A DIY musician not only creates and plays music for the love of it, but also masters the nuts and bolts of business management with the goal to share their music and, eventually, "go pro." Usually, one goes into the business with a burning desire to play music, not to manage social media accounts, organize shows and tours, build a fanbase, design merchandise and websites, manage a group of people, or become an accountant. To be successful, a DIY artist must have the entrepreneurial drive to overcome obstacles and do whatever it takes to create something out of nothing. Here are seven of the most common challenges that DIY artists face – plus, ways to overcome them.
Challenge #1: Wearing too many hats
As an independent musician, you usually have no choice but to do it yourself – whether you know what you're doing or not. "Action has to happen from within, because it's not coming from anywhere else," says Michael Prentky of Boston-based Mozambican group Kina Zoré. "I took it upon myself to fill the gap. It took me a long time to learn the protocol, the etiquette, the language, the formality (or lack thereof), and, most importantly, the stick-to-it-iveness to get shows."
- Find ways to delegate. “Kina Zoré is still learning about how to best balance all of these things," Prentky explains. "We definitely have a more established protocol now, but are very much in the midst of figuring out how to choose where and when to play which shows, and how to best promote them. We've gotten better at dividing up tasks – who does social media, who does posters, who goes to concerts to pass out handbills, etc. – just learning what exactly to do, what works, and how to execute it as a group."
- "Do it. Get help. Learn," explains Harjinder Singh from Chicago-based band Fatbook. “Don’t get destroyed by the overwhelming task at hand, but conquer it. It will be hard, but things you accomplish from the ground up are super rewarding! There are so many different ways to envision that process and outcome. There’s isn't one right answer, especially because the modality of this industry is in such a flux and state of opportunity at the same time.”
Challenge #2: Finding reliable band members
Being a bandleader means also managing "the wild and crazy personalities, lives, and schedules of your musicians – and still having your band by the end of the day," Singh continues. "[As a DIY musician, I’m] trying to turn this into a financially supportive project for everybody. To get there, everyone has to invest and make sacrifices, but they have additional priorities.”
Communication. "People are dynamic, moving forces. Open communication is an ongoing need," says Singh.
Challenge #3: Maintaining energy
"It feels like you’re going against the grain," says Todd Marston of the Somerville, MA-based band Choose To Find. "Your weekends are spent either performing or rehearsing. You're not getting up at the same time as everyone else, so there’s a certain feeling of disconnect from the rest of society. You don’t necessarily have society’s ‘tribal energy’ backing you on an immediate level."
- Find your people. “Bands come together because they offer support for each other," says Marston. "You are building your own little tribe. That obviously makes it easier to continue, if all of you can stay excited about the music."
- Continue what your started. Will Carpenter of Ships Have Sailed suggests, "To use a nautical term: Stay the course! Keep striving to do better in all aspects of both your art and all the logistics that surround it.”
Challenge #4: Building support
At times, being a performer can be so daunting. Perhaps you want to take your career to the next level, whether that means recording an album or going on tour, but you don't have the resources or the means to acquire do it.
- Surround yourself with people you trust. "It's important to make sure you're only delegating to people or organizations who truly care about your project as much as you," says Carpenter. "The entertainment industry is full of people who want to make money, but the key is to surround yourself with people who truly appreciate your creations and care as much about facilitating your success as what they tangibly gain from helping you.”
- Find investors. "There are people who want to support your art – and you need them to support your art," says Singh. "Create a network for your project to get the resources it needs – make it bigger than just what you think it is. Those people are part of your project, too, whether they're the scene kid who comes to all your shows and knows all your songs, or the independently wealthy person that doesn’t know anything about your music but wants to be a donor for the arts. There are so many ways for people to be a part of your art – let them join the team."
Challenge #5: Not getting discouraged
“I think the most discouraging part of being an artist is the fact that art is so subjective," says Carpenter. "You could write the greatest song in the world, and there would still be a percentage of people who wouldn't like it. They may not even have a reason for not liking it. No matter how thick your skin, rejection is always a tough pill to swallow."
- Focus on the small, positive things. "The thing that, without fail, gets me out of my own head," continues Carpenter, "is just one single person who hears our music for the first time and actually takes the time and energy to send a tweet, post a comment on a video, or reach out via our website and tell us how much they love it. That is, in a nutshell, why I do all of this. Pulling an idea out of thin air and transforming it into something that touches even one or two people in a way that brightens their day or makes a moment in their life even a little sweeter is nothing short of amazing.”
- Learn from your mistakes. "I think there's a quote somewhere: 'Success is born from failure.' I truly believe that," Carpenter adds. "There are valuable lessons to be learned by falling flat on your face, and the only way to capitalize on them is to pick yourself back up and keep moving forward.”
Challenge #6: The competition
“The act of remaining competitive with peers in the industry who generally have much larger support teams around them can be a challenge," says Carpenter. "But I also think it can be very beneficial to an artist if he or she is up to the task. By managing all these different facets of your career on your own, you become more in tune with the industry as a whole – and that can be an extremely positive thing."
- Take one step at a time. Start local and build your network as you go.
- Build connections. Never lose the opportunity to turn contacts into connections. It is all about who you know – and perseverance and talent.
- Keep playing music and making your art. Be true to yourself. Being unique is the beat way to shine through.
- Evaluate often. "Be brutally honest with yourself," Prentky adds. "How bad do you want to play music? The number of trials and tribulations along the way will burn you, unless you're 100 percent dedicated. Some bands don't have the honesty to confront their music and realize improvements need to be made."
Challenge #7: Staying motivated
"It's always more work than can be done," says Singh. "You're creating a business out of nowhere that has to be able to support the art you're creating in the first place, plus everything that goes along with that. The main challenge is having enough time and energy and entrepreneurial drive to create legitimate support. It's a monstrous challenge to have as much vigor as you need for your creative process.”
Set a time limit on your work process. Allow yourself breaks. Singh’s solution? “Just like you set aside the time and space for your practice and your sleep, you have to do the same for answering emails, booking tours, scheduling, and promoting.”
A band, much like a business, is most successful when there's a team behind it. But in the early stages, it's often one or two people who must become mavericks to make the magic happen! It takes a long and strong effort to get to that point, but it's worth the hard work to do what you love.
What's the biggest challenge you face as a DIY musician? Sound off in the comments below!
Christiana Usenza is musician and dancer with a master's degree in ethnomusicology from Tufts University. She has ventured as far as Argentina, Brazil, and Ghana to study music and dance, and has an endless curiosity for music genres, styles, and scenes across the world. She teaches music, writes music, and works in the booking office at Johnny D's in Somerville, MA. She is a member of the band Paper Waves, and they are currently working on their first album.