What Independent Artists Need to Succeed

How viable is it to become a full-time independent artist?
Dec 15, 2021
6 min

The advance of the internet has led to the entertainment and — more specifically — the music industry becoming more transparent. Industry secrets, methods, and processes are being exposed, from creating a song to its packaging and promotion. Collecting this information allows outsiders to implement advanced music industry strategies and determine what’s required to succeed.

Historically, an artist would work with a record label to achieve a goal. The record label would provide its services, knowledge base, connections, and financing to advance an artist’s career. In exchange, the artist would give the record label royalties to their work. This approach to music distribution has been a standard for 100 years.

Improvement in technology has provided the average person access to tools a record label uses. In modern times, it’s possible — but not expected — for an independent artist’s record to match the quality of a record released by a record label. In addition, decentralization of the music process has led to artists delegating responsibilities to achieve musical goals.

In modern times, an artist may take sole responsibility for a record and its production, while delegating the distribution and promotion of a project to other agencies (i.e distribution deal). When a single person is responsible for every task in a record’s release, they are classified as an independent artist, even if they don’t complete each task. So what do independent artists need to succeed?

Look At The Charts

Signed artists dominate the modern music landscape. In the last decade, less than a handful of independent artists have been on the charts. It’s evident that a signed artist has a clear advantage over actual independent artists. Let's figure out why.

Show Me the Money

A signed artist is typically given an advance — a loan — by their record label and access to its services. While there is no standard for a record deal, data by the IFPI estimates an average advance of $50,000 - $350,000 before recording, video, tour, or promotion expenses. To put this in a tangible perspective, Taylor Swift’s father invested a modern-day equivalent of $175,000 in her record label before her debut album in 2004. 

In contrast, the median household income in the U.S. is only $67,000. Most individuals do NOT have as much money as a signed artist, and modern record labels are likely to be more efficient with their spending. Equate monetary value to time, and it becomes clear where the disparity in success between signed artists and independent artists lies.

Give Me More Time

A record label — directly and indirectly — employs thousands of specialized workers for at least 40 hours a week. You will likely lose a viewer’s attention to a signed artist when you do not match this output. Most individuals aren’t specialized in a single industry and can’t access top-tier talent from others. So it’s no surprise that a signed artist performs better than an independent artist.

To compete with a signed artist, an independent artist must master multiple fields. However, mastery in just one field takes a significant amount of time. It isn’t easy to spend your time efficiently, and most people do not have access to information that allows you to do so. As a result, an independent artist is at a significant disadvantage compared to a signed artist with regard to time.

Automation is the only way for an independent artist to outperform a record label.

Be Willing To Succeed

“You need to love creating music to succeed.” This statement isn’t true for a signed artist, but it is gospel for an independent one. Creating music to make money makes no logical sense. You can end up in debt even if you work tens of thousands of hours. Meanwhile, programmers make six figures for a few hours of remote work.

Are independent artists willing to succeed? It depends on their environment. A satisfied person doesn’t sacrifice extra time to advance their career, especially if they don’t believe it will benefit them. So whether or not an independent artist is satisfied affects their willingness to succeed.

If the independent artist has a team, those members must also be willing to succeed. However, the chances of an independent artist finding a team of people willing to succeed in the music industry is low: Each person would have to be unsatisfied and believe their efforts will result in “greatness”, whatever that is.

You must be delusional to succeed.

The Business

The music business is a business. Competition is inevitable, and the entertainment industry hides anti-competitive practices in plain sight. “Music is more accessible than ever”, yet the top 1% of all artists earn 77% of all recorded music incomeWhy? Because music accessibility doesn’t matter; music discovery does. Record Labels hold a subconscious monopoly on music discovery to fight amongst themselves.

Need Proof? Walk through the day of a normal person.

A Day In The Life: Normal People

“I wake up in the morning and prepare to eat breakfast. I have no milk, so I must go to the store for food before work today. I play the latest Editorial Playlist on Spotify while getting dressed, which has added new songs from a few new artists. I don’t know if they’re signed though. “Spotify is so great for music discovery!” I exclaim while heading out the door.

In the car, I become ambitious and turn on the radio. Not much has changed from the usual 30 - 40 songs on rotation this month. However, one of the newer tracks is from an artist I heard this morning. They are blowing up! Super cool.

I arrive in the parking lot. A soundtrack grows louder and louder with each step I take in the grocery store. It is at step 1293 that I realize it's the new song I've heard playing on the speakers. If I'm honest, I did NOT like the song initially. However, it's starting to grow on me.

At work, I'm assigned a highly classified research project. I decided to use Google for this project since they are known to respect consumer data. I type the first letter of a word in a search bar, only to find that new artist in the suggestion bar. "Interesting", I think. I've never searched for that artist before.

During my break, I watch a bit of TV. It wasn't long until I came across an advertisement with the artist that created the song I saw earlier. "Wow, they look amazing!" Nonetheless, I managed to resist the urge to capitulate to my ultra-consumerist tendencies, which involve buying products presented by attractive people. You can't get me this time, capitalism.

As I head home, I notice that I'm a little low on gas. The first thing I do is turn off the car, since refueling with a running car is dangerous. Then, I reach down to open the gas cap, hop out of the vehicle, and insert my credit card. So far. So good. I grab the pump - with a wipe - and turn around. And just as I insert the long shaft into the hole of the car, a light moan startles me from behind.

Wait a minute... American gas stations have ads?” A short-lived thought as a wonderful person appeared on the screen.

When I got home, I decided to watch some YouTube; while eating, of course. There is nothing more efficient than ritualistic multi-tasking. I clicked the first video recommended to me: A 100% Truthful Grammy-Winning Artist Interview. As I watch, a single crumb of fried chicken drops to the mousepad, resulting in a liter of grease on my keyboard. I pull out a single wipe from the nearby tissue box and apply it, misclicking in the process.

While waiting for the page to load, I browse some of my favorite TikTok stars. I find it interesting that they are playing the song from this morning, even though it just came out. "What a coincidence!" I think to myself. The web page on my laptop finishes loading…

At first, I have NO IDEA which website I'm on. "Y-You. Tube… Music." Ah. I see. I can't help but notice that the playlist looks similar to the Editorial Playlist I listened to when I woke up, which reminds me that I should be heading to bed… That is until I receive a text from a friend. It reads: "Hey, please let me know what you think of this new song I've made." Ugh. I make it 1.27 seconds through the song before realizing it isn't Pop. I wait roughly 30 seconds, then respond: ‘You need to get a real job... :)'.

As I'm about to sleep, I wonder why so many artists don't even bother to promote their new music...”

Competition Isn’t A Resource

Time and money are achievable by an independent artist. Competition isn't a resource: It works against you. The average independent artist cannot wine and dine themselves to the radio. This competition makes it highly improbable for an independent artist to be viable at a self-sustaining yet profitable level.

The Outliers

Most consumers cannot identify whether an artist is independent.

Drake is my favorite independent artist.

Those who are correct frequently mention previously signed artists. These “pseudo-independent” artists are significant because they ARE financially viable. Pseudo-independent artists show that an artist with a loyal fanbase will maintain success. So an independent artist requires a loyal fanbase to succeed more than any of the above obstacles.

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