Independent rap careers are true feats of ingenuity. Without the major label machine behind indie acts, there are many costs that artists must incur themselves, from music videos to touring and merch. Being an indie artist requires you to wear many hats, and wear them well. As New York rapper S’natra explains it, your career is entirely in your hands. That can be both a gift and a curse.
“It’s really schedule-oriented,” S’natra says of managing his indie career. “A couple of my homies quit their jobs recently just to pursue this sh*t full-time. I remember when I did this sh*t, I didn’t realize how in charge of my time I was when I took that step.”
Aside from managing a schedule, the hardest part of running your own career, per S’natra, is finding creative ways to promote yourself. You’ve made fantastic art, but that is simply not enough. “The message behind [the music] is really important, but you gotta figure out a way to make what you’re saying connect with fans or people that you plan to work with,” S’natra advises.
As for the big question—How do you make money as an indie artist?—S’natra’s best advice is to budget, budget, budget. Even with a service like Amuse, which offers you an advance on your streaming royalties, you have to be conscious of your income versus your expenses. You can make money and have a full-time art career, so long as you’re smart with your money.
“You gon’ be able to make money!” he beams. “You just gotta be honest with yourself about what it is that you’re trying to do. Everything costs money. An artist needs to buy brushes and canvases all the time. You can make money, but you really gotta be good at budgeting. You gotta pick and choose your battles. You can’t go out one night and go crazy, and then have something like saving up for a video that same week. Make sure you really stick to a schedule [and] a budget, because [money] goes fast.”
With an EP on the way and an upcoming show in New York, S'natra is making the most of his money and pushing his career as muchThat’s the real crux of it: if you want an indie career, you have to be mindful of everything. Your time, your money, and your image—all of these things must be balanced in order to sustain an independent career.
DJBooth’s full interview with S’natra, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: What’s something about being indie that you wish fans understood?
S’natra: How responsible you are for your own time. Making time just to even show up places, and work with people. It’s really schedule-oriented. A couple of my homies quit their jobs recently just to pursue this sh*t full-time. I remember when I did this sh*t, I didn’t realize how in charge of my time I was when I took that step.
What’s the hardest part of managing an indie career? How do you overcome that?
Aside from not getting discouraged, working and working nonstop and then trying to find ways to reinvent [in] your product and how you promote yourself. The message behind [the music] is really important, but you gotta figure out a way to make what you’re saying connect with fans or people that you plan to work with.
In the city, a lot of [overcoming struggle] has to do with community, too. You gotta link with people, you gotta talk to people, you gotta really see what… You gotta try sh*t, too. You gotta ask questions. You can’t be afraid to ask people stuff. You gotta study artists that you really f*ck with, people that you look up to and admire.
What did it feel like when you quit your job to pursue music?
It was the best decision I ever made, but I didn’t know that until stuff started happening. And it wasn’t big stuff, it was “Now, I have time to book more sessions. Now I have more time to go to more shows. More time for myself, too, to figure out what it is that I’m trying to do.”
Getting into the financials, how do you manage to stay cash flow positive without a label?
You gon’ be able to make money! You just gotta be honest with yourself about what it is that you’re trying to do. Everything costs money. An artist needs to buy brushes and canvases all the time. You can make money, but you really gotta be good at budgeting. You gotta pick and choose your battles. You can’t go out one night and go crazy, and then have something like saving up for a video that same week. Make sure you really stick to a schedule or a budget, because [money] goes fast.
How much does touring and merch play into your ability to stay afloat?
At the end of the day, it’s a give and take. I’ve been blessed to travel and be on the road with the homies, Brasstracks, and a bunch of other people that brought me out for shows. That definitely helps a lot. That is something that’s really important, being a part of something. I do a whole bunch of stuff. I used to be involved in a program where I used to teach young kids that wanted to learn how to start making beats. It wasn’t nothing for me to make the time to link up with those people. Partnerships with brands… There’s always opportunities with that. But you gotta think outside the box to create opportunities for yourself, though. You could collaborate with people, but at the end of the day, it has to come from you.
Is streaming a reliable source of income for you?
That’s part of it. Me, I’ve been producing a lot, too, so that’s something else that creates income for me. I set up a studio so that’s where I create my opportunities. That creates another lane for me. Performing, too, like I said. You just gotta really be honest about your budgeting and always, always, be hustle oriented because New York City is the most expensive sh*t to live in, and it definitely helps when you have multiple avenues of money. Even if it’s short checks. The more that’s coming in, the better.
How would you change the current streaming model to make it more viable for indie artists?
I read something like a million streams equals four thousand dollars, or something like that. I’m not really sure exactly how that works. I will say, artists just need to start getting more money off of streams because the industry is a billion dollar industry, and we’re the ones that’s creating the content! [Streaming needs to pay more to indie artists] because that gives them more of a cushion to be able to continue their art, instead of trying to sacrifice like, “I can’t put out this video this month, because I only got XYZ from this and that.” There needs to be a change for us, as artists, to be able to continue doing this when you’re not at that high level yet.
How would you budget differently if you got an advance on your streaming royalties, a la the service offered by Amuse?
Immediately, I would look at what’s on my plate at the moment. I would look at what music I got coming out, what promo ideas I have, if I’m shooting videos, stuff like that. I would get the immediate stuff out of the way and also set aside some money for upcoming ideas or if I have a show coming up and I need to pay the band. Work backward from there: if I know I gotta spend this much money next month, then I know not to step outside of that budget.
Did you have to burn your hand to learn to budget so well?
I f*cked my money up a lot. When I first started touring, I was just crashing at my homie’s crib, so I didn’t worry about it too much, but that turned into nothing. I wasn’t as goal-oriented as I am now, because it wasn't anything to me to just spend that money. Now, I really know exactly what I need to do and exactly what I need to pay for.
In terms of being indie, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Boom: I was talking to my uncle, he doesn’t even make music at all. He was telling me something about how everyone is a business now. Everybody that we know, everybody that we friends with, everyone has their own thing going or just something that they’re really good at and get paid for their work. [My uncle] was telling me “You are an independent business, and right now you don’t got a lot of employees. So, how are you gonna build that up and turn it into a f*cking empire?” He really made me look at it [differently]. I have a lot of homies I really wanna help out. I got family, I got a whole bunch of people aside from myself that I wanna bring up. It made me focus up.
What’s the best business move you’ve ever made?
I’m still learning, but I would say one of the best business moves I ever made: I got this pub deal with Sony. Stellar Songs. They are some good people who helped me out right when I needed it, too. They’re cool with Ivan [of Brasstracks]. That deal finally led me to get all the little sh*t that I always needed, like Pro Tools. At that point, my MacBook was dusty. It helped me get new equipment. It put some money in my account. It helped me really be more independent and helped me figure out the next couple goals that I had lined up and made it way easier to pursue those goals.
What’s your favorite part of being an indie artist?
Man, going to a show and knowing that your music is the reason why everybody is in that room. People either really f*ck with you, or somebody really f*cks with you and they bring a friend. It all goes back to people noticing what you do and they wanna support. That sh*t is so gratifying because I’ve been doing this sh*t for so long. To have people shout out my name when I come out on stage, it makes me feel like “Okay, I’m doing something with this time.”