Stardom and taxes: lessons for the independent artist.

From child-stars to Susan Boyle, talented musicians or Lana Del Ray, the music industry is a mixed bag of outlandish people who have but one thing in common; they have succeeded where many more have failed. Some have “the goods” while others have a famous parent, and even more have us wondering, how on earth did they do it? 

Bob and Jakob Dylan
One of the most common ways of succeeding, in any industry, is through nepotism. Stars like Willow Smith, Miley Cyrus, Kelly Osbourne, Enrique Iglesias, Colbie Caillat, Lisa Marie Presley, Jakob Dylan, Liza Minnelli, Norah Jones, Hank Williams Jr., (and my favorites) Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa can easily lead you  to believe that the game is rigged, which of course it is. Fame begets fame. (The public’s power lies in it’s ability to break stars, not make them.) But don’t worry too much about your rock royalty pedigree. Remember that behind every Jakob Dylan there is a Robert Zimmerman who traveled great distances from obscurity into the limelight. 
For many, it takes years of enduring terrible jobs to pay the bills while figuring out how to make ends meat through music. Take Kurt Cobain, who worked sweeping floors for Lemons Janitorial Service or Mick Jagger who was a porter in a mental hospital. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell worked wrist deep in slimy guts as a fish handler. These jobs sowed the seeds for great success stories, but I’m afraid there isn’t much more we can learn from them. Carrying luggage, sweeping floors, gutting fish, etc., may pay the bills, but they aren’t going to bring an aspiring artist any closer to “point b”. Daylle Deanna Schwartz, author of I Don’t Need A Record Label! writes, “making money from an aspect of music is better than a day job that’s not related to it. Why sell insurance when you can teach guitar lessons?” The idea is that jobs in music, big or small, allow you to practice aspects of your craft and often lead to other jobs in music. That philosophy certainly worked for Tom Morello who came up with the riff for “Killing in the name of” right smack in the middle of giving a lesson. That song went on to be a huge hit for Rage Against The Machine, and was ranked #24 by Rolling Stone on their list of greatest guitar songs. 
So how does any of this apply to you, the independent musician? Your dad isn’t a rock star and you’re not ranked by Rolling Stone. But that’s no reason to be discouraged. The road to success is like the autobahn; a Ford Focus may not be able to keep up with a Ferrari but both will get you to Berlin. But lets take it a bit further. How can you tell if you are even on the right road?
As formulaic as much of pop music is, there is still no formula for becoming a popular musician. Nevertheless, and stay with me through what will initially sound strange, try to use this upcoming tax season to help you figure out where you stand professionally as a musician. This year as you are filing your W-2s and 1099s (and of course reporting all of the cash you earned ;) take a look at the ratio between income earned from music and income earned from... not-music. If you are not making a significant percentage from music, ideally enough to survive, this should signal that you need to make some changes if a professional career in music is the goal. You are underutilizing your skills as an artist, which are varied beyond the aforementioned giving of lessons, you are most likely missing out on opportunities, and you should aim to improve that ratio by next April 15th. Comparing this ratio from year to year is a great way to measure growth, and a way to perhaps make doing taxes a little more bearable. If you want to go the extra mile, calculate the ratio of income earned from your own music vs. everything else you do with music. But either way, if you are earning enough from music to survive, congratulations, you are a professional musician just like anyone else mentioned in this article. You may not be winning Grammys or buying new cars (or new clothes for that matter), but you are succeeding, however modestly, where many more have not. 
So what lessons can be drawn from these stars and their journeys to glory? For one, don’t try to emulate a previous artist’s journey. I’m sure Lemons Janitorial Service would be happy to hire you, but that isn’t going to make you Kurt Cobain. “Before they were famous” stories are inspiring and it’s fun to know that some of the biggest stars had worse jobs than you do when they were in your place, but calculated small gains (i.e. improving your ratio) is a surer way to progress than waiting for a meteoric rise. For two, remember that no matter how rigged the game may seem, the Generals beat the Globetrotters once in 1971! Any other insights you gained are strictly unintentional, so feel free to share them in the comments section below! 
Now it’s time to improve this post’s ratio between lessons and celebrities! Enjoy this adorable footage of child-star-cum-pop-icons as they first stepped into the spotlight. If this doesn’t help you figure out how to move down your desired path, perhaps it will inspire you to become an overbearing parent/manager!  

Tom Morello of Rage and Adam Jones of Tool messin' around on guitars as kids.

Allen Stone - You just gotta hear this guy!

Every once in a while an artist comes along that you simply have to tell your friends about; not because they’re cool, or because you saw a great show or because of some outrageous stunt paparazzi caught on film, but because their talent blew your mind! One such artist is Allen Stone. 
In an age when the most popular singers rely on auto-tune to stay on key, it is high time that a pitch-perfect performer like Allen Stone steps into the national spotlight with a voice that would only be diminished by digital processing. A voice, filled with pain and ecstasy, that requires you to stop, listen and feel. His style and success harkens back to the days of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and it is no surprise that those are two of his inspirations. What is surprising is that Stone, a 20 something white-boy out of rural Washington in 2012, is being compared to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Sam Cooke, Bill Withersby the biggest publications in the world. Even more surprising is that little indieAndie is even able to review this guy who received praise from MTV, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, Billboard, and reached #2 on iTunes R&B/Soul charts, because (get this) he accomplished all of this as an independent artist!!! That is almost as inspiring as his music. Well, maybe not quite. In any case, you’ve just got to hear this guy. 


How to succeed in the music biz!

Ah, the music industry! Fast cars, faster women, free everything, and more money than a Saudi prince! At least that’s the way it seemed as I advanced towards rock god-dom on Guitar Hero. In reality, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the companies selling that dream- an industry built to make money off of people struggling to make money from music- rake in more dough than all of the aspiring artists they represent. Most musicians are all too familiar with targeted ads offering guaranteed internet radio plays, digital press kit and bio editing, online or physical distribution to industry pros, creative publicity, how-to-succeed-in-X-amount-of-time-guidebooks, music reviews for purchase, CD mastering by award winning so and so, etc.  If it were only as easy as paying a few registration fees this planet would be brimming with well-fed artists. Instead, there are millions of people traveling down the completely unpaved paths towards their dreams. And god bless 'em for it! 
That being said, there are certainly people out there who can help advance your career. Just don’t believe every shark ready to take a bite out of the money you haven’t even made yet. A good general rule I find is to not pay for services up front, i.e. $500 to be included on X compilation, $19.99 to have your music reviewed by X, or $X for Y to do Z. You may need to reach a certain level of success before legitimate offers roll in, but when they do they usually operate on a percentage basis, so it is in their best interest for you to make money! But until agents come knocking at your door there are some cheap and easy ways to help get the word out about your product. And for only $19.99 indieAndie will reveal the secret of success- just kidding. Read on for a few tips, tricks and guerilla tactics for independent artists. 
The first step in most how-to music business guides is branding. As hard as it may be to accurately stuff yourself into a box, it is even harder to market something that people can’t quickly wrap their minds around. Figure out your goals, make sure the whole band syncs up on this, try to pinpoint some target demographics and ask for feedback from anyone willing to give it (which doesn’t mean you have to listen to every piece of advice). Once you have established your M.O., and have created a consistent feel throughout your bios, logos, photos, banners, merch, etc., figure out how it is different from the other acts in your "box". How can your brand be marketed to be digestible and stand out? 
Creative Marketing by Lithuanian Group Shidlas.
Next, become as active as possible on the interweb. The internet is the most powerful tool- yada yada yada, you know this already.  But it is amazing how everything syncs up today! Your bandcamp can be connected to your Facebook account. Facebook’s connected to your Twitter. The Twitter’s connected to the Myspace... I'm just going to assume you use these tools and offer up a cool little twitter trick. Send a message out to your fans with a hyper link in it encoded as follows whereas the XXXX is the message that you want your fans to tweet out for you. (e.g. out for music and tour dates! (Which believe it or not is an active URL)).
Try it out by retweeting me! No seriously, I'd really appreciate it!
But don’t rely exclusively on interwebs. Networking is done best in person. Don't ever shy away from talking about your music, upcoming projects, tours, videos, goals, etc. It is good to be ready with a business card or leaflet. Bandcamp allows you to generate download codes, which you can include on your handout, for an extra incentive to check out your music and perhaps even give off a feeling of special treatment. 
Lastly, in my experience, nothing has taken the place of the most tried and true way of promoting music, and that is touring (perhaps with the exception of the viral video, but that is a subject for another post). For those who have never toured you should know that it is totally possible to set up a tour on your own. And contrary to how I started this post, I believe a booking agent can be worth their weight in hassle-free phone calls. 
So remember, don’t invest too much of your money with people who are set up to make money directly from struggling artists. Play the game of branding and marketing. Always be ready to network (but for your sake and those around be able to turn it off). And PLAY MUSIC, that is what it is all about anyways! 


Seattle's Josh Niehaus reflects on the 90s in Zanadu.

Another great and truly independent artist out of Seattle; perhaps the Olympia Brewing Company is right about the water up there. Josh Niehaus couples his gift of song writing with a polished production value uncharacteristically high for an unsigned artist. To top it off, Josh writes about his music in a way that we, at IndieAndie, couldn't have done better ourselves. So, without further ado, this week's spotlight is a repost of a spot Josh Niehaus wrote about his song Zanadu; a tribute to growing up in Seattle. 

Growing up in Seattle during the nineties was the best! Well, maybe it would’ve been cooler to be in Paris in 1789 or in Greenwhich Village in 1968. But, if you had to spend your teen years alive during the 1990's, you couldn't hope for a better place to do in it than Seattle. I can already feel the non-Seattle-ites rolling their eyes, and saying, "how can you possibly back that up?" Well, to understand what was so great about Seattle in the 90's, let's take a look at the popular culture that it emerged out of, my first decade, the 80's; a time when the counter cultural revolution was but a fading memory, and in its place stood an empowered GOP with Reagan at the helm. A time when the airwaves were saturated with synthesizers and drum machines. A time when Eddie Van Halen melted peoples faces with some of the most iconic guitar shredding ever played. In other words, it was a time when the spirit of rock and roll was being suffocated under a nation's desperate plea for order and conservatism. A time when the chaos of rock’s sound was quantized into new-wave dance fluff by primitive computers. And a time when the men and women who yielded rock’s most powerful weapon, the Axe, were all trying to be Van Halen. But luckily the cultural tides shifted as I entered into the 90's, and Seattle was at the center of this movement.

From the muddy banks of the Wishkaw to Puget Sound, the 90’s were ruled by flannel wearing, garage dwelling, skateboard riding junkies from Seattle, whose appearance left but one title; Grunge! Grunge was a genuine form of expression, free from consonant fluff, cheesy synthesizers and overly-reverberated drum kits. Free from ostentation, affectation and record label subordination. It was a tiny movement that housed a few creative geniuses who sounded nothing like the billboard bands of their times, yet astonishingly took over the charts. Of course the labels caught on, as they always do, and began mass-producing Nirvana knock-offs by the mid to late nineties. But there was a time, in my childhood, in my city, were there was a genuine artistic movement that the whole world wanted a piece of. A time when I could ride my skateboard down 'The Ave' to buy comic books at Zanadu, bump into Krist Novoselic at Cellophane Square, see Pearl Jam in concert for free, or, sadly, attend a community wide vigil for Kurt Cobain; the unofficial poet laureate of our city’s scene. 

My song Zanadu is a tribute to growing up in my city during this era. The song ends with a simple notion that 'all good things must come to an end'. Grunge is dead. And Although I am left with only memories, the music lives on as a reminder of how lucky I was to grow up within the pages of music history. 


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Everybody Smokes In Hell - new release from Ottawa's John Carroll!

John Carroll is a seasoned songwriter from Canada's Capital with an indie track record to be proud of! His first two release The True Confessions of an Infamous Liar (2003) and Lost Radio (2008) sold a combined 5,000 copies (directly from artist to fans!!!) and paved the way for what is sure to be an epic release party/concert on January 14th in Ottawa for his latest album, Everybody Smokes in Hell. This newest addition to Carroll’s catalogue harmoniously combines influences from country blues, folk roots and rock n’ roll. It was recorded live at Ottawa’s Little Bullhorn Studios with back up players Fred Guignon on lap slide, Olivier Fairfield on drums and Philippe Charbonneau on the stand up bass (AKA Epic Proportions). The project was recorded using “Dave Draves’ meticulous old-school process of recording to tape before converting tracks to digital”, which no doubt helped capture the raw and honest musicality of John Carroll and gave the album a warmth fitting of its title. 
Everybody Smokes in Hell is now available to preview and purchase on John Carroll’s website

Happy listening and make sure to be at the Blacksheep Inn if you are in Ontario on January 14th! 


The Way of The Artist/Producer

What's the difference between a music producer and God? God doesn't think He's a music producer! 

Often described as the big picture guy, the person who writes the checks, the one who shows up after weeks of work and tells the bands whether they have a record or not, or, as a high-schooler recently told me, someone who makes beats - a producer is a wide-ranging concept. But seriously folks, what does a producer do?
In the age of independent music, many traditional elements of creating a record have to be scratched in order to meet the budget of an independent artist. After money is set aside for studio time, or home recording equipment, musical accompanists, a mixing engineer, CD duplication, promotional materials... you may not have funds left to throw at a producer. You may also be unsure as to why you would even need a producer, or think that the very concept runs counter to the spirit of independent music. I don’t want to squelch anyone's spirit, but I do  believe that a producer is in fact necessary to make a great album. And, with enough practice and know-how, the independent artist can exit the role of the songwriter to wear the hat of the producer. 
Let me set the stage with a short anecdote and a question. The first time Metallica heard their legendary “Black Album”, they were apparently surprised, and dismayed, to find all of the classical orchestration that producer Bob Rock had added. Nevertheless, Bob Rock was the producer and his vision hit the record stores. The album, simply titled Metallica, has since gone platinum in 12 countries (15x platinum in the US), and helped Metallica crossover into popular music. The question I ask is, would the “Black Album” have done this without Bob Rock; without the vision of an outsider? 
Ok, so what does a producer do? The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, in Tempe Arizona, lists the roles and duties of a producer as:
1. “RULE” over everything. 
2. Manage the Budget. 
3. Select the songs. 
4. Perfect the music. 
5. Referee, counsel, guide, pick up hoagies, do whatever it takes to succeed. 
6. Depending on the Producer, co-write songs, perform on a recording, write the 
orchestral backgrounds, etc. 
A truly independent artist fulfills the majority of these roles already; they already “rule” over everything, manage their own budgets, select their songs, feed themselves, write and perform their own music, and do whatever they can to succeed. Perhaps this list slightly differs from that of the independent artist-cum-producer on the importance of creating hits. But whatever the goal may be, number four on the list (“Perfect the music”), perhaps the vaguest of all duties, is essential to creating a great song!
Perfecting the music, as I see it, is a three-step process. It usually begins with creating the music (although not always; another high-schooler played me something he produced that was someone else’s techno song with goat-noises added on top of it). This step (one) of producing music deals with notes, musical phrases, lyrics, instrumentation; the stuff that you hear when you write a song and try it out with the band (or computer). Next is the recording and mixing phase. This step (two) of producing music deals with capturing the right sounds and performances, editing, balancing frequencies, levels, noise, effects, spacial positioning, etc. It’s possible that a great song and a good mix could be sent off to mastering, cranked way up and be ready to conquer the airwaves. But more often than not it is helpful for an outsider, with fresh ears, to step (three) in and let you know if there is an awkward or lackluster musical phrase or lyric, when a wailing guitar is clearly missing or is too loud, where the rhythm should fall on the beat, how well the vocals match up with the emotionality of the lyrics, if there is a frequency whole that needs to be filled, whether the track should be clean, dynamic and emulate a different time-period, or distorted, smashed with compression and contemporary, etc. In other words, the producer makes sure that the artist and the engineer succeeded in steps one and two so that it all syncs up with the vibe and the idea of the song. Step three is a combination of correcting mistakes and keeping the vision on track. The strength of having an outsider produce your song, is that they have a better chance of noticing mistakes that you've already missed, and helping you find pockets of potential that you were unaware of. In visual terms, the producer might see a different hue to the aura of what’s being produced. 
So, how can one person possibly fulfill both (or all three) roles without losing any of that elusive potential? Well, firstly, they have to be good at producing. It is not a role that every artist can play, which doesn’t take anything away from the artist. An artist must be aware of their own limitations, because as often as not, artist/producing doesn’t work out very well. But if the potential is there for the artist/producer role, the challenge then becomes creating sufficient space between the roles of artist and producer. In the same way that the mixing engineer battles with ear fatigue, and must break to refresh his ears, the artist battles with a mind fatigue of sorts, due to their intensely personal and mental connection to the song and tireless laboring over it, which may hinder the artist from a fresh perspective. 
To quote the Rolling Stones, “Time is on my side”. Time is a key ingredient in creating the space between artist and producer. After you record, mix and master a song, I strongly suggest hanging onto it for a while before committing it to its final resting state. You can still put it up online and listen to it (labeling it with ‘demo’ or ‘premaster’ will give you leeway to fix things later on). In fact, the more feedback you receive and the more times you hear it the more clearly you can see those pockets that you may have missed as your artist-self was finishing up its job. I usually know that I need more time when I am still listening for all of the microscopic changes I want to make (i.e. I’m very much stuck in one way of looking at it). 
Next, listen to music that you wish to emulate! Try and decipher the insights and tricks from other producer’s work, by listening to albums with the sound/feel you are going for. Listen for the EQ emphasis or de-emphasis across the frequency spectrum. Listen for the dynamic range and how the song breathes. Listen for the balance, or lack there of, of organic to synthetic instrumentation. Listen for where the vocals or lead instruments sit in the mix. And listen to lots of it before coming back to your track! 

George Martin with the Beatles.
Lastly, practice makes perfect. In the early years of The Beatles, the band spent four years in Hamburg developing their talents and performing over 1,200 live shows! By the time they returned to England they were polished performers, innovative song-writers and ready to conquer the globe. It took talent, the capacity and hunger to learn from mistakes and from others, and incessant practicing to turn four Liverpudlian boys into the Fab 4. But lets not forget that the Beatles still had George Martin (and later Phil Spector) to keep them on track, to make sense of the genius whirling around the studio, and to keep an uncompromising lookout towards the end goal. With that in mind let me re-ask the Bob Rock question; would the Beatles have succeeded without the help of George Martin? It’s not a question of talent, because the Beatles had no shortcomings there. But they certainly would’ve needed to rely on a skill-set that I’m not sure that they had developed at that time. And why would they? They had George Martin around. (As an aside, all of the Beatles went on to produce later in their careers.) The point is, talent and potential must fuse, in one instance, for music to be perfected. It is possible for an individual to do this, as independent artists are proving every month, but it takes lots of experience, knowledge and talent. The challenges are great and the rewards are greater. So, get inspired by the greats, stay hungry, stick at it and best of luck with juggling hats.