my thoughts on what to do as a new / unknown artist
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07/09/09 5:08 AM


I posted a message on Twitter yesterday stating I thought The Beastie Boys and TopSpin Media "got it right" regarding how to sell music in this day and age. Here's a link to their store:


Shortly thereafter, I got some responses from people stating the usual "yeah, if you're an established artist - what if you're just trying to get heard?" argument. In an interview I did recently this topic came up and I'll reiterate what I said here.

If you are an unknown / lesser-known artist trying to get noticed / established:

* Establish your goals. What are you trying to do / accomplish? If you are looking for mainstream super-success (think Lady GaGa, Coldplay, U2, Justin Timberlake) - your best bet in my opinion is to look at major labels and prepare to share all revenue streams / creative control / music ownership. To reach that kind of critical mass these days your need old-school marketing muscle and that only comes from major labels. Good luck with that one.

If you're forging your own path, read on.

* Forget thinking you are going to make any real money from record sales. Make your record cheaply (but great) and GIVE IT AWAY. As an artist you want as many people as possible to hear your work. Word of mouth is the only true marketing that matters.
To clarify:
Parter with a TopSpin or similar or build your own website, but what you NEED to do is this - give your music away as high-quality DRM-free MP3s. Collect people's email info in exchange (which means having the infrastructure to do so) and start building your database of potential customers. Then, offer a variety of premium packages for sale and make them limited editions / scarce goods. Base the price and amount available on what you think you can sell. Make the packages special - make them by hand, sign them, make them unique, make them something YOU would want to have as a fan. Make a premium download available that includes high-resolution versions (for sale at a reasonable price) and include the download as something immediately available with any physical purchase. Sell T-shirts. Sell buttons, posters... whatever.

Don't have a TopSpin as a partner? Use Amazon for your transactions and fulfillment. []

Use TuneCore to get your music everywhere. []

Have a realistic idea of what you can expect to make from these and budget your recording appropriately.
The point is this: music IS free whether you want to believe that or not. Every piece of music you can think of is available free right now a click away. This is a fact - it sucks as the musician BUT THAT'S THE WAY IT IS (for now). So... have the public get what they want FROM YOU instead of a torrent site and garner good will in the process (plus build your database).

The Beastie Boys' site offers everything you could possibly want in the formats you would want it in - available right from them, right now. The prices they are charging are more than you should be charging - they are established and you are not. Think this through.

The database you are amassing should not be abused, but used to inform people that are interested in what you do when you have something going on - like a few shows, or a tour, or a new record, or a webcast, etc.
Have your MySpace page, but get a site outside MySpace - it's dying and reads as cheap / generic. Remove all Flash from your website. Remove all stupid intros and load-times. MAKE IT SIMPLE TO NAVIGATE AND EASY TO FIND AND HEAR MUSIC (but don't autoplay). Constantly update your site with content - pictures, blogs, whatever. Give people a reason to return to your site all the time. Put up a bulletin board and start a community. Engage your fans (with caution!) Make cheap videos. Film yourself talking. Play shows. Make interesting things. Get a Twitter account. Be interesting. Be real. Submit your music to blogs that may be interested. NEVER CHASE TRENDS. Utilize the multitude of tools available to you for very little cost of any - Flickr / YouTube / Vimeo / SoundCloud / Twitter etc.

If you don't know anything about new media or how people communicate these days, none of this will work. The role of an independent musician these days requires a mastery of first hand use of these tools. If you don't get it - find someone who does to do this for you. If you are waiting around for the phone to ring or that A & R guy to show up at your gig - good luck, you're going to be waiting a while.

Hope this helps, and I'll scour responses for intelligent comments I can respond to.


TopSpin Media info:

This was written on a bumpy Euro-bus ride across the wilderness - may ramble a bit but I think the point gets across.

Thanks for the insightful comments already - when I get a moment (and a reliable internet connection) I'll respond to some of your very valid points. Please keep in mind - these were just some thoughts I quickly wrote down and posted and not meant to be a complete guide by any means. I've neglected to get into publishing and some other things. I'll update pretty soon.

Here's a message from Ian Rogers of TopSpin

Here's a few responses - more to come when I get time.


This looks excellent to me. I have not used it but it appears to be great. This would cover your digital distribution of files and the collecting / amassing of your database. Looks like you'd still need someplace to handle fulfillment of merchandise / physical goods (like the Amazon link above).

Pay-what-you-want model
This is where you offer tracks or albums for a user-determined price. I hate this concept, and here's why.
Some have argued that giving music away free devalues music. I disagree. Asking people what they think music is worth devalues music. Don't believe me? Write and record something you really believe is great and release it to the public as a "pay-what-you-think-it's-worth" model and then let's talk. Read a BB entry from a "fan" rationalizing why your whole album is worth 50 cents because he only likes 5 songs on it. Trust me on this one - you will be disappointed, disheartened and find yourself resenting a faction of your audience. This is your art! This is your life! It has a value and you the artist are not putting that power in the hands of the audience - doing so creates a dangerous perception issue. If the FEE you are charging is zero, you are not empowering the fan to say this is only worth an insultingly low monetary value. Don't be misled by Radiohead's In Rainbows stunt. That works one time for one band once - and you are not Radiohead.

Why put something on iTunes for a price fans can get it from your site for free? Won't it piss people off?
Do it and don't worry about it. Lots of people apparently shop at iTunes exclusively and that's where they get their music. They are generally not the people that would be mad to discover they could have gotten the same record (at a better bit-rate) for free elsewhere. We put The Slip up at for free at all fidelities and STILL sold a fairly large amount of copies at iTunes for $9.99. At the time iTunes did not allow variable pricing (I don't know what the deal is now).

My Flash comments
I don't hate Flash, just go easy on it and avoid anything that takes time to load - ESPECIALLY your front page.

Managers / booking agents / small labels
Any or all of these may be good for you - or not. Here's a truth: nobody knows what to do right now, me included. The music business model is broken right now. That means every single job position in the music industry has to re-educate itself and learn / discover / adapt a new way. Change can be painful and hard and scary. If any of these entities we're discussing are interested in you, ask them about their strategies IN DETAIL. None of them know for sure what to do. Some of them have an idea of how to negotiate these waters. Most of them don't. If you are young and use the internet, you know more about your audience than they do - for sure. This is a revolution and you can be a part of it. The old guard is dying, if you have good ideas - try them.
Bottom line - before getting involved with anyone else, ask yourself what it is they can clearly bring to your table and is it worth their cut. Do they know what they're talking about, and does their strategies match yours?

I have not gotten into the basics which I believe are self-evident: believe in what you do, do the best work you can, work hard, practice, practice more, find your voice, hone in on it, take chances, play live (if applicable), practice more, keep believing in yourself and prepare for the long haul.

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 07/11/2009 08:30AM by trent_reznor.


07/09/09 5:18 AM

Well now, point taken, we all have to be realistic at some point, don't you think? I just like to sing for fun at this point in my life. Nothing major just fun for now. As far as drawing well, that, I am working on............ I LOVE how you think. winking smiley


07/09/09 5:20 AM

Not too long and concrete. Well put, sir.


07/09/09 5:21 AM

So is getting your music as mp3s out there and to an audience more important than gigging and building up a fanbase? You often hear that gigging around your local area and beyond is the only way to establish yourself, but is this really less important than spreading your music?


07/09/09 5:22 AM

futuremarkets posted:
So is getting your music as mp3s out there and to an audience more important than gigging and building up a fanbase? You often hear that gigging around your local area and beyond is the only way to establish yourself, but is this really less important than spreading your music?

Not really. It's just that, in this climate, live music is much more profitable these days than recorded music. Simple as really.

Otherwise - a good read, not overly long or anything. It reminded me of some article on some music think tank website with a checklist of 30 things new bands must be doing. If I can find I'll post it because I think Trent's post and the checklist article have some similar ideas.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/09/2009 05:23AM by RaymondM1988.


07/09/09 5:24 AM

It's great advice for some of the new up and coming bands, hopefully they will learn from it though. I've seen a lot more bands on Twitter actually engaging with their fans, and when they are willing to do so I think they are getting the word out more, I know that I'm spreading the word more on bands that I've spoken to that are trying to make it, than the more well established bands now. I'd even say I'm more listening to the lesser known bands now over the established bands, something is always missing.
You are an amazingly smart guy winking smiley


07/09/09 5:24 AM

Gods damnit, this makes me wish even more that I could make music so I could follow up this advice!


07/09/09 5:24 AM

Coming from one of the most successful people in the music industry right now, I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want to print this out and tape it up on the wall in your studio, office, wherever.

Very excellent advice and applies and goes so much farther than just music now.
Very generous of you to share this as well.
Thank you good sir.


07/09/09 5:25 AM

trent_reznor posted:

Don't have a TopSpin as a partner? Use Amazon for your transactions and fulfillment. []

Also, if you'd rather support a local business in Michigan rather than Amazon, check out Same concept, family owned, and helps our local economy. They have been doing this for a while.


07/09/09 5:26 AM

A friends band in L.A. ( called 'Cosio' ) and a few other artists I know are going along these lines. They see iTunes as the first step to get music out there, then comes a physical release and hand made merch. Combined with a lot if gigs.


07/09/09 5:26 AM

Thank-you - it's nice to hear these fresh ideas from someone who has had to withstand the old way of the industry. Using technology is the only way to reach a broad audience & i'm happy that you constantly remind everyone that all MUSIC IS FREE!! However you want to look at it, that's just the way it is.

One question : Do you believe that it is better to overload your website with all of these new ideas such as videos, pictures, audio, bulletins etc etc in one go to attempt to really gain an interest in the band...and hopefully build some hype around the local circuit


is it smarter to attempt to play more live shows and gradually work on releasing content on the site more slowly so you don't kind of give everything away in one go?

I've noticed with that the reason why I love visiting it so frequently is due to the fact that you are always adding new & improved things that constantly give fans more and more to enjoy...whether that be new photos, old photos or even old video clips that have been on the vimeo channel.


07/09/09 5:27 AM

Too right. If you want to sell as many records as *, or be as big a name as *, well, * didn't get their name where it is without the help of a major label, otherwise we wouldn't know who they are.

I agree that a modern artist needs to be much more hands-on, much more involved in the fan, in order to get anywhere these days and have the fan get involved back. It's simply too easy to find music, good and bad and everywhere in between, for free and for cheap and for a premium. Twenty years ago, there were a number of big-name music stores, and scattered specialty shops where you might find rarities, out-of-prints, imports... Today, you can find almost anything from almost any band online, legitimately or otherwise. To stake a claim in that world requires more of a mindset than, "If I play loud-hard-fast and put up a coupla flyers and lug all my sellable CDs to every show, eventually a label representative is gonna notice me and I'm gonna make it big!"


07/09/09 5:27 AM

Brilliant, simple.


07/09/09 5:28 AM

Great advice, Trent. I've been taking this approach recently and it's been working fantastically well, so to see you suggesting the same route is very reassuring.

It's possibly also worth noting that if you really do have to recoup some costs and you're not able to do this through gigs and merch, charging almost nothing for your music works similarly well: I've been offering a 'pay what you want' deal for my latest EP but with a minimum price point of £1, which is peanuts to most people. The money being made from these sales is being invested into the special 'deluxe' package for the forthcoming album, and buyers of the EP will get a discount on that, so they also feel like they're investing in something (and the amount is small enough to be throw-away cash if they decide not to buy the album).


07/09/09 5:29 AM

Fan of Topspin and their packages, they just need to come down a bit in what they take of the top...a larger percentage than other companies that can provide the same service


07/09/09 5:33 AM

Any band starting out must gig as much as possible around their town. Its the really the easiest way to meet similar minded musicians, fans and people in the street press.

Plus gigging is the only way a band starting out is going to make 'money' anyway. The only way we could afford studio time was firstly.. out of pocket. then we pressed it... out of pocket THEN gigged. but the money from gigging for a year or 2 nearly payed for the next recording. and so forth...

That seemed to work for us anyway.

Plus i made a few friends and got a few people to gigs after chatting to them on napster (back in the daytongue sticking out smiley) when they downloaded tunes from me. It was funny, they thought i was gonna kick their ass for stealing music lol.

Thats my two cents. Interesting read TR smiling smiley

(PS: i'm not saying a band needs be making 'money' but studio time costs money so thats how we did ittongue sticking out smiley)


07/09/09 5:34 AM

I like what HEALTH are doing with their new record-exclusive T-shirt, buttons, etc. and you get the record a month early:



07/09/09 5:35 AM

futuremarkets posted:
So is getting your music as mp3s out there and to an audience more important than gigging and building up a fanbase? You often hear that gigging around your local area and beyond is the only way to establish yourself, but is this really less important than spreading your music?

Gigging will be, at the beginning, a local thing only. Unless you have a huge amount of cash at hand, you won't be able to afford to gig outside your local area.

Giving away your music will get you everywhere.

One thing with gigging however, is to get out of the area if you can, and try to treat it as a holiday. Spending a chunk of cash to do a gig in another state will burn if you don't get much/anything back, but if you treat it as a holiday, with a gig on one or two nights, you at least come home with a smile. And the energy to do it again.

Making music is easy.
Making good music isn't quite as easy.
Making good music that people get to hear about is hard. And there are a lot of great bands out there who will never do more than local pub gigs, simply because they can't get their music heard.


07/09/09 5:36 AM

This is good. As a comic artist, I feel this approach applies not to just music, but most forms of popular culture and entertainment. People have changed the climate and the rules, and all content producers need to adapt to that. (I created a comic a few years ago and published it online for free. People would still come to conventions and buy my print copies because they liked it enough to want a "real" copy to keep. Everyone whom I told of this scheme thought I was crazy, but it worked.)

The internet has created a sort of buzzing hive mind, and for better or worse, the only real way to buoy any success is to get this collective thinking about your work first, and then thinking about buying it second.

I should say that I bought an independent album this week that used a similar sales model to the Saul Williams release. They had a free download, a paid download, and a purchasable CD. The prices were so reasonable, and the system so respectful of its customers, that I found myself buying the most expensive option—the CD—even though I had heard little of the album. The CD came with an immediate download link, and I'm happy to say I love the album I bought (so I won't regret that CD when it arrives!).

This sort of experience felt "right" to me; it was an admission of the current climate of music buying, and an appropriate response to it.


07/09/09 5:37 AM

Good read.

Out of curiosity, do you think it'd ever be possible for there to be a middle ground between the "Major Label" scenario you presented and the more independent manner in which artists such as yourself and the Beastie Boys have distributed their music? I mean, the very nature of a "Major" label seems designed to go against artistic integrity and maintaining a degree of control over your releases. However the smaller labels which may allow you to keep total creative control obviously don't have the assets to promote music to the extent that the majors do.


07/09/09 5:37 AM

Well put.

Copyright reform should bring focus back to the artist not on publishing. This way unknown artists can be protected even when music is free (if they wish, if not CC is the way to go).


07/09/09 5:38 AM

I agree, the musician must became the product. But there are some variables that we must take into account, different cultures require different solutions/ideas. From my experience, as an European (Portuguese) musician, this isn't enough. Besides this, the musician/band must keep bugging around everyday all "music event related" contacts available just to get a single gig, i managed to do that, and my band plays more these days, than you would expect from an "unknow" group (we play only in Portugal of course).

Even with all this, its not enough (yeah...), im my culture people don't get evolved with music/bands/art from their own country, Portuguese people don't remember their own nacional values in this area, we are only looking outside.

I don't know exactly how to change this, but anyway, with all being said about this, these days with the internet we can do much more, than in the old days, and we manage to play a lot of gigs and share our music freely online. So, all i can say is that it works, you can be heard trough internet, even if it is for a few bunch of people, is more than you would achieve in "the old days" winking smiley

Good luck to all of you winking smiley


07/09/09 5:38 AM

I think these are some very good points. Several artists in Belgium seem to be following at least some of the above suggestions. The community aspect seems to be what involves people, and if people are involved and start to care about your work and what you do, they will be willing to dish out some cash, if it keeps you doing what they like. People feel connected to what the artist does and as social beings, we often are willing to respond to that connection by supporting the work -- buying music, attend shows, etc.

I agree that it sucks that it is hard to make a living from selling music (records), but I would rather pay less for a record/mp3/... and have more money to go see live shows, than pay more for the actual music. A concert is something unique, whereas a song can be played over and over (which is, of course, also a Good Thing (tm), but it is different). Concerts are a scarce resource, so people are often willing to pay (a bit more) for those.

I hope people pick up the above advice and act upon it. I guess it is futile to hope for the record labels to come to their senses and accept that business can be done in alternative ways.


07/09/09 5:40 AM

poisonfruitloops posted:
Any band starting out must gig as much as possible around their town. Its the really the easiest way to meet similar minded musicians, fans and people in the street press.

Plus gigging is the only way a band starting out is going to make 'money' anyway. The only way we could afford studio time was firstly.. out of pocket. then we pressed it... out of pocket THEN gigged. but the money from gigging for a year or 2 nearly payed for the next recording. and so forth...

That seemed to work for us anyway.

For some reason, Perth manages to allow that to happen - try the same thing on the other side of the country, and you are pushing shit uphill to cover costs.

I see Perth as being in its own separate universe - A small city, but people still make an effort to go out to see bands/clubs. I DJd there 6-months ago, and I'm still shocked by the numbers at the club - at least (if not more than) double what a similar night here in Sydney will pull.

If you can get the gigs, and make money, go for it. But a lot of areas don't allow that.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/09/2009 05:46AM by badpauly.


07/09/09 5:42 AM

Oh, i would like to add this:
- when you're building up your fan base, don't go too much in their face. As as Twitter and (almost ex)MySpace user i can say some bands are really trying to push themselves too much. It's one thing to leave a comment such as "Thanks for checking out our site" etc etc but i find it VERY annoying (and it happened/happens quite often) when one band sends you private messages and comments that sound all alike - and they're doing it every once a week if not a few days.
- if you have a support of some established band, band member or famous person, don't make it a focal point. As in "I have fukken Eminem in my video, I RAWK! Whatcha gonna do, u no-name!" A celebrity knows you, cool. You can post a few pictures of it, thank them in your cd booklets, etc etc. Other than that,.. well.. See "K-Fed" (bad example but you get my point).
- be patient. This shit takes time. A lot of time.


07/09/09 5:42 AM

ENJOY WHAT YOU DO. Its not easy this day and age, Find like minded music get to know your demographic. go to concerts of the same type of music, hand out demo cd's with website info. Give atleast another 50 % to promoting your music. get to know the channels of where your type of music has a following. Get to know your fanbase, let them get to know you...and most importantly., ENJOY WHAT YOU DO.


07/09/09 5:42 AM

how do you make GREAT music CHEAPLY? How much did Pretty Hate Machine cost to make? (please adjust for inflation) thx


07/09/09 5:43 AM

In other words, build a business like any other business owner would do, which is great advice to those thinking they can strike gold in the music business. The clear difference between the cheap pop put on the radio and the quality work heard less is the amount of money thrown at the pop to force into the ears of all.

Building a business takes lots of hard work, building a fan-base for your music takes all that hard work AND talent. My girlfriend is an art jewelry designer (, always marketing!), and along with being talented at what she does, she can't afford to have others do the business side, so every morning she scours her loads of emails that will lead to more press and more sales. Thankfully her boyfriend handles the design/technology side of things for a, ahem, nominal fee winking smiley

Work hard, exude talent, above all, learn from the pros and don't be afraid to try new approaches!

Cheers Trent.


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/09/2009 05:44AM by r303blue.


07/09/09 5:43 AM

My sentiments exactly, I'm a new media student and member of a fledgling band. Soon all money from media will be made by merchandise, shows and voluntary contributions. There is a remarkable quantity of free media available already including high quality web series' by people who want to entertain people, not just get rich.

With Google making their own linux distribution the world of computing will soon follow, open source programs made and supported by the legions of users will soon drown out the mainstream titles. It's starting already with the plethora of high quality mods for games the likes of halflife 2.

It's going to be a wonderful new world of media. Where quality, rather than marketing controls what is successful and what isn't. True evolution of media.


07/09/09 5:49 AM

Damn, I'll repeat the words which I said few minutes ago to my friends after reading this - why there are only a few people who can, without shallow figures of speech and strange neologisms, hit the nail on the head?

Make the packages special - make them by hand, sign them, make them unique, make them something YOU would want to have as a fan.

Especially with that line - it's not only useful for musicians. It's what irritates me the most in all these released stuff, not the least trace of musician's own interest is left there. Ok, not all but it's dreadfully rare.

I'm not making music, but I'm watching new bands or single artists moves and I see that if they would follow Your advices, they would get more. Man, it's not hard, so why do they use all these complicated tactics?

I used to hold You dear as a musician, but now I will add a big respect for You as a person too.

Thanks for a fresh stream of mind.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 07/09/2009 05:52AM by Beensect.

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