music industry

How to Love Your Independent Artist: Pt. 1

 

FIRST OF ALL.  I’m already loved.

Loved well.

Each of you I’ve had the pleasure of meeting or hearing from over the years since I made the bold move in 2009 to take my quaking body up to the piano in front of real people have done nothing but encourage and uplift.  I haven’t yet been able to think up an adequate “Thank you,” but I always feel it.

So, I’m not writing this because you have failed to love me well.  Quite the oppositeBecause you care, I think you might appreciate a peek behind the curtains into the life of fairly odd creatives like me.  Because you care, you want to understand our hearts, joys and struggles.

As you may know, I was really strictly a songwriter for several years, having abandoned an early desire to perform, due to extreme performance anxiety.  It was only after a false start in 2006 and a more legitimate launch in 2009 that I really entered into this world independent artistry.  And my path hasn’t looked very much like the majority of indie artists, Christian or not, because of my particular life & career circumstances.

Still, there is a sense of brotherhood amongst us who determine to keep making music with or without the sometimes-helpful, oft-constraining scaffolding of a record label.

 

SOME THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT YOUR FAVORITE ARTISTS (3 of 7):

 1.    Behind every hour onstage, there are roughly 6-60 hours of work offstage.

There are a million kazillion things independent artists spend hours learning and applying, with writing & rehearsing often getting the shaft.  Many of us handle our own booking, planning, band-management, book-keeping, product inventory & shipping, website maintenance, blogging, etc. and are hard-pressed to get to the creative work we are passionate about.  This is a real struggle, as many of us have other day jobs and/or family, as well.

Prior to 2009 I was surprisingly clueless about this side of the music business and recall thinking: “That’s a pretty great gig!  Even if they only make $100 for a house show, that’s not bad for 2 hours of fun, fulfilling work.”

It IS a pretty great gig, getting to do what you love.  But needless to say, I’ve been enlightened about the hours.

2.  We aren’t always sure we should be doing this, but we can't seem to stop.

 

  • Is anyone even listening?
  • Do our musical & lyrical efforts seem to resonate?
  • Can this really be financially feasible?
  • How much should we model ourselves after label artists?  How much should we model ourselves after full-time indie artists?
  • How free are we to write what we really want to write, even when it doesn’t match current radio trends (Christian or not)?
  • Is it possible to stand under stagelights and keep a right heart and motives?

Ultimately: Is this of enough value to really make it worth the sacrifices of time & money?  Am I on the right path?

We return to these questions, but ultimately we LOVE MAKING MUSIC & we don't know how to do much else. Don't WANT to do much else.

3.  We're looking for our place within the art world.

 

Even if we’re sure we SHOULD be making art, we continue to ask:  Why?  What exactly is MY particular purpose & place?  Where do I fit?

Nashville, New York, Atlanta, LA…or Raleigh, NC?  Coffee shops, house concerts, music festivals, arenas, conferences…?  Americana, pop, folk, Christian, rock, bluegrass, country…?  Am I speaking to people who share my faith or to people who do not?  Is my natural audience teens, young adults, 35 year old moms, other artists, radio listeners, theologians, former hippies…?

It’s demographic, but it’s more than that, a sense of calling.

Artists: If this is a question you are struggling to answer, I would suggest you start with a little inventory of what you really know about yourself.  This is a spiritual exercise, I think, if we acknowledge that we were in fact designed by Someone for a specific purpose & workOur passions and gifts and personalities point toward that purpose.

For me, these are some things I know:

  • I am compelled to put words and music together in the most honest way I can to uplift and challenge myself and others,  reflecting life and truth.
  • I deeply desire balance in all things.
  • I have an insatiable thirst for wisdom and understanding of the Maker and humanity, and the relationship between the two.
  • I love to be taught and to teach.  (much to the chagrin of my family members)
  • The joy of writing for me is in finding beautiful, inventive ways of painting pictures, not in being safe.  At the same time, communication is important to me, so I want the songs to be accessible.
  • If something does not interest me, or if I do not believe in it or feel its purpose or respect the approach, I cannot muster motivation. The possibility of song being a hit is not enough to make me care.
  • I enjoy creative independence and collaboration, but do not want to feel controlled by a “machine.”
  • I have a family and a local community, and it’s important to me to be present & faithful to both.  This means I have to strive to be a good steward of my time & resources.

All of the above have shaped the path I’ve taken and continue to take regarding music.  If I say "no" (an important word for all humans to use wisely) to a request or opportunity, it's because whatever it is doesn't quite fit with all of the above.

You have your own list, right?  Artist or not.

 

ARTISTS, feel free to chime in below.  I'm presuming to speak for all of us, and I'm sure I'll miss something.  MUSIC LISTENERS, would love to hear from you, too.  Do you have an artist in your life & you're not sure what to do with him/her?

Because of the length of this post, I'm dividing it.  Look for "HOW TO LOVE YOUR INDEPENDENT ARTIST: PT. 2" next week...  

 

To the young writer...

(Photographs in this post were a gift from my young reader/listener/writer friend Abby Ang.  Enjoy Abby's words here.)

*Adding here to my original post, based on an interaction with a lovely young lady I hope to one day meet.

She wrote: At each stage of this journey, it seems the more productive I am...the more I battle the lie that my contributions are worthless. But, I know that is not true...so I keep on keeping on...trusting that God will use me (and my work) in a way that will somehow bring him glory.

I wrote:  When I was your age, I tried not writing for a period of time, on the advice of an older songwriter.  He said, "If you're not sure if this is what you're meant to do, try  NOT doing it.  See if you can. "  :) Clearly, I couldn't stop for long!  And I hope you won't, either...always remember that though there may be many others in that place [songwriters], working toward a similar goal, there is only one you.  No one else has had your particular life experience and seen it all through your set of eyes.  You do have something to add, and if God has gifted you musically/lyrically, you have something to add to the world of art & music.

And a couple of relevant book titles I recommend:

Walking on Water (Madeleine L'Engle - just read it, it's a classic) Linchpin (Seth Godin - secular, inspires the artist to break the rules & be uncompromising) At the Crossroads (Charlie Peacock - deals with history of "Christian music" & examines what it means)

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I’ve recently received several letters from young songwriters. You have something to say, and music is the language you speak, but you are uncertain where to take the work. I understand exactly how you feel, so...

I thought I’d jot some thoughts here to speak to you, and any others who also wonder.

It’s strange to suddenly find oneself in a sort of “older sister” role.  Odd to find that in the midst of all your own uncertainties and your own quest to understand how to really create something good, the “little sisters/brothers” knock on your door hoping you have the secrets.

And honestly, I can talk about words and writing all night, but business…not my favorite topic.

Strategy hasn’t played a part in any opportunities I’ve had before now.  And while I'm trying to be smart about things, I don’t tend to do things the way you’re supposed to do them in the “industry.”

So here, dear young writer, are my only words for you tonight:

What’s it all about for you? You have to find that answer…who are you writing for, and why?

Do you need to make a living from your writing?

If you do, you can do some googling and get tips on where to begin.  They’ll tell you, rightly, to first really make sure you’ve got what it takes, skill-wise.  It’s not an easy thing to get your songs cut by established artists, so your songs are going to have to be not good, but GREAT (and that’s defined by the market/genre you’re writing for).  And you’ll find tips on what to do and what not to do…don’t send in unsolicited material, don’t pay anyone to “publish” your stuff, don’t write 5-minute songs for pitch, start co-writing, etc….But lots of people write about that side of things, so I will not.

But, if you don’t have to make your living from your writing, then why bind yourself to that set of rules? You have all the freedom in the world to create something new.

Why not

stretch yourself, and your listeners…

Pay attention & deconstruct the music you love

find out what makes it work,

Be honest in your writing

write fearlessly,

use fresh, strong language…

Refuse to write what has already been written.

Take enough time to write each song the way it needs to be written,

(like a mother should heed the differences between her kids)

and rewrite,

but call it “finished” when it is.

(Gentle side note:  There is no divine inspiration behind any song in the way there was with Scripture, so let’s not say anymore that God gave us this or that song…it’s too often an excuse to not consider revising.:))

Be brave and put it out there...if singing isn't your strong suit, find someone else to deliver the music so that it can really be heard for what it is meant to be.  Start where you are...don't try to play it for industry people before you play it for "real people" in your own community, besides Mom and Dad.

Get old-fashioned in your thinking.  Consider the traveling musicians pre-record label.  Bring a song as you would bring a gift to small gatherings.  Post a song for free online and let people respond.

Write what is TRUE, and learn to WRITE IT WELL, and there will be people who want to listen.

And when they listen, and they get it, those are the people to listen to.  They’ll tell you what rings.

Not everything has to be heavy or serious.  We need to dance and laugh out loud as much as we need to cry.

Maybe the worst mistake we make is to define “success” by the numbers of people who know our name or our work.  Of course, we want witnesses to the work.  Of course, it feels good to be understood and validated.

But if we believe our work is made legitimate by being popular, we have bought a LIE.  I was no less valuable as a teenager because I was invisible and unpopular, but I believed that.

It’s a false story.  When we swallow it and live in that context, we have jumped tracks.

Real art has OFTEN been unpopular and Jesus Christ is not popular and we are not here to be popular but to be human. The gospel wasn’t pretty but it’s beautiful.  Because it’s true.

That’s the story we need to live and breathe and WRITE.

These are the things I have to constantly remind myself.  Because I like to be liked.

I know this isn’t what you’re looking for.  You’re afraid there won’t be a place for you in the world of art, that you'll live and die and no one will care about your songs. You want someone to give you 3 steps, or 7 tips.  But honestly.  I have no idea what work you were put on the planet to accomplish…I just think that the career path is not the point, and money is not the point, and fame is definitely not the point.  But creating something really good and pleasing to the Creator is.

Google those other articles and do those smart things.  But let those things support the art, and not the other way around.

I hope we cross paths one day, and that my soul is awakened by some bit of music you deliver into the world.  :)

With love and hope!

christa