Thursday, August 14, 2008

Indie bands talk digital music and life without the labels

By Jacqui Cheng

A new era of music

Online music is a complex and constantly-morphing beast, especially from the perspective of the bands and artists who create it. For small indie bands, that beast can be quite a challenge to wrangle. Without a label and a team of execs whose entire job it is to make sure your stuff is everywhere it should be, dealing with all the intricacies of online music sales is just one (or 20) more thing(s) to do—on top of making sure the proceeds from that last show will pay your rent. But times, they are a' changin', and if the artists who've recently shared their digital music industry experiences with us are any indication, indie bands are becoming increasingly savvy at navigating the online music world. From distribution to promotion to actually making money, indie bands are doing more than just getting by without the major labels—they're actually thriving.

It's already widely acknowledged that you don't need a Universal or Sony BMG behind you to enter the online music market, thanks to services like Tunecore. Tunecore enables just about everyone (and we mean everyone) to sell their wares through the big dogs of digital music: iTunes, Amazon MP3, eMusic, and Rhapsody, to name a few. But getting online is just the first (and now, the easiest) step. "The struggle is no longer getting it there, but trying to market and promote once it is there," Panda Riot band manager and guitarist Brian Cook told me.

The Panda Riot crew

Panda Riot is a Chicago-based electronic distortion band originally founded in 2005. After recording its first full album in 2007 "in a tiny bedroom in Philadelphia" with the help of a MacBook Pro and Apple's Logic Pro software, Panda Riot began selling music—simultaneously in both CD and online form—in November. Since the band's music sales adventure is still quite young, its perspective on online music is a little different than the old guard that runs, say, the Big Four music labels.

Panda Riot uses Tunecore to sell its music through iTunes in the US, Canada, Japan, and Italy, as well as Amazon MP3. But, as we mentioned in our Tunecore feature, the real key to success online is promoting your music—otherwise, no one has a reason to be aware of it and buy it. "It's all social network type stuff. Blogs are a huge part of the equation too, and Internet Radio (like also plays a big role," Cook said. "It's all about finding avenues that are global."

Independent artist Ryan Lindsey agrees. The Oklahoma-based musician has been playing in indie bands for over a decade and started doing his solo thing about four years ago. Perhaps because he's slightly more seasoned (although coincidentally about the same age as Panda Riot's members), he utilizes some of the more "traditional" online methods to promote his music, which he sells through a service called CD Baby that operates in a similar manner to Tunecore. "I just send out bulletins on MySpace, and I have an e-mail list that I send out," he told me. "If I have enough money, I'll send posters." (Yes, real ones.)

MySpace, unsurprisingly, has been a strong force for both Lindsey and Panda Riot by providing a place for bands to promote their wares and for fans to interact directly with them. Cook said that MySpace is particularly useful on the band's end because it provides a play counter on their embedded music that lets them measure reaction to certain things (new reviews going up, a feature on Internet radio, etc.) on a day-to-day basis. And since it is one of the most well-known and well-trafficked social networks for bands and artists, that likely won't be changing anytime soon. With the advent of MySpace Music and a built-in user base in the millions, the site will likely continue to serve as a major portal for indie bands, even as they continue to explore other avenues of promotion.

Piracy as a marketing tool

Okay, so it's easy to sell and promote your music in this newfangled Internet world without being attached to a big label. But as a comparatively small artist, how do you cope with all of the bad things about the Internet, like the ease with which people can get your music without paying for it, if you're trying to make a living? If Big Content had its way, we'd all believe that our entire society would collapse into Sodom and Gomorrah part deux if it weren't for DRM. Panda Riot doesn't seem to think so, though, and they believe the world is a better place without it. "DRM doesn't help anyone," Cook said. "In my opinion, DRM was the scapegoat for the music industry not adapting to all the avenues that the Internet opened."

Not only do many indie artists hate DRM, but they view P2P is a force to be harnessed, not something to waste energy fighting. The folks from Panda Riot recounted a story about their album showing up on BitTorrent and a number of other P2P networks—somehow, they found a site that listed how many times the album had been downloaded and they saw that it was relatively high. "At first, we were going to send a takedown notice, but then we decided to keep it up and see what happens," Cook said. So... what happened?

"Well, our sales doubled."

Before anyone gets all worked up, there are a few caveats to that claim. For one, a relatively small band can see major changes in sales volume very quickly, so even a small amount of free promotion in the form of BitTorrent can have a significantly more potent effect on sales than it would on, say, Madonna. Cook added that the album's arrival on the BitTorrent scene coincided with some reviews of the album, so the non-P2P exposure deserves some of the credit. However, the main point is that BitTorrent (at the very least) didn't seem to hurt sales.

"The funny thing is that we've actually had people say to our faces, 'Yeah, I downloaded your album off some website. It's awesome!'" Cook told me. "It basically translates to 'I stole your music and I like it.'" At least those people are coming to the shows after stealing said music, though. For an indie group, obscurity is most definitely the enemy, and Cook believes that the exposure is worth it in the end.

Ryan Lindsey in the studio

Lindsey agrees. "I'm all about people getting my music however. I'll make more money in playing shows," he said. "The more people steal my record, hopefully the more people come out." Not that either of them want you to steal their records—if you like the albums, they would love for you to buy them. But both Lindsey and Cook seemed to think that wasting time fighting the P2P monster would sap time and energy away from doing what they (and the fans) love: making music.

Online music isn't the only way that Panda Riot and Lindsay sell their music, of course, as they both do CD sales to some degree or another. Lindsey said that his online sales far outweigh his CD sales—a revelation that was not too surprising, since he is considerably fresher to the scene than, say, Metallica. Panda Riot said it was a little more balanced. "Our CD sales are just as much, if not more some months, than our iTunes sales," Cook said. "We still feel CDs are relevant. People like to have a physical object. Its like a artifact of the music." This, of course, is true, although given the success of online music, it's obvious that not everyone requires that physical artifact in order to enjoy an album. Cook agreed, pointing out that those who buy the CDs tend to be "the hardcore music lovers."

In the end, both parties consider themselves to be moderately successful at what they do, although they aspire to more. Whether any of them can truly make it big—like Trent Reznor big—entirely on their own, however, is another question. It does seem pretty unlikely—after all, bands like Radiohead have openly admitted that they still need a label's help in order to reach the masses. On the other hand, Nine Inch Nails, Oasis, and Jamiroquai have all decided to forego their labels. Of course, these are all bands that are already well-established (with the help of record labels earlier in their careers), but perhaps it won't be completely impossible for an independent artist to get to that level as the online music market continues to mature.

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