Part Two: Getting Started

Last updated on: Sunday 2 September 2018

Getting started in music means making it happen for yourself. Find out how to kickstart your DIY artist business…

There has been a lot of talk in the last decade about artists going the ‘DIY’ route. Though that usually means that the artist builds a business without doing a conventional record deal with a conventional record company, more on which in Part Seven.

It doesn’t actually mean the artist doing everything themselves without any business partners; because realistically there are only so many hours in the day, and every artist will want some help on some aspects of their business, especially the boring bits!

So many successful artists who claim to be doing the “DIY thing” will often still have management and an agent, a lawyer and an accountant, some sort of content distribution partner, and will work with promoters and possibly a publisher too. The thing they skip is the conventional record deal.

Though at the outset, most new artists really are doing everything themselves – ie they are truly DIY. But that’s rarely out of choice.

It’s usually because the artist doesn’t have any money to pay companies to work for them – and while many music companies will work with new artists for free, the new act needs to create enough momentum themselves to persuade such companies to invest time (and possibly money) into their career.

While many new artists still want to sign to a record company (despite some high profile acts getting established without a traditional label partner), the chances are that the label isn’t the first deal they will do, and arguably it shouldn’t be. Most artists will get management in place first, then probably a booking agent and a promoter, then some sort of distributor, and then a label. And somewhere along the lines you need a lawyer to help with all those deals!

If the manager is the first business partner, then you’re probably wondering “how do I get a manager?” The good managers will tell you that, when you’re ready, they’ll find you. Which basically means, rather than sending speculative emails to every artist management company, you should get some content online, start gigging, do social media well, start building a fanbase, and then the local music industry will notice you.

So, first things first, you need to get started as a DIY artist. This is going to be a whole load easier if you find other DIY artists to collaborate with. That doesn’t necessarily mean forming a formal group, band or collective, but instead finding other people at the start of their careers that you think you could work with.

Firstly, that means other musicians and performers. Most of the best music ever made was a collaborative effort, where the input of different songwriters, record producers and performers made something a whole lot greater than the sum of its parts. So start looking for other music makers to collaborate with.

Do you have friends, or friends of friends, who make music? If you are at college, are there any networks or societies you can plug into? And look out for industry events that are a great place to meet potential creative collaborators – like the events CMU:DIY presents with Urban Development, the Featured Artists Coalition and others.

When you first start working with other people on making music, it’s best to initially suggest something small, so you can all see whether you get on. If you decide that you want to do something more regular, that’s the time to have a conversation about copyright and money.

Don’t forget, every time you write a song you create a song copyright. Every time you record a song, you create a separate recording copyright. You need to agree who has a stake in any copyright and what the splits are.

And also agree other logistical matters – who is going to log the song with PRS and the recording with PPL, and who is going to upload the track to YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Music? And how is that person going to share the money with the other collaborators?

Beyond collaborating with other musicians, you should look to build a team that can help you with other things – like photography, videos, artwork, blogging, social media, website building, networking and admin.

Assuming you can’t afford to pay for any of that up front, you need to find people who are likewise trying to get their careers off the ground – a budding photographer who needs someone to photograph, a budding web designer who needs a website to build.

Again, when you collaborate remember to discuss copyright (who owns the copyright in your photos? – the photographer is the default owner) and what happens if what you are collaborating on starts to generate money, for example, you start selling t-shirts with one of the photos on them.

As well as keeping track of who owns what copyrights, if and when your musical activities start to generate money there are other things to think about, like should you have a separate bank account for your music income?

Maybe a very basic business bank account into which all the your music money goes, and from which you pay expenses related to your music, like sound editing software, travel to gigs, t-shirt printing, and other people for their services.

If you are band, group or collective, and you set up a business bank account for the group, who has access to the bank account, and how do you decide what your money is spent on? If and when you start taking out money to live off, how does that work?

As things start to gain momentum you probably need to get an accountant to help with that side of the business – and they can advise you on when it is right to set up a limited company (which costs a little money and means you have to do some paper work every year, but provides certain protections, in that your personal finances and business finances become formally separated).

All that said – don’t get too distracted by the formalities. You need to be thinking about these things and having the right conversations as momentum builds – but at the same time, you need to be writing and recording great music, and then get out there to perform and build a fanbase. Most of your time should be spent on the creative side.

Which brings us to this. In addition to your songwriting and recording, and honing your live performance, you should give some thought to your brand.

Part of this is identity and visuals. What name are you going to perform under? Will you have a logo? Will you have a visual identity that runs throughout your social media, your website, the artwork that accompanies your tracks, and the visuals that appear on stage? What will that look like? Have you got arty or designer friends who can help?

Beyond the visuals, what are you going to stand for? What’s you on-stage and online personality going to be? Will you have an on-stage persona that’s different than your real persona? If so, will that apply to social media? Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer any of these questions on day one – your brand will evolve as you write and record and perform. What are you comfortable with? What seems to really engage your fans?

There are some formalities with the brand too! Once you have picked a name, it’s worth registering a web domain, which will usually cost about £10 a year, and then set up both a website and email address using that domain. Because most of the good .com domains have gone, you might have to go with a variation of your brand for your online identity, or go with one of the more unusual top level domains (eg .xyz)

Once you have started recording your music, you need to get that content out there. You don’t necessarily want to upload everything you record to the web, just your best tracks. Though at the same time, don’t be such a perfectionist that you never actually get round to making any tracks publicly available. Maybe put tracks out in sets of four as an EP, so that you can talk up the EP release on your social networks.

The obvious places to post your content are YouTube and SoundCloud, and you should make your music available to stream on both (you can also offer a download via SoundCloud, but a stream is probably enough). Put some effort into your YouTube and SoundCloud profiles, with your visuals and links to your website and social media.

Have a mailing list and give people a reason to sign up – eg “be first to hear about my new music”, “get priority access to tickets to all my shows”, “get discounts on t-shirts and tickets” (though make sure you can make good on any promise made!) And become a ‘content partner’ with YouTube and tell it to post ads alongside your videos – it will pay 55% of that ad money to you – more on that in Part Four.

But you should also make sure your music is on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music and all the rest. The royalties paid by these services are generally much higher than YouTube. And while you probably will only make nominal income through any of these services at the outset, it sends out the message that you are properly in the business of making your music available through commercial channels. And you can encourage fans to listen on paid-for streaming services where you will earn more.

It’s easy getting your content on these services, just sign up to a distribution platform like AWAL, CD Baby, Distrokid, Ditto, EmuBands, Spinnup or TuneCore and they will get your tracks onto all the key services. Some of these distribution platforms charge an upfront fee while others take a cut of any income you generate. You need to decide which one works best for you.

You might also want to make your EP available as a download via a direct-to-fan channel like Music Glue, Bandcamp or Reverb Nation. While less and less people are now downloading music, core fans might do this anyway to help support you. Plus you’ll get their email addresses and know that they are key fans.

Remember, ultimately you are looking for business partners in the music industry to help you unlock all your revenue streams. If you get the momentum going – and prove there is an audience for your music – then you will find music companies are much more interested in working with you.

But you need to start networking so that key people know what you’re doing. First of all, once you start playing live, make sure you clearly communicate your name and website to any audience you play in front of – and maybe give them a reason to check you out online (eg to see photos of the gig, or a backstage video, or get a free download).

There is no point bombarding the entire music industry with unsolicited emails. But occasional bespoke messages to people who are working with newish artists like you – linking to one of your SoundCloud tracks – can be worthwhile.

If you see industry people at your gigs, send them a quick thank you email and a link to some music online. And whenever you get in front of industry people – for example at CMU:DIY events – ask them for advice, and have a very quick story to tell about your music so that you stand out.

Once you have some momentum, there are some brand-led initiatives and grant funding programmes aimed at new talent. It is worth checking these out to see whether you qualify. Big brands tend to spend most money with big name artists, but some brands like to have relationships with new talent as they break. They are unlikely to write big cheques, but they might have a platform, event or competition that can bring you exposure, or they might be able to help you make an event or video or competition happen.

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Words: Chris Cooke – Last updated Sep 2018