Some guiding principles for creative independence

April 22, 2024 ☼ musicdiy

Over the past few months I’ve been quite energized by the ideas of online independence and transparency, both as a tech person and a musician. This has been inspired by a few recent developments:

These are just a few of many related ideas converging on two facts:

  1. The Internet is rapidly becoming a chaotic mess run by a small set of very large companies optimizing for shareholder value and thus uninterested in investments to tame said chaos for the good of humanity;
  2. Opportunities still exist for thoughtful organic connection online, amidst (or away from) this chaos, and there is growing demand for and willingness to search for it

Oddly enough, Meta (of all companies) is straddling a very fine line between those two mindsets thanks to the introduction of Threads and long-term support for concepts like open-sourcing and the Fediverse.

Some context

As a musician, for years I struggled with having the confidence of promoting my work — partly due to impostor syndrome — but also because it’s felt like somehow both a Sisyphean and Kafkaesque task to market oneself online. There are the conventional routes of music promotion: play shows, submit to press outlets for coverage, hire publicist/agent/manager/etc., which is full of scammers and bias and dead ends. Then there’s the Internet platforms, which theoretically level the playing field between bedroom novice musicians and major-label acts, but in practice are a relentless game of constant attention-seeking and algorithm-pleasing. Not to mention that the conventional” industry is also playing those same Internet games, often with money to influence the outcome of the games. And scammers. And now AI-generated garbage.

Not to mention that the music I make - highly personal, a bit sprawling and unconventional rock music and stuff that I’d consider art” - is not what’s in demand in the general public.

But in the past 4 months I’ve found a niche: fellow musicians or independent music appreciators on Threads. It’s a small niche, but my presence within it is growing, and I have (small) data showing that. People in that niche have paid me real money for my creative output.

This means a lot. Not just to me personally - I am extremely grateful, flattered, and a bit bewildered that people would pay me for my music!!! - but in terms of what it opens up for potential methods of building my musical work (or any musical work) into a small sustainable project on its own. My goal is not to turn this into a full time job, but I would love to be able to gain a small but supportive audience of folks who value my creative output and be willing to financially support it in some way, because I believe that good art deserves market value.

This is not a new idea. Fan support platforms like Patreon and Bandcamp have existed for over a decade. But they are platforms funded by venture capitalists or large corporations, and even so are very much outliers in a music industry dominated by Spotify – a large and highly unprofitable business — and the major record labels, who partly bankroll Spotify for their own gain. Most people who listen to music have never even heard of these other platforms, let alone support an artist on them.

Moreover, as Spotify leans more and more into shuffled algorithmic playlists, the music that most people will listen to are (1) massive viral hits or (2) music specifically produced to optimize placement in the algorithm. And if I think about the listening habits of most non-musicians I know, they likely don’t care. Most of them don’t care or even realize who made the songs Spotify feeds them. This is definitely not good for artists, and I’m not sure it’s good for the world.

So I feel compelled to look elsewhere, and in a way that does not further entrench platforms incentivized to relentlessly grow at the expense of art & artists. I want to be unapologetically independent and thrive in doing so.

What’s my goal here?

It’s not to tear down the platforms. I’m not on some war against Bandcamp since it got acquired then sold then gutted.

It’s much more about three things:

Guiding principles

  1. The primary goal is creative freedom above all else, across all aspects of my creative work (including branding)
  2. Minimize money given to services/platforms misaligned with my values
  3. Minimize service lock-in
  4. Must be low cost/time to maintain
  5. Wide upper funnel (distribution) to maximize reach, narrow lower funnel (purchase) to maximize profit & fan connection
  6. Strength in numbers: support & collaborate with similarly-minded artists & service providers

That last one is tricky. There are two big hairy problems: payment processing and file distribution. If you want to make money on your music, you need to accept payment methods your potential customers have, and then deliver the music (sometimes in multiple formats) to them in some way. What services like Bandcamp and Spotify do is complex.

But there are alternatives if you begin to think about it differently. Why not just email a paying customer a .zip file with my album in it? Or a Dropbox link? Or a link to a file that I host on a server managed by a business I trust?

I’ve always been fascinated by local markets and the DIY ethos. The idea that, to keep costs low and ownership high, you keep things simple, organic, and in your control. These principles help my process feel truer to DIY but online.

Applying this to my web presence

I’ve already begun applying these principles to how I maintain my presence on the Internet and how I conduct myself.

My website (kidlightbulbs.com) is built with Blot, a simple $5/month service run by one guy named David that turns a Dropbox folder (or Git repository for the nerds) into a functioning blog. I write text, throw it in a folder, and it shows up. That might even be how you’re reading this right now. David runs the whole thing himself with seemingly no funding or support, shares a public record of features he’s considering, and openly invites his users to provide feedback.

My newsletter is hosted on Buttondown, a free (or inexpensive) newsletter service run by a guy named Justin. It’s completely independently and sustainably run, and Justin shares exactly what he’s doing and using to run the service. He (or his 1 support person) respond to my questions in under 3 hours every time. It’s wild.

I get analytics for my site via Counter, a free (donation-based) and open-source service run by a guy named Irae in Berlin. It’s awesome and all you really need for website analytics.”

Music distribution is hard to do in alignment with these values, and something for which I am actively exploring options. Distribution to the streaming services is particularly tricky – however, I’ve begun to think of this less as an essential service and more as a marketing expense, and therefore I’m willing to eschew my values a bit to make this happen.

I currently host and distribute my music via 3 services:

Yes, Dropbox is publicly traded and therefore incentivized to prioritize shareholders of users; however, I strongly align with several of their values including great user experience design and remote/flexible work. Basically, far less evil than Google and far more reliable than other offerings I’ve tried.

LANDR has raised 9 rounds of venture funding, and likely is incentivized to grow rapidly. However, their interface design is by far the best of all distribution services I’ve tried (Distrokid, Tunecore, Symphonic, and Unchained Music are the others). It’s probably silly, but good simple design matters a lot to me. I don’t have a lot of time to fight against what’s essentially a form to fill out anytime I want to release music (every 2-4 weeks). That plus (from what I hear) great customer service is worth the little extra they charge.

Bandcamp is interesting because they are one of the last holdouts in the music industry championing independent music, rather than reverting to the least common denominator of what’s popular. I am cautiously optimistic about their future, though their rough 2023 and the increasingly cutthroat tech landscape leaves me wanting an out if I need it. Fortunately, Bandcamp allows you to easily download all your albums and even your followers’ emails so you can easily move them elsewhere.

In future posts I’ll dig more into the experiments I’m doing around

  1. direct financial support,
  2. offering flexible listening options to my (tiny but growing) audience, and
  3. promoting on the social networks and the Fediverse

© 2024 brandon lucas green