In his new book Slacker Guide To The Music Industry, radio DJ, former musician and all-round music biz whizz Phil Taggart offers up an easily digestible guide to the ins and outs of a career as a jobbing musician.
In our next exclusive excerpt we hear from Little Simz, Run The Jewels, Rory Friers (And So I Watch You From Afar), Rou Reynolds (Enter Shikari) and Ray Blk on how to survive as a DIY musician.
Phil Taggart’s Slacker Guide To The Music Industry is out now, and comes supported by Help Musicians UK. Order it here.
At the very beginning, roughly 99.9% of artists have had to walk that lonely road into the music industry by themselves. Kanye West didn’t just beam onto Earth as a multi-award-winning artist, pre-Nirvana Dave Grohl had to pack up his own drum breakables and cold call venues to get shows, and Stormzy fired bars and beats to people in the early days hoping for a reaction.
What I’m getting at is, if you are reading this book then there is a high likelihood that you too are probably grafting, planning, and plotting out your musical journey right now.
I’ve got so much respect for artists that graft it out themselves. Nobody will ever care about the project you are undertaking as much as you will yourself. At this point, motivation, drive, and vision are your best friends, and sometimes your worst enemy. If you have a good balance of those three things and mix them with a plan that suits your music, then maybe you don’t need anyone else. And perhaps the DIY route might be the right one for you.
The whole process of releasing music is a bit of a rollercoaster. From the guys on the high street haranguing innocent shoppers to listen to their music, all the way up to the major label high-rises in London’s Kings Cross, it’s impossible to tell how it’s going to go. When you throw in the added element of self-releasing, and plunge down the DIY hole the stakes can be a lot higher.
You’ve created a personal vignette of yourself through your music, and now you have to set about releasing it. That means any wrong turn will feel like a personal attack, and any right turn will feel like happy hour on your birthday.
If going it alone, you’re going to have develop some seriously leathery skin and a work ethic that would make Arctic husky dogs blush. It’s never easy in a market that has hundreds of thousands of music makers around the globe, all doing the same thing as you. But that’s not to say you can’t do it. Some of the best careers have been kicked off with a DIY attitude.
Before we get further into it, let’s discuss the acronym ‘D.I.Y.’ because it’s slightly misleading. ‘Do It Yourself’ does not mean you have to completely ‘do it yourself’. It’s more of a statement against the major record label machine. It’s the statement of intent that you’re going to find your own path to take your songs to the music-loving public, without the aid of the corporate chequebook. However, this sexy abbreviation does not mean that you have to hack through the musical undergrowth with a machete on your lonesome. Everybody needs a team of some description and employing the right people to work alongside your vision is imperative, just as finding people with the same work ethic as you will make your life a lot easier.
There are independent companies which look after physical and online distribution, radio, artwork, PR, royalty collection, accounting, booking agents – the list goes on. It’s your job as CEO of your own music to put together the perfect team for as much as your budget allows, or doesn’t. But a few words of advice: even though you own 100 percent of your music (compared to the average of 20 per cent owned by a lot of acts signed to major labels), be prepared to see a lot of scary outgoings at the beginning. You are your own label, so you have to front the costs. When the music takes off, however, you own it all. So happy days, the silly pink umbrella cocktails are on you!
Meantime, it’s really crucial you look after your mental and physical health. This may sound a bit dramatic, but I’ve seen it happen to a lot of musicians who self-release. They see this one release as their magnum opus, so it must be worked on twenty-three hours a day. There’s a difference between working hard and working smart. It’s easy to get obsessive and to not be able to see the woods for the trees. It happens to us all, but when you’re hitting the DIY trail you need to maintain a sense of reality.
You should set realistic goals and dates and set aside days where you don’t work on any music. You don’t work 24 /7 in your day job, so you shouldn’t do the same with your music. It’s best to plan, use your time wisely, and work hard; but never work at the expense of your health. No one piece of music is more important than you.
In the early days of the music industry, the idea of DIY usually came attached to the stigma of ‘outsider’ art. It was work that no respectable business would go near because of its inherently uncommercial nature.
Albums of religious songs, people who played weird instruments, music with no commercial potential whatsoever – they all fell under the DIY label. And for a long time, this was really all the term referred to. Until punk came along.
By that point – or so the traditional narrative goes – rock music had become too big, and too unwieldy, to really appeal to its core audience. It was simply another kind of big business, run by accountants, and played by men with bank accounts the size of a small planet. Then along came punk, and rock got taken back to street level, back to the pubs and clubs, where anyone could have a go.
And while all the major labels dabbled in punk rock, it didn’t take long before some inspired amateurs decided they could circumnavigate the business end of things and make art on their own terms.
One of the first bands to try it came from Cleveland, Ohio, in the industrial heartland of America. Using their own Hearthan Records, Pere Ubu self-released their brand of dark, angular rock, which would go on to prove hugely influential. Other labels would eventually come to their door but right at the beginning, the commercial prospects for a band like Pere Ubu were literally zero, and no record label would dare to take a chance on such a risk.
Inspired by Pere Ubu, other bands such as Joy Division and Stiff Little Fingers signed up with independent record labels, while bands like Crass, Big Black, and Minor Threat formed their own record labels, and released music on their own terms. A revolution had taken place.
These days, it’s significantly easier to self-release a record. You don’t have to worry about record pressing plants, gluing sleeves together, or carting boxes of vinyl around in the back of your car. However, it’s also never been more difficult for a self-released record to have the kind of impact that it used to. It is competing with a tidal wave of other songs, the like of which popular music has never seen before. And you’ve got to do an awful lot of work to make it stand out.
Ray BLK has defiantly followed her own path in her career so far, self-releasing two critically acclaimed EPs, getting a MOBO nomination, and topping the BBC’s Sound of 2017 list. She’s also now secured a position with Island records, on her own terms. And for her, DIY was the only way to go.
“I just wanted to develop myself and my sound, without the pressure of a label having to recoup, or make a big pop smash banger that I’d feel uncomfortable with. I just wanted to find my own lane first.”
Of course, this comes with risks, and while a major label will want money from you if you hit the big time, at least they’ll have given you money in the first place. For most DIY artists, certainly at the start of their journey, they can expect their pockets to be permanently empty.
“The financial reality is that you will be broke for quite a while, and a lot of the money that you have when you start making money, ends up having to go back into investing in yourself.”
And when the money comes in, you better make sure that you invest it in the right part of yourself. For Enter Shikari’s Rou Reynolds, that decision isn’t quite as clear-cut as it might first seem.
“We had to make the choice between going into the studio or buying a banged-up old van. We decided on the banged-up old van with the leaky roof. After a gig, we were in the van listening to the Radio 1 Punk Show, worried about the battery running down, and then the DJ played our song, stopped it after thirty seconds and said, “I love the song, but the quality isn’t good enough.” So, we immediately questioned our decision to buy the van.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at least the van got them to a gig. Every cloud …
Leaky van or not, going DIY isn’t really a choice for many people: it’s just something that’s in their blood. And for Rou, there was no question that he’d go down the DIY avenue, inspired by some punk rock heroes of yore.
“I think it’s probably more a mindset than anything. It’s being fearless and trying to be real and genuine. We didn’t have a choice; nobody was interested. So, we had to do everything ourselves at the beginning. American hardcore laid the ground for us: Black Flag, Fugazi, and Minor Threat all did it themselves.”
Like the American hardcore bands, plenty of musicians have honed their craft, won over an audience, and then discovered that no label is prepared to take a punt on them, for a multitude of reasons. They could be too raw, too noisy, or too aggressive. Sadly, they just might not look right. And in these cases, you can either pack it in and feel sorry for yourself, or you can get off your backside and do it yourself. And for some bands, this is actually a far more attractive prospect than being beholden to someone else.
“We were very wary of jumping into a major label contract, as we’d seen some local bands build up hype and then plummet fast. We didn’t see the long-term benefit in it. We met plenty of labels.”
Going it alone means investing in your art at a time when no one else wants to. And whatever way you look at it, it is an investment, something that might hurt in the short term, but will hopefully pay dividends further down the line. For El-P of Run the Jewels, it meant having to look at the longterm effects.
“I think focusing on craft is the main thing. There is no shortcut. Everybody has the same tools, and some people get lucky and some people don’t. This means you have to make your music stand out. If you need to spend a little money, do it. Get a fucking horn player to come in and do some crazy shit on your record. Spend it on the guy you want to mix your song. Invest in your art and keep investing. Other doors will open as soon as people connect with your music.”
Connecting with that audience is the all-important part of DIY. No matter how unconventional or uncommercial your music might be, if you actually like it and care about it, there’s a very good chance that other people might too. You might not be looking forward to your own private jet, mind you, but for some artists, a small and devoted audience can allow them to continue doing what they want to do – which is writing, recording, and releasing music.
MC and North London legend Little Simz has pursued the DIY option to sizeable success, cracking the UK R&B Top 20. And for her, being in control of her own destiny allowed her to treat her career with the respect she feels it deserves, something which might not have happened if she was part of the machine.
“When I was being offered deals, I didn’t feel any labels were in it with me for the long run. I felt it was all hype, it was all very short term. If I’d signed a deal, there’s a possibility I wouldn’t be doing this in five years, and that isn’t my calling. All the decisions I make now will affect that. I wasn’t trying to be a rebel; I was being a realist. I’m happy I chose this path. It’s taught me a lot about myself.”
The realities of this situation have allowed Little Simz to call the shots on who she thinks she is, and not to have to worry about being packaged up as someone else’s idea of success. And that authenticity shines through, allowing her to connect with an audience. She’s the real deal, not some manufactured version of the truth.
And when it came to making this idea work as a career, she had the business smarts to see it through.
“A good DIY artist is a risk-taker that understands not only the musical side of things, but is business savvy as well. They’ll make amazing music in the studio, but they can also go to meetings with bosses of companies, and they can be assertive and know what they want. Not to blow my own trumpet, but those are some of the qualities that I possess.”
It’s a cutthroat world out there, and it’s safe to assume that many people are trying to rip you off and take advantage of you. And that can be tough. But just because you’re DIY, doesn’t mean you’re alone. Little Simz says.
“I have a manager, Eddie. We have a small team. We’re fortunate enough now to afford to pay people to take them on. For a long time, Eddie was manager, tour manager, DJ. He did everything, and he did that because he was thinking long term.”
This long-term thinking is something that actually appealed to El-P of Run the Jewels, who actively relished getting his hands dirty.
“I wanted to make it happen. I wanted to be part of every process, the curator, the idea dude; get the vinyl out there. I didn’t want to have to bend my will or artistic ideas to anyone else’s vision. I didn’t want to have to wait. Thank God now you can just put music up whenever you like!”
The internet has made this whole process a lot easier, and the days of getting all your friends together to glue record sleeves together are (largely) gone. But while some of the hard work has gone, the appeal of DIY is more than just doing a lot of work. For some people, like El-P, this is a way of life.
“The whole point really is deciding if it’s an ethos that applies to you artistically. For me, doing it yourself made sense because I knew that I didn’t want to change my music for anybody. It was really about being happy, it was about being a champion of my own destiny. I think that’s the artist’s dream: get paid for what you love to do, and keep doing it forever.”
Of course, not everyone manages to achieve this dream, and for those who do, it takes an awful lot of effort. And like El-P, it can help if you have someone who actively enjoys doing the hard work. And in Enter Shikari’s case, Rou Reynolds was always keen to get stuck in.
“I remember really enjoying booking tours. It’s that typical thing of you piecing it together, and slowly seeing the dates add up, and trying to fill in the days off, and then making a crappy tour poster. I really enjoyed that, and I enjoyed making the merch designs as a whole. It wasn’t very good, but it was a necessity.”
DIY artists can expect to be a jack of all trades like Rou Reynolds, designing posters, selling merch, driving the van, and booking the gigs. And occasionally, you can get around to making some music. But on some level, the music is going to take a back seat to the realities of your situation. So, you need to have the music in place long before you even think of going down the DIY route, because it’s going to take a lot of your time and attention to get the books balanced and keep track of your finances. The road to DIY success is paved with plenty of people who couldn’t keep an eye on the many different irons that they had in the fire.
The worst-case scenario is when you start to neglect yourself in this pursuit of artistic self-reliance. For Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike, this should be concern number one.
“Don’t overspend, so you have to be good at budgeting. Make sure your rent is paid. If it’s paid for a year, then you can tour for no money, stay creative, and work your damn ass off. You have to preserve yourself and think smart.”
If you look after yourself, then you can buy the freedom to look after your career. And for Little Simz, this means sacrificing certain things that a major label would take care of on your behalf.
“Being independent means you are the label, you have to fund everything yourself. You have to put your business hat on. Label artists don’t have to worry about booking flights, making merch, and the rest, but I choose this to be hands-on in every aspect of my career.”
So, while she might have to arrange her own transport to and from a gig (which I imagine is a bit of a downer once you come offstage), Little Simz has been able to stay true to her own vision. And for plenty of artists, like Killer Mike, staying true to your own vision is something that a major label will rarely let an artist do.
“It’s all the fucking shit that comes with it, some guy called Craig with a bad haircut telling you what your single should be. A guy called Dave … Dave likes your FIFA song. Who is this guy?”
If the only advice you’ve gleaned from that statement is to avoid Craig and Dave, then you might need to go back and reread it.
The business side can be brutal, and whether you’re going down the DIY route or the major label approach, when someone shoves a bit of paper in front of you and asks you to sign it, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into, as Rou Reynolds of Enter Shikari succinctly explains.
“Get management and a lawyer together before you look at contracts, otherwise you are fucked.”
Ultimately, if you have the constitution for it, the drive to do it, and the organisational skills to make it work, going down the DIY route could potentially reap huge rewards for an artist. You get to completely control every aspect of your career and if you’re successful, all the money is coming back to you. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, and the music you make is ultimately made from your own vision, rather than someone else’s idea of success.
On the other hand, you spend a lot of time doing the jobs that other people are paid to do, you have to invest a lot of your own time and money into something you love, with potentially very little coming back to you, and there’s no safety net for failure. Many artists have gone down the DIY route and found it to be unsustainable by taking on a financial, physical, and emotional cost which is hard to bear and can be harder to recover from.
However, enough people have proved that it can be done, and they continue to inspire other artists. For Little Simz, she saw other people making a success of their music on their own terms, and she knew that was the way she had to go.
“Chance the Rapper is a great example and inspiration of someone who has broken the barriers, and changed what it means to be independent. He goes against the grain and does everything on his terms, with his people. I love his movement and how he carries himself.”
For Ray BLK, she looked to Stormzy as an inspiration on how she could make it work.
“Stormzy was making freestyle videos and posting them on YouTube. Then I think he was posting a video a month to get noticed. He was really trying to create his own opportunity.”
Ultimately, it can be very rewarding to experiment with DIY music. And if you dip your toe in that water, you’ll likely know that it’s for you, as El-P explains.
“Do you believe in yourself? Me and Mike never questioned our belief, we were like “Ooh we’re going to do this shit.” It’s really then about figuring out how I am going to do it.”
And So I Watch You From Afar’s Rory Friers 10 tips on doing it D.I.Y
1. Make Art That Speaks To You
Make honest music that represents you and that stirs you, something you sincerely love. You will have to stand up for this music everyday, you’ll have to walk on a stage and play to an empty room and still stand proud behind the songs. You’ll have to be away from your own bed and the people you love for this music, you’ll have to be skint at times for this music, you’ll have to teach yourself boring skills like how to fill out tax returns and understand pages and pages of legal jargon so if it doesn’t make you feel alive when you’re making it then it’s not going to do it when you need it most along the way.
2. Take All the Help you Can Get
DIY isn’t about taking every aspect of the band onto your own shoulders, it’s about being the deciding and driving force of how and where your music goes. Have a clear vision of what you want and how you present and interact with the world around you, surround yourself with people who can help you get there, you steer the ship.
3. Money Matters
Cash flow is one of the most important things to look after. If you really want to be punk rock then look after it. This is what will enable all those ideas and dreams and creative endeavours to actually happen, if you hold the cash then you’re the boss.
4. Trade In Other Currencies
Can you put a show on for a band in return for them doing the same, can you make posters, are you good at design work, can you use Photoshop, make videos, take photographs, record music for people, help mix a song, master a song, know how to book a tour, good with social media, own a van? Have you got a space people can rehearse, own some cool gear, some mics, a PA system? Literally, whatever you can bring to the table, someone, somewhere can make use of it. Make connections.
5. Opinions are Subjective
Don’t presume people always know what they’re talking about. Most people don’t, there will be people who will say they know what’s best for your music, but remember, opinion is subjective. One person’s idea of success differs from another and what’s important is that you are fulfilled and content in your own idea of success.
6. Don’t be Afraid to do Things Differently
It’s your music, present it however speaks truest to you and however serves your vision best. Things are wide open now.
7. Look After Your Fans
After the art itself the fans come first no matter what. Whether there is one or one million.
8. Find Ways to Connect and Interact
Keep people abreast of what you’re doing. Don’t depend on social media, they all have a shelf life. Utilise and use what you can when you can in the way that serves your music best, don’t feel pressure to go with the latest fad.
9. Never Sell Yourself Short
If it’s important enough for you to put your time, love, passion, money and energy into then its important enough for you to speak loudly and proudly about it. This is your baby, separate the art and your ego, do it justice, speak with passion.
10. Enjoy Every Second
You are the master of your own destiny now, the space between you and your potential fans is smaller than ever, it’s an amazing time to be a musician, enjoy every minute of it.
Phil Taggart’s Slacker Guide To The Music Industry is out now, and comes supported by Help Musicians UK. Order it here.