How to be a successful independent band in 2024
Successful independent bands are not as common as you think. While there are plenty of stories of bands and artists who have made the big time without signing their souls away to a major label, they’re the exception, not the rule. Indeed, we tend only to hear about the success stories rather than the trials and tribulations of the thousands upon thousands of bands out there vying for our attention who never really get anywhere.
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On the plus side, the accessibility and affordability of technology today means that everyone, if they have the necessary musical skills, can produce an album worthy of public attention and it’s never been easier to put your music in people’s hands thanks to streaming.
The flipside of that is that over the last two decades this has resulted in the complete saturation of the music market, to the point that it’s never been so difficult to make your band stand out from the rest. And even if you do, it’s increasingly hard to support yourself from your music.
While many bands will tell you they’d rather be on an indie label (or no label at all) for the creative freedom that affords them, in truth big labels have absolutely no interest in signing 99 per cent of the acts out there. Whereas once labels would take a punt on a band because they had the songs, the look or the vibe that made them worth the risk, nowadays you rarely get such speculative dice-rolls.
To garner any interest from a label, your band will have to bring a considerable amount to the table – namely healthy album sales/streaming figures, a great live show and the ability to sell-out venues, plus a social media profile that suggests you’ve got a built-in audience ready to be monetised and expanded.
The Fierce and the Dead
It’s a lot to ask, frankly – and certainly not something everyone can do, so what about the alternative? One band that has had experience of both being signed and opting to go back to being independent are post-rock/prog-rock outfit The Fierce and the Dead.
If you’re not deep in the post-rock/prog-rock circle, you may not of heard of them, but they are one of the few examples of a band that has cultivated a large following by using both traditional and modern means – from handing out fliers to gig-goers at live venues, to retargeting their Facebook ads to anyone who has previously watched between at least five seconds of a recent video ad campaign.
For many of us, learning how to market and promote yourself effectively and turn that into something concrete is not an easy feat, so we caught up with Matt Stevens from the band to pick their brains and give you their top tips for making a success of your band without a label backing you.
What’s the biggest or most common mistake bands make when interacting or promoting themselves on social media?
Trying to sell to people all the time. It’s a community not a sales funnel! You need to treat your audience with respect and be engaging. I enjoy hanging out with people online and if your audience like the same music as you, it should be fairly easy to engage with them. We’re about building a good place online to hang out and I’ve made lots and lots of friends there. A lot of musicians seem to think they’re entitled to an audience and, well, you’re really not.
Do you prioritise one platform over another?
You go where your audience is. For metal, post-rock, stoner rock and prog stuff (where our fans come from) Facebook is still busy, but we’re also on TikTok, X, Instagram and YouTube pretty actively. Our Facebook Group is our main focus, however.
Album art for The Fierce and the Dead’s ‘News from The Invisible World’
In terms of promoting your music, what are each platforms strengths and weaknesses?
If you have a younger audience focus on TikTok; if it’s a bit older go with Facebook. 20- or 30-year-olds, Instagram. Everyone is on YouTube. Spotify and YouTube bring in new people via the algorithms (if you’re lucky) and Facebook groups or Discord are good for a community engagement.
But they’re all just tools, the key is how you treat people: treat them well and you’ll do well.
How do you tailor for activity for each platform?
Shorts [vertical videos that are 60 seconds or less in length] work well on YouTube right now. The algorithm sends them out to new people, as they’re trying to compete with TikTok and Instagram and Facebook reels. Short form content is the big thing now and provides a way of people finding you. A lot of people find us via Spotify Radio or Prog magazine, podcasts etc.
We’re trying to get more people onto our email list which has around 6000 people now. It’s probably our most important way of communicating with people.
In your experience, are the different social media platforms comfortable bedfellows or do they actively or covertly discourage cross pollination by strangling reach in some way?
If you share YouTube videos on Facebook, their algorithm will stop people seeing them because ultimately they don’t want you to leave their platform. If you encourage people to leave the platform, then you’re most likely going to have to pay for the privilege. So, our advice would be to use the tools of the platform you’re on.
Do you invest financially on social media? If so, how do you measure results?
Yeah, you have to funnel people in and that’s expensive, but it’s important to monitor how much each click is costing and ensure there are measurable results. With Spotify what you’re trying to do is trigger the algorithm for Discover Weekly and Spotify Radio to share your music so it’s not really about the cost per play, the goal is to trigger the algorithm. We’re not running ads on there now but we’re still reaching thousands of people because we’ve pointed the algorithm in the right way. It’s now finding the fans for us. You have to be very careful with your targeting.
What was your learning curve like? Was their one form of advertising that worked better than others? What are your chief tenets when putting together an ad?
The learning curve was steep, and the problem is that it changes all the time, so you need to make an ad that grabs people in the first few seconds which is why we use video ads. Ideally you want something that makes people go ‘What on earth was that?’. Our Golden Thread music video has a man in a mask dancing and that worked well. Weird and strange works best!
What was your eureka moment, or did you discover a winning formula to grow your audience?
The problem is stuff works for a while then it stops working, once you have saturated the audience who have already seen the content. It’s ever changing, apart from the general principle is to get in with something remarkable early. Our budgets are really small so it’s really hard to get it right without all the testing big companies can afford to do.
Is it important to be au fait with video production software for developing content or do you outsource?
We split the jobs between us, Kev our singer/bassist does the video editing as he has decent gear. We can’t outsource because we’re working to no margin and we never turn a profit. We just want to grow the community.
But you can learn lots yourself; there’s plenty of tutorials on YouTube.
When you develop content, is it for existing fans or to attract new fans? Or do you have separate or simultaneous practices for each that run concurrently?
We don’t really think about it now, we just make stuff we’re interested in as part of making records, playing live, band practice and going about our business. We really enjoy hanging out with the community in our Facebook Group (Fierce Army) and this turns our gigs into more of a meet up for the community there. This has caused the majority of gigs on the current UK tour to sell out months in advance, in addition to the new album being really well received.
Do you dread new social media apps being released and do you know whether they’re worthy of investing time and money into? Is it speculative?
I’m not often excited by new social media. At first we hang back and see what happens. We’re normally ahead of our peers but not super-fast because we just don’t have the time with all the other stuff we need to do. I’d like to get the podcast we did during lockdown running again but as we have other commitments, that’s really hard to do.
Did you apply the same DIY approach to recording your new album or do you enlist the services of studios and producers?
We’re lucky that Kev our bassist/singer is a pro studio engineer, so we recorded most of it ourselves, only using studios for the drums and some vocals. We’re really pleased with the results. The more we can keep in-house the better. The sacrifice is time. It takes us a long time to record an album, but we all have home studios so we can do parts at home too.
One thing we haven’t addressed is the change of direction for The Fierce And The Dead. Up until the last album you were known as an instrumental outfit but the new album sees the bass player take up lead vocal duties. Was the reaction as you anticipated and how did you deal with it?
We thought we’d lose a lot of our following but we couldn’t have been more wrong! We’ve always tried to do different things and Kev [bass, vocals] had sung in bands in the past so we wanted to try vocals. A few people have said they will never review our stuff again or listen to us, but it’s been a tiny minority. We’ve had far more streams for this record and all the gigs on the tour have sold out apart from one. It’s been amazing, really positive press.
We’ll continue to be brave and keep trying new things. We’ve got nothing to lose, we just like making music and it’s great we’ve now got a loyal following that supports us.
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