You've probably read the story a million times on the net. Frustrated artist gets mad at his record company for a bad deal he got so he goes off and starts his own 'indie' record label. Doesn't the term 'indie record label' seem a little misplaced? It's just one of those coined phrases that catches on. It just means they don't belong to one of the major labels, but it sounds bad.
A true independent music artist is independant of a record company to front the money for a release. Unless of course they have chosen to form their own company in order to gain certain business benefits, I'll accept that. Let's check out the definition of 'independent' (taken from dictionary.com):
1. Not governed by a foreign power; self-governing.
2. Free from the influence, guidance, or control of another or others; self-reliant
3. Not determined or influenced by someone or something else
4. often Independent Affiliated with or loyal to no one (political) party or organization.
5. Not dependent on or affiliated with a larger or controlling entity
6. Not relying on others for support, care, or funds; self-supporting.
Wow. If you belong to any record company then not one definition of independent fits you. Let's define an independent artist then as an artist who is self-governing, free from influence or control of a record company, not affiliated with only one organization, not dependent on a larger or controlling record company, and not relying on a record company for support or funds.
What does an independent artist do? I think of a singer/songwriter. An indie typically writes, records and performs music. However they must have a certain degree of business or personal skills to succeed. People don't just flock to them because they wrote a song. They must be able to make money from their creation if they want to do it for a living. Today they can survive off the Internet alone. It used to be a pavement pounding, handshaking, baby kissing politician's world - and it still can be, but it can also be practically solely digital, or a mix of both.
I know a few artists who exist because of their Internet web site. They play gigs locally and internationally at assorted venues, without any real gig shopping. However their Internet sites, which are really just a bio, a discography and some mp3 clips, is what gets them noticed. Two separate artists told me that they can go into the studio and do a full CD knowing they can recover the cost of the product just from their Internet site. Another artist says he doubles that. However, these are artists with existing fans found at gigs and relationships with them that are nutured through their website and email list.
The Internet alone is not the only way to make money with music, but it is a big, maybe the biggest, part of the equation these days - both for sales and exposure. We've even heard of artists being signed for record deals completely from what a record company exec saw off their Internet site as far back as 1996. This means YOU need a working computer, an Internet connection, email and a web site. If you are any kind of independent artist, songwriter, band, or producer then you should probably have a web site already. If nothing else you can put up some sound clips, your bio, upcoming gigs, and sell a few CDs and t-shirts. Not only that, being online is a great way to get reviews of your music, fan mails, and the biggest reason - feedback from other artists, songwriters and industry pros.
You could exist solely off your web site but it's good to get out and do the gigs, promote your name, do the networking and just have fun. Your web site is a way for people to find out about you, and for those who come to see your shows, it's a way for them to find out even MORE about you. Not all sales happen at the gigs. Frequently someone will wake up the day after a show with your song going around in their head. Your website makes it easy for them to buy your CD right away. For that reasonan independent artist should promote their web site on everything they do. Your CD covers, business cards, bumper stickers, t-shirts, under garments and most importantly - from the stage.
Independent artists have it tougher than most guys. They have to deal with getting their name out there and their music heard. They have to deal with all the business decisions. At a major label you as an artist are paying the label to hire someone to take care of everything for you - and it costs you dearly, but it does work. As an indie artist your success depends completely on you. You can be as big or as small as you want to be. You can sell a few thousand copies of your CD off your web site or a few CDs at each show you play. You can work full time at selling as much as you can, or just enough to go back into the studio and do it again. You set the pace you are comfortable with. I even know a stay at home mother who performs and writes children's music when she can, and produces a CD every other year to sell at her shows. It's your call.
Being an indie artist can give you great bargaining power if you go for a recording contract. In addition to playing live, writing songs and releasing CDs, you've no doubt been reading up on the business of music and learning about tax write-offs. You've been keeping meticulous records of income, assets and expenses. Now, because you have cold hard sales figures, a good business attitude, an established name and probably a list of fans (repeat buyers), you are more likely to attract a major label deal if and when you do go label shopping. That's the stuff that the majors like to see. This isn't the route for everyone, but it is nice to have opportunities.
And that's an example of how an independent artist makes money with music. Play live, setup a really good website (not MySpace!) with everything about you including sound clips, your CD for sale and an email list for fans, learn about the business, and set your pace. Don't lose your focus by starting your own label and taking on other artists. You MAY make more money but you'll find yourself making much less music as each artist needs significant attention and resources. Remember the reason you started this whole thing - to make music, and make money with music.