The pre-digital era was controlled by gatekeepers in the form of funding the expense of traditional recording studios and physical distribution. An artist’s goal was to “get signed” in order to have access to these tools. Anyone else was left in the dust, give or take a Fugazi, for example.
Now artists can record world class albums at home and instantly distribute worldwide via services such as Tunecore. But it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, leaving some artists to ask, “Why DIY?”
“Doing it yourself” at the beginning of a career in the modern music industry is crucial to establish a core fan base and sets the foundation of an artist’s creative ideals that hopefully last a lifetime. If an artist starts from scratch on their own and builds a viable career, no one can ever take those fans away or influence the art that is being created.
Let’s start at the beginning: Artistry. That’s why we’re here, right? The most compelling and successful artists are the ones that have a clear vision of who they are and their purpose for putting art into the world. French-American Sydney Wayser (photo) is a prime example of this kind of artist. I met Sydney when when a friend recommended her to intern for me. In walked a stunning but shy young woman who eventually gave me her debut CD that she had recorded at school. Sydney’s voice, talent, and spirit immediately stood out. I eventually was lucky enough to become her manager, and the evolution of this artist inspires me every day.
When I took Sydney on, she had just wrapped her sophomore LP, The Colorful. I was excited to work with her from scratch on a project and, to be frank, threw her on the road. She was quite young and I wanted her to experience playing live as a solo artist with a band, and also to get used to the trials and tribulations of the road. In a year, Sydney went from a local New York artist to touring Europe three times and playing US Festivals such as Wanderlust and the Newport Folk Festival.
As Sydney took in the world, her vast imagination drew her back to songwriting. Our next step was for Sydney to hole up and task herself with writing every day. After a long winter she emerged with 50 or so new songs. Of course not every day was easy, but Sydney is extremely dedicated to her craft and wrote every day, whether the day was dark or sunny or her writing was flowing or being blocked. I think both of these exercises were vital to the foundation of Sydney’s career. It’s crucial for artists to play live in as many situations as possible to prepare themselves for various set ups and promotional situations, as well as getting into the basic routine of living a life on the road, dealing with equipment, and making new fans every night – be it 5 or 5,000. In addition, artists who are writers have to do just that: write. For more on showing up on a daily basis as a creative force and writer, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on Creativity.
The above approach has led to Sydney’s stunning forthcoming album, Bell Choir Coast. Sydney did not have a partner fund or influence this project in any way. Instead, she created a fictional land within the album, organized a photoshoot with her creative vision of the project, shot a music video this week filmed by her brother in a helicopter, and put together a monthly concert series in New York to preview the material. She is constantly creating everything from jewelry to children’s books around her artistic output. No one is telling Sydney when and where to create; she is putting art into the world on her own terms. Potential partners are certainly taking notice of Sydney’s talent and work, which we are completely open to. But because Sydney is an artist in the modern music industry, she doesn’t have to wait for partners to come on board to create or execute her creativity. It is an inspiration to work with her on a daily basis.
Once the art is created, what is more fulfilling than connecting with fans who love your music and want to spread the word far and wide? Greta Morgan is a DIY artist doing just that. You might know Greta’s high school band, The Hush Sound, which sold over 200k albums and led to supporting larger artists in arenas as a teenager. I met Greta around this time when she was all of 18, but had the wisdom of an old soul who was constantly looking forward. Greta’s new project, GOLD MOTEL (photo), has been launched completely on her own terms. When I was honored enough to be approached by Greta about working together, she had already sold thousands of copies of her new band’s self-released debut and was self-booking a national tour of the United States that included the 600 capacity Lincoln Hall in her hometown of Chicago.
How does Greta and GOLD MOTEL do this? Of course talent and a diligent work ethic, but what makes this work is Greta’s consistent dedication to her ever-growing fan base. We are consistently approached by Greta on interactive fan ideas, whether it’s rewarding the street team with a band picnic, getting set up on Formspring, or literally engaging the fans in the creative process by making stems available for an Indaba remix contest. Greta is always willing to try new ways to connect with her fans, which is why she was open to us booking house concerts to fund support tours for larger artists such as Hellogoodbye.
Every artist wants to open for someone larger but can’t always afford the means to do so. When GOLD MOTEL landed the national Hellogoodbye tour last year, we asked for help from the fans. Those who were interested eagerly set up shows in their home that were organized by our office, contracted by the band’s agent, and advanced by the band’s tour manager just like any other show. But what makes these experiences special is that the fans are treated to a night they’ll never forget. Although the band are the stars, we’ve been so impressed with how above and beyond the fans go – be it GOLD MOTEL cupcakes or surprise high school graduation parties put together by enthusiastic parents. Not only does this help our tour budget, but a truly unique experience and connection is made for both the artist and fan.
But what if you’ve been there and done that in the music industry? How do you navigate all of the new tools available that can be overwhelming when you’re used to the comfort of a big budget label? This was the case for Urge Overkill (photo, by Mike White) last year, whose long-time manager approached me wanting to bring the band into the modern era. Urge is a legendary 90’s alternative band, used to expensive videos and the other caveats that were available to Geffen artists in the 90’s. To put this in perspective, Urge was opening for Nirvana on the Nevermind tour.
But when Urge approached us, they had not put an album out in 16 years. Things had changed and they didn’t know where to begin. As with the above artists, here are a group of extremely gifted writers with world class recording skills. For Urge Overkill to reemerge in the modern era, we had to start from scratch. This meant literally building a website, getting their social networks up and running, starting an email list, and of course recording! I’m so proud of the band’s epic Rock&Roll Submarine, as all of the creative work has been done by the band with some technology guidance from our office. Seeing these guys bring their killer rock show to stage again has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career – and we did it on their terms.
This has led to the band writing and wanting to keep going into the new era. Will a label as a partner make sense next time? Possibly, but the strategy with Urge was to treat them like a developing band because although they have name recognition, they were starting from scratch in the new music business. This helped to set the foundation of creative control as well as fan retention. When a larger partner comes on board, we are in control, set-up and ready to go in all areas of the band’s career.
Thus, whether an artist is a teenager or established veteran, I feel it’s important to establish these fundamentals before getting in bed with a partner. Knowing who you are artistically and how things work from the ground up will only leverage finding the right fit for additional partners who make sense. If this platform is set, there is no reason an artist cannot continue to control their rights and keep their creative vision no matter who gets involved.
Just like in life, partners may come and go, and who can help you make sure you don’t lose your shirt? A great attorney. I’m honored to work with Joyce Dollinger as well as the women of LaPolt Law, amongst others. Finding an open legal mind to protect artist rights and guide an artistic brain is the retirement plan for an artist in the ever evolving new music industry.
Work hard, find your creative vision, execute it, connect with fans, always be open to trying new ideas, and repeat. It’s amazing what one can accomplish and if finding partners is your goal, trust me: all of the above is what they’re looking for.
You can also check out Gold Motel in video in the new “midem playlist”. Enjoy!