Interview: Indie Band Survival Guide Authors Pt. 1
Recently, I spoke with Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan, who are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician. As well, they're lead members of the Chicago band Beatnik Turtle. In part one of this interview, Chertkow and Feehan talk about why they never quit they're day jobs once they become successful musicians and the consequences, if any, of the mass-consumer no longer paying for music.
Hypebot: Do you still think that there has never been a better time to be a musician? Why do you believe so?
Chertkow and Feehan: Absolutely. Nearly every aspect of making music has gone from being in the hands of a handful of companies that could afford it back into the hands of the musicians themselves. This is true with every area of music -- from recording to production all the way through distribution and promotion. Thanks to the computer, recording today is not only relatively inexpensive, you can now create a home studio with advanced recording capabilities that a pro studio could barely dream about a decade ago. Manufacturing your own run of CDs is within any musician's reach and music distribution, which used to be only available to a few, is now instant, worldwide, and trivially cheap. Further, in the past, most musicians were confined to being “local” only, unless they had label support or a great deal of resources to expand beyond their hometown. Today, the moment musicians put their music on the Internet they become a global musician that can be listened to, or watched, by anyone in the world.
Record labels thrived in the past because it was very expensive to move music on physical objects (records, tapes, CDs) and help people discover new music on the limited number of media available at the time (radio, TV). But the record label of the past was simply a bundle of services. They helped with getting you recorded, which was expensive. They helped with distribution around the country and world because you couldn’t possibly drive to all the record stores and distribute your album yourself. They helped with publicity since media was limited, they knew the gatekeepers and fought other record labels to get their music acts on the air. They helped with graphic design, fan clubs and mailing lists, and more. But now musicians themselves can do every single service that labels used to provide. And a host of new, low-cost (or free) services that can be bought and skilled people, often former label people, who can be hired that will work directly with the musician. And they won’t ask for the rights to your music to do it. Everything a label did is now within the reach of any musician.
That’s why we say there’s never been a better time to be a musician. There’s a worldwide stage waiting for you to step on to it; and when you do, you can reach and connect with fans no matter where in the world they are.
Hypebot: Musicians aspire to quit their day jobs, but Randy you’re an IT professional and Jason, you’re an attorney. Why have you chosen to be musicians and work the day job?
Chertkow and Feehan: Actually, we have emulated some of the successful musicians we know who blend together a set of skills and talents to make a set of incomes from their music. Although we have day jobs in IT and law -- both fields that impact music directly and have helped us by keeping us up with the latest trends -- we actually have many jobs besides being musicians and running our band, Beatnik Turtle. Most of them are music-related.
As you know, we’re authors with two books: The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan) and The DIY Music Manual (Ebury/Random House). We’re also columnists at Electronic Musician Magazine where we write the DIY Musician column, as well as feature articles and interviews. We also teach music business in Chicago at the Music Industry Workshop. Plus, we run the free and open IndieGuide.com website that we created to help other musicians find the resources they need. Each of these activities gave us new music connections, and even generated opportunities for our band. We guess you could say we’re similar to musicians that found that they had skills in photography and started to take pictures for bands, or discovered they were good a recording so also set up a studio. We enjoy sharing and writing about what we learn about music, and made that part of our music career.
Also, there’s not too many music gigs in the mornings and afternoons, so we figured, why not have daygigs? Still, all this work hasn’t slowed us down, music-wise. Our band, Beatnik Turtle, has so far managed to write, record, produce, and release 18 albums, and we have more on the way. Plus, back in 2007, we created a site called TheSongOfTheDay.com and released a song for each day of that year -- 365 songs in total. And we did all of this while working our day jobs. Considering this, and the number of other musicians we know who are doing the same thing, we don’t think that day jobs are an either-or choice. In fact, if you do it right, they will help your music besides just giving you an income.
Hypebot: Is there still a need for practical advice on how to be an indie act or has that gotten better over time?
Chertkow and Feehan: There’s definitely a need. There are some real misconceptions that still exist out there. For instance, many musicians still think that if they’re talented and their music is good enough, everything will magically fall into place. They’ll either be discovered by a label or by the world in general. Once they’ve “made it” all the hard work will be taken care of by other people so they can focus on the music. All the successful musicians we’ve interviewed were talented, worked hard for their success, kept control of their own career, and never gave up. Even in the past, when labels were a much bigger part of any successful artist, getting signed and letting others have that much control over you, your music, your business, and your finances never was never a good idea. The musicians that left it to others got taken advantage of.
A second misconception is that people think musicians, just because they play music, automatically know everything that it takes to make a business out of it and have it support them. Even after researching and writing The Indie Band Survival Guide and The DIY Music Manual, writing our monthly column, and submerging ourselves in books and information about business and music constantly, we still learn something new every day we can apply to our band.
The information that musicians need in order to be successfully independently is the biggest gap out there. And that’s why we spend so much time collecting the very practical advice that musicians need to just do it themselves. From our point of view, our band, Beatnik Turtle is a way to try new things to see how they work. When they do, we write about it. For instance, we’re in the middle of a college radio campaign right now as well as preparing our 19th album for release. Many things have changed since we last did this, and we’re writing what we learn in all of the venues that we can to share it so other musicians can get a head-start. The response continues to be very strong: we constantly get people writing us at IndieGuide.com telling us “thank you” for giving the practical information that they were looking for. It’s comments like those that keep us going and keep telling us that there is a need for this information.
Hypebot: If the mass-consumer isn't buying music and supporting artists, will we end up with fewer artists?
Chertkow and Feehan: Very few musicians got into music “for the money”. It’s nearly always something that musicians think about afterwards. Musicians are artists, and artists will express themselves no matter what. The end of the monolithic music industry is not the end of music (and actually, neither will be going away, they will change).
That said, independent music sales are up -- it’s just more dispersed because there’s more artists out there. Also, today there are more income streams available for musicians. Further, whatever happens to the market for recorded music, playing live continues to be the best income stream for most musicians. Live music isn’t something that can be “stolen”. If you have a truly entertaining and memorable show, people will come and pay for the experience.
But what’s really changed in this world isn’t how people pay for music, it’s that any artist can get their music heard by a worldwide audience with almost no effort. And it’s that audience that draws most musicians to music. A single upload of a video at YouTube, a tweet at Twitter, a post at Facebook, or a blog entry at a website can instantly draw listeners today. Because of that possibility, there are now more artists making more music and being heard by more people than at any other time in history.