This post is long overdue, I’ve been meaning to get to it for a while, and yet it’s also timely, in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It’s overdue, in large part, because I struggle with what good social media practitioners understand well; that to be successful with social media marketing you must be transparent, genuine, and authentic. Don’t misunderstand me: those who know me know me as a very genuine and authentic person, sometimes too much so, but I’m also a very private person by nature. It’s a balance I’m still trying to figure out.
This post is timely because yesterday I was reminded of the reasons and circumstances that inspired me to officially start Digient Collective way back in early April. That’s April of this year, 2020, and yet it feels like a year ago or longer. It’s been five months. In April 2020 I was living in the US, in the middle of selling our house to a family of musicians from New Orleans, and in the final stages of moving to Europe after months of planning. All of this was happening at the very same time the pandemic exploded all over the map, severely disrupting all of those plans. The NOLA musicians saw their income evaporate before their eyes, we lost the sale, our relocation was put on hold, and there began a whole shit-storm of problems. So naturally, the first thing that came to mind was: “This seems like the perfect time to start a record label!”
Truthfully, that’s not the intent of Digient Collective, to be a “record label.” Let’s call a spade a spade: the world doesn’t need another self-describing indie record label claiming to be putting out more great electronic music. And yet here I am, trying to dodge the definition and escape its trappings, it’s slightly nauseating. And what, after all, is the value of an indie record label, in the year 2020? Especially with what’s happening in the world right now. It’s cognitive dissonance – I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m… doing it. Which brings me to my thesis. I’m going to start with the following assumptions, some more informed than others, and of course you are 100% free to disagree with any or all of them – I welcome the discussion…
First, if you ask 10 artists to explain their definitions of “success” you will likely end up with at least 5 different answers. Some aspire to go the distance and become world famous, rich, fulfilled and artistically free. A royal flush is rare, but that’s what they’re at the table for. Others say they’d be content, if not happy, if they could just dedicate themselves to their art full-time. In other words: quit their day job. Some artists find they can successfully subsidize their art life with their day job, and have found a healthy and rewarding balance doing exactly that. Some artists have no definition at all, they’re more conceptual about the matter and might quickly go into a philosophical and metaphysical rabbit-hole. It’s an interesting range of definitions, one I find quite interesting.
Secondly, in these crazy times, even withstanding an incredibly disruptive global pandemic that has clubs and venues permanently closing their doors, performers unable to perform, fans unable to fan, bartenders unable to tend bar, among other devastating impacts, the odds of becoming “successful” as an indie artist are not exactly at their best. It’s really quite devastating. And what’s required to be successful as an artist in 2020 requires a few key ingredients, they say: the art has to be good, and while that’s a given, the general consensus is that’s not enough, you have to be really good at marketing and promoting yourself in order to build and nurture a loyal audience. And nowadays all of that is done primarily, if not exclusively, online, in digital spaces, predominantly on social media. This is, to many indie artists, very empowering. Independent artists all over thew world have the tools to do this themselves: Just create an account on [social media platform du jour] and start posting! But hold up a second, because that’s not quite enough now is it? You have to be authentic, and you have to post often, and you have to engage and be engaging, and don’t follow too many people at once because there might be penalties, and make sure you use the right hashtags, and … and…. all of this…. to what end? Social media “success” does not equate to success as an artist. For me, and speaking only for myself, I find the two to be at complete odds with one another. The time and effort required to come up with and create good content, to say nothing of all the other hats an artist must wear to be independently successful as an artist, makes this much more daunting, tedious and frustrating predicament. And what if you’re not a pop musician, what if your music is much more niche?
My point: To be an artist in 2020 is to also be a full time business person. So, when is the art getting done? Is the art getting the attention it needs? Is the art the best it can be? Or is the effort turning out to be just a way to feed the masses and likely a thirsty ego? Where’s the inspiration coming from? Where did the joy go?
Furthermore, not everyone is into playing that game. For every amazing artist you’re following on Instagram, there are hundreds more who don’t give two shits about Instagram. You might say, “well sure, at their own peril.” OK, fair enough, and maybe so, but the sword cuts both ways.
Thirdly, I’ll go a step further now (and this is where it get’s a bit more contentious): Most artists will admit that they’re not good at the “business side of things.” They either a) know very little about the “business side of things” and don’t know what they’re missing out on, believing or convincing themselves that they’re doing everything correctly, or b) can’t/won’t be bothered by any of it, because commerce is antithetical to art, or it’s just proven fruitless in the past perhaps, or c) they know what they’re missing, know what they need to be doing but don’t prioritize it, or they see too many obstacles. I realize that’s all a bit of a generalization, but you get my point.
Fourthly, artists are also empowered like never before, not just because of social media platforms, but because of other digital platforms that enable them to reach a global audiences with unprecedented immediacy. Anyone can put a song or an entire album on Spotify, Apple Music, etc., and that’s amazing, that should be celebrated. The democratization and accessibility of these technologies creates opportunities, which is ultimately beneficial, in my opinion, and revolutionary. There are literally millions of DIY, self-publishing musicians, producers, beat-makers, DJs, singers, instrumentalists, modular synth wizards, rappers and MCs, composers and songwriters all doing exactly this. They’re producing their own music, mixing, mastering, and publishing to the DSPs through any one of many distros, promoting on social media, their website, all with accompanying YouTube videos, advertising, PR and promo campaigns, and waiting, watching the click-through-rates, watching the analytics, the Likes, the Followers, the Views, the Streams etc., like watching a swarm of bees. And like a swarm of bees, everyone is chasing the same honey, the same small fleeting taste of “success.” Something that gives them that feeling, that little dose that makes them feel like they’re being seen, heard, recognized, that someone cares and someone, no matter how far away, is listening, and that their efforts are yielding meaningful results. It’s a feeling I’m familiar with. The first time someone actually paid real money to buy one of my songs was elating. It’s exciting and thrilling. But if you can’t tour, perform and build your fanbase that way, and if you’re not putting a full time effort into your digital and social media for any number of reasons, what do you do? How do you gain credibility, recognition, or make other progress towards “success?” What does it take?
Fuck if I know! So I started Digient Collective. Really though, I definitely do not have the answers to these riddles, I haven’t cracked it. And while my perspective might seem cynical, some of you may also be nodding your heads in full agreement, and others may have ceased reading already. But, I’m actually more hopeful than it might seem because I believe in the power of art. I believe in artists, I believe in art, and I believe in community, no matter how re-contextualized and disrupted our definitions and manifestations of “community” becomes. My intent is not to find a secret decoder ring that decodes the mysteries of the music business in the year 2020 – I’m not an insane person and money is not my primary focus with Digient. My intent, instead, is be build a community that embraces experimentalism and wants take divergent approaches towards finding clues, if not solutions, to some of these problems.
Something big is happening right now, in real time, while I write this and while you read this. It’s happening all over the world, and no matter what happens, art is a constant. Already we’re seeing examples of artists and artist communities adapting to these modern challenges in innovative and refreshing ways, in the digital realms but also the analog. If there was ever a need for experimentalism and divergent thinking it’s right now. Artists adapt, perhaps better than anyone else, and I believe the most difficult environments yield the most potent artistic movement.
Before I started Digient Collective, I spent months and months doing what I’ll just call market research. I spoke to friends who’ve had tremendous “success” as musicians, played sold-out stadiums on major label tours, been in the recording studio tracking with household-name musicians, to other artist friends who are some of the most talented artists I know but who are barely able to support themselves, if at all, by doing the one thing they are truly gifted at. I spoke with music industry refugees, people who worked at major labels, indie labels, lawyers, and A&R people, some who’ve made a real mark too. They all agreed generally with my basic thesis, a lot of it is self-evident, but they offered helpful color commentary. Every single one of them agreed that there is a real crisis unfolding before our eyes, in the midst of the pandemic yes, but even withstanding the pandemic. Furthering my market research, I read lots of books, some about the good ol’ days of the record biz written by octogenarian former label bosses attempting to rewrite history, some about running and operating indie labels in more contemporary times, other books about music publishing, royalties, copyrights, and on and on. It was exhausting. None of these books inspired me, not one, and frankly none of them even seemed relevant to the last decade. Each book felt more irrelevant than the last.
So, this is where my head was back in March/April. I was frustrated. And then, one afternoon, as I was about to give up on the whole idea, I discovered another book. Well, sort of, I actually discovered a book in progress, a Kickstarter campaign for a book titled “Micro Record Label” and billing itself as “the definitive source on the subject of micro record labels.” My first thought was, what’s a micro record label? My second thought was, how do I read this right now? The Kickstarter campaign was long since done and closed, and while disappointed I was not deterred, so I sent a message the person behind the campaign, someone named James Norman, basically saying, “hey, can I get a copy of your book? I’ll buy it.” He wrote back and said something like, “the book won’t be published and released for some time, sorry, but if you promise not to distribute it, here’s a PDF of the book instead.” How nice is that? So I thanked him, and went about my business. That next day I read the entire book on my iPad. I consumed it like no book I’d consumed on the matter to date. And I was inspired, truly inspired for the first time.
James’ book, titled “Micro Record Label” (now being sold at Rough Trade and Norman Records), was refreshingly candid and revealing. It was the honesty and truth I didn’t know I’d been seeking. James, I quickly learned, has been the primary mover behind the UK’s Brian Records, described as “home made, hand baked, lovingly crafted, extremely limited, slightly alternative, highly tactile, beautiful records.” What I found in his book was more than just honesty and candor about his experiences running his micro record label for roughly the past 15 years, I also found real creative inspiration. James is an artist, and Brian Records is all about the art, and taking the music to an aesthetic place that is so refreshing these days, when the aesthetic experience of music has been reduced to a tiny screen, streaming bits and bytes, and shitty earbuds. Here’s someone, I thought, really doing something aesthetic, elevating the art a bit, for artists and fans who get it, and he’s been doing it for 15 years!
James is clearly a lover of music, and a lover of art. This is partly what hooked me, because I am a fan of art, first and foremost. If my friend paints something that I love, I buy it (or I trade for it). If an indie-musician I like and support releases an album, I buy the entire album, not just the single I like from it and I buy it on Bandcamp so they get the lion’s share. If that same artist puts out an off-the-wall limited edition physical component/collectible, as part of her attempt to fund her next album or otherwise, I will buy it, in support of the artist first, because I don’t want to see a world without her art, and also because I love the creativity, I love what she created out of thin air.
James also talks about finding your “thingness” as he calls it, and further defines it as a “mission statement except you’re not on a mission. You know its raison d’etre its purpose, its soul, its reason for existence, its eternal destiny.” That I understand, too well. It’s the very basis upon which I live my own life (existentialist musings another day), and it’s the language I’ve used in my day job for many years. What James is really talking about is the very essence of brand building, but critically, James goes a step further by suggesting you to take a beat and really consider “thingness” and appropriately writes, “It is not possible for your thing to be ‘to sell lots of records’ or ‘get famous’ or ‘make loads of money’ because if it were then you’re not running a micro label, you’re running an indie record label which is fine but I just thought it would be helpful to clarify (of course when I say fine let’s face it every real music fan knows that if you sell more than 200 of anything you are a sell- out making mainstream garbage!).” This resonated too.
James’ book, Micro Record Label, shook me out of my frustration and inspired me to broaden my perspective. As soon as I did, I was quickly flooded with ideas. I wrote to James to thank him for the PDF and to compliment him on the informative read, the gorgeous layout of the book (as a lover of print media), and for the good humor (which is not lacking in the book, it’s truly a very enjoyable read, with many chuckles and genuine belly laughs). The book was exactly the prescription for what ailed me. In his reply James asked me, “do you run a micro label or just interested?” I wrote, simply “I’m in the very early stages of starting one, I think, and doing a LOT of reading right now.” His next reply was all it took for me to take action. He simply said, “stop reading and start doing. Follow your heart. All that nonsense. Honestly just go for it.” And that’s it, that’s all it took for me to kick things off, a gentle and friendly push. (The irony, again, is this is the same advice I give to first-time entrepreneurs in my day job)
So here I am now, less than five months into this little, nascent, infant of an operation that I’m calling Digient Collective, living in a new country, when something arrives in my mailbox, a package from the UK. It was James’ book in final published form. I love me a good book. I love the smell of a book, I love to look at how the ink has set into the paper, to assess the selected stock, typefaces, design and layout, to inspect the binding, and all the little details. I enjoy the aesthetics of a book as much as I enjoy the aesthetic of a new album on vinyl, tape, or CD. Really, you should see what’s on the boat.
With the book now in hand, I had to thank James again, so I sent him another email, and we picked up right where we left off. Check out how much care he puts into his creations. He still knows very little about what I’m doing, and though he’s inquired I’ve been a little bashful because it’s not even close to what I envision for the near future. So far, Digient Collective has released primarily my own music so I can learn lessons on myself first, as the proverbial guinea pig, on my own projects, and at my own expense, not at the expenses of another artist for whom I need to be better prepared and equipped. I’ve been quietly doing a bit of A&R, scoping out artists who I dig, and whom I think might be into what I’m trying to achieve. I signed a new artist who really gets what Digient Collective is about, really gets and supports the vision, and wants to be involved as much as he can be. Having his confidence, having him trust me/DC to handle his new music is much like getting that first song purchased for 99 cents – it’s a feeling of being seen, heard, understood. I even managed to pair his music up with a talented visual artist, whom I’d like to see “in the collective.” DC is just getting started, and that’s OK. Like James said, “start doing.” So I’m doing the doing. This will be a slow burn, as I like to say — it’s going to take time not just to find our “thingness” but also to deliver on it — and that’s the real challenge I think, in a world filled with brands who say all the right stuff, who ask for our trust, but who fail us.
What is a “Digient” and what makes us a collective? I’ll answer that in another post soon, and we’ll soon make clear how we plan to do things differently but suffice it to say I’ve got exciting plans for Digient Collective, including physical releases, physical components and other ways of investing in the aesthetic of music, as I and as the artists in the collective see it. Not just digital either, I did not start DC to be 100% digital. And over the last few summer months I’ve been slowly and quietly chopping away and “making wood” as they say, doing more to bring real credibility to the collective, in surprising ways, and to start finding our magnetic north, if you’ll forgive one last analogy.
In this crazy year of 2020, I know one thing is true as it pertains all this stuff: indie artists need to come together, need to work together, to benefit from each other, to leverage each others strengths, to team up and combine efforts for the sake of the art first, but while also working towards their own definitions of “success.” The whole of the collective can be greater than the sum of its parts. This idea of community is what’s driving me, it’s what I believe in, and that’s what Digient Collective is meant to be about at its core, above all other things, and that is my motivation for starting Digient Collective. Maybe that’s its thingness?
To the future….