FAULT Focus: how to build a career as an indie musician – and actually get paid for your craft


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No matter what you might have heard, you do not have to be signed to a major label to become a full time musician. Just ask any of the hundreds of indie groups who are doing it their own way, every day: Pomplamoose, Zoe Keating, Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Coulton, and, well, everybody else who is doing it for themselves (and doing it well!).

There is, obviously, a learning curve involved. Amanda Palmer didn’t go from being the Ten Foot Bride handing out flowers on the street to headlining her own tours and raising a million dollars on Kickstarter overnight. Pomplamoose, for all of their recent controversy over their tour spending choices, worked really hard to get the attention they now enjoy. Everybody makes mistakes and stumbles. It happens even to huge musicians…or haven’t you heard about how Michael Jackson bought all of the rights to the Beatles’ songs out from under Paul McCartney?

Most of the learning you do will focus on one of a few themes: setting (and being okay with) boundaries, protecting your work, and diversifying your income sources.

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Musical crowd-funders Pomplamoose

Setting (And Being Okay With) Boundaries

When you’re first starting out, your impulse is going to be to say yes to everything – no matter what. What makes this problematic is that there is this still this idea that creatives should be creative for free; that, somehow, getting paid for the work you do delegitimizes your worth. If you buy into this mindset (and many people will pressure you to do so), you could spend years working your tail off and never see a penny for it. How can you do music full time if you have to work four jobs to help pay for the work you’re doing for others for free?

As early on as possible (like, right now), decide what you will and will not do for free and what you will and will not do as You The Musician (as opposed to You The Human). If you want to get paid for your work, ask to be paid now. It is much harder to start asking for pay once you’ve gotten a reputation for doing work for free than it is to start getting paid from the outset. Hold tight to these boundaries and rules you set for yourself. Yes, sometimes you’ll feel like a jerk but you have to protect yourself and your work.

N.B: This also applies to favors for fans and friends.

Protecting Your Work

You love your music. You’ve worked hard on it. So, you decide to just release your music into the wild and whatever happens, great! The money will come eventually, right?

STOP. When you are learning how to publish music, the first thing you need to do is learn how to license your music. Yes, many artists release their work under Creative Commons licenses and basic copyrights but there are still rules involved. The last thing you need is for someone to grab your license-less music, pop it into their soundtrack and then use it (in part) to earn thousands (or even millions) of dollars from it for themselves, right?

It is important to properly license your music before you start publishing it through portals like iTunes, BandCamp, CDBaby, Amazon, wherever. In fact, most of these portals will require you to have licensing in place before your music can be approved for sale on any portal outside of your own website. A lot of independent musicians turn to music publishing companies like TuneCore that already know how to publish music and have streamlined the licensing and submission processes. These companies also make it easier to track down people who have used your music without a license.

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FAULT Issue 16 stars Youngblood Hawke famously licensed their tracks for use by Coca Cola and video game FIFA ’13

Diversifying Your Income Sources

Most bands already know that they need to have merchandise for sale, both online and at their shows. Merch is just one source of income diversity.

Taking Commissions: Sometimes this might mean composing a jingle for a company to use in a radio or television commercial. Sometimes it means writing a full song for an event. Making music for hire can be incredibly lucrative and helps bridge gaps while you’re working on albums or in-between tours or gigs.

Crowd Funding: Yes, a lot of people hate Amanda Palmer for making a million dollars through Kickstarter. That doesn’t mean, though, that you shouldn’t consider your own Kickstarter campaign. If you’re trying to raise a chunk of change to, say, fund studio time, Kickstarter can be a great way to do that.

Another option for crowd funding is Patreon. Patreon allows fans to give you money for every month or every project that you create through the Patreon system. It’s a fantastic way to earn money for the smaller things you do that you’ve that might be harder to place in your repetoire.

There are a lot of decisions to make as a working musician. Don’t be afraid to take chances or make mistakes. Just make sure you’ve set up a good safety net first.