Independent artist creativity and innovation in the age of COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the music industry upside down in many ways but among the direct artists community there have also been signs of resilience and creativity in the face of adversity. For these ‘unsigned’ artists, 2020 is both the best of times and the worst of times. 

Self-releasing artists are not bound by industry promotional cycles, and in many cases, today’s artists must not just create their music but ‘sell it’ as well. If you have the drive to create music there is very little stopping you from writing, recording, producing and indeed releasing that music. All the tools and platforms are available. 

It’s been a boom year for music making – from record Fender guitar sales to yet another peak in streaming demand. Yet there’s never been a tougher time competitively—with 40,000 tracks released daily, cutting through the clutter is a very real challenge. The age of ‘create it and they will come’ never really existed, but today’s music market started to obliterate the notion completely and COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for the changes that were already taking place.

For MIDiA’s latest independent artist survey report in partnership with artists services and distribution company Amuse, we interviewed 346 artists around the world during the heart of lockdown to get a unique view of how the crisis is affecting artists. What we found was anxiety mixed with aspiration and creativity. The full report is available for free here but we’ve pulled out here five key themes for artist success:

1 – A sector with real scale: Artists direct (i.e. those without record labels) generated $873 million in 2019, up 32% from 2018. These independent artists represent the fastest-growing segment of the global recorded music business, a segment of global scale with real impact and influence. They are also more streaming native than label artists.

2 – Lockdown was a unique creative window: Nearly 70% of independent artists took the opportunity in lockdown to spend more time writing or making music, and a further 57% created more content for social media. Artists took full advantage of being away from the spotlight and the treadmill of promotion, to dive back into their creative spaces and make new music. In terms of releasing music, artists were split – with 46% releasing more music, but 40% putting projects on hold.

3 – Collaboration: 36% of independent artists reported working more on collaborations during lockdown than before. Music is becoming more of a collaborative undertaking than ever before and a whole ecosystem of digital tools and services is emerging to meet growing artist demand, providing more structured and networked process than many labels ever can. An unintended consequence of lockdown is that it has compelled more artists to explore ways of doing remote collaboration and many of these new learned behaviours will persist beyond the pandemic. A new way of making music is being born.

4 – Independent artists need side hustles like never before: Artists need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentumFor independent artists, streaming is their primary source of income at 28%. Live revenue is second at 18% (which means they are less exposed to lockdown’s impact than established label artists). But the key for today’s artists is to make revenues from multiple sources including publishing, teaching, session work, sponsorship and merchandise. Artists’ need to work multiple revenue streams to build career momentum. The number of artists offering online tuition has grown hugely during the pandemic, as has artists selling their old kit. Additionally, artist skill platforms will only grow as the number of aspiring creators grows, and, as with live streaming and making sound packs, is yet another revenue stream for artists. Artists are small entrepreneur businesses. They need four or five income streams to get off the ground.

5 – Marketing IQ is becoming key: Half of all direct artists do their own marketing, with one third managing their own marketing budget, but less than one in five are working with a distributor or label on marketing activities and 40% spend nothing at all on marketing. Artists are self-reliant but still inexperienced with marketing and most are not making the most of the tools available. While almost two-thirds of artists are using Spotify For Artists, few of them are using any other marketing related tools. The independent artist must know that marketing is about research, experimentation and persistence and is even more important for independent artists that do not have labels to do this work for them.

Making and marketing music is both getting easier and harder at the same time. Easier because artists can be in control: releasing music when you want to, growing and using social media, seeking out like-minded artist collaborators and sponsors, not having to rely on paymasters or gatekeepers. Easier also because artists can go global right from the beginning. 

On the other hand, the road to a career is longer and possibly never ending. The gap between artist and fan, creator and consumer is narrowing. Equipment makers are having a boom year, and one of the many things people have done with more time on their hands is fulfil their passions. So, for aspiring independent artists, a whole new wave of competition has arrived in the form of talented amateurs, armed with the tools and the time to make their own entertainment. 

The independent artist sector had another boom year in 2019 and the early signs are that it has not only weathered the COVID-19 storm but has made the best of a bad situation, seeing lockdown as an opportunity to create, experiment and innovate. Which should not surprise us, as after all these are some of the defining characteristics of one of the most important and exciting elements on the modern music business. Pathfinding through the pandemic requires innovation and patience and it looks like the direct artists sector has plenty of both.