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What is indie music? And what should you be doing as an indie artist?

Woman looking through records at a store | WHABBY Music

The phrase “indie music” gets thrown around a lot. Though it was originally used to differentiate artists who hadn’t signed to a major label, today the phrase is synonymous with a specific genre of music made famous by musicians like Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes, and Nick Drake. 

But what does it mean to really be an indie artist? And what is life like for artists who follow the indie route? 

If you’re looking for the answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right place. WHABBY! Music works with indie artists, helping them grow their audience and make money with their music

This article will explore the true meaning of indie music. After that, we’ll give you some valuable tips and resources to help you dive into the indie music scene.  

What is indie music?

Indie music is any music that’s produced independently from corporate music labels. In other words, unless you’re signed with an official music label, you can consider yourself an indie artist. 

In fact, nearly every artist, from Elvis Presley to Lana Del Ray starts out as an indie artist. Some musicians may be “discovered” by music labels earlier than others, but until they sign on the dotted line, they fit squarely into the “indie music” field. 

It’s a bit trickier to define “indie music” as a genre, because so many different artists fall into the “indie” category. Many consider indie music to feature acoustic guitar, soft vocals, and thoughtful lyrics – like Nick Drake or Jack Johnson. (For the record, Nick Drake signed to Island Records, and Jack Johnson created his own label called Brushfire Records). 

But this narrow definition of indie music excludes some of the incredible indie rock and indie pop artists out there, who don’t fit into those same parameters. And indie rock music is a genre unto itself. 

So rather than think of indie music as a specific genre, think instead of what the words actually mean: an independent artist, not signed with a label. 

What do indie artists do differently? 

When you work with a major music label, part of the contract you sign will outline what services the label will provide. Typically, these include assistance with recording, producing, marketing, and distributing your music. In exchange, you agree to give a portion of your earnings, and much of the rights of your music, to the label. 

As an indie artist, you can still enlist help to take care of some of these tasks. But you’ll likely need to pay for that help out of pocket, which is why so many indie artists choose to fly solo and do as much as they can on their own. 

Let’s go over some of the tasks that indie artists often manage by themselves: 

Recording the music

Here’s the good news: It’s easier ever than ever for indie artists to make their own music. In the old days, to access high-quality recording equipment, musicians would have to rent out time at a studio. 

These days, though, you can set up a quality DIY recording studio in your own home. It does require some financial investment, but once you have the equipment and set up your space, it’s not difficult to start recording professional-grade music. 

Sound like something you might want to do? We’ve got a bunch of resources to help you get started: 

Distributing your music

When you sign an agreement with a music label, part of your contract may stipulate that the label will take care of distributing your music. But if you’re an indie artist, with a little training and some elbow grease, you can put your own music on the major streaming platforms. 

Not only will this help you gain more listeners and make it easy for people to tune in to your tunes, it will also act as a revenue stream. (Word to the wise: Royalties from streaming platforms should just be one part of how you make money with your music.) If you want to know more about this subject, check out our ebook all about royalties.  

Once again, we’ve got some great guides to help you start distributing your music as an indie artist: 

Promoting your own music as an indie artist 

As an indie artist, if you want to broaden your audience, you’ll need to invest some time into promoting yourself. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can promote your music to find new listeners and get the word out about your art. 

The first step is making sure you have a website for your band, along with the appropriate social media channels. This will make it easy for anyone who hears your music to find you and learn more. Once you set these up, make sure you’re routinely updating your social media pages so your fans feel connected. Keep your website fresh with any updates about the music you’re making or any performances (live or digital) that you have coming up. 

Once you have those channels up and running, it’s time to start finding ways to get the word out about your band. You can start with some of these indie music blogs that may help you promote yourself. 

Performing your music for an audience is one of the best ways to gain new fans and followers. More and more musicians are live streaming their music to gain exposure during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s our guide on how to start livestreaming your music if you want to try that option. 

Protecting your music as an indie artist

As an indie artist, it’s up to you to make sure the art you create is protected by copyright laws. Unfortunately, copyright laws aren’t always easy to understand, and usually it helps to have some legal advice in your corner. 

The best thing to do as an indie artist is educate yourself. Take some time to learn what copyright laws are in your country, and make sure you are taking the appropriate steps to make sure your work is protected. 

Once again, we have a great resource to help you maintain control over the rights of any music you create. Check out our eBook “Copywriting Your Music”, where we feature advice from a music lawyer and explain everything in layman’s terms. 

Indie artists and collaboration

It might sound like being an indie artist requires a lot of work, and there is some truth to that—being a successful indie musician requires time and dedication. 

But you don’t have to do all of this alone. In fact, collaborations are one of the best things about being an indie artist. Because you are in total control of your music, you’ll be able to collaborate with any artist or professional you choose. 

Collaborating with other artists is not only a good way to enhance your music and grow your network, but it also helps you build an audience. Performing or recording music with other indie musicians will put your music in front of people who may never have found you on their own. 

Beyond that, you can collaborate with other music professionals who can help you take care of some of the non-performance tasks of being an indie musician. For example, you may meet people who already have their own DIY recording studio who will let you use it for a small fee or as part of a collaborative project. You could work together with indie producers to make your sound more professional, or even enlist the help of a law student to get legal advice at a lower fee. 

Being open to collaboration is an essential part of the indie music lifestyle. You can get started by looking for other bands on social media and interacting with them. A simple message introducing yourself and stating that you are looking for collaborations can go a long way.  

When does an indie musician sign a contract?

There are pros and cons of being an indie musician, and some musicians choose to stay independent for their entire careers. But as you gain more traction and grow your audience and network, it’s likely that at some point, you’ll be presented with a contract from a label. 

At this point, it’s up to you to decide if the benefits you would get with the contract outweigh the benefits you have as an indie artist. Your best bet is to get a music lawyer to review the contract. We also recommend checking out our eBook about music contracts if you haven’t already. 

Before you sign on the dotted line, ask yourself a few questions: 

  • What benefits do I get out of this contract? Will it help me make more music? 
  • What rights do I have to sign away? Will I lose too much control over my music? 
  • How will this impact my bottom line? Do I stand to earn more or less with this contract? 

Remember that you have the right to negotiate the terms of your contract, so be prepared to ask for adjustments if you think they’d be beneficial to you. 

And if you don’t like the look of a contract, there’s nothing wrong with turning it down. You’ve already found success as an indie musician, so embrace it! Eventually, a better contract will come along, or you’ll find that you really are an indie musician at heart and don’t want to sign a contract. Either way, you’ll still be doing what you love – making music.  

What is indie music? And what should you be doing as an indie artist?
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