How Independent Musicians Make Money

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Zandy Mangold/Twin Sister MySpace

When consumption of art is as easy as clicking a link and the principal competition is over ears instead of dollars, the hard sell is probably not the best tactic for a rising young band from Brooklyn. Pushing is for pop stars--better to let the listener come to your tunes because of word of mouth, a reputable blog post, or maybe an intimate loft show than sell straight to disc.

Enter Twin Sister, a New York City band that already has the hallmarks of indie success: reviews on Pitchfork, buzz in the blogosphere, and a following in their hometown. And for the band's second EP, Color Your Life, Twin Sister has decided to follow in other independent bands' footsteps and give the music away for free. A nontraditional choice that nevertheless is becoming more and more the norm in the Internet age, releasing new albums without cost is a way to build buzz and get to an audience who wouldn't normally shell out for a first listen. The catch is that though their EP is available for high-quality download on the band's Web site, it will only be up for two weeks. After that window of opportunity, Color Your Life won't be physically released until May 25.

(It's worth downloading, now, by the way. Listening to Color Your Life in its full sound is like walking out of a densely wooded forest full of acoustic guitars into an elevator dance club populated by depressed Jetsons robots. The EP is packed with synth washes and electronic beeps, an atmospheric soundtrack for a Planet Earth episode set in space, presided over by singer Andrea Estella's ethereally mousy voice.)

The EP comes at a time when many bands are experimenting with alternative methods of distribution, seeking ways to attract buyers, not just listeners, to their music. The so-called "Radiohead Effect" is well known by now: the British band decided that rather than sell its most recent album, 2007's 'In Rainbows', for a set price per CD, buyers could pay what they wished for a digital download. Though downloading could be free, graduated pricing for increasingly ornate music packages topped out in the Deluxe Box Edition, for $80, a set of two vinyl LPs, the album on CD, a Deluxe Box-only bonus disk and an artwork booklet. The boxes quickly sold out and the band had over 1.2 million downloads of the album, averaging a price of six dollars. But the free downloads attracted industry criticism as much as fan appreciation, including accusations that the band was attempting to circumvent their management and drive down the viability of commercial music for less popular bands.

Even back in the Stone Age days of 2001, releasing an album online for free didn't preclude strong disc sales. After a dispute with AOL Time Warner and label Reprise Records, Wilco decided to stream their now-famous album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free from their Web site. The online release built interest in their concert dates and helped the band to release the album commercially in 2002 through Nonesuch Records. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ended up going gold, with sales of over 590,000 units.

As Radiohead did, one way to move beyond the appeal of a free digital download is to offer customers something more for their money--not just the music, but something that can be held and admired, a collector's edition. British songstress Laura Marling offered her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, in a package called 'The Song Box'. The box contained mementos symbolic of each track on the album, including postcards, a boardgame, envelopes and wrapping paper. Such packages present a chance for fans to get a fuller experience of the artist's aesthetic, a kind of music-centered gesamtkunstwerk.

Listeners at home aren't independent artists' only source of income. Independent music has recently gotten a huge push from television media- not just Death Cab for Cutie starring in an episode of the OC and your favorite bands' tunes in a Grey's Anatomy episode, but also the licensing of songs for commercials, songs that have become less soundtracks for advertisements and more integral parts of a company's brand.

Think Apple's iPod commercial featuring Feist's '1234'. Not only did the ad make Feist a household name, it boosted Apple's image as a bastion of the alternative, gaining a piece of the musician's bohemian charm in the process. The latest Twilight movie soundtrack (can you get more mainstream?) reads more like a who's who of independent music than a tween fangirl mixtape, including such luminaries as Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear and OK GO. Licensing still retains some connotations of selling out, but as a way to gain both cash flow and ears, it seems more and more acceptable in today's indie crowd.

Given that fans are easier to come by than customers, now is a good time for independent music to find ways around traditional routes of music distribution. A young band like Twin Sister can build buzz giving away their music for free just as stars can be made overnight with the help of the mass media. The key is experimentation--innovation in the spreading as well as the making of music.

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Kyle Chayka contributes on visual art to Hyperallergic.com and LEAP magazine in Beijing, and posts at @chaykak on Twitter. More

Kyle Chayka writes about art. He contributes on visual art to Hyperallergic.com and LEAP magazine in Beijing, and posts at @chaykak on Twitter.
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