This guest blog post was written by Marcus Taylor, founder of The Musician’s Guide — a website that helps DIY musicians learn about the insides of the music industry, and download useful resources including music contracts and music contact lists.
What is it that holds unsigned artists back from achieving the widespread recognition that’s all too often reserved for the signed artist? Is it the advances poured from the pockets of record labels? Is it the connections that labels facilitate? The reality is that whatever it is, unsigned musicians might be better off without it.
Unsigned musicians are the music industry’s equivalent of David in the biblical account of David and Goliath. They’re the equivalent of the self-funded startup in the business world, or the outnumbered army in a one-sided battle. Unsigned musicians are often relatively weak in comparison with musicians who are backed by a label, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. But just as many of the weaker forces mentioned above have defeated their stronger combatants, unsigned musicians have the potential to become just as, if not more powerful than the behemoths of the music industry. It just requires a slight change of mindset.
Bombarding journalists with demos and performing the same old gig circuit won’t make you stand out — you’re a small fish in a very, very big ocean. If you want to punch above your weight and manifest power, you’re going to have to get creative and go where few other musicians have already been.
For example, take ReverbNation artist Linda Chorney, who secured a nomination at this year’s Grammys by introducing herself and her new album to voting members of the Recording Academy through its Grammy365 website. Linda also funded a nomadic tour across the world by trading her performances for flights, scuba dives, ski passes, health care, and other travel expenses.
Or take Merton, ‘the piano guy’ who got wide acclaim for his innovative use of Chatroulette. And Arcade Fire, who released their album using a Google Maps integrated HTML5 music video that blew the technology industry away, getting home page features on almost every popular tech blog.
There’s been no shortage of case studies in the past few years where DIY musicians have punched above their weight and achieved mainstream success, but what every one of those case studies has in common is that the artist was willing to put forth great effort, get creative, and go where few musicians had previously been, thus putting themselves in a position to stand out and attract attention. As the saying goes, “the hardest place to sell a book is in a bookstore” — the hardest place to get attention as a musician is where the other musician’s are already playing their music. This creative route to success may not be easy — but getting to the top requires hard work, just as getting good at writing music takes practice.
Last year I met up with Jon Morter, best known as the activist behind the Rage Against the X-Factor Campaign where he got Rage Against The Machine’s controversial song ‘Killing in the Name of’ to Christmas #1 in The UK.
Jon explained to me how did it: he read the chart guidelines back to front several times over for weeks, found a tactic to become the administrator of thousands of Facebook Pages with millions of followers and then message those followers about his campaign, amongst many other ways to get extra votes for songs and trigger people’s desire to join his movement. By getting creative, Jon (an ordinary computer programmer from London with little involvement in the music industry) beat one of the most powerful men in music industry at his own game.
What is Jon’s secret? Attack at the point of weakness.
In a report from The New Yorker, political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft studied the instances throughout the past 200 years where weaker combatants have defeated stronger forces with their creativity. He found that “the Goliaths” (the more powerful forces) won 71.5% of the time.
What he found, however, was that when the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional (often more difficult) strategy (as Linda, Jon, Arcade Fire, and Merton did), their chances of winning increased from 28.5% to 63.6%. In other words, when a weaker force gets creative, and is willing to put forth great effort, they have a higher chance of winning than the stronger force.
Let me rephrase that in context — when an unsigned artist with little budget and few music business connections gets creative with their approach and works harder than their signed equals to succeed, they’re more likely to succeed than a signed musician with a large financial advance and a label to facilitate connections.
“When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.” - Ivan Arreguín-Toft
The point that I’ve hoped to get across in this post is an incredibly important one — power is a catalyst that can propel you towards success as a musician, and more often than not signed artists receive their power through the conversion of money and connections into opportunities. However, two of the most underused resources that we (musicians) can convert into power is our creativity, and our ability to work harder for ourselves than any label or manager ever could. You don’t need a large advance or a pocket book full of highflying music business contacts to be successful; you just need the creativity to acquire the same results in an unconventional way.
If you have any thoughts or questions about this post, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, or you can send me a tweet at @TheMusicGuide.