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My Key Learnings from Being an Indie Musician for Over 10 Years

28 February 2024

I first started out producing music in my late teens, and though I felt I was a bit late already to the whole music scene, my interest was deeply rooted. Before releasing my first track titled ‘Alarm’ in 2012, I gained some experience by producing music for student short film projects and creating jingles for radio and local cable TV channels. They weren’t big gigs and weren’t paid either. I wanted experience and they wanted music, and the match was made in heaven! However, in 2012, I released my first track and another a few months later, and somehow started releasing frequent music independently; each better in quality than the previous tracks.

Back in 2012, when my cousin and I released ‘Alarm,’ and later when I released the song titled ‘Namma Dasara’ collaborating with a few friends, those were really the first times I experienced such things in my life. ‘Alarm’ coincided with the peak of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, and its supportive message resonated, sparking media attention. Local TV channels featured it, newspapers conducted interviews, and a prominent news channel even aired a special segment about us and our track — all without us spending a dime. The track’s timing and theme naturally drew interest. Yet, that was as far as it went. Despite the buzz, our YouTube views remained modest. And truth be told, at the time, we were unaware of the option to distribute songs on streaming platforms — releasing music online wasn’t nearly as straightforward as it is today. I can barely recall the process being as effortless as it is now.”

Suraj (my cousin) and I during the launch event of our first song ‘Alarm’ in 2012

Even for ‘Namma Dasara,’ the timing and topic seemed to align perfectly, prompting us to organize a small press event for its release. Despite being just an audio track, it quickly resonated with the people from my hometown, the intended audience. While it didn’t garner as much news attention as ‘Alarm,’ it still managed to strike a chord. However, the plays didn’t skyrocket as expected, despite some media coverage. It got stuck at around 3000 views on YouTube. Understandably, these were my early ventures into producing and distributing music tracks.”

Also, back then, DistroKid and other popular distribution services didn’t exist. I remember CDBaby was there, but it wasn’t as popular as it is today. I mean, the whole indie music distribution scenario, at least in my part of the world, was different and it felt new. But nowadays, people have a lot of options. It’s easier to distribute music. All you need is a 20 EUR yearly contract with an online distributor. But the learnings I have gained the hard way during my indie music journey of more than a decade, 12 years to be precise, are simply unimaginable. I have gained a lot of experience by making mistakes, and so, I decided to write this piece where I could share some of my learnings with you all, hoping that it would be of some use.

In 2016, I worked on a song called Forever. It was an international collaboration, where I teamed up with musicians from different parts of the world. This project marked the first time I released a song on streaming sites. The experience of collaborating internationally was particularly meaningful to me. With each new song, I made it a point to seek out opportunities for personal growth and learning.

For the track ‘Faith Hope & Love’ in 2018, I really wanted to explore crowdfunding options to help us produce a better music video and reach more people. It was definitely the biggest budget we had worked with at ‘Phal Music’ so far. We formed a team, rented expensive cameras and equipment, and produced a music video. While we didn’t receive as much funding as we expected, the efforts were still worth it. The experience was immense. We started feeling more responsible for the funding we received and worked on the track more seriously. We also distributed it to various streaming platforms. By then, I was familiar with Ditto Music and the digital distribution model. We quickly gained around 15,000 views on our music video on YouTube thanks to some playlisting and a press release. Additionally, we ran YouTube promotions for our music video for a week at a very low cost. Since most of our budget went into the track production and video production itself, we couldn’t promote much later on.

Team Phal Music during the video shoot of Faith Hope & Love in 2018

In 2021, I dropped a track named Salaam India. Collaborating with Songdew from India was pivotal in pushing the boundaries for this release. Their expertise in promotions significantly amplified the track’s reach. Thanks to their support, Salaam India secured radio placements, as did another song of mine, Meri Dua, released in 2018. Working with Songdew didn’t require a substantial upfront investment, as they operate on a profit-sharing basis. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that with more extensive placement in Spotify playlists and larger promotional budgets, the track could have reached an even broader audience.

This might come a bit off guarded, but people don’t simply listen to your tracks on Spotify just because you upload them. The idea that you upload on social media and get access to millions of listeners worldwide is, well, a lie. Or maybe if you try to analyze the sentence carefully, it’s just access and no guaranteed listens. So, what does that mean? Like any other business, being an indie musician is more about business than art. And what does every business need? A full-fledged marketing strategy. And is marketing free? No! It costs. So, long story short, it’s important to understand that you will have to pump in funds to make sure people listen. So, what does that mean? Well, don’t just invest in gadgets and your home studio. That’s important. Don’t get me wrong. But more important is your investment in how well you can distribute and promote your tracks. People just don’t get to listen to your tracks by chance.

And something that I have understood — people don’t care, and they don’t actively search for music tracks from new musicians. One is that they really don’t care and they don’t search, and it is also true that they get hooked up with the automatically created playlist game by streaming platforms like Spotify. So, what happens to us aspiring independent musicians? Well, we don’t get listens as much as we think we should, and then we get irritated, and then we lose patience and think of writing an article like how I’m doing. 😛

Jokes apart, but if there is one thing that I have understood over these years of producing music and video content and uploading them on YouTube, it’s not an easy task as an indie musician to cross even 3000 plays or streams in a month. Chuck that. It’s even difficult to get 1000 streams unless you pour in some money, and understandably so because it is a business at the end of the day. No matter how well you create your EPK and a music website or no matter if you choose a popular distributor like Ditto Music or DistroKid or Songdew in India, you cannot still think of making a living out of your talent, without shelling out some bucks from your pocket.

You need to think of it like a business. I can’t emphasize enough on it. You need to set aside some funds on a monthly basis to promote your tracks. There are a few honest free playlisting clubs that you might find online if you Google a bit. Trust me, I have tried them all. At least, most of them. Some are really good, as they give you free listens on a mutual agreement that you give them listens too. That’s a fair agreement, right? It is, but it is equally time-consuming, and you would rather spend quality time producing more music or improving your skill. I’m not against many such services. In fact, I was a part of a very friendly group for a very long time who really helped me in my streams. But, as days passed and the group started receiving more and more people, it started becoming more and more stringent, and then, everyone would have to follow certain rules, everyone streaming each other’s songs, irrespective of whether you like them or not; all for the hope that your track also is being streamed by others from the group — and everyone does too — but it’s just too time-consuming is what I feel, which can instead be used for planning better indie music promotion strategies. When I was a part of a few music streaming clubs online, it really helped my track ‘One World’ (2020) gain around 25,000 streams! But it also really took away a lot of my time. Trust me, it’s a job in itself! And, good luck to you if you think it makes sense to wait for word of mouth in this over-saturated industry.

You need to understand one thing, it’s really difficult to get people to listen to you in the first place, and then you expect them to even share your tracks? Unless they have some sort of obligation to you, they won’t share your music. The only one who has been sharing my music links as WhatsApp status or Instagram stories or a Facebook post is my wife, not even my parents or other relatives. Simply because, it might not resonate with them or it might be because they might not have time or maybe because they don’t have the habit of resharing music posts or something like that. We all know that everyone has their own policy in life. So, then, how do we get streamed you might ask? Or even how so many independent musicians are making a good living and are even being sourced by record labels. To answer this, I need to first explain what indie music actually means.

Indie music is not a genre. It is simply any music that is produced by an artist without the support of any major record label. So, when an artist’s music is being released and marketed by a major record label, it is simply not independent music anymore. So, now, answering the previous question of how do we get streamed. Well, it all lies in marketing and promotions, and something I am still trying to figure out. I have used a bit of YouTube promotions, Instagram and Facebook ads, paid playlisting, and a lot of free mutual streaming through clubs that I mentioned earlier. These all help, but then, since most of them are paid services, the reach and result really depend on how well we can convert our art into business.

With digitisation, the world has become more accessible for sure, but it is also more categorized and more regulated by companies that are here to make business. That’s pretty much understandable, right? We all know the popular saying, “nothing is free in this world”. So, how can we expect our music to be heard for free? When a hotel needs flyers, ads, and a lot of other promotional activities to become popular and when a microphone company needs its marketing strategy to survive, then why not indie musicians? My experience says it is simply not possible to become popular just by producing music and distributing them via distribution services like Ditto or Songdew or anything else. It has to be seen like a business. So, when you invest money in your gadgets and home studio, think twice about how much you are setting aside for your monthly promotional budget. That is your one honest friend in this business of art!

Remember, fellow aspiring musicians, this journey comes with its fair share of challenges, but there are valuable independent musician tips and tricks we can learn from each other. Keep creating, keep learning, keep experimenting, and most importantly, don’t give up on your passion. By approaching your music career as a business, investing in smart indie music promotion strategies, and continuously learning and adapting, you can carve your own path and connect with passionate listeners who resonate with your music.


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