8 Musicians Talk Artistic Independence

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It’s not as easy as it looks in the movies. For every cash-toting, recently signed band you might hear about—and, don’t get me wrong, there aren’t many—there are hundreds upon hundreds of quality acts trying to get their music out to the masses.

?And sometimes the hope for exposure comes with a price. Whether it’s asking your own fans for money to fund an album or putting your trust in labels to distribute your music, there’s a certain cost that bands must constantly weigh.

In celebration of July 4th, America’s own celebration of independence, we’re taking a look at how labels (or a lack thereof) affect artistic freedom. So if you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

1. Leah Diehl, Lightning Love
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How is your music currently distributed?
?Independently, through Quite Scientific Records.

Is this your preferred way to release your music?
We released our first record on our own and we definitely learned a lot from that, but we still don’t know enough. The indie label route has been great so far—we have a lot more direction while still being able to do whatever we want.

Have you used Kickstarter or other fan-funded options to release an album?
?No. It clearly works for some people, but I hate it. I just can’t bring myself to ask for money like that. We funded our first record by playing lots of shows and saving the money. Asking for money feels lazy to me.

What are some pros and cons music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music? ?Making music is a very personal and sensitive endeavor for most people. To put your music out on a label you have to hand over all that work and put your trust in someone else. You feel vulnerable. It’s a gamble like anything else, I guess, but it feels like you’re handing over your child or something. It’s scary.

Have advances in technology in Kickstarter, Bandcamp and more affordable home studio setups increased artistic freedom?
?Absolutely. It’s more accessible than ever, and that’s a good thing. I don’t even care that it opens the door to more shitty music being made. Everyone should be able to make music. This is a very exciting time.

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

2. Nick Krill, The Spinto Band
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How is your music currently distributed?
Right now, our music is released on our own label, Spintonic Recordings, through an independent distributor called Redeye distribution.

Is this your preferred way to release your music?
Well, it has been very rewarding so far. We are the kind of group that likes to be really hands on and see how things work and how decisions are made. While releasing music through our own label we can’t help but be extra hands on because every decision, no mater how big or how small, ends up going through us.

Have you used Kickstarter or other fan-funded options to release an album?
We have not tried anything like that yet, however, we have used platforms like Topspin which have helped us engage more directly with our fans in fun ways.

What are some pros and cons music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music?
One of the biggest pros has been close contact with all the different people helping us with the release of an album. Before, a lot of people like press agents or radio pluggers would be in contact with our record label, and then we’d get passed along info and reports as they came in (or sometimes we never had information shared with us at all). Being the label lets us become much more involved with each person helping with the release, and we can  get a much better sense of what is going on and what is and is not working correctly. The same thing can be said for working with our distributor, Redeye. It has been nice to be able to have instant access to a lot more information on our record manufacturing and sales than we used to.

I guess both of those points can sometimes bee the biggest cons as well—all that interaction and contact with people means a ton more work, more emails, more phone calls, more time being an office-man and less time being a musician-man. One other con is that I know we don’t have the experience or skill set of someone who has been running a label for a while, and I sometimes wish we had an extra two or three brains involved to help us plan a record release and give us some advice on a few of the bigger decisions.

Have advances in technology in Kickstarter, Bandcamp and more affordable home studio setups increased artistic freedom?
All of those technological advances are really just tools musicians can use. Depending on the person using them, and their personality,they can either lead to more artistic freedom or lead someone to an artistic jail cell. You know, someone could have an album funded by Kickstarter and create their masterpiece, but on the other hand, a different person might never meet their funding goal and then be so discouraged they sack the idea and never create what they dreamed of. I am glad all these new bits of technology exist but in the end they can’t make anything happen on their own. It all depends on how artists choose to use them.

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

3. Amanda Palmer
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As told to Hilary Hughes
In your Kickstarter video, you specifically mention that you’re thrilled to be doing this record independently, that this way of doing things—fan-funded, no major label—is the “future of music.” What’s the most exciting aspect of this upcoming endeavor for you now that you’re funded six times over (and counting)?
That’s like asking what the best part of having sex or eating is. It’s impossible to give a general answer. But I’ve learned this much about myself over the past decade or so as a recording artist: I absolutely despise being told what to do. The hardest part of being on a label was the lack of control; the mystery about what all the money was being spent on. I’m really enjoying the fact that every single thing that will promote this album, from the videos to the publicists in different countries, will all be paid out of my pocket.

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

4. Jonathan Visger – Absofacto, Hollow & Akimbo
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You recently did the Kickstarter campaign for Absofacto. Is this a model you liked, and is it something you want to do again?
It was tough for me to decide to finally move forward with it because of the natural aversion I and most other people have towards asking for money, but the strong show of support from everyone after I launched it quickly made me realize it was the right choice. I had priced out doing (Absofacto LP) Sinking Islands on CD and vinyl before, and without Kickstarter and a bunch of people believing in it enough to back the project, it just wasn’t otherwise going to be possible for me. I wouldn’t do it again if I didn’t have to, but I would definitely consider it if I wasn’t able to front the money myself, which is a likely scenario.

Can you explain to casual music fans why label backing is still important?
These rules break down for established artists heading towards the Kickstarter thing, but for artists starting out or in the middle of building up, good labels continue to have a lot more to offer than a simple Kickstarter campaign can. A good label can introduce your music to their network of connections, lend you an air of extra legitimacy before you are well known, serve as another source of ideas and perspective on what you are doing, and in some cases even help the world understand an otherwise idiosyncratic sound by way of association with the label’s particular aesthetic. Brainfeeder is a good example of that kind of label. Someone like Gaslamp Killer might be tough to peg if he were a total lone wolf, yet he makes sense in the context of the roster. Being on a label with like-minded artists can give you an instant pool of good tour mates as well. In general, it can be a less lonely existence.

What are some pros and cons casual music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music?
The main pro everyone already understands is that way more of the money you pay makes it to the people who made the music, and way faster. In the case of Bandcamp, instantly. Another that people might not realize is that it allows music to come out way quicker. If you have a song idea that is extremely fresh and relevant today, you can record it by noon and have it released by one. That is, if you are crazy fast at production, which I am not!

It’s a double-edged sword, though. Self-released digital music can be a lower-stakes game if the musician is lazy. On one hand, artists are more free to take chances because there is less to be lost if an idea doesn’t go over. This can lead to some really exciting new music that might not otherwise see the light of day. On the other hand, for some people it seems to be an excuse to not put as much effort into crafting their work. “Crap” is in the eye of the beholder of course, but a lot of what gets put out digitally probably wouldn’t if it had to have all the time and financial outlay of a full physical album release invested in it.

Have advances in technology in Kickstarter, Bandcamp and more affordable home studio setups increased artistic freedom?
Absolutely! I was doing the Bandcamp thing before Bandcamp via custom code and whatnot, but it wasn’t until they debuted that it really had half a chance to take off. The slickness, ease of use, and the trust people learned to have for that site has been invaluable. My old site for self-released music downloads looked so dodgy—I don’t blame anyone who thought it was going to give them a virus or something.

I couldn’t do what I do without the cheap home recording revolution that has happened over the past 15 years or so. I’ll spend a whole month experimenting to get a song right if I have to, which I could never do if I was on studio time. I would have to stick to safer ideas that I could make work quickly. It just wouldn’t be the same.

The combination of cheap home recording and easy distribution straight to the people who want it has made it so that however specific your niche is, if you can find a way to reach the ears of the right people, your music can survive. Music that no label could ever have a reasonable expectation of success for can thrive and survive as direct communication between the artist and appreciative listeners, no matter how few there may be. There is a new potential cult classic being made everyday by some talented weirdo somewhere in the world.

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

5. Levi Weaver
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How is your music currently distributed?
Aside from CDBaby.com (which is a massive help and does all my digital distribution), I do everything else myself. That honestly just means selling CDs and records at shows and the occasional music store that I have a good contact with.

Is this your preferred way to release your music?
For now, yes. If demand begins to dictate that I have more music stores needing stock, it would be nice to have help there. But at this level, no one is begging for more CDs in stores, so I’m completely content to not have to worry about a distribution company until that happens. 

Have you used Kickstarter or other fan-funded options to release an album?
I did, though it was just before Kickstarter came to popularity, so I did it all myself, set up an online store, and sold varying subscription levels. In fact, it looked a lot like Kickstarter, it just wasn’t through them. I was also recently involved in a campaign on IndieGoGo.com for a film company that is doing a documentary about me. The whole process was exhausting (because I absolutely hate self-promotion), but it was a big success and the filmmakers raised a lot of what they needed. I do like the basic concept of the model, but the amount of “HEY COME GIVE ME MONEY” involved is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. 

What are some pros and cons music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music?
Pros: I handle all my own finances. This starts at the recording process, though. I’m not at the mercy of a label’s budget when I record (for better or worse), so I don’t have to recoup their expenses before I start making money back.
Cons: I handle all my own finances, so instead of having to recoup to a label (which I could technically get out of by dissolving the “band”) I owe credit card companies, etc. The initial cost is less because I’m making my own decisions, but there’s no “eject seat” option. I make the money back faster, but I pay a higher interest rate. My expenses for this year, including recording, printing up merch, traveling, car payments, etc. are just under $40,000, and that all comes out of my own personal pocket. I guess there’s another “Pro” in here, which is that I am super motivated to work as hard as I can to make those releases a success when it’s my own money?  

Do you have any advice for artists trying to release music (or anything, really) independently?
Yes. Don’t hassle new people to listen to your music. At the risk of sounding jaded, 95 percent of music I hear about directly from the band who made it is not good. It’s gotten to the point that if I hear about your music from you, I’m not very likely to listen. That sounds awful, but it’s the sad truth. The new music I find myself liking is the music that I hear about from my trusted sources. If you want your music to spread, don’t focus on introducing yourself to people by asking them to listen to your music. (Please don’t follow someone on Twitter and then respond to a follow-back with a generic DM going: “THANKS HERE IS MY MUSIC PLEASE LISTEN”) Instead, focus on the people who already like and believe in what you’re doing, and inform them of the importance of them telling someone about your music. It’s a slower growth, but it’s more organic, and a million percent more likely to result in listeners who will stick with you for future releases. 

Also, don’t be afraid to give it away for free, even if it’s for a limited time. The people that believe in you will buy it anyway to support you. Giveaways make it easier for them to introduce others to your music. Again, it’s not going to result in immediate wealth, but it will (long-term) result in more listeners, who will in turn (hopefully) spread your music to the next person and the next person, etc. 

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

6. Jarrod Bramson, Solvents
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How is your music currently distributed?
Independently

Is this your preferred way to release your music?
I’m torn on this because I like silkscreening covers and folding things. I like being in control of what we do. I get a great deal of satisfaction out of making a whole bunch of records or CDs. On the other hand, being on a label seems like it would make things easier like booking better shows and getting records into stores. 

Have you used Kickstarter or other fan-funded options to release an album?
We used Kickstarter to fund our last record. It worked out very well for us. I highly recommend it for any indie band producing their own album.

What are some pros and cons casual music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music?
Everything is so weird now! Again, I really like to be in control of what we do and how we do it. With a site like Spotify, no one asked us if it was okay to put us on their site. We just appeared on it. I’m not really comfortable with this. I’m sure the average music fan might not understand that sites like that are ripping bands off pretty hard.

On the other hand, its pretty amazing that people can hear us anywhere at any time! That kinda blows me away.

Have advances in technology in Kickstarter, Bandcamp and more affordable home studio setups increased artistic freedom?
I do think technology has made it so much easier and rewarding to make music! There’s the whole “instant gratification” factor where you can record a song on your iPhone, upload it to sound cloud and start getting feedback from people right away. That in itself is a reason to want to make songs and put them out there. Whether you should be doing that is a whole other question…

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

7. Matt Adams, The Blank Tapes
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How is your music currently distributed?
Some of our music is distributed through ADA. The rest is sold online through my website, bandcamp, iTunes, or at shows. 

Is this your preferred way to release your music?
I personally haven’t seen any of my albums in stores, so I guess this isn’t my preferred way. My website and Bandcamp have been my main thing lately. Although I’d love to see my music in the record shops without having to deal with some pain-the-ass consignment deal

Have you used Kickstarter or other fan-funded options to release an album?
Not yet, but I plan on it soon. 

What are some pros and cons casual music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music?
To be honest, I don’t really know whats going on with my distribution. I prefer selling albums at shows, being able to meet the fan, cash in hand. but it seems I generally sell more music online and through Bandcamp 
Have advances in technology in Kickstarter, Bandcamp and more affordable home studio setups increased artistic freedom?
Sure! I wouldn’t be recording the way I do if it wasn’t affordable and available. I have all the time in the world to record, although lately I’ve been spending money recording in fancy studios, getting better sounds.

If you’re trying to decide on making a Kickstarter commitment or a big-label leap, fret not. Below, we’ve talked to eight different working acts that shed some light on the ins and outs of artistic freedom in a world of labels, the internet and cheap(er) home recording equipment.

8. Chris Connelly, Hot Panda
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How is your music currently distributed?
It’s distributed through our label in the indiest of ways. 

Is this your preferred way to release your music?
It’s preferred for me, because I’m a musician and not the best at dealing with stuff like distribution. 

Have you used Kickstarter or other fan-funded options to release an album?
We’ve never used Kickstarter before, but I’m not opposed to it. If people want to give money to a band they like they should. There’s a lot of that spirit lacking now a days. 

What are some pros and cons casual music fans might not understand about the way you distribute music?
The pros of having someone distribute your music is that you don’t have to do it! You get to work more on playing music. The cons are that it’s more out of your hands. You’re less involved in the process of how your fans get your music. 

Have advances in technology in Kickstarter, Bandcamp and more affordable home studio setups increased artistic freedom?
I think artistic freedom is the same as it’s always been. A few people do interesting, original things and then most people try to sound like things that are successful. I don’t think the internet has changed that.

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