How to survive as an indie musician

The band Throw the Fight began like most bands do – playing in small clubs for “zero people” (unless you count the other bands waiting to go on, the bartender, or maybe the sound guy in the back). “There were so many bad shows,” lead guitarist Ryan Baustert remembers, but those were also the shows where they honed their craft.

Even when no one showed up, they kept going.

They didn’t know then that one day they’d tour stadiums with some of their favorite bands, that they’d sell 40,000 albums, that they’d make music videos that would get over 2 million views, or that their songs would one day be streamed over 40 million times.

All they knew then was that they liked being in a band; they liked playing music.

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Ryan and some of the first members of Throw The Fight.

That’s why the band started in 2003, when Ryan was in college:

We just love playing and love being in front of people and just seeing crowds react.

He also loves songwriting. But what really kept him going in the band for 17 years was something else:

You do it for so long, it ends up becoming a part of your identity and you don’t even know what you would do without it.

So he wasn’t sure what to do when most of the original band members left the band.

“That’s just part of the deal, hearing no.”

Not every original member of Throw The Fight loved it as much as Ryan did. Some of them had other ambitions too and didn’t want to do this forever if it wasn’t “going anywhere.” If they weren’t at a certain level by a certain date, they would move on.

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When that date came and they weren’t at that level, they left.

But Ryan wanted to keep going. Even though it was a grind, it was fun. It was music. It was who he was. He didn’t care what level they were at or by when.

So he looked for new band members.

And Throw The Fight kept going.

Even though they heard “No” a lot. Especially what Ryan refers to as “The Hollywood no”, when, “no response is the response.”

That’s just part of the deal, hearing no.

You just have to have a level of grit and determination and you have to realize that ‘no’ isn’t really a rejection of you. I mean, sometimes it is – but it might mean ‘no but just not right now’ or ‘no, it’s not a good fit but here, let me send you to someone else.’

Ryan was able to separate himself from the no’s. Instead of taking it personally, he saw them all as a kind of numbers game.

He started to focus on outreach as much as he did playing guitar.

And he didn’t just focus on gatekeepers – he focused on potential fans and using the internet.

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He learned how to code and created the band’s first MySpace page, employing the graphic design skills he’d learned from his college major.

He did it so well that other bands eventually hired and paid him to design their MySpace pages, merchandise, and album covers.

I like doing all the marketing and just the hustle and the grind.

And I think that’s why there’s so many talented musicians and so many bands out there that no one will ever hear of because most musicians don’t realize that it takes so much more than talent to start building a name for yourself.

You really have to just hustle hard and have a plan and stick to it and realize that this stuff takes years and years and years to materialize. Not always, but those are usually the exceptions to the rule.

Ryan wasn’t planning on being an exception.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

“You have to love the lifestyle behind it.”

But Ryan is the first to say that enduring the years and years and years can wear on even the most enthusiastic and resilient of artists.

Especially when it comes to running out of money.

I think it’s probably something that most musicians and artists struggle with, where they’re trying to put art into the world and make a name for themselves and on a shoestring budget or a nonexistent budget.

The logistics of that get tricky. Which is why you really have to love the process.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

You have to love the lifestyle behind it.

So what happens when the lifestyle starts to wear on you?

The touring.

The being away from the wives and children they now all had.

Ryan remembers a year in the early days when they tried doing a full six week U.S. and Canadian tour that put them in a lot of debt.

It was a great tour and put us in front of a ton of people, we had a blast. But it was a financial disaster for us.

They would have to pay that debt out of their own pockets.

We had been grinding pretty hard for 11 years by this point. It was time to take a hard look at what we were doing.

We played one final show and called it quits.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

“Just all this massive overhead.”

They shifted their attention to their day jobs and entrepreneurial endeavors to pay back the debt and continue to support their families.

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But it wasn’t long before Ryan started writing music again, this time with an old friend from high school. They were hoping to write music for TV.

When they sent some of the songs to an old band member, he mentioned that his friends Kris Weiser and Kade Kastelitz were also writing music right now – maybe they’d all like to write together?

As Ryan remembers it, “We recorded a ton of really terrible demos at my house on Garageband.” But some of those songs made it onto their 2016 album Transmissions. And Kris and Kade? Today they’re members of Throw The Fight.

Together they sold a lot of equipment and reworked their band’s financial structure to reduce the overhead that put them into debt on their last tour. And to provide stability and support their families, they all had creative freelance businesses (Ryan quit his first job out of college at an ad agency and started his own design business full time in 2008).

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Now, we’re in the best spot we’ve ever been and it’s just because we run stuff super super lean.

We used to have an RV and a rehearsal spot and just all this massive overhead and now we don’t really have that stuff anymore.

What brought us back was just going back to the creative process and taking the financial stuff out of it, taking just all the business stuff out of it and just getting back to just writing songs and having fun.

Most importantly, Ryan says that reducing the pressure is what gave them the opportunity to keep the band going over the long haul – long enough to have some amazing opportunities that they never quite dreamed of.

“No one else is going to go out there and do that for you.”

While Ryan and the band got super lean financially, they also doubled down on growing their fanbase.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

In college, he and his now-wife would go to the computer lab and spend almost 10 hours “working the web” – direct messaging people on MySpace with invitations to their shows and to check out their music.

They also eventually started an email list.

Early on, we knew that this stuff wasn’t going to just happen to us; we had to go out there and make it happen.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

If we weren’t going to be the ones willing to do that, no one else is going to go out there and do that for you.

I think a lot of artists think that once they get an agent or a label or something like that, then the hard work stops and that’s not really the case at all.

You really have to go out there and fight for your audience and try and find those right people for you.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

I ask Ryan how email has affected the band over the years.

It’s been huge. We do a free album download as an opt-in to get people on the list and that’s been really good for us.

At first, I didn’t think it would work now that most people are streaming music, but surprisingly it does. There’s still quite a bit of people out there that will download that stuff.

We’ve also done crowdfunding in the past and the majority of all the money we raised from crowdfunding campaigns comes from our list.

And when we do shows, we use geo targeting and email people who are in a certain radius of the zip codes that we’re going to be visiting.

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ConvertKit landing page.
(L to R): Jeff Baustert (drums), Kris Weiser (guitar), Kade Kastelitz (vocals), Ryan Baustert (guitar). Photo by Trevor Sweeney.

They also have an onboarding sequence, so when people join their list they get automated emails directing them to their music videos and Spotify, and how and where to follow them on social media.

Ryan also has had a lot of success growing his email list using Twitter and direct messaging.
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I’ll follow all the followers of similar artists and when they follow us back, I’ll just send them a quick message:

‘Hey, thanks so much for following. Can I send you some music?’

If they say, ‘Yeah,’ then I’ll send them the link to download the tracks.

It’s a very manual process but it works incredibly well for us.

Many of the people on their email list are big fans, or become big fans because they start to feel more connected to the band members via the emails.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

It’s more about just building that connection and trying to stay in touch with people as much as possible, and we end up meeting these people in person a lot because they come out to our shows. So, we end up building a very, very personal relationship with a lot of these people.

Having that one-on-one connection with people where you actually own that audience and can build that way is crucial.

Everyone starts out with social media, they get on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and Instagram and you have to be on all that stuff, but you can’t just use that for your messaging because you don’t own that audience. You’re leaving everything you send out there up to an algorithm, which you have no control over.

Ryan was always about focusing on what he could control, which often fell into two categories:

  1. How many songs he could write.
  2. How many people he could get those songs in front of.

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His primary focus was always trying to get his creative work in front of as many of the “right” people as possible – the people who were interested in the kind of music he made – and let the rest happen however it happened.

That method can take a long long time, but Ryan was in it for the long haul – this band was part of who he was.

And all those years and all those emails would eventually pay off.

The band would eventually start to bring in an income.

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It felt like a breakthrough.

Throw The Fight’s first record deal was with an indie label part of Warner Music Group. When that deal expired and the masters and the ownership of the songs went back to the band, they started making money (today they’re signed by Bullet Tooth and have also released singles independently).

All of our label deals have been licensing deals where the masters revert back to us after the license expires – and that’s really been the key.

A lot of artists end up signing deals that aren’t in their best interest long-term and they end up signing away their rights.

On the one hand, there are tons of independent artists who own their rights, but don’t make any money with their music because they haven’t quite figured out how to build an audience.

And on the opposite side of that coin – there are massive artists with huge hits who you read about not making any money. In a lot of those cases, it’s most likely because their label is still recouping on their investment.

Because of their focus on the masters reverting back to them, Spotify became a significant revenue source.

Spotify has been huge for us. We weren’t making really anything [before that]. Spotify is our biggest source of income right now.

It felt like a breakthrough – to see this thing that they’d done for so long, this thing that lost them money for over a decade, to actually start to bring in money.

It inspired Ryan so much that he wanted to share what he’d learned with other musicians. He educated himself on digital products and started teaching other musicians how to leverage Spotify, book gigs, and build an audience online.

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There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes; stuff doesn’t just happen. I think a lot of younger bands think that it’s a lot of luck and if the music’s good enough that people will discover it and that’s just not the case at all.

Being a musician today, you have to realize you’re also an entrepreneur and you have to wear a lot of hats by default.

If you are an independent musician, you are also your marketing department, you’re also your own booking agent.

You have to either learn how to do it yourself or you have to have a team behind you who’s going to help you do that.

I think you have to realize that you’re an entrepreneur by default. And I think that’s where a lot of musicians get it wrong and don’t realize that.

In addition to making connections with fans, Ryan and the band’s continuous dedication and outreach eventually led to what Ryan considers some of his best dream-come-true moments – like being asked to do stadium tours with the metal bands he loved growing up, like Bullet For My Valentine, All That Remains and performing at iconic festivals like The Vans Warped Tour.

But most of all, the biggest transformation has been “just how much more fun we’re having with it now.”
iaac-ryan-baustert-crowd-blackandwhiteThey’re still trying to write the best songs they can possibly write – craft first. They’re always trying to get better, but they’ve long let go of the pressure to “write a hit.”

Ryan remembers the early days of being on a label, the pressure to write a hit, and how they’d write one and think “Okay. This is it. This is the one,” only to be wrong.

Like any artist pursuing a dream, there was a “massive amount of disappointment” along the way. But Ryan always came back to what he could control:

Make the music.

Share the music.

It was never one song or one “hit” that changed things for them.

Instead, it was the steady momentum of the body of work they built – a catalog of over 58 songs, 4 albums, 20 music videos, 50,000 direct messages and emails, and a fierce dedication to persisting in the creative work that – no matter how many obstacles stood in their way – they just couldn’t not do.

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Photo by Graham Fielder.

You can connect with Ryan by joining his email list, or learn more at throwthefight.com.

The post How to survive as an indie musician appeared first on ConvertKit.

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