Staying Sane as an Independent Recording Artist

“Just because it’s easier to be an independent artist today than ever before, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
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This is a guest editorial by Stevie Ray, an independent rapper from San Francisco, California. Stream Stevie’s 2019 album, Free, here.

It’s the era of independent artistry. First, social media gave artists a way to build fanbases from their bedrooms. Then, TuneCore told Spotify, “Hold my beer,” and nothing has been the same since. Nowadays, artists walk around with global distribution in their pockets. With the push of a button, I can put my song in stores around the globe. With the push of another button, I can take and edit pro-quality photos and videos. And if I push another button, I can market directly to my clients. As an indie artist, the ability to do all of this myself is the best thing that’s ever happened. (Okay, maybe not ever, but it’s significant.) But just because it’s easier to be an independent artist today than ever before, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

For me, release day looks something like this: Constant email correspondence with my publicist, distributor, and any press contacts of my own; updating all of my cover photos and AVIs, and updating my website; corralling all of the streaming links into a Fanlink and putting it in every bio; engaging on social media with every publication that covers my release, and engaging with fans sharing my content; responding to DMs from fans; launching and optimizing social media ad campaigns; corresponding with all of my influencer friends to get them to post about my release; curating my Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram stories. The list goes on and on. Cellphone, laptop, cellphone, laptop, deep breath, cellphone, laptop, into infinity.

I’m not here to complain. This is an average day for tons of happy people who work in social media or digital marketing. But the difference is that this is my art. See, art is vulnerable, and social media is toxic. Self-promotion is a psychological war zone. For artists with mental health issues—a lot of us—this paradox can be torturous. It’s hands down my least favorite part of my career. 

See, I love everything about making music. I love practicing; I love writing. I love recording; I love performing. I even love the less fun parts, like rapping on the treadmill to build breath control, or going from the mix room to my headphones to my car back to the mix room, just to turn down a single drum a fraction of a decibel. And I love sharing music with people. I really do love it. But I hate social media. I hate feeling like I have to be available at all times. Waking up to the 99+ DM notification gives me anxiety. And I hate that I like it. It’s addicting. The notifications feel good. You want to know how your song is doing. You love to see new followers. But as exciting as it all is, it’s never a happy time for me.

Ask any of my close comrades; you can almost always find me melting down 48 hours before release day. On days preceding a release, I don’t drink coffee; I delete the social media apps off of my phone, I double my meditation periods, anything I can do to prepare for the notification bender ahead. And I’m a straight white dude who’s skinny. I am basically cheating. The comments my women friends get whenever something goes viral are atrocious. I mean, just terrible.

For years I’ve watched this mesh point between art and social media push my peers to the edge of their wits. I’d wager that more than half of my friends who quit pursuing music professionally, quit because they hate doing social media marketing. And God forbid a new social media platform bubbles up and becomes the hot new thing. You’re telling me I have to be on TikTok following new accounts, engaging in new communities, fusing my brand identity with the culture of this new platform, and then creating enough content to build a whole new following?! I’m going through this with Audiomack right now. I love the platform, and they’ve treated me very well. I know I owe it to myself, and to them, to be on there following new artists and messaging people to collaborate or repost/playlist each other, but I just REALLY don’t want to.

For me to successfully develop a new social media platform, I have to set aside a fixed amount of time every day just to putz around the app and network. I’d rather be writing music, or trying to learn some crazy Raekwon flow that makes my head spin, or studying Black Thought lyrics on Genius, or watching Kendrick Lamar videos for inspiration, or singing along to Frank Ocean trying to expand my range. Artists like Lil Nas X and Guapdad 4000, who can manage to be absolute wizards of social media as well as dope recording artists, are extraordinary creatures. I legitimately don’t know what those guys are made of.

To all my fellow Indies out there, take a deep breath, turn your phone off if you need to, and please protect yourself enough to keep creating. The world needs your art, I promise. We live in a system of numbers. Unlimited numbers. And the goal is always bigger ones. But we also live in a world of limits. We only have so many hours in a day; we only have so many ideas in our brains; we only have so many emotions we can tolerate in a single moment. 

You are a great artist because you make great art, and that is what makes someone a great artist. Not Instagram followers. The world needs great artists, more than it needs big numbers. If you ever need a reminder that art matters, look around! Everyone is at home consuming art right now—reading books, watching shows and movies, listening to music, watching live stream performances. So know that we love you, and we need you. Now more than ever. And to everyone consuming art, BE KIND! You have no idea how much it helps us artists continue.

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