How to Make It As an Unsigned Artist

Unsigned Artists: How to Succeed

Last month we spoke to pop Producer/a cappella artist/viral video sensation Peter Hollens about how to build a musical career outside of the major label paradigm. Thanks to social media, video sharing sites, and resources like Patreon, taking charge of your own artistic career is more doable than ever before. (In fact, thanks largely to Patreon, Hollens is able to make a healthy living from his art. Sounds too good to be true? Keep reading.)

We caught up with Hollens again to get his advice on how to foster fan/artist relationships which really matter and why you shouldn’t let a record label control your career, and by extension, your dreams. This is advice you won’t hear anywhere else, tailored to unsigned artists who want to make it outside of the traditional music industry in 2017. So, what’s the key element to success in today’s evolving entertainment landscape? “Be real,” Hollens says. “Be authentic. Be a person first and a musician second. Do it all yourself; don’t let anyone come between you and your fanbase. You open your own doors. You knock those doors down.” Whether you’re an aspiring Rapper or a Singer-Songwriter, here’s how to do it.

You don’t need a label.

Hollens doesn’t mince words when it comes to his experience with and opinions on major labels. “Don’t sign with a label,” he says. “You will regret it more than anything you’ve done in your life. Take it from someone who has done this with a major.

There’s no longer a viable reason, truthfully, to sign with a major. Right now, a label only has relationships which are becoming less and less valuable — like radio. You can go to companies who are doing different pieces of what a label does, without signing your soul over to them.

Out of all the people I’ve met in this industry, I can tell you I came into contact with one artist who was actually happy they signed with a label; yet we still believe we need to sign with a label to make it. I believe this will obviously change with time, but my goal is to help it occur exponentially faster by educating my peers it’s all about what it really means to ‘make it’ — which is to make art and support your living with art. That’s what making it is, not being the next Beyonce or Ed Sheeran — that’s not really attainable anymore.

Instead, you could focus on making a living doing what you love, churning your content out, and treating yourself like a Silicon Valley startup. Then you’re setting yourself up for more success. Eventually, you’ll get really good at what you’re doing and be able to do it instead of waiting tables.

Different people are born for different things. I think some people are born with the gumption, guts, and desire to make something. There’s no excuse anymore. We all have the ability to do it. Don’t let somebody else take control of your dreams.”

“Be a person first and a musician second. Do it all yourself; don’t let anyone come between you and your fanbase. You open your own doors. You knock those doors down.” — Peter Hollens

Build relationships with fans, not record label people.

What’s the biggest mistake Hollens sees artists making with their online fan communities? “People don’t respond to comments.” He says, “The way I see it is if I owned a brick-and-mortar store and people come in and are like ‘This is place is cool! What else do you have here?’ If you just ignore them, it’s the same thing as if someone says something on Twitter and you ignore them. You’re a mini digital media company; if you see yourself as anything less you’re selling yourself short.

Those people are your clients and they’re the reason you will succeed at what you do. No longer can artists just sit on their mountain and be mysterious. The truth is the mass majority of us now have the ability to consume what we’re going to consume; we’re deciding what to listen to. The power is in our hands.”

One of the unique elements of Hollens’ unconventional success story is how he uses Patreon, an online platform which allows content creators to receive financial support from fans, to earn a decent income from his art. The most successful Patreon artists build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with their fans, by providing exclusive, subscription content. You, too, can bolster your artistic career through the support of your fans on a site like Patreon.

Hollens explains, “The company is called Patreon; the people who are my followers are my patrons. If you think of the people who engage with my content, you have casual fans, monthly watchers, patrons, then evangelists. It doesn’t matter where those people are coming from in the community — whether I’m fostering it on YouTube, Patreon or Instagram — it [matters] I’m somebody that person sees in their daily life as providing value to them through my music, personality, and being as uplifting as possible. If I’m providing value to their life, we’re in a ‘thank you economy’ which allows people to give back.

I consider this platform to be my most important place where I respond to every single message, communicate as much as possible and provide value because they’re literally the people who are sustaining my life. The relationships are real. It’s not like they’re just fans. They’re part of my team and my journey. It really breaks down a lot of barriers. I feel like the relationships occurring with my patrons and me on there are real. You’re not just part of the crowd, like on Facebook or YouTube. My job is to to make sure they know how important they are and be accessible to them.

There’s a misconception artists aren’t getting the value they deserve post-Napster. I think it’s slowly changing because we’re turning towards a new model, based on authentic relationships and Patreon is the first infrastructure allowing any creators to succeed, as long as they’re creating good content. It’s so beautiful we’re entering into this creator revolution occurring because of the internet; now companies are really fostering creative revolution. It’s a terrific support system for people creating on platforms like YouTube. It doesn’t matter in the end where you foster your relationships — on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram — it just matters you get those 200 or 300 people who really believe in you. Because then you have an ability to make a living doing what you love.

It’s about you owning your business relationships. There’s no one in the middle between you and your fanbase. Then you have no overhead [costs] and it’s not like you can’t get stuff done because you already know how to do everything.” [Editors note: See our earlier blog post in which Hollens advocates for artists learning all the skills necessary to be completely DIY in regards to their art.]

“You’re a mini digital media company; if you see yourself as anything less you’re selling yourself short.” — Peter Hollens

Stop wasting your time on outdated advice.

The notion of what artists need to do to succeed in the music industry is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyches it can be hard to see past. But as times change and the industry evolves, many allegedly essential steps on the way up the music industry ladder can be disregarded and reconsidered. Here are some of Hollens’ best (and most surprising) tips on what you can skip and where you should focus as you grow in your artistic career.

You have more control than you think.
“Don’t sign a contract of exclusivity with anyone. Know every negotiation is just that: a negotiation. If you’re bringing value to the table, you can respond to a Music Publisher or distributor and say ‘I moved this [amount of product].’ Everything is negotiable.

Don’t try to go out and get a Manager, an Agent, a publishing deal and a label deal. Make them come to you. When they come to you, you have the control.
The first team member you’re actually going to need is a good Lawyer. This, unfortunately, is not going to change because, for many decades, people in this industry have been taking advantage of people. You need a Lawyer who believes in you, who you can trust, who can take a look at opportunities as they come your way.

Focus your efforts intelligently.
If you’re attempting to reach potential fans solely through blogs and music magazines, you need to change how you’re thinking. “I don’t think the writer game is a smart place to put your time right now,” Hollens says, although he does have some advice on how to build mutually conducive press/artist relationships. He suggests artists “digest content from places you’d want to be posted and create relationships with those writers by engaging them on Twitter or writing emails. It’s not like you ask first; you create a relationship, you help them for awhile then eventually, after a while, you do a really light ask and you just say ‘I created this thing. Check it out.’ However, he notes, “it’s 2017 and even if we’re talking about a Billboard article it’s not going to help you as much as just creating content nonstop. Your content is the biggest value you can create. Your time needs to be invested in creating music videos.”

In the same way, he suggests reaching fans across all demographics by concerting your efforts not locally, but in the online arena. “Stop playing so many live shows and start creating content online,” he says. He cautions against throwing money at an old school style big budget music video. “Thinking the old model of what music videos used to be is what you want” is a huge mistake, Hollens says. “No one cares about your B-roll story you’re trying to tell. They want to connect with a human. You need to be performing to camera for as much of the video as you can stand.”

Steal from the best.
It’s easier to score some fan attention if you’re tapping into an existing pop culture trend…then go out and do your own thing. “In the end, you just want brand awareness,” he says. “My business plan is to create content for low overhead, make sure it is content easily found on the internet vis a vis suggested videos because of the platforms I’m putting it on or search engine optimization algorithms. If we’re talking about Disney, Hunger Games or the newest Ed Sheeran song, things are going to be searched and if you’re creating similar content, it will propagate to the top if it’s high value and you’ll get new eyeballs on it.

No one’s going to care at all about you just doing original songs. No one can find it if you don’t have a fanbase. If you start with a hundred thousand followers and really start doing eclectic stuff, then maybe a third will follow you. The marketplace right now is so saturated, you need eyeballs [on you].”

Another way of capturing attention is by working with other artists who share some crossover potential with your fans or partnering with indie or student Film Directors on the rise. “Truthfully you need to be collaborating with other artists because it’s a no-brainer to exchange and provide value for them to be showcased,” Hollens advises. “Concentrate on what you’re best at and position it in a watchable way.”

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