It’s the question that every independent musician expects and dreads at the same time. At least once a day, someone says “this ‘indie’ thing is great and all but don’t you want to, like, be a real musician?”
It’s hard not to bristle when you hear this question or see it pop up in an email. It’s hard not to start shouting “I am a real musician!” and then lay out all of the ways in which you are every bit as real as anybody else out there. It’s hard to remind yourself that what these (albeit ineloquent) questioners are actually wondering about isn’t the realness of your music but about whether or not you have any plans to go “mainstream.”
For many people—especially those old enough to remember and appreciate life before the internet—being recognized by the mainstream industry gives you legitimacy. It means that your music is popular and worthy. Being on the radio, having your album on the shelf at the local record shop, those things mean you’ve “made it.”
At the same time, as many independent musicians will happily tell anybody who asks them, joining the ranks of the mainstream often means giving up much (if not all) of the control they currently have over themselves and their projects. By staying independent they get to decide who they are, what they record, what they sell and how they sell it. There is a reason, after all, that joining the mainstream is often called “selling out.”
And, really—it’s easier than it has ever been to make a living as an “indie guy.” iTunes lists independent musicians right alongside the mainstream label releases. Amazon does the same. Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody are all happy to feature independent artists. They know that playing the indie guys will help them expand their catalogues, which helps them gain subscribers and that, in turn, nets everybody more money. Sites like BandCamp allow you to release your music under your own name, while music publishing companies like TuneCore help artists package their music for mainstream mediums (like soundtracks and commercials) without requiring them to give up their freedom or creativity.
And the mainstream guys are picking up on this. In fact, the mainstream guys mine the indie scene and the indie music publishing companies looking for the next Big Deal…or haven’t you heard of Mackelmore?
That doesn’t mean that those who have gone mainstream are happy about the trend. Many who have “sold out” are starting to fight back against the Indie Guys. In a recent article for The Guardian called “David Byrne: ‘The internet will suck all creative content out of the world’” David Byrne laments the rise of streaming media services like Spotify. He complains about the miniscule royalties artists earn from those systems and talks about how they cannot be relied upon for any real income. Then he praises the support he got and gets from his label—support that isn’t available to the Indie guy going it alone. Interestingly, he does praise BandCamp but it feels almost like an afterthought.
That hasn’t stopped the major labels from figuring out ways to pair with indie guys, though. The aforementioned Mackelmore relies upon major distribution hubs to get the music he makes to the huge audience that demands it. They also lend a hand in booking big venues because, as Zoe Keating talked about in an article for the Economist called “On-Demand Touring,” a lot of the bigger venues don’t want to work directly with artists.
It’s a good thing there are now independent middle men like Songkick to help indie performers book gigs, huh?
Perhaps the primary reason that the “mainstream” seems to be finally recognizing the legitimacy of the independent scene is that so many artists (of all stripes) are fighting back against the corporate structure that has long held creativity in its fist.
Late last year Beyonce made huge waves when she released her new album and a bunch of corresponding videos online…without doing the requisite press tour that most labels require of their artists before a major release.
She’s not alone. Lots of mainstream artists and creators are getting hip to the truth that most major labels and production houses have been trying to deny for decades: fans want to support the art they love. Independent musicians are proving every day that signing with a label isn’t a requirement for earning a full time income from their art.
No wonder the mainstream guys are working so hard to get cozy with the “Indies”. Survival of the fittest isn’t working out the way they had planned.
Microphone – Microsoft Office Clipart Collection
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at Sasquatch 2011 – Wikipedia Creative Commons
Beyonce performing in Montreal in 2013 – Wikipedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Bio
Sara is freelance writer who enjoys exploring the issues in our society through her blogging. In her spare time, she enjoys maintaining a healthy lifestyle through swimming and practicing yoga.