Indie Artists Aren’t Living the Dream, They’re Rewriting It

I’ve been collaborating with musicians for some time—often younger bands and songwriters that are chasing the same dreams their predecessors did: Get attention. Get signed. Get big. A lot of indie bands would look at that formula for success and smirk like “not me, not us” but in most case, they’re lying to themselves. This is exactly what they want. Because it’s easy. It’s nice to have a “team” doing all the work—setting up your tour, publicizing your album, hooking up collabos, licensing deals, that Converse ad, and maybe, just maybe, getting on the new iPad commercial. For as long as we can remember, this has always been the best case scenario.

Converse Ad - My Drive Thru - Featuring Pharrell, N.E.R.D., Santogold and Julian Casablacas
Converse Ad – My Drive Thru – Featuring Pharrell, N.E.R.D., Santogold and Julian Casablacas – Watch it >

Artists like the idea of creative control, and they get upset when they have to hand it over in exchange for a contract. Because a label doesn’t care about your art. All they care about is their product. Not your product. Their product. They’re the ones putting down the investment. They’re the ones hyping it. They’re the ones trying to sell enough tickets and albums so that they don’t get swept up in the next round of layoffs. You are not their friend. You are their living. And when it comes down to it, all they really want to do is send their kids to good schools and have a nice car and just try to minimize the annoying shit they have to deal with on a daily basis—including you.

A label doesn’t want to know you’re “artistic.” Or that you’re an original. Or that you have dozens of influences. Or that you’re difficult to define. All that really means is that it’s going to be a pain to try and figure out how to market you.

Now, remember that hard work you wanted to pass off onto a label? Well, they don’t want to do it either.

Case in point: Miike Snow, the band you may have heard of if somewhere in your circle of family or friends there’s a hipsterish 15-year-old girl. Two of the band members, Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, also make up the Grammy-winning production team Bloodshy & Avant—known for their chart-topping work for Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Britney Spears. Fast forward to the drop of their own album—easily one of the best electronic-based albums of the past decade (with the songwriting prowess to match). Okay, here we are. Now, who’s heard of them? Aside from you and the attractive couple you just had brunch with. No one. That’s because the label didn’t push them. And who knows why that happened. But it happened, and that’s why you and your two friends are the only people that have heard this:

Miike Snow “San Soleil” live from Transmissions

MySpace Transmissions | Myspace Video

And I know I’m riffing on the music industry here, but when I say labels, I don’t just mean record labels. I’m talking about publishing companies, galleries, whatever you primary method of distribution might be. These companies are companies. They’re not fans. They’re not laid back in their living rooms with their eyes closed listening to your album, or audio book or whatever way you flow your soul into the universe. These people don’t care. They’re too busy playing Wii with their kids.

So here’s where your brass balls come out. If you want to take the path your predecessors took, you need to do it yourself. If you want to live the dream, you need to rewrite it. Because the world of art and commerce doesn’t work the way it once did. The rule book wasn’t updated. It went extinct.

So where do we go from here?

Imagine it’s the turn of the 20th century and you’re an immigrant stepping off the boat with your business in a tattered suitcase. That’s the dream you’re living as an independent artist in today’s market. You get to define your whole experience, from the ground up. As exciting as that might sound, it also makes for a painful wake up call. And if there’s one artist who can relate to that, it’s Frank Ocean.

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean is one of those originals I mentioned before. He’s the one who’s hard to define, who’s basically too good for his own good. To give you a sense of where this kid is coming from, try this: If Jamie Foxx and Snow Patrol joined forces and played a block party, it might sound something like Frank Ocean.

If you’d been scanning the songwriting credits of the Justin Beiber, Brandy, and John Legend albums that dropped in the past few years, Ocean’s name might sound familiar. But for the most part he’s an unknown. That’s because after getting signed to Island Def Jam, the label basically ignored him. That is until February 16, when he made the bold move of putting the album out on his own. On his Tumblr. For free.

Nostalgia, Ultra - Frank Ocean
Nostalgia, Ultra – Frank Ocean – Free Album Download >

On March 1, Ocean wrote on his Twitter: “i. did. this. not ISLAND DEF JAM. that’s why you see no label logo on the artwork that I DID. guess its my fault for trusting my dumbass lawyer and signing my career over to a failing company. fuck Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/ no intention of following through. fuck em. now back to my day. i want some oatmeal and toast. brunch swag.”

This is a story that’s become all too familiar. Except luckily, today it has a happy ending. In the past, this scenario would have left an artist crushed, without any hope of ever being heard. Today, an artist can go from unknown to revolutionary with an upload button.

The lesson: Your art is your product. And your product is your business. There’s no rule book that says the quality of your work will lead to fame and fortune, but it can. How that happens is your challenge and nobody else’s. Don’t be afraid to do it your way, because when the world finally hears your voice, it’ll truly be your own. And in exchange for that contract, you’ll have had some fun. Because in the end, that may be the best reward of them all.