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Entrepreneurism for Independent Musicians, a Manifesto

tl;dr: It’s not enough to just create great music. Independent musicians are, essentially, small business owners and have the opportunity to control their career.

Clearly, independent musicians 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 musicians with opportunities that were previously nearly inconceivable. These opportunities, in turn, are re-shaping what it means to be an independent, “successful,” musician.

The history of musicians is marked by their increased emancipation from the shackles of gatekeepers. In the pre-Industrial Age, the very few musicians fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hone and use their talents were largely beholden to wealthy patrons. Unless they were born into wealth, musicians 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 music. Music became increasingly commodified, and more gatekeepers emerged (the record label, the club owner) who could make or break the career of a musician.

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 musicians have the opportunity to take control of their own destiny. In order to do this, however, today’s independent musician 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 manifesto 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 musician to sign with an agent/label 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 dichotomy 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 this manifesto is the idea that today’s independent creatives must see themselves as both artists and as business people. 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, it usually tips towards art, at the expense of business. To a certain extent, today’s independent musician is a small business owner – a sole proprietor (unless you incorporate as an LLC (which makes sense for many.)) Once you take responsibility for the business aspects of your music career, you will be more able to take advantage of the golden age of artistic opportunity in which we find ourselves.

independent IQ was established to inform and empower independent musicians to take advantage of new opportunities for building a creative career. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re committed to finding and sharing, and to taking this journey together.

What’s the main issue that you deal with as an independent musician? Please drop me a line, I’d like to hear from you!

Andrew [at] independentiq [dot] com



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