We are the music industry! – Billie Ray Martin on being an independent artist in the digital age

In 1996 I attended a seminar in London in which a former major label A&R man taught us the methods needed to run our own businesses, take care of our own affairs and, essentially, become independent artists. He predicted the demise of the majors as a meaningful outlet for independently minded recording artists and urged us to start labels and release our own music, to learn about accounting and business plans. He was ahead of the time. Although I paid attention, I didn’t feel as if any of it applied to me. I had a ‘real’ record deal with a major label—I was in the middle of my 15 minutes of surviving in that environment. Little did I know that a few years later major labels would become obsolete, of no relevance to anyone trying to create innovative music.

The old system did have its advantages. Up until the end of the nineties, major record companies dished out big advances to artists, knowing full well that their future lay in investing in talent, thus supporting their artists while they created. If an artist didn’t recoup their investment they were dropped, and they could just walk away. The major label that no longer gives to get back is a pointless and purely exploitative entity. However I never shared in the opinion that major labels only ripped off; they paid a hell of a lot too.

That was the past.

Today things look different. Trent Reznor said it first: “We are the music industry”. The true meaning of this phrase has not even begun to sink in with aspiring and established artists at this point. The notion that somehow a force more powerful than us, outside of us, could bestow the success and income we desire is still prevalent, a residual memory of how the machine worked, passed on through generations. The reality is that we are the 99%. But where does that leave us?

A few years ago, the general consensus was that if you give away mp3s for free you would generate a lot of blog posts, perhaps even end up on The Hype Machine for a few days. This attention would get you gigs, recognition, a possible record deal with an independent label and ultimately earn you the money to continue making music.

One by one these opportunities failed to materialize for the independent artist. Statistics showed that small independent artists could neither draw enough punters to their shows nor get enough hype-generated recognition to convert blog coverage to money. Momentum would fail to build. The rent would go unpaid.

Social media, that purported savior of true music independency, turned out to be a smokescreen. Turning Facebook ‘likes’ into dedicated fans was manipulated into a marketing science and, as the internet distribution channels were blown apart by pirate sites, potential consumers wanted music now, with no effort, and—of course—for free.

I do not agree with giving your music away free—it devalues your art. Luckily the debate has shifted towards protecting your right to getting paid for what you’ve created. This, in my opinion, is a good thing. Sure, give away the odd mix away free if there is an incentive such as quality press coverage to do so. Otherwise let people buy into a valuable exchange between creator and consumer. Why? Like a certain cosmetic giant knows: Because you’re worth it.

What does the World Wide Web provide if not what it originally promised? A general sense of disillusionment has set in. How will the glorious internet serve us in pursuing our art in an environment where record label advances are nonexistent? Where we must be managers, agents, marketing geniuses, crowd funding administrators, publishers, accountants and, somehow, on top of all this, find time and energy to make music as well.

Many have fallen by the wayside; artists have chosen to give up, labels have closed down. The people who keep going are either the stubbornly determined or rich kids for whom daddy buys the gear.

Companies like Spotify have come along and are streaming our music, with almost no money filtering through to the smallest of independent artists at present. Major labels have edged back into the fray, their fingers back in the big pie once more because they are shareholders of the streaming companies. We need to find out how to profit from these developments which are in constant flux. We can decide whether we make Apple or Google richer by selling our music through them or use Bandcamp or other direct selling tools. If you have a large loyal following or extremely strong campaign (and only then) Kickstarter can be the most powerful way to achieve your goals. They are about to start in Europe.

The internet has rendered obsolete the all-powerful A&R man, the person on the other side, judging whether our music is worthy of getting released. This demise is not to be sniffed at. Now people on Facebook, Soundcloud and YouTube, as well as many other outlets, decide whether our stuff reaches a wider public. This is a truly democratic process and nobody can stop it from happening. It is our tool, and it is a powerful one. How this is utilized to build a business is currently unclear to even the most clued up analysts. Trust me: everybody’s winging it.

It is therefore up to all of us as independent artists in the digital age to truly understand that “we are the music industry”. We hold the ultimate power in our hands: the music.