Why We Wrote This Guide
Making your way into the music industry as an artist is challenging and even more so if you’re deciding to enter the field as an independent musician. That is why it is important that independent artists have an understanding of the industry and all of the opportunities and challenges that come with navigating the complex, modern music industry.
The purpose of this guide is to help you understand what it takes to be an independent artist. We’ll talk a bit about the history of independent artistry, the pros and cons of operating as an independent artist, how to properly license your music, and what revenue streams you have access to as an independent artist.
Who Is This Guide For
- Independent artists that are just getting started
- Musicians who are deciding whether to sign with an independent or major label or no label at all
- Anyone interested in learning more about the industry
- The Pros and Cons
- Networking and Marketing
- Types of Deals
- Licensing your Music
- Revenue Streams
- Notable Independent Artists
- Helpful Resources and Publications
An independent artist is any artist not signed with a major label. This means that independent artists go through a different process than artists signed with a major label when attempting to garner fame, success, and ideally money from their art. Weighing the pros and cons of signing with an independent label or not signing with any label at all is a great first step in choosing what path is best for you. While independent artists have more creative freedom, they also have much less financial security as well as much less influence and reach in the music industry. Independent artists must take on the tasks of networking, marketing, and promoting themselves. There are also many options regarding publishing deals and record deals that you must evaluate to see which is best for you, if any. To earn money, independent artists must license their music and learn about the many revenue stream options available. This guide provides a “starter pack” of foundational information designed to guide an independent artist towards success.
Independent labels have been very influential to the music industry. Major labels are able to control what is mainstream through their influence, keeping certain genres in the forefront while failing to acknowledge others. Independent record companies were the first to introduce many of the genres we have today. In the 1950s, Chess Records was established, an independent label that signed black rhythm and blues artists, such as Etta James, who were unable to be signed to major labels due to discrimination. Also in the 1950s, Sun Records was formed, an independent rock n roll label that signed artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. In the 1970s, punk music was born and introduced to the public via independent labels. Unfortunately, as punk became more mainstream, major record labels began to sign punk bands and some independent labels were no longer able to stay afloat. As time went on, many now famous artists, such as Nirvana, Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Pixies, and Elvis Costello, utilized indie labels to get their music out there. New indie labels were formed while others failed to continue. Independent labels were established to provide a safe space for artists to create their art, with no creative limitations. Indie labels are still alive today because they continue to value music, creativity, and self-expression over profits.
Some independent artists are unsigned and therefore do not belong to any labels. While there may be a lesser instance of success with unsigned artists, many have attained comparable levels of fame, wealth, and success. The development of the internet and social media made widespread success much more attainable for unsigned artists. These tools allow artists to reach larger audiences than was previously possible without the help of a label. Today, stars such as Jason Isbell, Zoë Keating, Noname, and Thundercat have all reached market success, while never signing with a record label.
The Pros and Cons
Whether you’re working with an indie label or as an unsigned artist it’s important to understand the differences between operating as an independent artist and working with a major label. While many independent artists enjoy the creative autonomy of being unsigned or working with an independent label, there are some major label benefits that indie artists may miss out on.
- More creative control - Oftentimes, indie labels are fans of the artists they sign with. This means that the artists generally have more creative freedom when creating their music. Artists have full freedom to choose who they wish to work with and there is no pressure to sacrifice creativity for chart success. If you are an unsigned artist you will have complete control over your music, style, and marketing.
- Closer relationships with your team - Since independent labels are much smaller there’s a greater chance for you to intimately know the people that are helping you boost your career. As an indie artist you will get to work more closely with PR managers, producers, distributors, and more--this allows you to be involved in every step of the process. Your involvement becomes even greater if you’re an unsigned artist because you will get to assemble your own team.
- Artist Friendly Deals - Your bargaining power as an artist is much greater with an independent label than with a major label. This means you may be able to get more benefits with an indie label like greater ownership over your music or a shorter-term contract so that you’re not forced into a long-term commitment. As an unsigned artist, you have complete control over every aspect of your music and don’t have to sacrifice any of your rights to ownership.
- Financing - As an independent artist either working unsigned or with an indie label it is likely that in the beginning, you will earn less money than an artist signed with a major label. This is due to the fact that major labels often have higher budgets and can pay their artists greater advances.
- Less Reach/Influence - Working with an indie label or as an unsigned artist often means that your outreach is more limited than with a major label that already has a multitude of connections in the industry. Although this is a challenge, it is definitely something that indie artists should be able to overcome with mindful networking and marketing skills.
- Size - While the small size of indie labels allows artists to have closer relationships with their team, it can also be limiting. The larger size of the major labels allows them to have more bargaining power in the industry and to expedite the process of publishing your work.
Networking and Marketing
As an independent artist, it is important to have effective networking and marketing strategies. While a major label is easily able to network and market for their client, smaller indie labels are usually working with much more limited funds. This limited money supply means that, while an indie label may be able to help you in some ways, Independent artists must also network and market on their own in order to be successful. Networking involves forming relationships with prominent people in the music industry, while marketing involves promoting your music to consumers. Without a major label, it can be more difficult to meet the “right” people. This is similar to attending Ivy league schools vs state schools or community college. While you may be receiving a similar education, your tuition money at Ivy Leagues is really paying for more accessibility to prominent people in your field. Similarly, with a major label important people are much more accessible. Major labels also have more established, bigger audiences to market music to. For these reasons, it is even more important for an independent artist to network and market themself. Here are a few ways an artist can network and market on their own:
- Attend Networking Events - Concerts, festivals, open mic nights, and similar events are great places to meet artists and others in the industry. Sites such as Eventbrite inform users of networking events in their field/area. While some of these events may be small, they are good stepping stones for getting your name and music out there.
- Networking Platforms - There are platforms such as Whouknow and Fiverr that allow independent artists to connect and collaborate with other artists on certain projects.
- Social Media - One of the most useful marketing and networking tools available to independent artists is social media. You are able to reach a wide range of people to market and spread your music and also use social media as a networking tool to keep in touch with people in the industry. Don’t be afraid to interact with people you would like to connect with--the worst that can happen is someone saying no.
Types of Deals
As an independent artist, you have a few options regarding how you choose to handle your copyright ownership and licensing. Some independent artists may choose to sign with a record label but retain control over their publishing; some artists may choose to work with no label but publish their work through a publishing company; other artists may work with no label or publishing company at all. Each of these options will largely affect how much ownership you have over your music and how much royalties you are able to acquire. Let’s look at how these options may affect your career as an independent artist.
- Working with no label and no publisher
If you choose to work with no labels or publishers you maintain complete control over your material and how it is managed. Working without a label or publisher means that you will be responsible for releasing your music through an independent distributor like CD Baby or Distrokid. If you choose to do this as an independent singer-songwriter you will get to keep the revenue earned on both the master side, which includes all money made by use of recordings, and all revenue earned on the publishing side, which includes mechanicals and performance royalties. Choosing to work with no publisher or record label maximizes your earning potential because you are not having to split royalties or recoup advances with publishing entities or labels. While the potential financial benefits of being completely independent may seem nice, artists that choose this option will have to put in a lot of work on their own and significant outreach is not guaranteed if you don’t have a large platform. Artists that go this route are also operating with no advance money from labels or publishers to help cover recording costs so there’s much more money coming out of their pocket upfront.
- No label but signed with a publisher
As a singer-songwriter working with no label and the help of a publisher you will maintain the rights to your master but you will likely have to hand over the rights to your composition so they can help you exploit your composition and earn royalties. This option would only work for independent singer-songwriters or songwriters that own the rights to the composition of their songs. Choosing this option means that you will be splitting 50% of your performance royalties with your publishing company and you will also have to split a portion of your mechanical royalties with your publisher depending on what agreement you come to with your publisher in exchange for their services. You can learn more about what exactly those services are and more in our “What is a Music Publisher?” guide here.
- Signed with a label but handling your own publishing
As an artist that is signed with an indie label you are still able to have control over your publishing since labels typically ask for partial or complete ownership of your master copyright. This allows you as a singer-songwriter to retain ownership of your composition rights so you can keep 100% of the royalties earned from uses of your composition. Those royalties include sound recording performance royalties, a portion of sync royalties, and master-use royalties. If you choose to handle your own publishing you will have to register with the PRO of your choice (BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC), register with all three mechanical licensing agencies (Harry Fox Agency, Music Reports, and MLC), and work to promote your music. It’s important to note that you can only go this route as a singer-songwriter not as a recording artist because you must be the original owner of your composition copyright. Our “A Birds-Eye-View” guide can help you visualize the differences between how composition and sound recording rights are handled by labels and publishing companies.
- Signed with indie label and publisher
This option is going to be one of the easiest options available to you as an independent artist because publishing, distribution, and promotion will be taken care of by your publisher and label. This does mean that you will be taking home a smaller percentage of revenue from your royalties since you will be splitting profits with your label and publishing entity. It is also likely that if you choose to go this route you will have to sacrifice the ownership of your composition and sound recording so that your label and publishing company can exploit your music for you.
Licensing Your Music
Apple announced it has acquired classical music streaming service Primephonic. The platform offers a listening experience with search and browse functionality optimized for classical, premium-quality audio, handpicked expert recommendations, and extensive contextual details on repertoire and recordings. Apple Music subscribers will get an improved classical music experience beginning with Primephonic playlists and exclusive audio content. Primephonic is no longer available for new subscribers and will be taken offline, beginning September 7. Apple Music plans to launch a dedicated classical music app next year combining Primephonic’s classical user interface.
Copyright - The first thing you’ll want to do is properly acquire the copyright for your material. The best way to do this is to go through the U.S. Copyright Government Office. If you’re a singer that is using lyrics from another writer you’ll only need to copyright the master recording since you aren’t the owner of the composition. If you are a singer-songwriter you will have to copyright both the master recording and the composition.
Public Performance Licenses - You’ll want to register yourself as a writer and music publisher with one of the two major Performing Rights Organizations (PRO), ASCAP or BMI. This will help you ensure that you get any royalties you earn from performances of your licensed work. Our guide on performance licensing has great additional information on this type of license.
Synchronization License - You may want to distribute synchronization licenses, also known as synch licenses, so that people can use your songs in audiovisual works. These licenses ensure that you’re paid for the uses of your music in movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, etc.
Master-Use License - This type of license is typically given to the primary copyright holder which can be your label or yourself if you’re an unsigned artist.
Mechanical License - A mechanical license, according to the Harry Fox Agency, a mechanical licensing company, grants to a user the rights to distribute and reproduce copyrighted compositions on records, CDs, tapes, ringtones, tapes, ermanent digital downloads (DPDs), interactive streams, etc. In exchange for the ability to access these uses, licensees pay a statutory rate to the copyright holder(s) per reproduction.
There are many revenue streams that you could potentially tap into as an independent artist. Here is a list of different revenue streams available to you:
Notable Independent Artists
While it may seem more difficult to gain a following without one of the big four record labels (EMI, Sony, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group), there are many big-name independent artists, whether unsigned or signed to independent labels. Independent artists span all genres from country artists like Jason Aldean to rappers like Childish Gambino to alternative artists like Joji. Some notable independent artists that are signed with an independent label include Mac Miller, Tech N9NE, Noname, and MF Doom, while artists such as Macklemore and Chance the Rapper are not signed with a label. While working as an independent artist may be associated with a lesser payday, this is not always the case, as many artists, such as some of the ones listed, are worth millions.
Helpful Resources and Publications
Author: Alana Thomas
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