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Advice for the Indie Artist: 4 Things We Learned at CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference

This past weekend, more than 1,000 musicians descended on the most haunted hotel in Chicago for CD Baby’s 2nd annual DIY Musician Conference. Over the course of three days, attendees heard from a wealth of speakers about opportunities and strategies for succeeding in the music world as an independent artist. It also included a jam room, an open mic night, one-on-one coaching sessions for musicians, and a “band makeover” that I unfortunately missed but apparently was a huge success.

This was my first time attending, and I had a blast (although part of that also had to do with renting a Divy bike and checking out Chicago a bit). I was impressed with the breadth of both speakers and musicians in attendance. I saw a Botswanian singer pull off a cool interactive polyrhythmic piece with the audience at the open mic night. I connected with a school teacher looking to combine her love for music and education. I spoke with someone from the organization Women in Music, which is desperately needed to support women in the heavily male skewing industry. And there were many more.

While, I wasn’t able to attend every session (can’t believe I missed Jack Conte of Pamplemoose and Patreon fame!), I was inspired over and over again by the speakers and artists in every session. Here are some of the lessons I’m walking away with…

House Concerts Are the Way to Go

I mean, think about it: no venue fees, no marketing fees, no difficult sound engineers, no drink ticket limits, and lots of those wonderful intimate moments musicians crave so much. Soundfly threw a house concert in partnership with Sofar Sounds (who are pros at this stuff) a few months ago, and I used to love playing house shows back in college, but I’d never really considered booking a tour entirely comprised of house shows before.

But Shannon Curtis and her husband Jamie Hill have done exactly that for the past four years, and it’s completely changed how they share their music. In fact, they’ve even written a book about it. Basically, they’ve discovered that the entire house show ethos allows them to cultivate a more loyal community with a more authentic connection to the music (it’s really Shannon’s music but it seems like they’re a team at making this happen).

Their session was full of good tips for how to book an entire tour of house shows, including choosing the right hosts, creating your own host guide, bringing your own sound system, and setting up the space to maximize merch sales. Their book is called How I Made $25,000 on a 2-Month House Concert Tour, so they’re doing pretty well with it!

Sync Placements Are Hard to Get, but Valuable

I went to two sessions about how to get your music placed in TV shows or films. One was hosted by Tanvi Patel of Crucial Music, who walked us through the exact process she uses for finding possible songs for music supervisors. The other was a keynote by Alexandra Patsavas of Chop Shop Music Supervision, a well-known and Grammy-nominated music supervisor who has worked on shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mad Men,” and “Scandal.”

They have enormous libraries of submitted music that they go through to find the right songs for certain moments on screen to best tell the story. Anyone can submit music to licensing agencies, though they prefer to receive it from a publisher or trusted source so they can be sure they won’t have any legal issues.

The two big things that stood out to me were: if you’re hoping to be placed on a TV show, make sure you have all your paperwork in order, and oftentimes the reason a song is chosen is really difficult to predict.

In terms of paperwork, that means you own the composition and the master rights, or if not, you have a clear ownership structure down on paper. No ambiguity about ownership. Music supervisors, it turns out, do NOT want to have to deal with rights issues a day before a show is meant to air.

In terms of why songs are chosen, it seems like it can be for so many different reasons — the correct tempo, the right lyrical content, or even just having the correct keyword in the hook. If you’re really hoping to get your music placed, the best thing to do is find a specific show that often uses a sound similar to yours, find a trusted source who can submit your music to a supervisor, and make sure you have all rights cleared.

Cutting Through the Noise Is a Little Easier

I really enjoyed the first keynote by CD Baby’s Kevin Breuner about how to cut through the noise because it felt eminently doable. Kevin runs the DIY Musician podcast, which provides interesting advice and helpful stories for… you guessed it, DIY musicians. The podcast essentially provided the framing for the entire conference, so it was important to nail the keynote… and he did. He presented five clear points for how to cut through the noise as an indie musician. (Caveat: these are not his exact words, but rather my imperfect memory of them):

Focus in on what value you can add to people’s lives. Make sure you’re making great music that people love before you do anything else.

Tell a compelling story about yourself and what makes you unique. This is where asking yourself questions about what you stand for, how you got here, and what makes you different can be really helpful.

Have clear focus around where you want to go and what your goals are. We harp on this one a lot at Soundfly, but make sure you know what you’re hoping to accomplish.

Make an event out of your music. This means making sure that people who come see you live take something away at the end. It’s about respecting your audience and giving them something really authentic and compelling.

Do surprising things. Whether playing a show on a rooftop or starting the concert in the audience, do unexpected things that will help you stand out.

I know these things look super easy and obvious on paper, but it’s amazing how often we forget them. And so I found it super helpful to get a reminder in the form of a simple framework from Kevin.

Gaelynn Lea Is a National Treasure

One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote with Bob Boilen on Saturday. Bob Boilen is the host of NPR’s All Songs Considered and came up with the idea for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, which have taken the music lovers’ world by storm. He’s become something of a grandmaster for interesting, eclectic indie music, so it was fantastic to hear his point of view and what he’s looking for in music — basically, musicians doing something to make themselves stand out and yet still creating an emotional or compelling connection with their listener.

But the real highlight of his session was when he introduced us to last year’s Tiny Desk Contest winner Gaelynn Lea. Gaelynn’s music is based on textural loops she creates with a violin and then pierces with a surprising, high-pitched voice full of character. It reminded me of the first time I heard Joanna Newsom’s voice with its distinctive vibrance, though potentially less melodrama and more emotion.

Gaelynn’s music would be stunning and interesting even if you didn’t know her story, but once you realize that she’s lived her entire life with a congenital disability called Brittle Bone Disease, it takes on a whole new meaning. In a wheelchair playing her violin like a cello, with a loop pedal perched beside her, she gives new depth to the idea that anyone can be a musician.