I’m An Indie Musician…How Do I Get Started?

Hi Billy,
I recently saw you perform on the Hour and loved your songs, your attitude about
throwing out the maps and finding your own way and your advice to anyone trying
to be heard in the music industry about staying true to yourself. Something
about your philosophy reminds me of my friend Sarah, who is an amazing
singer/songwriter living in Ottawa at the moment….True Canadian content, her
songs are original and beautifully written and need to be heard by more
people….She has done some recording but isn’t sure what the next step should
be…and ends up singing mostly for friends at parties and everyone tells her
that more people need to hear her music…Thought that you may be willing to
give a few tips on what she should do next? How to get her songs out there?

I love this question 🙂

When you’re an indie musician, the question of “What’s Next?” is always on the horizon. Even the second you release/record/perform/succeed, your work as an indie artist is never done. You could work all hours of the day and still, there is always something more you could do.

So, the question is, What in fact, can we do? And where to start?

I really believe that you should never listen to anyone but yourself, because only you know what is best for you as a creator. That said, there are a lot of great ideas out there that we can borrow and make our own. Whether you’re an Artist in it for Art’s Sake or a performer just trying to get in front of as many people as possible or make as much money as possible, there are a couple things I suggest you do. But keep in mind at all times, I do not know what it best for you. Only you do.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears your album, what was the point of recording it in the first place? You can’t expect the first thing you record to be in high demand. Why would it be? No one has heard of you. Sorry, I know the truth hurts. You want people to hear you, right? Would you buy an album from someone you had never heard just because they said “Buy my album!” or “Check me out!”? Maybe, but most likely not. So, rule number 1: Get Heard.

You can do this by giving your music away. As much as possible. Burn CDs, press promo copies, email mp3s, create a website with free downloads, include your music in every avenue known to humanity and then start researching more that no one has yet heard of. Whatever you can think to do to get people to hear you, do it. You probably have more/better ideas than me. So, start thinking.

And that’s just the recorded side of you. There’s also You Live. First, you have to get good. You think you’re pretty good now, right? Sorry, you’re not that good. Maybe you are, but before you get in front of people, try your best to become GREAT. Seriously. Just try. Try for one month straight. Record yourself, video yourself, write with other people and practice as much as you can. Play every single day. In one month, you will look back and say “Wow, I thought I was pretty good a month ago…I sucked!” (Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying you suck…I haven’t even heard you. I’m just saying that if you really focus, you will get better without even realizing it. Then and only then is when you should get in front of others.)

So now that you’re good (and by good I mean GREAT) you need to get shows, right? Now you get to learn how to be a booking agent. Yep, sorry about that. And yes it really is as terrible as it sounds. Booking agent is one of about twenty million hats you will wear in the first 5 to one million years. How do you book shows when you’ve never done it before? This sounds hard. And, scary. Well, people have been doing it for decades, and we have all had to stand in a room and watch a band that is terrible and wonder “HOW, on earth, did ANYONE book this band!?” They did it, and they’re terrible…well you’re pretty good now so hey at least you’re one step ahead of the competition!

Speaking of the “competition”…they are now your best friends. Every other band is now: your family. You wanna get your music heard? You wanna play a ton of shows? Welcome to our family. We’re a collective of like-minded individuals who want the same things as you and believe it or not, we want to help you. So, come to our shows and ask to open for us. Offer to put on a show in your town in exchange for a show in your town. Oh ya, forgot to mention you have to become a promoter as well. Sorry about that too. And yes it really is as terrible as it sounds. You’ll probably lose some money sometimes, but sometimes you won’t. You’ll also make a lot of the best friends you’ve ever had and have some of the best times you’ve ever had.

You’re probably starting to notice that you’re having to do a LOT more than just “play music”. But all you want to do is “play music” so why should you have to do all this other stuff? Welcome to rule number 2: Learn Everything.

If you think someone is going to swoop in to your life and start doing everything for you, power to ya! I really hope that happens for you. It is likely that might happen for you. It is increasingly more likely to happen if you learn to do everything.

Once you’re GREAT, Getting Heard, becoming a booking agent, becoming a promoter…wow things are really moving along! In steps: Help. Help consists of all types of people. Help might be your kid sister passing out CDs at school, or a member of your street team putting up posters in exchange for free guest passes. Eventually it may even be a booking agent who is not you or even a manager who is not you. Who knows! The possibilities are endless and since you know what’s best for you, you can make up the rules. Hooray.

Additional skills in your bag of tricks could/should include: Design skills, web programming or basic coding knowledge, silk screening or printing, van fixing, navigation, online promotion, musical instrument repair and anything else you can learn in your spare time when you’re not writing amazing songs. If you have band members you can delegate tasks, just remember not to be a martyr and say things like “I do everything around here”. Some people are good at doing, some people are not. You either are that person or you are not. If no one in your band is, you can probably figure out what will happen. If you cant figure out what will happen, the answer is: Nothing. The more your band members learn, the stronger your chances are. If you’re a solo act that’s ok, maybe you can recruit your mom or best friend to pitch in. You have all the answers so you figure it out. Or at least give me a commission as I’m an indie artist and could use the extra money 😉

Oh last but not least, Get A Good Job. Sounds unproductive to your music career, I know. But sadly you will need a lot of money to fund your passion at first and the best thing you can do for this investment (your music career) is invest in it. Get a good job, and then get another good job. Save up all your pennies for cds, merch, a van (eventually), some decent gear (it doesn’t have to be top of the line) and living expenses. Once you are GREAT, Getting Heard, Booking, Promoting and learning as much as you can, you might be surprised…you may even make a few bucks 🙂

That’s all for now, let me know if you have any questions at all and thanks for writing.

Who of you is Getting Great, Getting Heard, Becoming A Promoter and Becoming a Booking Agent out there? Who’s learning? Can you share some Team Indie ideas with us team members?