Erase your hard-drive!
Get a new operating system!
Adopting a new mindset for success as an independent.
By Dave DeMarco
(Originally published February 2005 by The Music and Film Network)
Ever notice how you just can’t get fancy Flash multimedia to run on an old Commodore 64 computer? Even if you’re only mildly PC-literate, you already know the reason why: the hardware is antiquated and cannot support the basic requirements that the Flash software requires. Likewise, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time to save to your hard-drive every animated GIF and MPEG file you’ve ever received, but eventually you’ll run out of space and will need to delete old files to make room for newer, more useful ones. Again, common sense to those of us for whom personal computing is a daily necessity.
Since many, if not most of today’s independent artists are extremely tech savvy and recognize the need for maintenance and upgrading of equipment, why is it that these same people base their hopes for success on an archaic mindset from a bygone era? This mindset, which has been chiseled in stone, passed down through the ages from one upstart band to another, comes in many forms. First there was:
“I am talented, therefore I will be a star.”
This statement is so idealistic, it would almost be cute, were it not so profoundly naive. When you met someone with this contra-mantra, you almost wanted to pat him or her on the head the way you would a little girl who told you she wanted to be a fairy princess when she grows up. This philosophy later degenerated into:
“I am talented, therefore I DESERVE to be a star.”
In creeps the infestation of self-importance. If left untreated, this ideology has the potential to set any well-meaning, aspiring artist into a tailspin of disappointment when their career fails to achieve the grandeur to which they feel so entitled. The 2005 edition of this absurdity seems to be:
“I am talented, therefore someone will hear/see me and turn me into a star.”
OK, to be fair, the media is somewhat responsible for fostering the notion that all it takes to make it are a handful of good songs, the haircut du jour and a manager with “connections”, those fabled magic beans, which every band covets more than a barbed-wire tattoo. Growing up, we were constantly regaled with stories of fledgling bands from towns like LA., Chicago or Seattle who were rocketed to stardom after their demo landed on the desk of the president of FancyPants Records. Hey, it happened to them, it could happen to me, right? Here’s where we implement Step #1: Erase Your Hard-Drive.
With your finger firmly planted above your mental delete key, start systematically going through all your old notions about how artists became successful in the golden years of rock and pop music…and cast them into the abyss. The business model has changed, yet so many artists refuse to acknowledge this. They cling to their old ways like the mullet they’re certain will come back into style. Rather than going to the store to buy their milk, they stand at the front door waiting for the milk-man to bring it to them, completely ignorant of the fact that the last milk-man retired before today’s crop of artists were even born.
Not sure which files to delete? Use this simple rule of thumb: any notion you hold dear which makes your success contingent upon someone other than yourself or which makes someone else the “action” person in your career, needs to go, post haste. See if any of these four notions look familiar:
“If I pay someone to promote me, my target audience will find out about me. Plus, I’ll look important and people will pay more attention to me.”
No matter how much you pay someone, unless you’re already a mega-star, no one can promote you better than yourself. You are the sole proprietor of your most compelling promotional tool – your act. Don’t take my word for it; do a Google search on Scooter Scudieri. His flagrant self-promotion (combined with talent) took him from the back woods of West Virginia to opening for Jewel and releasing a live CD from the tour.
“If I get a manager, they can find opportunities for me and I’ll be taken more seriously.”
Unless you are being deluged with endorsement offers, opportunities to tour abroad and are being courted to sing on the next Santana CD, you don’t need a manager. If you’re making $100 a night playing small venues and maybe selling a few CDs a month, why would you want to hand over 10% to a manager? Many artists are confused as to the actual role a manager plays in an artist’s support team. Bobby Borg’s book The Musician’s Handbook: A Practical Guide to Understanding The Music Business (Billboard Books) covers this topic in detail. Here’s another indicator: if you’re reading this article, you don’t need a manager!
“I need to find an agent to get me the “right” gigs. Until then, my time is better spent shopping for the “right” clothes than playing for ten people and selling only one copy of my CD.”
There’s nothing wrong with using an agent to get gigs. The problem lies with “cherry picking” – the art of selecting only the most glamorous, high-paying gigs and looking down one’s nose at all other opportunities. Smaller gigs give you the ability to showcase your music in an intimate setting as well as allowing you to work out the bugs for your bigger shows. Would you rather spend a Thursday night paying to rehearse in front of nobody or would you prefer to get out in front of some actual human beings with disposable income? You just may come home with some green in your pocket, a few less CDs and a name or two for your mailing list. Never underestimate the significance of one fan. To discount the importance of that one fan, can be a grave error. The KISS Army was started by one fan who was driven to get the band played on his hometown radio station. Today, the KISS Army has provided millions of dollars in income to the band’s members. Who wouldn’t love to have a fan like that on their street team? Get off your high horse and get out there gigging!
“My band’s demo sounds OK but if we get an entertainment lawyer to pitch it to the labels then they’ll hear our potential and offer us a deal. It doesn’t matter that we only draw about 15 people to our monthly gig. Our singer sounds just like…”
Again, there’s nothing wrong with utilizing legal counsel but only when it makes good business sense to do so. Are labels contacting you because you keep showing up on their radar? Are your CD sales into five digits? Are sponsors beating your door down? Then ask around and interview (yes, interview!) several reputable entertainment lawyers and select one who has a track record of successful ventures with artists of your caliber. Until then, keep writing, keep playing and keep selling! And by the way, nobody cares who your singer sounds like if you can’t draw.
Got all of those obsolete files cleaned out? Good! Now, you’re ready for Step #2: Get a New Operating System.
A great place to start is to treat your career as a business. How long would a retail business last if the owner decided not to open one morning because he couldn’t guarantee that any customers would walk through the door? That’s the same as turning down a gig because you can’t guarantee that you’ll sell CDs. There’s nothing wrong with a little opportunism when your business is the expression of your own art.
Next, create some realistic goals and expectations. If you’re just starting out, it’s unrealistic to expect that your art will be supporting you in six months. It takes most artists years of hard work before they can finally say adios to the day job and concentrate all their energy into their craft. In the interim though, you could expedite the process by being a little creative.
Let’s say you’re a singer/songwriter and you’re equally good at playing guitar as you are singing. Let’s also say that you’re currently gigging 1-3 times a month. What’s stopping you from becoming someone else’s side person and augmenting your gig schedule with 3-6 more gigs a month? You’ll be increasing your exposure, earning more money and most importantly, contributing to yours as well as someone else’s betterment. Sadly, too many artists are unwilling to accept a temporary, subordinate role in exchange for increased visibility.
You could also join the street team of a fellow artist or band you admire. What better way to meet potential fans than to put yourself in a position of developing relationships with people who are already fans of your style of music? As long as you’re genuinely doing some good for the band you’re representing, they most likely won’t mind if you toot your own horn a bit in the process.
The artists that you and I will be reading about three years from now are positioning themselves for success, regardless of what happens with label acquisitions, trends or the next big P2P movement. They have taken their careers into their own hands, eschewing the outmoded lifestyle of the artiste, who cannot be bothered with mundane tasks such as creating new promotional materials or (gasp!) going out to support a fellow performer. Tomorrow’s successful artists have become their own Jerry Maguire. They realized long ago that no one was going to have a more vested interest in their career than themselves and they challenge themselves everyday to create new opportunities for themselves as well as their peers. These folks will still have viable careers long after today’s trendsetters have been dropped. The upper echelon of these indie artists will be given opportunities to take their business to the next level (read: stardom) because they will have proven that they can be successful without the intervention of a big label. They will then be in the enviable position of having options – something you won’t have if you’re trying to install a DVD drive in your old Commodore 64.
It’s a harsh reality – waking up to the fact that your ultimate success rests squarely on your shoulders. However, for a moment just pretend that there’s no such thing as a record label, a manager or a lawyer. How much of a tangible impact would that have on your music career today? Little to none is my guess. My challenge to you, the independent, is for the next calendar year to continue pretending that these entities are non-existent. Pretend that the only way you’ll prosper is by doing it all yourself. In reality, that’s the best way to ensure your success.