Guide To The Business Of DIY Music

To be a successful DIY musician in today’s fiercely competitive digital space, you need both a creative head, and a business one.

Creativity requires an immense amount of trial and error. Most things you write or record are nonsense, though perfectly valid artistic statements. If you want your music to be successful, then you have to step outside of the creative zone. Think of yourself as a listener, would you really enjoy your own music? Remember that music fans don’t really care about your story, they want a space on which to project their own.

Having an outsiders perspective, that filters out any bias, was traditionally handled by a record producer. Somebody who steered wayward bands or individuals towards making a coherent album. Making sure the music was aligned with fans expectations and would sell. Human nature is the same, whatever business you’re in. People want inspiration that will inform their own life, and feel good about sharing their experience with others.

DIY artists easily fall into the trap of self indulgence. You hear things in your music nobody else will.

You might be emotionally attached to a particular song or invested a lot of physical labour into a recording. You might not even care if anyone else likes it or not, which is fine. Though it’s pointless to even consider publishing self-indulgent music and expecting people to buy or stream it. You need to make a harsh judgement on yourself. Presentation is vitally important, especially online. Great music will be ignored if the visual branding and story are muddled, if listeners cannot relate or see themselves in what you do.

Visual branding matters, fans are looking to relate their own identity with artists.

I’m saying all this because it’s been my own learning curve. Some of my music has been modestly successful. Not in terms of monetary value, but I’ve received positive feedback on my compositions. Where I’ve failed is in consistency, by projecting a blurry image, not quite knowing where I fit in. Music fans will stick with artists who are consistent. Though we like to think, as listeners, we take risks and enjoy subversion, this is rarely the case. We might enjoy lots of genres, but we still want familiarity and safety.

DIY musicians need to edit themselves, sort through the junk and find elements of magic.

Most of what you write and record is not going to make the grade. This time is certainly not wasted. In fact, that’s what creativity is, whether its science, fine art or music. Deep thinking is really hard work. Our brains are still relatively primitive, we still mostly use the “primal” and “emotional” brains in everyday life. There’s no such thing as having a “gift”. It’s more about application and enthusiasm. It helps when you have some lived experience and healthy role models. There’s also a big difference between creativity for relaxation and creativity as a job. Everything you create might also be developed into something else. I’m always reshaping ideas.

SoundCloud is a great space to gauge opinion and assess how effective your music is on other people, it makes you more objective.

I know that almost all DIY music artists reading this, would like to have some sort of recognition, though are unlikely to admit that. An uptick in followers, a healthier income as a Bandcamp artist or improved listening stats on Spotify. We are not merely hobbyists. We take music very seriously, it’s a big part of our lives. We struggle to find enough time, because we have a day job and need to pay the rent. It is possible to succeed by taking the business aspects more seriously. Perhaps even considering changing the type of music you make. At the very least, you must cherry pick your best songs and seek advice from music industry professionals.

Be objective about your music, listeners want escapism and to be able to relate their own identity with your brand.

The most successful music tends be ambiguous, universal and often its global success is an accident, particularly in the world of rock and pop music. Timing is everything, did a song capture a moment or fit perfectly with the fashions of the day. Uniqueness is really hard to pull-off, journalists and disc jockeys are always on the hunt for new, upcoming talent. This still happens today, but is often less visible, a smaller ecosystem.

Fresh On The Net, an invaluable digital service for DIY artists, an opportunity to be considered for airplay on a national radio station.

Which might actually be a healthier music marketplace for DIY artists, that nurtures smaller niches rather than try to change the world. Music genres are both prevalent and more fine tuned, and there is also a degree of quality control on the part of listeners, because there is perhaps too much choice. This also means, there’s an audience for everyone. As long as you make quality music, there’s a good chance that you will succeed.

There are many alternative options open, to create your own network of fans and collaborators. Bandcamp is certainly the number one platform that provides all the tools you need to sell music, market it and build a dedicated mailing list. I am also seeing the potential of newsletter frameworks like Substack, that enable monetisation and a much more direct fan base than any of the scattergun social media platforms can offer.

Resisting the temptation to release music that you don’t feel entirely comfortable with.

Digital providers encourage you to keep publishing, because it’s helping their business, not yours. Of course, distributors are more than happy to keep taking your £10-£40 fee, irrespective of whether the music is any good. This clever trick is designed to make you feel empowered and part of the industry, because you’re spending hard cash on your promo. On the other hand, you’re unlikely to make anything in return from streaming. It’s wiser to focus on platforms such as BandCamp, where there is no financial loss.

It’s sensible to build a niche network of fans, perhaps run a newsletter or even music courses and tutorials as a supplement to your creativity. Fans pretend they only want your music, but in reality they need something for themselves, a degree of personal value. It’s human nature and why vinyl or CDs still carry a lot value, because they are objects people can own and feel attached to. The music itself might actually be less important. So artists run video channels or even lessons, to fund music production.

However, this is changing, creators are beginning to be recognised for the work they put into making music. You can see this new dynamic in action with platforms such as Patreon, Substack or Bandcamp. People are prepared to pay something, without needing a physical object to own. The new business model for music is a kind of modern, digital hybrid of traditional fan clubs.