Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Five Lessons to Navigate Today's "Faltering" Music Industry: A Study of Alex Day

I study music in college so, as you may expect, there are a lot of people I study with that have bands and are trying to make a living through music. With these past couple of years I’ve witnessed some general trends surrounding the attitude a lot of people have regarding the music industry and “making it”. Many, if not most, of these beliefs are misguided and wrong. So I set out to understand what it actually took to make a living from music.

A lot of people are detesting record deals and it’d be easy for me to go down that road and speak as if I knew what I was talking about. But, instead of being a charlatan and posing as if I knew how to obtain success by citing general ideas of self-distribution and “fuck the labels” rhetoric, I figured it’d be better to study someone who has made it. This study would help others and myself when trying to navigate this industry. But what artist has documented his successes and failures and journey well enough to allow me to study his ideas and process?

Well, one day I was spending some quality time on Reddit. An author I follow regularly, Ryan Holiday, was doing an AMA and I asked him, “Do you know any good sites or books that would help me better understand the path of self-distribution?”

Ryan’s reply: “Alex Day did an AMA yesterday. That dude is really smart and doing exactly what you're talking about right in front of us. I would ask/follow him.”

I’d never heard of Alex Day so I googled him and started exploring his website. On the front page was an embedded Youtube video of his new tune, “Good Morning Sunshine”. At first I wasn’t sure I liked it--it was a pop song and I am usually biased against pop music. But the video was fun and the song was certainly catchy so I decided not to pass judgment and bookmarked his site on Delicious to return to later.

Now, a few months later, I’ve been stricken with Alex Day fandom. (Though I don’t like all of his music-- some of it is still too poppy.) I also sifted through all his back-posts on his website and distilled his blog posts down to a few key lessons.

But, before we get to that, I must say: this list is not meant to be a direct recipe for success. It is just a few basic motifs that seem to have helped Alex’s career. Success, I believe, should be defined by yourself and achieved without having to live up to any external factors/entities. So without further ado...

1.) Fuck Gigging (At least until you have a solid fanbase to support it.)

Alex Day as a solo artist, to my knowledge, has never played a gig. But he lives comfortably in his own house, supported by his content. I say content because he has multiple platforms to get his music out there. There’s recordings on all the major online music sites: Spotify, Grooveshark, Itunes; he makes videos on Youtube, some which have his music, others do not; he has a website which promotes his music and also has many blog entries describing some of the work he’s done and his ideas about certain things (This is what I sifted through to write my article.)

Every new band I’ve seen start follows the same basic trajectory. First, they get together and start jamming. Eventually they’ve got a few songs together and sound pretty good, so they tap their network of friends and start looking for gigs. They get a few gigs and make a little bit of money but, eventually, they get tired. They’re not making enough money to support themselves and they want to know why they’re not getting any traction/recognition. Soon enough, there’s a fight and the band “takes a break” which translates to never getting back together. They’ve broken up even before sticking out the necessary time (usually a few years) to really gain enough fans to start making some real money. This is the old model and, while it will work for some who want to go that route, there is a new and possibly better way.

2.) Learn some Marketing

If you’re not going to gig, you’re going to have to get your music out there a different way. Instead of hating on the internet like many musical dinosaurs who have survived the rise of the web, embrace it and learn to use it. I already mentioned some sites Alex Day’s music is on. He’s also on Facebook, Twitter, and has an RSS feed. But there’s much more. Here’s an excerpt from his blog post about trying to become number 1 on the charts while promoting a band he was in (The Sons of Admiralis).

“My strategy is to assume that nothing will work. As soon as something happens, assume it won’t work. That way I’m constantly motivated. Cos I’m thinking “shit, nothing I’ve done so far has worked!” I’ve been burning CDs. I bought a printer so I could print out press releases and CD labels. I registered the song for the charts. I sent out a mailing list, updated this blog, made a YouTube video, fielded interview questions for a couple local papers. I gave a copy of the song to Scott Mills yesterday. I was up till two this morning filling out envelopes to mail to producers and DJs, and then up again at eight to hand-deliver them. (But as we’ve established, none of this will work.)”

It’s hard work, of course, but it pays off.

3.) Have Integrity

First, have integrity with your creations. Don’t release crap that you’re not proud of. Rough cuts could be released for free, framed as a cool extra for fans, but don’t try to sell it. The fans you gain want good products and only want to pay for quality.

Assuming you have quality products, don’t sell out as soon as you gain popularity. Companies, when you gain notoriety, may approach you and offer money to place their product in your video. Don’t do it unless you actually support the product! Alex touched on some possible consequences of selling out in this post. Here’s a pertinent quote:

“...if I have to earn money from somewhere, I’ll pick loyal subscribers who actually care about me and the things I make and do over some faceless company who only want me while I’m popular.”

4.) Be Transparent

This goes hand-in-hand with having integrity, but it does not mean share every detail about yourself, personal and professional. Just write about things that are going on with you in some form of online platform. If you’ve been approached by a company to promote a product, explicitly state it and tell your fans why you support it. Be honest! A narrative exists that artists need to be mysterious. Don’t give in to that narrative.

When record companies began approaching Alex after he charted a radio single, he wrote about it and why he didn’t ultimately sign a contract:

“...they really couldn’t offer me anything I can’t do myself, used a lot of vague buzzwords (“we’d like to take what you’ve done so far and expand it”), and would insist on me playing by their silly rules; getting a VEVO channel, giving them most of my money even though I’m doing most of the work, getting a big say in what songs I release and when, not letting me produce my own music... sounds rubbish!”

This is a perfect demonstration of all my above points and also leads me to my last, catch-all lesson...

5.) Love your fans and interact with them. “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

All of the previous points will help garner fans and eventually, foster interaction. If you interact with your fans, you can help establish a healthy relationship. You can let them know where the boundaries are and that someone watching through your window while you eat a bacon sandwich is not okay.

If you have enough fans, you could do an AMA on Reddit. There’s so many platforms, and many of them were established by the internet. So don’t loathe the internet, embrace it.

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Now, while these are just five tips I’ve gleaned from Alex Day’s sites, I’ve only scratched the surface. Educate yourself and you’ll come to realize how much more there is that can be learned.

Here’s a couple other articles (1 & 2) I’d recommend about Alex Day, by a better writer than myself. You may enjoy these more.

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