Writers: This post is about music self-publishing, but also I get into the implications for writing self-publishing towards the end of the article.
I recently put together my Discography page, which gave me an opportunity to reflect on my music career to date. I’ve released original music on almost every kind of label, including a major (SONY/BMG), a barely-organized collective (Trip ‘n Spin Recordings), small imprints (SOG, NuRepublic, Kubist, Spundae, Dorigen, POD, Mechanism), my own label (Loöq Records), “big independents” in dance music culture (Global Underground, Armada, Bedrock, Renaissance), and distribution/A&R deals (3 Beat, Silent Records).
My most active period of writing and releasing music was in my late twenties/early thirties. Creating dance music (house, techno, breaks) was my singular, obsessive focus. That period was also the heyday of Qoöl, the weekly event I threw with DJ Spesh at 111 Minna for over a decade (hugely popular, with a packed dance floor and lines around the block), so I also had a deep sense of musical community, and also a great testing audience for new tracks.
At some point, around 2005, we (myself and my primary music collaborators, Spesh and Mark Musselman, the other halves of Jondi & Spesh, and Momu, respectively) stopped sending out demos to other labels, and started releasing music almost exclusively on Loöq Records. This wasn’t a conscious strategic career decision — it was just easier. I was co-running a respected, profitable label, so why not release my music on it? Benefits of self-publishing (or at least “own label” publishing) include:
- 100% creative control (composition, mastering, art)
- 100% promotion control (the release would never get “shorted” on promotional efforts unless we got lazy)
- 100% rights retention (master use and publishing)
- 100% chance of getting paid if the release made money (including sales, performance royalties, and licensing)
In hindsight, I think releasing music MOSTLY on Loöq Records (with very few exceptions) was a mistake. Why? Because we were not regularly sending out demos and trying to get published on other labels, we missed the following opportunities:
- Hearing “No” (or “No thank you”). Rejection hurts, but it’s useful feedback. Rejection lets you know that either the A&R people at the label you submitted to weren’t excited by your music, or didn’t think it was a good fit for their audience/fans. By self-publishing, we robbed ourselves of that information. Maybe if we had heard “No” we would have striven to make our music better, more exciting, or more relevant.
- Hearing “Maybe.” Sometimes A&R people give you feedback that can make a track 10% better, or even 100% better. Having 100% creative control isn’t always a good thing. One time Momu was working on a remix for 19Box Recordings in Japan. They asked us if we could please add an “epic breakdown” (in the typical extremely polite Japanese way). At that time we thought that kind of thing was cheesy. But we did it — we added a long, over-the-top, massive breakdown to our remix. It worked. 19Box knew their audience. The track is still selling today and was recently rereleased.
- Getting exposed to other/wider audience. We have our own fans, audience, and mailing list at Loöq Records, but we hurt ourselves by not getting our music to other groups. There are synergistic/cross-pollination effects we passed up by staying in our own world.
- Getting promotional geniuses to push your work. While I think I’m reasonably good at running a record label, I am not a natural salesperson or extremely skilled at promotion. I try to be — I actively work at it — but it’s not something that comes easily. Submitting and releasing our music on other labels would have exposed us not only to wider audiences, but to a wider range of individuals (promotion people, artists, mastering engineers, etc.) who could improve the entire release package, and promote it ways beyond our own DIY capabilities.
- Working with labels who have better systems in place than our own. At Loöq we have great systems in place for reporting on revenue and paying artists (royalty statements and payments). We have pretty good systems in place for delivering content, working with talented remixers, creating art, communicating with our fan base, using social media and podcasts to promote releases, and generating music licensing opportunities. On the other hand, we don’t have good systems in place for creating music videos, effectively getting press coverage for our releases, and a few other areas. There is always room for improvement. If we had released music on other labels, we might have reaped rewards from labels who had great systems in place in areas where we didn’t. This is similar to the point above, but even more important. A good system usually trumps the efforts of talented individuals, especially in the long-term.
Music labels provide advantages to artists, including A&R, promotion, wide distribution, and status. SoundCloud and BandCamp are great options for self-releasing your music, but there aren’t any big names in the music industry who ONLY release on those platforms, even though they could be keeping 100% of their profits if they did.
If I had it to do over again, I would have tried to stick to the hybrid model that worked pretty well from 1995-2005. Part of the issue was that for the last decade I wasn’t really thinking about my music production career — I was too busy running Loöq Records (label guy hat), and then later being a dad (and earning the additional money that requires, by taking on more freelance work). And of course writing, both this blog and fiction. I was still squeezing in music production here and there, but I didn’t take the time to think about it strategically. Self-publishing was the path of least resistance, and I took it.
So what are the takeaways? Going forward, I’ll still release some of my own music on Loöq, but I’d also like to start sending out original work to other labels. Why not? If you’re still in the game, it’s never to late to change strategies. In addition to my daily writing practice, I have an almost-daily studio practice (usually about an hour in the evening that would otherwise be absorbed by videogames or television). Music production is no longer a singular obsessive focus (I’m a multi-class character, and I’m OK with it), but I still have more grooves I want to share with the world.
In terms of my fiction writing ambitions, I’m still visualizing a hybrid model for the long-term. I’d like to be traditionally published first (and I will have some good news to share on that front soon), and then eventually expand into self-publishing (and I will be closely reading advice written by Hugh Howey, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others who have written about that path). But I don’t want to repeat the same mistake I made in my music career, which is to shift exclusively to self-publishing, even if it turns out to be easy and profitable.
In terms of writing income, hybrid authors (those who engage in both traditional and self-publishing) do the best. Here’s the chart, borrowed from this post:
One clarification — I have NO regrets about starting Loöq Records. It’s empowering to have a venue to release your own music. Loöq has introduced us to artists from over twenty different countries. The label is profitable almost every year, and has allowed us to retain the majority of our rights. We’ve generated at least a million dollars of licensing, sales, and event revenue over the years.
My only regret is staying too much in my comfort zone, and not risking rejection more!