As independent artists, why do we find ourselves spending more of our time playing manager and publicist than creating and performing?
It starts the day that we decide to make a full time career out of our passion. For me, this was the time where I began to listen to the people behind the curtain. It taught me the art of writing for radio, production techniques and later, management and marketing strategies. The dream being to create a hit album coinciding with a sell-out tour that would make enough money for lifestyle and creative expansion.
At some point during that period, I was lead to believe that high media exposure equalled ticket and album sales. This meant that it was pointless pushing forward without one or two radio friendly tracks with corresponding film clips. Almost everything hinged on publicity across all media platforms. If this synced up with strong support and festival slots, headliner gigs and product sales would benefit. Independently running two bands since my major label solo career showed me that one key component was overseen – Something that has now changed my approach to music.
My first band had one single rotating on Australia’s biggest commercial radio station countdown for over three months, it even hit no.1. Our film clip ran for the same on Video Hits at peak time. There were front page articles in papers nationwide and TV and radio interviews plugging follow-up tours. Did it translate into gig and album sales? Hell no. Fifteen people and one pissed off club manager were scattered across the floor of a four hundred capacity venue the week after we hit no.1 on the countdown, midway through the campaign. Five thousand CD’s are still sitting in my parents garage. We (and my poor parents) put ourselves in debt doing it.
My latest band, Nat Col & the Kings, had casual play on Triple J, Triple M and many rural stations – no film clip play, no rotation slots. Most of our traction was gained through fantastic support and festival slots. BluesFest, Queenscliff, Festival of the Sun, Broadbeach Blues Festival, Sydney Blues Festival, Bridgetown to name a few…and purposeful print, radio and online interviews around our tours.
If you work on the premise that high media exposure equals ticket and album sales, you’d have thought this would have been a tragedy compared my first band. Wrong. Nat Col & the Kings fans built consistently with every tour. People were buying our merch. Artists wanted to team up with us. There was a lot of talk and magic in the air. Three EP’s, countless tours and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses that had us breaking even only after three years. We should have been happy, but we were exhausted, depleted and anxious. Tour schedules went from something to be excited about to the thing we dreaded the most. We had run ourselves into the ground, all in the hope that if we ticked all boxes, our dream will become a reality. Thus, relieving us of the ridiculous, creative-blocking work load that we put ourselves and our families through over and over.
Lachy Doley gives a great snapshot of what the daily tasks of an independent self-managed artist looks like:
Write the music (time)
Perform the music (time)
Record the music (time and heaps of money)
Mix the music (time)
Master the music (time)
Then I market the album (stupid amounts of time and money)
I also pay a publicist to market the album (I can’t say exactly the amount, but it’s thousands)
I send the albums off to radio, blogs and magazines around the world (stupid amounts of time and money, especially overseas radio stations, everyone wants a physical copy and postage is nuts)
This album makes 4 Studios albums and 2 Live albums plus a DVD since 2010 (WTF?)
I book all the shows , except overseas (so much time)
I promote the shows (stupid amounts of time and money)
I video a lot of the shows (so much money and setup)
I edit the videos of the shows (so much time)
I promote them on Facebook (So much time and money)
I built and update my website (Lots of time, some money for hosting)
I design all the artwork and posters (time)
I tour manager everything. Which I’m absolutely hopeless at. (time)
Public Liability Insurance (money)
My Europe tour of 2015 ended up costing me $6000 dollars. Having said that. My Europe 2016 tour broke even. So that was good 🙂
I ENGAGE WITH ALMOST EVERYONE WHO CONTACTS ME on fb, email, twitter and alike. But now I’ve got over 28,000 Facebook likes, this adds up to ten’s of hours a week just replying to people but unfortunately doesn’t do anything for my hopeless financial situation. I give out so much advice to musicians via comments and private messages it’s bordering on crazy. But I have to say I really do love this part of everything. It’s just so many hours.
On top of this I haul around a stupidly OVERSIZED HAMMOND ORGAN and WHAMMY CLAV all the around the world and then put in every single bit of energy and conviction into every performance, I feel like I’m gonna faint sometimes.
Not to mention the cost of maintenance and petrol on my van when it’s running over 15,0000 kms a year
Nat Col & the Kings had it’s own version, all in the pursuit of attracting enough album and ticket sales to allow us to spend more time in the world of creation. But if I’ve seen first hand that exposure doesn’t always mean sales, why the fuck am I spending all this time, energy and money on trying to achieve it? I thought. And what’s missing?
Chance! A conversation with manager and friend Paul Gildea from Icehouse had me walking away with examples of bands that have blown up beyond expectation due to factors that can’t be predicted. People and timing. Yes, it’s great to have all of the marketing and touring boxes ticked, but we have very little control over how our songs will be received. So as an independent act with limited resources, it would make sense to consider this when choosing where to focus energy.
Three years after turning my back on the thing I loved the most, the creative itch returns, but the questions have changed. No longer is it, “How can I make this the biggest fucking thing ever??” it’s, “How can I structure my life so that I can sustain a LIFE in music?” Which is based around knowing what it is about music that lights me up and working outwards from there. This also meant looking at everything around music such as family, money, physical and mental health. I know when I’m desperately hunting, everything will hunt with me. Absolutely everything. But when we all return with no kill, we all go hungry which is when life turns to shit. Creativity is ultimately sacrificed in the end. So in order to preserve the passion, and the creative spark, it became more about how to nurture creativity and connection, family and friends, lifestyle, and money (being a partial catalyst) as they all go hand in hand. This meant compromises, but at least they were made strategically and not as a result of mental breakdown when everything is compromised. This doesn’t mean we don’t have to put “all” into it or as writer Elizabeth Gilbert calls it, “Eating shit sandwiches” at some stage, but the foundations should align with the purpose of why we play music.
The question that finds the highest priority is, “At the end of my days, what do I want to make sure I was doing? If it all turns to shit, as long as I was (blank) I’m good!” For me personally, if it all turns to shit, as long as it all centered around expression and connection, the soul will remain warm and thankful.
Funny, this is exactly how I used to live as a kid!
I’d love to hear from those who have found themselves lost in the storms of music and business, how you found clarity and were you working yourselves crazy for the “pay off”. Please feel free to debate or add to these ideas! We’re all just trying to work it out! And by all means, if you think this may resonate with a struggling artist friend, pass it on. Thoughts?
Photo taken by Eric Chow