Having just experienced the birthing of a solo album from conception to release, I've been reflecting lately on what it means to be an independent artist in 2018, and more specifically, how I see myself and my career trajectory.
Though to me it's not really the point, my music now generates a small amount of revenue. (It generates expenses far more magnanimously.) Still, I'm not yet approaching even the middle rungs of indie music success and am not sure I'm willing to do all it would take to get there. So, I must be a hobbyist, right?
Well, no. Hobbyists don't pour vast sums of their own money into mixing, mastering and artwork to create a professional product. Nor do they press hundreds of CDs, mail half of them around the world, track college radio airplay or design a cracking website in order to showcase and promote their work, all of which I've done in the past year.
This limbo-land I find myself inhabiting—my music being neither a hobby nor a full-blown career—has led me to redefine what I do as a micro-career. Now, I'm not using the term in the way your local employment centre might. For me, a micro-career is more along the lines of Robert Fripp's conception of "a small, mobile, intelligent unit." Instead of trying to smash through my limitations (financial, social, technical, musical), I'm working with them. With, not within. At times I stretch my comfort zone; at other times, I pull back. The material rewards may be few, but the artistic integrity is beyond price. To put it less weightily, I'm doing what I can, when I can, as I can, and letting that suffice.
The first fruit of this re-visioning is my upcoming micro-tour, scheduled for May-June. My last proper tour was over 20 years ago, and it brings back (mostly) fond memories; but I'm simply unable to tour on that sort of scale now, nor do I really want to. I find the prospect of booking shows daunting and long-distance travel is impractical, even more so for a non-driver. But I do miss the thrill of playing several gigs in a concentrated time frame, not knowing what the next venue or audience would bring. Drawing on Toronto's vibrant open stage scene, I've "booked" a micro-tour that'll let me experience just that—minus the endless highway, tedium, expense and pressure. On micro-tour, I can even eat meals at home and sleep in my own bed.
I'm still fleshing out what a micro-career in music looks like in other ways, and should I gain further insight you'll hear from me again. Perhaps (for me, anyway) its defining characteristic is this: I can forge a modest yet artistically rewarding career path on my terms, as I am able, and that feels immensely liberating.
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It's less than a month to release day! And about that ...
I'll be playing a ton of music for you on guitar, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica. If you can make it out, it'd be a pleasure to meet you.
Now to the topic at hand: releasing an independent CD is a huge undertaking and finally, the legwork I've done over the last year is paying off. Yes, it's been a full year since I started researching blogs, magazines, podcasts and college radio stations that might be receptive to my music. The submission process is, to put it charitably, a one-size-fits-none affair. Some want physical CDs; some want downloads or streams; some insist that you submit through their online interface. A few come at you with such exacting, convoluted demands that it makes you wonder if they want to hear your music at all (answer: probably not).
Tip #1: Address Your Packages in Advance
This means well before you have anything to put in them. I blew out a long weekend in August doing just that, but because I did so I picked up my CDs Thursday and completed my mailout Monday, 165 discs in all. I'd have endured at least a week-long delay had I not addressed the envelopes beforehand.
Tip #2: Make Your Music Downloadable and Streamable
Industry people will go ballistic if you e-mail your songs as attachments. More to the point, they won't listen to them. Instead, use Dropbox (it's free) for all your downloadable assets (bios, one-sheets, music, artwork, photos) and SoundCloud (also free) to stream your album. Make it easy and painless for interested parties to hear and download your music.
Tip #3: Send Your Music to the Right Stations
Fair enough, but how do you decide which college stations are "right"? I used a few criteria:
- Does the station play my genre of music? Take a deep dive into their program schedules. Yes, this will take bloody forever—that's why you do it a year in advance. For me, keywords in show descriptions were acoustic, singer-songwriter, folk—and on the fringes, Americana/roots and power pop. But don't stop there. Read the blurb carefully and ask yourself: is my material really a fit? In my case, some folk shows feature exclusively Celtic, traditional or old-time hillbilly music. Pass. And Americana/roots may mean one thing to me, but if (as was often the case) in the DJ's mind it meant country, rockabilly or bluegrass, I passed.
- Lean toward the home team. Of course, the stellar quality of your music ought to trump everything, but I suspect that for unknown indie artists, your best chance of getting airplay is via the "I'm local" angle. I'm lucky. I live in a major city with tons of college towns within a 100-kilometre radius. I made sure every last one of them got a CD, even the tiny, low-profile ones. I also live in Canada, where stations must play a percentage of Canadian content, usually 35%. Your home country should obviously be perched atop your target list, but this is especially true if your country has something similar to our CanCon mandate. (Special note for Canadians: make sure your MAPL logo is filled out correctly and placed on your back cover and the disc itself.)
- Has the station made any "best-of" lists? These higher-profile, well-run stations, if they're a good fit for your music, ought to be on your priority list. I can't emphasize the "good fit" aspect enough. If a top-ranked station plays mostly urban/hip-hop/EDM or punk/metal/noise, no matter how great they are or how vast their audience, why would you send them your folk CD? As for which lists to draw on, the Princeton Review is a good source and is current. I also scoured the Pigeons and Planes Top 25, even though it's a bit out of date. There are others as well. I've yet to see a list that includes non-US stations.
- What's the station's reach? Ideally, you want to target stations with reasonably strong signals in major markets. As a longtime radio geek, I was all over this one. Radio Locator features coverage maps, frequency info and more; it's also a good resource if you can't find the station's mailing address any other way. You can make 20 inquiries a day, I think, for free. After that, you either splurge for a paid subscription or wait till tomorrow. (Guess which is my preferred method?) Finding US stations is easy; the search engine is more cumbersome when it comes to Canadian radio.
Now in a way, the title of my post is misleading. What I've outlined here is but a small slice of all I'm having to coordinate in order to put my CD out. I'm a tad obsessive, I know, but the fact is I have 10 to-do lists going. Hey, it was either that or have one list with 437 items on it.
As always, comments or feedback welcome, and I wish you all the best in your quest to get your music heard.