The struggle for an independent artist can be grueling, but it can also be fruitful. Seattle rapper Sadistik, 33, whose solo albums have charted on both Billboard and iTunes, has survived the ups and downs of the DIY lifestyle.
In the guest editorial that follows, Sadistik shares his experience as a DIY musician, tips for building a devout fanbase, and some of the pitfalls to avoid along the way.
This statement might sound trite, but it’s still crucial: Strive to express what makes you unique. If you’re in the music industry for the wrong reasons, you’ll most likely be chasing trends that will have dissipated by the time you get anywhere close to them. Make your wave or drown in theirs.
My creative approach has always been to be so overwhelmingly distinct; people can’t help but remember me, whether good or bad. A lot of artists attempt individuality via antics, shock, etc.. I found success in the opposite approach: Being human and vulnerable while maintaining a level of complexity. You have to find your niche. Aim to reach a distinctive audience instead of everyone at once.
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Treat fans and collaborators like humans.
Being DIY means you most likely won’t have a label, manager, publicist, etc. to insulate you or handle communications. The smaller your listenership, the less you have to manage personally. Use this position to your advantage and be more personable with your supporters than those who can’t afford to be. It’s genuinely one of the most rewarding elements of being an indie musician.
- Meet fans at shows and treat them like people, not a means to achieving an end goal.
- Take notice of your most vocal fans and interact with them online. Not all fans are the same: Some prefer to support from a distance, and some may be so die-hard they’ll want to scream your name from the mountaintops. While I appreciate all of my fans, I’ve always made it a point to show extra love to the latter. I’ve had well over 500 fans send me photos of their tattoos based on my music. We now have a Patreon community of a few hundred, and it’s growing monthly.
- If you open for a bigger act, know your role. This means promoting the show, introducing yourself, politely, and sticking around for their headlining performance. I’ve had many openers tell me they love my music and want to “build,” then leave either before or during my set. Guess how many of them I’ve worked with after that? None.
- Until you can book a 500-plus cap room, remember the in-house sound engineer can (read: will) make or break your set. Be on time for soundcheck and introduce yourself to everyone. This list includes production managers, sound techs, bartenders, merch people, openers, catering, security, etc. The one name I always try to remember, though, is the sound engineer.
Embrace the ritual.
Being an independent artist without a nine-to-five job while having a high work ethic is a tricky thing to navigate. By “treating it like a job,” I’ve slowly learned the importance of embracing and considering my daily habits, both creatively and as a business. Being willing to put in work every day is a fantastic characteristic that will help set you apart, but being too ritualistic and consistent can lead to generic or mediocre results over time. As an artist, you have to know how to embrace and reject those habits to your advantage.
Network authentically and take care of your network.
Even at the most basic level of DIY, an artist will never craft a music career by themselves. You’ll likely need producers, engineers, graphic designers, website upkeep, PR, marketers, etc... The folks you work with will inevitably impact your quality of work and how you look. Unfortunately, lousy decorum and scamming young creatives are becoming increasingly popular, so treating your collaborators with respect and discussing the terms beforehand is an easy way to separate yourself from the pack.
Invest in yourself; don’t get caught in the numbers.
Being DIY means you’re a business, so earmarking expenses is critical. The more success you earn, the more charlatans will try to peck at your accomplishments. Invest in bringing your creative ideas to life.
I know it’s easy to compare yourself to others, especially in an increasingly digital industry. My advice: Be laser-focused on your art first. Comparison is an easy way to devalue your worth, likely resulting in the creation of unattainable goals. I pay attention to my stats and growth-rates, but I always remind myself that my journey, like my art, is wholly my own. Don’t get tangled in the web of numbers.