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Business Tools for the Independent Musician

In 2017, making a living as an independent musician requires a whole new set of skills and tools…

Let’s learn these skills and tools together!

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Why use Medium?

Because artists have ideas and Medium provides a (great) place for these ideas to connect with readers.

“But I’m not a writer…I create _______!”

Yes, but real fans (the kind that you want – people that actually care about what you create) care about what you think, and writing is a great medium for this.

“But that’s what my art is for.”

Granted. And if your art is good enough, it will speak for itself, and you won’t have to go looking for new fans (and you’ll get really, really lucky, and get a break).

If you are like the rest of us, however, you find it difficult to get noticed. Why? Because there is SO MUCH noise out there, so many artists competing for attention (and no one has attention). This is why taking the time to express yourself can be so valuable — the kinds of fans that you want (the ones that are going to stick around) both love your art, as well as care about who you are, and what you think.

If that makes sense to you, then Medium is a great platform to publish on, especially at the beginning (once you have enough fans, you’ll have more options…maybe better options…publishing an op-ed in the New York Times couldn’t hurt, for example). Medium provides you with a built-in audience: there are already tens of thousands of readers on the site, so your article will have a better opportunity to get discovered, commented on, and shared than if you published it on your own site.

[NB: I am (obviously) not saying that Medium is necessary, that it’s going to solve all your problems, etc. I am simply saying that, for the right artist, it can be a great tool to connect with old fans and (potentially) find new fans.]

Why Medium and Not ________ ?

While there are many places you could publish online, Medium’s tools for discovery, sharing, and interacting set it apart from most other blogging/publishing platforms:

1) It provides ways for readers to find new articles that interest them and to vote them into greater visibility on the site. “Success” (read, “visibility”) of content on the site is democratic — readers vote on the content that they like. What this means is that everyone has the same opportunity for exposure, and if enough people find your article compelling, it will rise to the top. Not only this, but Medium’s algorithm takes into account how much of an article gets read (it’s not enough to simply write a catchy title!)

2) It’s social, and provides in-line note functionality, so you can comment on a certain section of a post (as well as respond to other people’s notes). You can also easily send drafts of your article to people to get feedback before you publish.

3) Once you have posted an article to Medium, you can submit to Medium publications and, if accepted, this will give your article added visibility.

4) If you find a better place for your article, you can always take it off Medium and publish it elsewhere…it’s always yours, after all.

Many independent artists (from illustrator Noah Bradley to alt-rocker Amanda Palmer, recording artist D. A. Wallach, YouTube-rockers Pomplamoose, designers, painters, photographers, etc.), have already used Medium to make substantial connections with their fans (as well as making new fans) in the process.

Medium is obviously a great platform for writers, but also for visual artists, and I would argue that it’s a great platform for any artist that has an opinion about anything (and being an artist, you have opinions about things!) In the rest rest of this article, I want to look at the kinds of articles an artist can publish on Medium to get in front of, and connect with, potential new fans.

What Should You Write About?

The point is to make a connection with potential fans, so you’ll want your article to reveal something about your view of the world (and, likely, the world of creativity in which you find yourself). But what it is that you’re going to write about? Rather than look at media-specific topics (these are obvious enough — if you’re a poet, you publish poetry), I’d like to look at topics that are common to all artists. You may, for example, want to write about:

1) The artist’s life. What’s it like to be you? What do your days look like? Everyone’s day is unique, and you may find that people find the way you live your life inspiring.

2) Social commentary. While your art has a point of view it’s not, perhaps, always as precisely expressed as it could be. Blogging is an opportunity to go more deeply into issues that concern you.

3) The things that inspire you, or influence you, or upset you. This might be social commentary, or it might simply be reflections on the things that inspire you (without looking at the social implications).

4) Meditations on life. You could address the big questions: the problem of evil, life and death, aging, family, love, etc.

5) You could write about your process. How do you do what you do? Do you do things differently than other artists? How? Why?

These are some possible topics that you could write about. Now let’s take a look at what artists are already publishing on Medium.

Who’s Publishing on Medium, and What are They Publishing?

Lots and lots of people are publishing on Medium, and many of them are artists:

Noah Bradley’s article, “How I Became an Artist” chronicles his journey from student to professional visual artist. It has been liked 2,500 times and has 145 comments.

In Sara Benincasa’s article, “Real Artists Have Day Jobs: Your Job is Just Your Side Gig,” the author muses on what it means to be considered a “real” artist. It has been liked 1,200 times and has 30 comments.

Artist and writer Jens Lennartsson has 7,100 followers on Medium, and his article, “Why every travel photographer should carry a notebook,” has been liked 941 times and garnered 39 comments. In it, Lennartsson explains what kinds of experiences he likes to capture through writing that he is unable to capture through photography.

Writer M. Molly Backs published a piece called, “How to be a Writer,” (2,500 likes, 20 comments) in response to being asked to advise a budding writer (the most highlighted section of the piece? “Fact: writers write. Fact: In order to be a writer you have to write a lot. A LOT. Fact: there’s no shortcut.”) One of the many nice things about Medium is that you can see what other readers have highlighted, and Medium has made it very easy to highlight and tweet sections (and those tweeted sections link back to the original article, providing another way for it to be discovered).

Recording artist D. A. Wallach published “How I Choose Headphones: It’s not about the hype. It’s about your ears. Use them,” (138 likes, 1 comment) to explain some of the factors that should go into the purchase of a pair of headphones (and he provides insight into the recording process at the same time).

Alt-Rocker Amanda Palmer published an article regarding her pregnancy, Patreon, her music, and how she’s juggling it all, “No, I Am Not Crowdfunding This Baby (an open letter to a worried fan): How I’m slightly terrified of the oncoming mix of motherhood and art….and how judging and terrifying me further isn’t going to help me” (2,100 likes, 336 comments) and YouTube rocker (and Patreon CEO) Jack Conte of Pomplamoose got into the nitty gritty realities of bands touring in the mid-2010s (“Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (or Lack Thereof)” (1,500 likes, 82 comments).

Notice how none of these creatives are trying to sell anything — they’re simply sharing their opinions and their experience. All of these articles have had thousands (probably tens of thousands) of readers, many of whom had never heard of these artists. Also, (likely) far more people read these articles on Medium than would have read them on the artists’ own websites.

Interested in learning more? Here’s a good article that goes into how to choose a good headline, how to write with the right tone, and how to submit to publications. Have suggestions for other types of subjects that artists could write about? Please share in the comments!

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Clearly, independent creatives today face a very different set of realities than they faced in the twentieth century and earlier. The internet, mobile devices, etc. have presented independent artists with opportunities that were previously nearly inconceivable. These opportunities, in turn, are re-shaping what it means to be an independent creative, what it means to be a “successful” artist, etc.

The history of artists is marked by their increased emancipation from the shackles of gatekeepers. In the pre-Industrial Age, the very few artists fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hone and use their talents were largely beholden to wealthy patrons (music and visual art), to publishers (writers), to theater owners (playwrights), etc. Artists, unless they were born into wealth, nearly never had the opportunity to control their own destiny, and were largely at the mercy of wealthy gatekeepers.

In the Industrial Age, as leisure time increased for a larger portion of the population, there was an increased demand for art. Art became increasingly commodified, and more gatekeepers emerged (the record label, the literary agent, the Hollywood studio, the New York gallery — less powerful than earlier patrons, but still powerful), who could make or break the career of an artist.

Today, at least in the West, we find ourselves in a post-Industrial Age. Technology has democratized the production and distribution of many types of art, and for the first time in history artists have the opportunity to take control of their own destiny. In order to do this, however, today’s independent creative must find a way to fulfill the roles played by the patrons and gatekeepers of old: the business side of art.

As it turns out, the gatekeepers of old were not all bad. They paid the artists and gave them the freedom to focus on their art. They found venues to display the artists’ work, and publicized these events. Even today, if an artist is able to get a lucrative deal with a gatekeeper, it could make sense for them to take it. A major record deal could provide a musician with access to producers, studios, publicity, etc. that, on their own, they simply would not have access to. This screed is less for the lucky few with the talent, connections, or simply, luck, and more for those of us who are still building their career, or who have decided that they prefer the freedom that the 21st century gives them.

That said, this does not have to be an either/or. It may make sense for an independent artist to sign with an agent/producer/publisher/studio for a time, and then go solo afterwards. The main thing that the democratization of the means of the production and distribution of art has done is to turn the tables on the gatekeepers: artists now have the power to control their own destiny. If we want to sign a deal we can, but now we have options.

With power, however, comes responsibility. Historically, the artist was mythologized as a rare breed, lonesome, detached, and focused on higher matters, while mere mortals (the gatekeepers) dealt with the messy realities of life (business). This mythology had the result of making many artists (as well as fans) feel as though getting involved with the business side of art sullies the purity of their work. As a creative, I sense this within myself, and have to silence it in order to get business done.

At the heart of all this is the idea that today’s independent creatives must see themselves as both artists and as businesspeople. There is, obviously, a balance to be had, and business decisions should not trump artistic decisions. That said, if there’s a temptation to imbalance, for most of us it usually tips towards art, at the expense of business. To a certain extent, today’s independent creative is a small business owner — a sole proprietorship. Once you take responsibility for the business aspects of your artistic career, you will be able to take better advantage of the golden age of artistic opportunities in which we find ourselves.

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