Indie Music Artists: How Do They Survive?by John Francis

Indie Music Artists: How Do They Survive?

What exactly is an “indie music artist” these days? Back in the day, it meant the struggling rock band bashing on their instruments in their parents’ garage or basement or the singer-songwriter playing her own heartfelt songs to a small crowd at a coffee shop, bookstore or pizza parlor.

They might break out of the basement or coffee shop, perhaps even record an album, maybe even gain a bit of fame on a regional level. A few might even become cult artists with a small but devoted following, or make it to the big time with a quirky, out-of-leftfield hit.

But nowadays, the so-called “indie artist” is playing huge festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, appearing on television with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert or packing 1,000-seat night nightclubs.

Google “indie music artist” now and you’ll get big-name acts such as Father John Misty, Bon Iver, The Strokes, Arcade Monkey, Mumford & Sons, The Shins, Vampire Weekend, Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire.

Mumford & Sons, for example, play huge sold-out arenas across the world, sell millions of albums and even have their own festival-style tour, Gentlemen of the Road, that includes a handful of other “indie artists.” How is that indie, at least in the old sense of the word?

“Indie,” these days refers more to the music than the struggling solo artist trying to make it without the backing of a big record label and promotional machine. It’s indie, or independent, in that it’s music that’s not mainstream, not cookie cutter, follows its own drumbeat and makes no apologies for it. It’s music that doesn’t hew to a certain genre, but often draws from several genres, thus forging its own sound or style.

And, it’s also artists who are independent, perhaps even to the point of creating their own record labels, fashioning their own tours and making music and recordings that only they have a say over, not record executives, producers or managers.

Under that rubric, perhaps Mumford & Sons can be considered “indie,” because they have certainly forged their own path in the music world, from their music (banjos and folk music?) to their tours, which purposely visit smaller cities off the usual path of tours taken by the mega-stars. That way they can offer the “regular folks” a chance to see them without having to drive hours to get to a big city.

But for most music fans, “indie” music artists are the little-known, hard-working singer-songwriters and unique bands that fans themselves have “discovered” in local bars and coffeehouses or on obscure websites. Artists who don’t compromise their sound for fame or fortune, but actually create music they want to create. And if it strikes a chord in some fans, then so much the better.

Taylor Swift was once an indie artist, discovered playing in a cafe by a record label owner who didn’t even own a record label. This after she turned down a contract from music giant RCA (owned by Sony) because they wanted to wait before recording and releasing her first album. She became the first artist on the man’s label, Big Machine Records. And now look at her (as well as the man, Scott Borchetta, who is now a big-time producer and label head who mentored “American Idol” singers).

But the life of an indie artist is never easy. In fact, many a promising indie artist has had to give up the dream, done in by financial problems, band personality clashes, unscrupulous club owners, managers and promotion people, and just the sheer difficulty of doing everything yourself and making it in a business crowded with wannabes, dreamers and the delusional in addition to the ones with real talent and charisma.

Take Monterey, California-based electro-pop duo Lillie Lemon, who has earned regional popularity with her winsome, irresistible pop music. She and her partner Erica Wobbles (who also plays keyboards) do everything, from marketing, promotion and booking to schlepping their own equipment and driving their own van pulling an equipment trailer to gigs from California to a recent tour of the Midwest.

Lemon says an indie artist has two paths to take, the Keep Growing path, or the Stay Put path. The latter is where you play around town, sleep in your own bed, probably play for more than one band and “make a comfortable, albeit hectic, living as a musician.”

The former is the “dangerous” path. “How much will you abandon for your ambition as an artist? In Keep Growing, you become a gambler. An educated gambler, one who knows the odds are stacked heavily against you, but a gambler nonetheless,” she writes in her excellent blog post “On Becoming a Full-Time Performing Artist.” “You know that even if you sell out 6,000-cap rooms, you might still end up working a day job back home.”

She continues: “You will play countless empty houses and bars laden with apathetic patrons and gigs where you have to remind the bar owner how much they agreed to pay you. Keep Growing demands that you live out of a suitcase. It demands that you get creative with food and budgeting and performance. It demands that you learn all those cover songs, too, but instead of having a built-in audience, you’re risking your covers on totally new crowds every night.”

Lemon then goes on to offer advice and tips (with links to helpful websites and blogs) on how to take the next step and become a Weekend Warrior. She covers promotion, booking, touring, budgeting, using social media and apps, and learning the business of music.

And even then, even if you do everything right, it’s not a given that you will become successful, even for an indie artist. Success, whether that is measured in fame or money, isn’t always the goal or the mission of an indie artist. They do it for the love of the music, to create art, to express their longings, desires, emotions and viewpoints. The greatest reward to them might just be the connections they make with people, that their art can move people to tears and laughter and touch their hearts.

“Remember, you are in control of where your music takes you, and the only thing between you and the life you want is the level of sacrifice — and the amount of hard learning — you’re willing to take,” says Lemon. “As Victor Wooten says in ‘The Music Lesson,’ ‘There is only one reason that you ever fail at anything … and that is because you eventually change your mind.’ ”

All books are available at Click on title to learn more.
The Anatomy of the Music Business: How the Game Was & How the Game Has Changed
by Dr. Logan H. Westbrooks
This Business of Music, 10th Edition
by M. William Krasilovsky and Sidney Shemel
These Beats Ain’t Free: Next level secrets and stories from an award-winning producer
by Justin L. Rhodes and Geoff Case

Blogs and Websites
Lillie Lemon Blog: On Becoming a Full-Time Performing Artist

Back to Home