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Dear Independent Musicians: I Have Some Bad News For You

Posted by Jacob Jones on Dec 15, 2015 1:23:02 AM

 photo credit: LIFE Magazine

The human race is about to embark on the dawn of 2016 and put all the good, bad and indifferent of 2015 in a neat little drawer in the corner. It’s time for new beginnings, fresh starts and breaking resolutions all over again. Raise a glass already, Huzzah!

At the end of the year, I find that most of my conversations revolve around what did, and often more what did not, get accomplished in the last twelve months. It’s a time for reflection and that also means addressing failures. I’m betting most of us didn’t accomplish every last thing we wanted to this year and hey, that’s ok. If you knocked out every single item on your “Make This Year My Bitch” list, congratulations! We all admire you. For some of us though, a few goals slipped cleanly through our grasp.

Maybe you didn’t earn as much money with your music this year as you wanted to. Maybe you didn’t sell as many shirts as you’d hoped. Maybe you didn’t get a booking agent or a manager or a label deal. Not having any of these things is just fine. Keep working, keep getting better.

You know what’s not fine? Making excuses for why none of this happened.

Blaming “the industry” is a cop out. Saying it’s not your fault that your career hasn’t grown the way you would like is a lie. Chances are if you’re waiting around to be discovered in any way, shape or form, then your lack of progress is indeed your fault.

I guess what I’m saying here is….hold on. I don’t think you’re ready. Maybe you should have a seat before you hear this. Sitting down? Actually, go grab a beer… you’ll need it before continuing. Got that brew? Good.

Here we go.

It’s safe to assume that many of you got into music to avoid getting a “real” job. Becoming a rockstar sounded a whole hell of a lot better than working a desk for forty hours a week, am I right? Staying up late, traveling the country, meeting new people and having fans is what you signed up for… right? Fuck working! That’s for suckers.

Well, my friend, here is the bad news. If you want to “make it” in 2016, you are going to have to work really, really, really hard.

Let me be clear. I don’t mean that because there are more working musicians today than there have ever been before that you’ll need to work extra hard on your craft to stand out. Although, that is true and yes, the competition for everyone’s ear attention is fierce. You are, in fact, going to have to work to be the best that you can possibly be in order to rise above the noise.

No, that’s not what I actually mean.

What I mean is, you are going to have to do things that seemingly have nothing to do with playing music in order to continue doing just that. You are going to have to sit in front of a laptop for countless hours each week, send hundreds of emails and promote yourself non stop. You’re even going to have to use math! Because if you can’t track what money you’re actually making to influence the decisions you or your band make, you’re going to end up stuck and broke and saying “It’s not a large, it’s a Venti” 5 days a week.

There have never been more ways to record, distribute, market and cash in on your music than right now. Read that again. Right now is literally the easiest time in the history of the music business to build a career on your own — if you’re willing to work for it. You have more tools than anyone who came before you and most of them are completely affordable or free.

This probably isn’t news to you. You’ve heard it all before. It’s nothing new. Honestly, that is what really surprises me.

You can record a quality record with a laptop, free software and a cheap mic. This has been true for most everyone since Garage Band hit the market in 2005, over ten years ago.

You can digitally distribute your music to pretty much anywhere people listen for the cost of a bar tab. There are even inexpensive ways to design album artwork using collaborative sites with designers from all over the world. (i.e. 99 Designs)

There are a shitload of free ways to engage fans and market your shows, records and merch. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat are just a few free things you probably already use every damn day that can change your life as an artist if you just put some time and thought into it. In addition to the big name social platforms, there are a shitload of other options popping up every week.


noun \ˈshit-ˌlōd\

Merriam Webster — A very large amount

Urban Dictionary — more than an assload but still less than a fuckton. I have a shitload of beer, but down at my friend’s place, they have a whole fuckton.

That’s right. You have a shitload of options.

You can manage your entire career from shirt sales to gas expenses to knowing when to re-order albums all from the phone in your hand using platforms like Artist Growth. You can build a beautiful website in an afternoon on Squarespace. You can even crowd source funding your next record using the fans you currently have to make the next step in your career possible.

Need to make a video but don’t have any money? Go down a rabbit hole on Youtube and learn how to make a great video using your phone. The editing software is FREE. Don’t know how to edit video? I defer back to Youtube.

You can, in fact, do it all. Everything you need to go big with an idea is at your fingertips.

The difference in those who excel in this environment and those who don’t is really simple: Those who put in the work will prosper and those who do not will have a hard time.

Sure, you have to have talent. I know people who are so talented that none of this ends up mattering. That’s maybe 0.5% of musicians and songwriters I’ve ever heard. Most of you, no matter how incredible the music is, will have to put in the work.

I can hear at least one of you now: “I just want to play my music and if it happens, it happens. I don’t want to mess with all this other bullshit.”

Sure, I hear ya. Well, I hope you like that part time service industry job you’ve got on the side, because it’s going to be a part of your life for a long ass time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…of course, unless your goal is to play music for a living.

That is what you want, right?

Then seriously shut the fuck up. It’s not 1999 and labels aren’t dumping piles of cash on any artist showing promise. Napster happened, iTunes happened and now Spotify has happened. You can wait around to be “discovered” or you can realize just how incredible your opportunity is right now. You can bitch and moan about how no one buys music anymore or you can use what’s available to you to connect with fans, one at a time.

Ever read Kevin Kelly’s essay on 1,000 True Fans? The premise is that it only takes 1,000 true fans to provide a good living for any artist. By true fans, he means those who come to all the shows, buy everything and relate to your music on a higher level than others. Creating 1,000 True Fans seems very doable if you really dig into it.

Imagine if you used all this technology to get your work in the hands of just ten new people a day? If you focused on that, how many more people would start coming to your shows? How much more money would you make the next time you release new music?


photo credit: Brendan Donohue for Live On The Green

There is a sweet spot between being a gigantic star and a starving artist. It’s called making a living.

It has never been more possible to make a living as an independent artist, ever. You don’t need a manager, an agent, a label, a lawyer or an accountant. All you need is yourself and your hustle. All you need is to do the damn work.

There are still times in a growing career where these relationships make sense and can drastically change your life. Managers help you strategize and handle the business end. Agents can keep you on the road all year making money. Labels can front the costs of recording and provide massive marketing power. These things will find you at the right time if you’re out there doing it yourself and making waves. It’s that simple. The good news here is that you have the power to take every aspect of your career into your own hands and make shit happen. Anyone who is seriously interested in working with you is going to want to see your traction, so managing yourself well off the bat can make all the difference.

If you just want to play music for the sheer joy of it and all this other bullshit kills the satisfaction of playing for you, then I completely understand that. Just know that you will find it very difficult to actually make any kind of living with your music. Maybe that’s fine too.

I toured for years before I made one of the hardest choices of my life. In 2012 I had a decent following resulting from 3 years of constant touring and hustling. I put out the very best record I was capable of at the time. I routinely played for hundreds of people, which for me was a fucking blast. But I knew I just wasn’t as talented as I wanted to be. I felt like I was good, but not good enough to enjoy the kind of career and lifestyle I really desired. In the end, I pursued other creative endeavors to much more rapid success than my music had garnered me.

Looking back now, if I would have known my talent was there but I needed to work 10 times harder to make it happen and I truly believed that… I wouldn’t have even blinked. I would have outworked anyone. For so many people I know here in Nashville especially, just the opposite is the case. So many brilliant musicians and astonishingly incredible songwriters just want success to fall in their lap. They think because of how good they are, it will. Well, good luck. In 99% of cases, it will not.

Put in the work. The work is what separates good from great.

Next time you see a band blow your mind on stage that seems to be gaining a lot of momentum, ask them what life is like when they aren’t performing. I bet they say they work at it every day, all day. They probably have jobs and spend their off time booking, promoting, networking, writing, rehearsing and everything in between.

As you look out in front of you at the great expanse of a brand new year, I would urge you to not look at the limitations but the possibilities. People in the music industry especially lament that it’s not what it used to be. If you’re a label executive, that may be true. But if you’re an independent musician trying to make their mark, nothing could be further from reality. You have all the power that was reserved for the gatekeepers in the past. Now, there is no gate. There are no real barriers to entry. If you’re willing to work, people are willing to listen.

Cheers and happy new year.

Jacob Jones lives in Nashville. Follow him here and here.