet on themselves? Stormzy is prepared to bet on himself.”
One of the most telling points was made by Selina Wedderburn from PPL, with a piece of advice that applies to artists surveying all the paths, technologies and strategies talked about earlier in the conference.
“The most important thing is educating yourself,” she said. “It’s unbelievable the amount of cases we’ll have at PPL, we’ll have artists who are really established and have great hits, but they weren’t aware of everything they were entitled to… You can do it yourself by researching and speaking to the right people for advice.”
The panel also came back to the idea of real-world ‘social’ activities: getting out and meeting people.
“We’re getting all too much caught up in social media, and people comparing themselves… nobody interacts any more. People need to get out there,” said Wedderburn.
“Be nice to people! You never know who knows who. You might go to an event and meet somebody who knows somebody who might be your next break. It’s not just about social media, how many followers you have… Make sure that you interact with people. And get off the phone all the time!”