In partnership with American Eagle Outfitters, Complex presents Christian Rich's Everyday Survival Guide. Watch the video above for tips on keeping your money straight while living an atypical life, or read the post below to learn the ins and outs of being an independent musician in 2017.
According to Forbes, 72% of millennials want to be their own boss. The truth is, whether we want it or not, odds are it’s what a lot of us end up doing. Permalancing, contract work, and piecing together multiple side hustles is the new normal—and with a generation of workers left to fend for themselves across industries, it’s no wonder that many artists feel equipped to apply their hustle skills to their music careers, eschewing management in favor of building their own teams and calling their own shots.
It’s hard to say what it means to be an independent artist these days. Chance The Rapper hasn’t signed to a major label and currently has Coloring Book streaming for free on SoundCloud but writers have argued that his two-week exclusive streaming deal with tech giant Apple Music compromises said independence. Radiohead has had several major label contracts but famously self-released In Rainbows with a digital tip jar option after a split from EMI. Major indie labels are able to press and distribute records while offering artists slightly more permissible contacts. Then there’s always a teeming underground of musicians putting in the work the old-fashioned way: booking their own tours, pressing their own music, making their own merch, learning the ropes from a community of like-minded artists and building up an audience that will support them.
Many artists we think of as “independent” fall somewhere in the middle. Before becoming her own manager, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast had all but exhausted the DIY drive. Years of punk touring with her old band Little Big League and the consequent precarious employment back home proved unsustainable, financially and emotionally. Zauner recorded Psychopomp as Japanese Breakfast, moved to New York and found “the most basic ass job” in advertising in search of some stability. The plan was to release a small run of Psychopomp as a one-off, with no accompanying tour, and live the quiet life. But after the record took off and an offer to support Mitski on tour coincided with an offer for a two-month severance pay from her less-than-thrilling job, Zauner decided to go for it. “I think working that 9-to-5 made me realize, I need to work a job where I’m never waiting for the clock to turn over,” she tells me over the phone. “[Now] I’m always working because I want to and it means a lot to me.”
This time around though, Zauner had more support. Psychopomp, released on Yellow K records, caught the attention of Dead Oceans, a much larger indie, which was able to give Japanese Breakfast a recording advance on this year’s Soft Sounds From Another Planet. With distribution through Secretly Canadian and a larger staff pool, Dead Oceans is also able to tackle more esoteric sides of the business, such as radio and online streaming services.
While it seems like the internet has laid bare a lot of the industry machinery (anyone can upload something to Bandcamp / SoundCloud / get their music on Spotify and promote their shows on social media) the gatekeepers have only become more obfuscated. Algorithms bury content unless it’s dutifully sponsored and promoted. Spotify foregrounds playlists, which are curated in the interest of major labels. Playing the internet game alone can feel like a full-time job.
Even without the internet, launching a music career means wearing many hats and wrangling a ton of logistics. Booking a tour requires figuring out what kind of room you can fill in a city you’ve never been to, talking to venues and talent buyers, finding local support, getting a van that can fit all of your gear and won’t break down in the middle of nowhere, and securing a place to crash at the end of the night. Selling records and shirts means buying the merch, commissioning designs, keeping track of inventory, packaging and mailing out orders. Doing press requires writing a bio, crafting a narrative for your art, and connecting with writers and editors. Then there’s filing taxes as a sole proprietorship, saving receipts, tracking expenses, chasing sink deals and streaming revenue, making sure you get paid on time, reading contracts and advances (not to mention emails), and buying health insurance or applying for Medicaid.
After extensive research, Zauner brought on a publicist and a booking agent (both of whom she works closely with every day), but she still prefers to handle most of the production and the management herself. “I decide how much I can afford to pay musicians and beg them to forgive me that it’s not very much. I bought a minivan with my publishing money for three full U.S. tours around the country. I cry when I lose 8,000 dollars in Europe and hope that I can make it back another way. I commission the shirt designs, the website, all the art that goes into Japanese Breakfast. I do all the merch shit on the internet and then ask my partner to fold shirts into envelops and learn how to use PayPal shipping to print different labels. I drive what we’re gonna do for the whole year.” It’s a lot of work, but being well-versed in industry ropes is one of the smartest things an independent artist can do, both to catch when you’re being exploited and to know how to survive when the industry merry-go-round spits you back out. For artists like Zauner, who are aware of the price tag of outsourcing this kind of labor and who want to retain as much control as possible, it’s worth it.
“Personally I don’t mind doing that kind of stuff,” Zauner says, pausing to acknowledge the other side of it. “but I think there are a lot of artists who just want to play the harp or whatever and bring on a manager. And that’s respectable.”
For Zauner, the hardest part of managing is shouldering the emotional burden of trying to make sure everyone gets their due while struggling financially. It’s wanting to give your bandmates, video directors, and T-shirt designers thousands of dollars for their work, but having to work within the constraints of what the band is making, which is never quite enough.
“When you’re running a business in an office, you go to work from 9 to 5 and then you go home and you don’t have to literally sleep in a hotel bed next to the person you work with every night,” she says. “You know all their struggles, and you don’t have any time to go home and bitch about each other because you’re with each other all the time.”
It’s not easy, but the best way to deal with it is to be as transparent as possible up front about any financial details, and to maintain good working relationships. “Hopefully the promise is that the people you work with you remain loyal to and when you become a bigger artist you can bring more publicity to them as artists or pay them more down the line,” says Zauner. She stresses the importance of being respectful and generous, maintaining a network of people to look to for advice, supporting people who will support you in turn.
In acknowledging this, Zauner acknowledges something crucial: there is rarely such a thing as a truly independent artist—whether self-managed but employing a team of publicists and booking agents, or running the basement circuit and asking your friends for advice, interdependent feels like a more accurate term.