How do independent musicians and bands make their mark?

(July 06, 2012)

The speed and pervasiveness of today's communication is truly staggering. News of any kind ‘hits the streets’ within seconds and it only takes the word ‘viral’ to come into force and your message can fly around the world. No longer can you be out-of-touch, unless you make a concerted effort to achieve such status. The cell or mobile phone ensures that anyone can reach you anywhere and locate you with ease. No longer can you become part-of-the-crowd without considerable effort to avoid the burgeoning wave of CCTV that swamps our public areas. And unless you really do ‘live off the grid’ then your personal details are recorded on dozens of databases, whether you agreed to it or not. Despite this sea of communication it remains an uphill struggle for musicians to break through.

There is of course an easy route that more or less assures your 'fifteen minutes of fame'. Take part in a ‘Britain’s-Got-X-Factor-Stars-In-Their-Voice’ extravaganza and attempt to break through the barrel-loads of prurient dross such banalities serve up. Sell your talent to the cults of mediocrity, celebrity, pop slush and downright shite - all designed to increase television ratings - and pray that the right someone somewhere will notice.

And the channels of choice are ...?

Assuming you decide not to bathe in the pool of 'talent shows' independent musicians and bands have some other channels to choose. There's word-of-mouth, social networks, local or regional clubs or the music media. Word-of-mouth can be the best reference but it can take a long time to bear any fruit. That is unless you become an unexpected ‘hit’ as a fringe-festival wild-card (not too likely). Even the social networks, although technically 'online' have come to replace word-of-mouth but can operate in a similar way. The web offers more immediacy and a potentially world wide audience. However, the problem with the web and the seemingly unstoppable rise of social networking is that it takes very little effort to set up a site, record some music and offer it up for consumption. The result is too much good material swamped by downright shite (been there already). Just because you can – doesn’t mean you should.

The likes of MySpace and Facebook have flourished (although Facebook appears to be somewhat in the lead) and offer a channel to many good and many bad musicians (the crap is in there too of course). Twitter offers yet another option but its primary role in getting known is to drive a potential audience to web sites or events. Although it also carries the 'word of mouth' gene it derives success from people that already 'follow' you. The tentacles of the web can put your work out there but it takes recognition to build reputation.

The club circuit offers the chance to perform in front of an audience of potentially appreciative people but apart from the odd open mic spot, it can be hard for artists to break into a club set list. There are (before they jump down my throat) clubs and promoters that have over the years given 'up and coming' and unknown, musicians and bands the chance to perform more than one song before they are scuttled off stage and the 'main attraction' appears. And it's these good folk that have helped independent musicians no end. However, there remains a great number of 'closed clubs' that still trot out the same old, same old for fear of upsetting their audience. Is there some deep seated reluctance to take a risk and give independent musicians a chance?

In the super-saturated online music miasma it's equally hard to break out, it’s hard to prove you’re different and even harder to get people to listen. One way is to submit your work to the range of published, broadcast and online media that review new artists and their work. But then the problem is to find a sympathetic ear. If you’re a ‘named name’ then large chunks of the media (through whatever channel they work) regularly fall over each other to talk to you or review your work. However media recognises talent it has to realise it doesn’t appear fully-fledged. The media needs to expand its horizons beyond the good, great and famous and include those independent, unsigned and largely unrecognised musicians and bands that they simply ignore. This ignorance is rarely through malice, it’s just a selective inability to ‘see’ anything below a certain popularity level.

All available channels - published, broadcast and online media

It is, in my humble opinion, vital for more of the published, broadcast and online media to expand the service it offers to musicians (and that includes folk in all its varied guises) and take a chance on new artists and albums. It is also important to recognise that ‘putting the boot in’ is not and has never been particularly rewarding for either party. Despite what the more acerbic and self-possessed journalists might think, writing a review filled with bile and vitriol is neither pleasant nor clever. And it doesn’t necessarily condemn and artist forever but what’s the point? If it stinks let it go – don’t report on it, or at least give it a fair listen before writing it off. The world will deal harshly enough with the perpetrators in its own good time. However, if it has a spark that only requires a fan to bring it to life then say so.

Published, broadcast and online media sources have championed musicians and bands from their ‘early days’ of limited recognition through their rise towards wider recognition and eventual renown. Neither I nor any of my contemporaries would claim to have ‘made’ an artist. They do that for themselves. However, it helps if more media recognised that not everyone starts off at the top.

So how do independent musicians and bands make their mark through the most over-communicated society this planet has ever known? They use all available channels – word of mouth, online, clubs and media ... and any others you can lay hands on. Send your work to published, broadcast and online media sources and hope that there are folk working there that are prepared to lend an ear to the untried and untested. Let the media that responds know where and when you’re playing so they can listen to the live version as well as the album. If you want to recruit a PR agency to run all this communication for you and become your initial interface with the media, then select carefully. Not all PR agencies are the same and some of them work much harder than others, and before you make your decisions ask around. It’s important to understand that Facebook, Twitter and others are fine social channels to use and engage with your audience but third-party endorsements speak louder and clearer than your own hype.

And what's more recognise that, once open, lines of communication have a habit of flourishing but they do need nurturing one call and one press release followed by months of silence is not going to work. And most importantly, do not give up.

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