With concert venues closed, musical careers must be forged on streaming platforms instead. It’s been an awful year for the majority of artists who make most of their income from gigs and touring. Yet a small but growing number are harnessing the latest tech to break through on Spotify, YouTube and TikTok. Musicians like Jayda G and RAC have bounced back from canceled tours to secure Grammy nominations with the help of apps like Distrokid, Submithub.com and fortunes.io. The tools help artists to distribute and market their work, share out royalties, break into popular playlists and identify which songs resonate most with listeners.
These capabilities were long the preserve of big companies such as Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group. Now technology is making it easier than ever to be a successful independent musician — distributor AWAL said hundreds of them are now making more than $100,000 per year from streaming. Merlin, a not-for-profit that negotiates distribution rights and royalties on behalf of independent labels and rights-holders representing self-publishing musicians, accounts for around 15% of the market. The organization has seen its share of major digital music platforms grow by 3.5 percentage points during the pandemic, its Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Sirota told Bloomberg.
Some 68% of independent artists have reported making more music during lockdowns, according to a survey by Midia Research. It said the number publishing their own music direct to fans grew 31% between 2019 and September this year to 4.7 million. “These artists, who tend to be earlier in their career, are playing by different rules to established artists by releasing directly themselves or doing label services deals with next-generation record labels,” said Midia analyst Mark Mulligan. Here are some independent artists who are getting by, even flourishing, in the shadow of coronavirus:
The Portland-based musician and producer (real name Andre Allen Anjos) was on the cusp of an album tour in March when the live scene went into deep-freeze. Now he’s livestreaming sessions to paying fans on Amazon.com Inc.’s Twitch and using crowd-funding platform Patreon to give listeners access and bonus perks for a monthly fee. His sessions have been averaging 600,000 views a week. “You cannot play enough festivals in a week to reach that number,” he said. In some ways, livestreaming has an edge over physical performance. Multiple cameras give RAC’s fans an insight into his playing technique that they’d never get in a live concert. “I can really bring it down and have some semblance of intimacy. It feels like a new medium.”
The Connecticut rapper is having the biggest success of his career with almost 60 million streams on Apple Music and Spotify since early March. “I’m not saying I can pull the strings some labels can, but in theory I can operate similarly and I own my music and that is the biggest deal for me,” said Webby. The key to his success is volume and consistency: By uploading a new track every other Wednesday for nine months of the year, he’s managed to acquire 1.5 million monthly listeners. Webby is nostalgic for the traditional approach still loved by many musicians: the slow, careful crafting of an album that you take on tour. Now “it’s all about singles and algorithms,” says Webby. “You have to learn that and stay on the cutting edge of these platforms.” He has different agents to distribute his work via YouTube and Spotify and uses back-end apps that analyze which songs are clicking with listeners, which he uses to pick the songs for his next album. “There’s one for Apple Music, another for Amazon Music, so one day I’ll find a song is doing incredibly well and decide to shoot a video for it.” And Webby is always mixing up his references: “Two days ago I dropped a song with a new singing approach, something like Johnny Cash, that sounds like nothing I did before.”
Celsius’s laid-back brand of lo-fi vaporwave has caught on with stressed listeners during lockdowns. He self-releases his work and manages other musicians in the same genre including Speechless, whose monthly listens have roughly doubled since February to around 2 million, helped by the lockdown-themed song “Isolation.” “Speechless is constantly collaborating with different artists and labels and spreading himself out so there’s no single point of failure,” said Celsius. He said solo artists are also collaborating more, or starting their own labels using amuse.io, a distribution platform that manages accounting and complex royalty splits. Another, Submithub, lets musicians boost their streaming profiles by connecting with curators of the most popular playlists. Fortunes.io tells an artist when their track has been put on a Spotify or Apple playlist so they can drum up more noise for their work on social media. “Covid has created a situation where everyone is almost on the same playing field — the impact of a large artist’s label on marketing is a lot smaller,” said Celsius.
When lockdowns canceled her sets in Tokyo, San Francisco and Glasgow, the Canadian-born, London-based DJ ran a series of livestreamed “Virtual Get Downs” with donation links to raise money for the venues and local charities. The resulting social media publicity helped Spotify listens for Jayda G’s latest EP surge eleven-fold, earning her second spot in the platform’s largest electronic editorial playlist, mint. She used the Apple Inc.-owned music discovery app Shazam’s “Unlock” feature, and offered exclusive behind-the-scenes video content to give fans an incentive to add her tracks to their playlists on the service.