How to Become an Independent Recording Artist: for the Complete DIY Solo Beginner
Written by Natasha Argyri | July 24, 2021
Disclaimer: This article is written for the perspective of someone who has zero knowledge of how to begin making music for themselves. Let's assume that you are completely new to the music industry, little to no experience, and have no idea where to start.
The first step is to recognize that you are already an artist. Yes, you have a lot of work to do, yes your craft perhaps more needs perfecting, but you are, indeed, already an artist.
Now that we've established who you are, you need to evaluate what your strengths and areas of opportunity are. Make sure that this is a step where you are completely honest with yourself. Everyone has a start point. Here's some example questions to ask yourself:
What are your current skills?
Are you a good singer/rapper?
Do you have strong songwriting abilities?
Do you play any instruments?
What type of equipment are you working with?
Are you able to compose and produce your own music?
Are you able to record yourself at home or will you need help?
Have you established your own individual style yet?
What type of performer are you? Are you shy or theatrical?
How extensive is your knowledge about how to publish and distribute your music?
Is this a hobby or will it be a full-time gig?
Asking yourself these questions will help you to discover what you have to work with and what you have to work on. Everyone has areas of opportunity (or what some call "weaknesses"), but this does not mean that you are not capable. It just exemplifies what your areas of focus should be moving forward. When I first started, my main strength was that I had the ability to sing, and somewhat digestible songwriting skills. Literally everything else was an area of opportunity for me. I had no idea where to start, which is exactly why I'm writing this article.
Experiment & Practice
My first piece of advice is that you need, need, need to experiment. Listen to different genres, sing crazy melodies, try different things. You never know what you may discover that you like. If you play instruments, you are already ahead of the game, and this part should come a little easier. If you don't play any instruments, don't panic, I was also in the same boat years ago. Learning to play an instrument is one of the most beneficial things that you can do for yourself as an aspiring artist and musician. Not only will creating music and writing songs become much easier and will feel more natural, but you'll also be able to accompany yourself in recording sessions and especially for live performances and settings. It will also help you to become a better producer, should you choose to compose your own music.
However, if playing an instrument simply does not interest you (although recommended), and you plan on focusing only on your songwriting and vocal performance, that is okay too. One of the best ways for you to experiment and gain experience is by finding instrumentals on YouTube to practice songwriting with. This is something that both instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists should do. Just do not release any song that you have written without the permission of the original producer's permission. We will get to releasing music in a later section of this article. A really fun exercise to try is the Songwriting Challenge with yourself or a friend. Here's how to play:
Find a songwriting partner (or do it solo, if you like).
Search for an instrumental on YouTube that you both can agree to (don't start writing yet!)
Agree to a set amount of time that you will have to write. My suggestion is 20-30 minutes for beginners, and 10-15 if you want a serious challenge.
When you are both ready, set the timer and begin writing your melodies and lyrics. My suggestion is to record yourself via voice notes, and type your lyrics in your notes on your mobile device so that you won't forget.
After the timer rings, make sure that you stop and get ready to perform what you've come up with. Don't worry if you don't have a full song.
Listen to your partner perform and critique respectfully and vice versa. Remember, this is meant to be a fun exercise. Don't rip each other apart. Offer constructive criticism and positive reinforcement for each other.
After getting some practice under your belt, you should start to feel more confident in your abilities and strengths, and should also be able to recognize your areas of opportunity. As with anything else, you have to practice. As one of my favorite quote says, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit," Will Durant.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit." | Will Durant
This is where you'll need to decide whether you will create the music yourself as a producer, or if you will be seeking partnerships with outside producers while you focus on the rest. There are pros and cons for both, so it's up to you to decide what is the best method for you. If anything, experiment and try both! You are not obligated to stick with one method, unless you've physically signed a contractual agreement.
Method Number One: Produce your own music
Now I'll be honest, this method is harder because there is a pretty big learning curve when it comes to making your own instrumentals. HOWEVER, with that being said, it is also the most fulfilling option. Creating your own music as an artist not only gives you full control over your creativity, but it also allows for you to connect deeper with your music, especially as you improve. It will also mean that you have full ownership over what you create, (which is a huge topic on its own). Additionally, it will also greatly increase your value and versatility within the industry once you start to make connections with other professionals. The main con to this method is the time that it will take not only to learn how to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) and virtual instruments, but to create the instrumental, song write, record, mix, master, and plan for release. It is a lot, but as I said, it is very fulfilling. Here are a few steps to give you an idea:
1. Choose a DAW. There's so many various options out there, even free. I won't go too in depth, but here's a few notes for ideas:
GarageBand - If you have Apple, GarageBand is a DAW that automatically comes with your devices, and it is a great option for jotting down basic ideas. Some artists claim to have even made full productions on GarageBand, although based on my personal preference, I wouldn't use it for more than a sketch. Although I do have to mention that their new updates for the workstation have shown to be quite impressive! Check it out first.
Studio One (free version) - If you are on a super tight budget and just need something to try out, Studio One is a DAW that has a free downloadable version for producers. Although it has limited instruments and capabilities, it's still an excellent, beginner-friendly option that will get the job done.
LogicPro X - If you are willing to invest a little, and are a fan of Apple products, then LogicPro X is pretty much one of the professional production standards in the industry. Many producers use this, and it has a lot of capabilities.
Ableton Live - This DAW is a very popular one especially amongst DJs because it is known for its user-friendly arrangement and mixing system, which makes it useful for live performances. Personally, the setup isn't my favorite, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't work for you.
FL Studio - This one is probably one of the most popular amongst beginner producers and is known for having an easy-to-understand interface. I'd suggest researching comparison videos on YouTube prior to making a big purchase, or you could just choose a DAW and go for it! :)
ProTools - This is my and most of the industry's go-to DAW for recording and mix engineering. This DAW would be a great choice for someone who is already a musician and plans to professionally record instruments and vocals straight into the computer. It is also used for MIDI virtual instruments, but I might not recommend it for beginners because this software is a bit old-school. However, if you're really planning on doing this full-time, I would really suggest getting to know ProTools as one of your main DAWs because of its amazing capabilities and it's professional reputation.
* There's many others available not mentioned here, this is just an honorable mention list.
2. Get to know your DAW well. There's so many resources if you need help, number one being YouTube.
3. Have fun and start creating!
Method Number Two: Collaborate with a producer
Collaborations have the potential to lead to beautiful results. In fact, 99.99% of the top hits that you've ever heard have been made by an entire team of creators. The tricky part about collaboration is finding someone who can understand your vision as an artist, and more importantly, can deliver. You want to be sure that they are willing to help you enhance your vision, not change it to their own likings. Working with people, no matter the industry, can either be very difficult or can be extremely fulfilling, depending on personalities, skills and intentions. Nonetheless, if you need to find a producer, there's no shortage of them in this era, especially thanks to social media and the Internet. All you need to do is ask around and I guarantee you already know someone who makes music. If not, then Instagram, Twitter or Facebook are also awesome resources for finding talent, or finding websites that sell beats for cheap.
Once you find a producer to work with, the next step is negotiation. Find out if the producer is willing to work with you at no immediate cost, but instead plan to split royalties once the project is released for streaming. Royalty splits for producer-artist relationships are really up to the negotiating parties, and can be anywhere from 2% to 25%, or even 50% of the writer's share. Otherwise, the producer may offer to sell you the instrumental or beat, or lease it to you, depending on the license agreement.
The important thing here is to remember that you are NOT obligated to work with anyone, unless you have made some sort of legal agreement. Don't let the business of music suck the fun out of it. Again, just make sure that they are willing to be there to enhance your vision, not their own, unless it is that kind of collaboration.
Distributing Your Music
Once you've created your music and have chosen songs that you would like to release and share with the world, it's time to think about how you will distribute your music to streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, etc. The industry has become very accommodating to the DIY artist, especially when it comes to releasing your music. There's actually this really amazing, in-depth article written by Ari Herstand where he provides a chart comparing a lot of important factors when it comes to choosing a company to go with. Here's a direct link to the article, where if you scroll a bit down, you can find the chart comparing the different distribution companies.
Making a choice on which distribution company to go with depends on things like sign-up fees, annual fees, any kind of fees, the commission rate, cost of ISRC codes, Sound Exchange collection, time it takes to release, etc. Check out the article and do some research on YouTube for distribution company comparisons. Each company offers similar services, but there may be one factor that appeals to you more than other.
Once you submit your music to be distributed with your company of choice, it will give you the official release date which can be up to about two weeks from your submission. You may use this date to let your social media followers, friends, family, coworkers, etc., that you have a single, EP or Album release coming up and you would love their support.
Another fun thing to do is prepare a "listening party" for your closest supporters to hear your project once it has arrived. This is a fun way to get together with those who matter most while sharing what you have created.
This whole process may sound like a lot, but it's extremely rewarding in the end. Plus, you get to finally do something that you love, and get paid for it. The most important part is to remember that music is supposed to be fun, so try not to get too caught on any one portion of the whole process.
Good luck, & happy creating!