The Long Game: How Independent Music Schooled Me In Patience
Long Time, No See!
It's been a while since I've written a blog as I've been rather busy. Whilst being busy can have its pressures and frustrations, it's also arguably (in this case) a positive reflection of how I might be getting some things right (in a business sense); something I've never typically been very good at in the past.
This busy workload, coupled with a broader sense of taking stock (something that I think many people have gone through during the pandemic) has caused me to reflect this year on where OSC is today compared with what I thought I wanted OSC to be in 2013 when I started releasing under the "OSC" pseudonym.
(Note: OSC was originally intended to be a group project with some friends, but that fell by the wayside very early on, leaving just me to shoulder the "collective" ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
I remembered a few pitfalls that I'll outline below (in the hope that they help other people avoid them), as well as some things that have helped me better understand and appreciate the long game that's been unfolding (without me fully realising it until recently). Moreover, I'll explain how independent music has schooled me on the importance of patience.
Impatience & Early-Years Frustrations
Back in 2013-2015 I wasn't having a good time of things. I was lacking the necessary coping mechanisms and strength of character to adequately deal with what life was throwing at me. Creating and releasing my own music was meant to be (partly) a form of therapy and stress-release, and (partly) motivated by a desire to instigate some change in my life's trajectory (towards something that felt more artistically and creatively rewarding/fulfilling).
I didn't have an end-game and I didn't know what I was doing in terms of promotion and social media (but I was OK with that - or so I thought). I just wanted to make music, release it on SoundCloud and BandCamp and see where it took me. I guess I hoped it would eventually supplement my income (being a cash-strapped twenty something with a young child, every penny was meaningful), but I didn't have a strategy, game-plan or specific targets. I did however have a too-high opinion of myself, which proved problematic (I'll expand on this below).
The Social Media Validation Trap
I never set out to achieve recognition and success, but when it didn't quickly arrive I was taken aback and felt really lousy about myself (which was silly, I know!). I didn't grasp it at the time, but upon reflection, I was a little arrogant and thought too highly of myself and my music, and expected people to be drawn to it and for it to gain traction and popularity quickly.
I remember in the early days of OSC feeling frustrated by how few plays a new release would get on SoundCloud, or how little interaction a release would get when I tweeted about it.
Aside from being somewhat arrogant, this was frankly naive. Why should people single me out and take the time to listen to my stuff (which in hindsight wasn't even very good!)? Moreover, why should anyone interact with it, amidst a sea of interesting and better quality music being released almost daily?
I only had a handful of social media followers and I was comparing my lack of progress to established, successful independent artists with thousands of social media followers (and you don't need me to explain why that was a silly thing to do). Honestly though, it's an easy trap to fall into and I unwittingly fell into it. I didn't realise I had fallen into this trap for a long time, but since having gone through it, I've witnessed other people succumb to it. Ultimately, it's a form of self-deprecating torture that should be avoided at all costs.
Out of Touch Excuses
I used to think (circa 2013-2015) that my lack of success must be an equipment thing, or a networking thing, or an image thing, or a financial thing (like paid promotion, etc). Again, I was being naive and out of touch with what was really important. I was over-simplifying why others had success where I didn't, and over-complicating what I was doing musically, thinking that I needed to add lots of effects, processes, flashy keyboard work, and so on, in order to sound better. I was making evermore busy and frantic music with overly-complicated arrangements and utilising far too many unnecessary effects. The upshot was overly busy and complicated (often messy) arrangements and engineering that was dynamically squashed and lacking warmth due to overzealous use of EQ, compression, limiting and modulating effects.
But hold on...! What success was I even chasing? I initially wanted to make music, because I needed a creative outlet in my life (for sanity's sake), yet I'd very quickly (and unwittingly) switched to making music in order to gain social media followers and boost play-counts on SoundCloud (none of which worked, by the way - and which also does nothing to help maintain one's sanity). Worse still, I was seeking validation on social media and letting that influence what I thought of myself and my music.
(It's easy to see how ridiculous this behaviour is in retrospect, however, it was something that crept up on me and for a long time I wasn't aware I was doing it.)
My music was fragmented and not really a reflection of my true character. I was constantly trying new and different things, jumping through all sorts of hoops in order to make what I believed other people would like. As a result of this, my releases were really inconsistent and there was no over-arching creative coherence. The common thread through my music should have been my musical vision, but it simply wasn't there because I was stabbing in the dark trying to gain twitter followers.
Turning My Back on Social Media & Developing My Ear
I mentioned above that my music was overly busy and overly engineered (to its detriment). The shocking thing to me now is that I just couldn't hear the problems back then. My ears had yet to mature and listen with the necessary scrutiny to improve my work. My ego was definitely getting in the way of my artistic and technical judgement.
Principally I've believed in the creative ethos of less is more ever since I was a teenager. Yet here I was, undermining this modus operandi through my insecurity and apparent eagerness/desperation to increase my online stats and impress faceless people on SoundCloud and Twitter (which was probably symptomatic of me exercising insecurities I didn't know I had, in an attempt to appease an ego I didn't know I had!)
There wasn't a watershed moment as such, but I just grew tired and fatigued with it all in late 2015. I felt a sense of resignation about trying to reach new audiences and making music that I thought would raise my social network followers. I felt defeated and the sense of fatigue was a bit of a low-point. That being said, I didn't realise it at the time, but in truth, it was an absolute blessing as I slowly stopped caring and stopped paying attention to stats and engagement, affording me more time and energy to devote to music making.
With less time spent on social media and more time spent just existing in the real world, I started paying much more attention to the finer details when composing, arranging and producing. I focused more on articulation and spent more time ensuring everything was as tight and in the pocket as it needed to be (for the song). I became much more ruthless when arranging; chopping out things that whilst good in isolation, weren't serving the song as a whole. I was finally practicing less is more.
From 2013-2015 making music felt like a struggle I was compelled to go through; my burden to shoulder (pretentious nonsense, really!). This was very unhealthy. By 2016 however, having given up chasing stats and followers, I was enjoying the music I was making and I had a renewed sense of love and appreciation for the process of creation. I was, for the first time, truly producing music for me.
Unsurprisingly, this improved attention to detail and less anxious approach to music creation coincided with a simpler approach to all things creative and my production value improved, as did my composition and arrangement.
The Turning Point: Finding My Musical Truth
It's safe to say I had turned a corner. I was being true to my musical tastes, interests and ideas, and was enjoying my music a lot more. What followed this change of ethos and renewed sense of purpose was Zoned, Girls on Bikes, The Real OSC Volumes I & II, Boys on Boards, Crawlco Block Knockers OST and so on. By 2018 I knew I'd found my musical footing.
(Note: I'm not suggesting the above-mentioned music is without flaws, just that it was a notable improvement on my earlier work and a truer reflection of who I am, musically.)
Furthermore, the unsurprising irony in all of this is that once I'd stopped chasing stats and followers and just focused on ensuring my music was well-made and truthful, my followers and play-counts started to increase far beyond where they had been previously.
By 2018, I was five years into this OSC thing and sure, I was still pretty broke and still struggling to make ends meet, but I was really enjoying the musical journey I was on. I felt proud of what I was doing and this brought a much needed sense of inner peace and calm.
So What's All This About The Long Game?
When a farmer plants an orchard of fruit trees, they do the ground work, periodically tend to saplings and after a few years, begin to reap the rewards of the harvest. I believe there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between this notion of farming and the sort of journey many independent musicians are on. I doubt, after year one, that the farmer is annoyed that there are no oranges on the saplings. The farmer will know that they're in the long game and that eventually the saplings will come good, as long as they're tended to occasionally and given the necessary time to grow.
The lesson here is that the early ground work a musician undertakes shouldn't come with any sense of impatience or premature expectation (like I had). I had a hard time getting to grips with my shortfalls and misdirection in the early days, as I was trying to force something that wasn't ready to happen. Trying to force the sapling to bloom before it was established or strong enough to bear fruit.
Put simply, I was foolish and naive to think that the first few things I made would be well-received and highly acclaimed, and especially silly to have given myself a hard time about not gaining more traction in the early days. I should have allowed myself time to grow and develop without the unhealthy, self-imposed expectations and competitive social media status chasing. I should have played the long game!
Passive Income & The Financial Long Game
I'm aware this is shaping up to be a long blog, but I want to briefly touch upon the long game as far as financial income is concerned.
If you're reading this, you're probably a musician and probably well aware that music is a bit of an absurd profession to try and earn a living from. It's extremely high risk, crowded, competitive, and as everything hinges on subjective tastes and preferences of listeners, there are no formulas to guaranteed financial security.
However, returning to the orchard metaphor, once the trees have matured, they will produce a fruit yield year after year. I've come to realise that my back catalogue is somewhat like my orchard; my older works sit on BandCamp and streaming platforms and continues to earn a passive income.
It's by no means a large income. After all, (at the time of writing this) I'm a 36-year old, rental trapped millennial, living in a tiny, cramped flat, commuting to a day-job four days a week in a 19-year old rust bucket of a Nissan Almera. Nevertheless, in the last year or so I've begun to feel the financial benefits of OSC for the first time; clearing some old debts and occasionally treating the family to a meal out.
None of my songs individually generate a high income, however several year's worth of output spread across multiple streaming platforms (as well as BandCamp) starts to add up. Whilst the time musicians like me put into our music, greatly outweighs what we typically earn from it upon release, with this orchard mentality, given a few years, it feels as though the financial returns gradually balance themselves out to be a little more reflective (of the time it takes to make them - although I'm sure most of us musicians never consider cost effectiveness when we're making our own music, as we're typically driven by artistic desire, not money).
To take a practical example, consider my Girls on Bikes Drum & Bass Sample Pack. That was a lot of work to put together and in the first couple of months it didn't earn enough money to justify the time it took to make. But this doesn't bother me because after several years of being on sale, it's surpassed what I expected it to earn, making the time spent producing it worthwhile.
The Portfolio Long Game
I began this article by mentioning that I'm rather busy at the moment. I'm busy with commission work, composing and producing music for other artists and video-game soundtracks.
These commissions and working relationships were initially established in large part by the presence of my back-catalogue, which also serves as a portfolio.
I.e. older OSC stuff not only bears fruit on streaming services, but it helps drum up other forms of business, just by being there. Another example of how patience and playing the long game can be of merit in terms of new creative opportunities and earning potential.
Below, I've tried to condense what I've learned so far from my 8-9 years of doing this independent music thing, in the hope that it might help others not make the same mistakes I did (especially in the early days).
So, to sum up all of the above:
Be Patient - Play The Long Game - If you're in the early years of music releasing, don't rush, don't panic, don't worry and don't be perturbed by low play stats or minimal social media engagement. Remember the orchard saplings. They need time to establish themselves before they can bear fruit, but if tended to correctly, they will continue to bear fruit in numerous ways, long into the future.
Be Realistic - Don't allow yourself to fall victim to comparing your progress to more established artists, you'll only feel disappointed. Focus on your path, both creatively and in terms of social media reach.
The Necessary Evil of Social Media - It's inescapable that you will need the social network to raise your profile and grow a community around your music, especially if you want to undertake commission work, but don't let yourself become a slave to it, ensure the music always comes first.
Unsure About The Early Stuff? - If, like me, you're already in the game and perhaps have mixed feeling about some questionable early releases, just remember what the great man Quincy Jones once said: "You make your mistakes to learn how to get to the good stuff". Embrace your early music for all its foibles and imperfections. Let those early releases be reminders of how far you've come.
Stay True to Yourself & The Music Within You - This one doesn't really need explaining, does it?!
I hope this has been of some insight, especially if you're new to this independent musician life. I also hope that it might help you skip over and/or bypass some of the mistakes I have made, allowing you to progress more smoothly to improved music making. Keep doing what you do and remember: from small acorns grow mighty oaks (it just takes time, so be patient).