It’s no secret that the music industry has changed quite a bit in the last few years. Being an independent artist used to be one of the hardest ways to earn a living. Now, there are so many options for musicians who want to fly solo and build a sustainable career on their own terms. In between panels and performances happening at the #HouseOfCreativity, Patreon’s Head of Product and Merch, Camille Hearst, took the SXSW stage to host a conversation with Hayley Rosenblum, a renowned digital music strategist and head of Amanda Palmer’s social and community team.
The two dove deep into a crucial topic for any working musician: how to make a living in the ever-changing music industry. Ever wondered how’d you connect with fans if you decided to go without a label? If you can make consistent moolah? How you can afford to create? Camille and Hayley answered those questions and more in the panel you can listen to here, or keep reading for a breakdown of key takeaways.
Camille and Hayley answered these questions and offered excellent insight and advice, which we’ve broken down into the following key takeaways.
When it comes to brand deals and sponsorships, you need to think about what fits for you. For example, if you're a drummer, a drum manufacturer sponsorship would make a lot of sense. An insurance company partnership may not. Of course, there are times where an unlikely brand may still be a winning match. For instance, if you’re passionate about the environment, then working with a sustainable brand could align. On the flipside, a deal with a major car company might not seem like a fit at first, but if the partnership allows you to go on tour with your hero, it may be the right move.
When you’re an independent artist, you have to manage your social media, book gigs, purchase inventory and sell merch all on your own. Well, not quite. If you’re able to, try to find some friends or family members who can help you handle the workload. If you really have to do it all, focus on your social media following. Fostering sincere and authentic connections with your fans should always be a priority.
Speaking of social media, with so many potential platforms out there, it’s important to find a place that you love and where you can grow. For instance, if you're a photographer, Instagram is a natural choice. However, you also want to think about your audience – what platforms are most popular with them? What times are they usually online? And don’t feel pressured to be on every platform at all times. Focusing on one key platform can help ensure you have enough time to create.
If you’re worried about selling enough merch or covering the costs of producing an album, crowdfunding or pre-selling your stuff can help. Online and in person are both good places for pre-orders. Just remember to make it easy for people and pick a limited number of places to send people to pre-order. For example, in 2010, Hayley says Amanda Palmer used BandCamp. Now, Hayley says they use their website and iTunes for pre-orders and Patreon for limited editions.
Your email gives you direct access to your fans and you can take it with you wherever you go online. Don’t take it for granted. Unlike social media, you’re not susceptible to the whims of an ever-changing algorithm. You own your email channel. And you don't have to email your community every day – once a month or even a few times a year is better. The best way to rock your email communication is to make it as sincere and authentic as possible. This direct communication allows you to do things like find fans in a specific city or let them know when you’re dropping a new album or new merch.
Curious about using social media ads or search ads to boost your profile? Camille suggests testing with small dollar amounts, so you can test and learn to get live feedback. If an ad doesn’t do as well as you’d like it, don’t abandon ship too quickly. Camille says you should run a new ad for at least a few days before you tweak it.
Hayley encourages musicians to play around with different kinds of posts. In her experience, factors like the amount of text on an image, the number of links and hashtags, and even using curse words can all affect engagement. You'll have to experiment to figure out what works. Hayley also suggests joining relevant groups on those social networks and learn from other musicians or creators.
Feel squeamish about asking your fans for money? You’re not alone. So many artists find it challenging to think of their art as a commodity. But keep in mind that you're offering value in the art you make and the benefits you provide. Your price tag should reflect what it took to create and that will allow you to create more.
And remember: you don’t have to go out of your way to share something of value. For example, Andrew Applepie doubled his Patreon income and all he does is early access to his music. Zola Jesus does exclusive live chats, unreleased songs, concert tickets, and gift boxes. Last but not least, after being dropped by her label for not being commercial enough, TORRES is making money her own way by offering intimate stories to her patrons from the road.
While you have to wear a lot of hats as an independent musician – social media marketer, salesperson, manager – don’t let those other roles distract you from your core purpose: making good art. Focusing on your art will help you maintain your credibility and integrity, and keep your fans coming back for more.
As Hayley said on the panel: "Your fans are happy to give you money. Let’s pause and remember that. You're giving them value and they've given you value."