How indie artists have become masters of invention

Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New Y
Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.Baiyu Chen ’08 performs at the release party for her recent mixtape, “Hunter,” at the New York City store of clothing designer Custo Barcelona, in June.
PHOTO: CHAMPION HAMILTON

For the last nine hours, Baiyu Chen ’08 — known at Princeton as Sara — has been at her desk at an advertising office in midtown Man­hattan, planning digital marketing campaigns for clients on digital sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Now it’s 6:30 p.m., and her real job is beginning.

Chen, a pop and R&B singer who has self-produced three albums and whose songs have been downloaded more than 400,000 times, soon will go to a friend’s performance at a nightclub downtown, where she hopes to rub shoulders with record-label talent scouts (known in the business as “A&Rs,” for “artist and repertoire”), press, and potential collaborators. While other Manhattan 20-somethings are cueing up an episode of Homeland and debating what to have delivered for dinner, Chen will spend the next few hours networking, tweeting with fans, and angling for the big break that will propel her to Lady Gaga-dom.

She looks the part, dressed in a black leather jacket, stiletto boots, bright red pants, and chunky gold jewelry that scream “star!” Tellingly, Chen refers to her outfits as “costumes.”

Forget “singer-songwriter”: Chen belongs to a new generation of independent artists who must be the talent, publicist, manager, producer, videographer, stylist, and marketing expert all in one. (Classical artists, too, are doing more themselves: Crista Kende ’07, for example, made a video and posted it at Indiegogo.com to raise money for a new viola.) In her quest to become a “household name,” Chen is using the online technology that has both revolutionized her industry and made it harder for many artists to support themselves through music.

“Most of the artists I’m seeing are really becoming entrepreneurs and are focused on creating a brand,” says Andrea Johnson, an associate professor of music business and management at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Artists have to be their own best ­promoter so that they rise to the level of significance that will make a major label or management agency put money behind them.”

“Basically,” she adds, “all independent artists are mini-moguls.”

Chen’s path to mini-mogul began with the hip-hop rhythms of artists such as Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, and Boyz II Men, whom she discovered in Xiamen, China, where she lived until she was 8 years old. These American singers “opened me up to a universe where you were able to emote through music,” Chen says.

She found her first professional singing gig, like many that were to follow, on the Internet. As a 17-year-old junior in high school in Gaithersburg, Md., Chen found an ad on Craigslist for an Asian-American girl group seeking a fourth and final member. She auditioned over the phone and convinced the producers — and her parents — to let her give it a shot. She headed on her own to New York, where a grueling “boot camp” awaited her. The group disbanded after six months without releasing an album, when its label, FUBU Records, folded. Chen returned to high school, then enrolled at Princeton in 2004.

When she wasn’t performing with one of three campus dance groups or singing with the University Jazz Ensem­ble, Chen was recording her own songs on her laptop in common areas of dorms in Mathey College. She also commuted to New York for meetings with music-industry insiders, recordings, and a gig as a video DJ on a cable television series, The Freshmen, which spotlighted emerging artists. The show provided visibility, but even better was the access it afforded to exclusive music events where she could hobnob with producers and press — a must in an industry that requires getting past record-company ­gatekeepers.

Chen, who recently lectured at a Yale University workshop on Asian-Americans breaking through career stereotypes, has supplemented her in-person networking with virtual ­networking, using a humming online music scene to find artists interested in producing her music or collaborating with her. She maintains a YouTube account (5 million views), two Face­book pages (one boasts 9,755 fans), a Twitter account (104,000 followers), a Wiki­pedia page, a Myspace profile, and a website, BaiyuOnline.com. She regu­larly updates her social-media accounts with photos of herself on the red carpet, preparing for magazine photo shoots, and party-hopping.

“Everything is press building on top of press. Half my day is spent on press — answering messages from fans, connecting with people I work with online or in real life, tweeting,” says Chen, who posts up to 14 tweets a day. Online and offline, she works hard to project an image of a hip up-and-coming star. She takes pains to suggest to outsiders that she has a big operation behind her. She lists ­multiple email addresses on her site, several of which are linked to her personal email account.

“One of the tricks I’ve found out is to make my team look fuller than it is,” says Chen, who works with a manager and two publicists. “It’s all psychological. I have publicists, and they’ll come and bring their assistants to meetings. The perception of having a huge team makes it look like they can’t take advantage of you.”

Just a few decades ago, most of these tasks were managed by recording companies, not by their artists. But the ­digital distribution of music turned the industry’s economics upside down. In 2010, Forrester Research, a New York-based consulting firm, reported that music sales had plunged from more than $14 billion to $6.3 ­billion in a decade, causing widespread layoffs and prompting the industry to look for new business ­models.

Not long ago, independent labels often would cover the costs of producing and promoting the work of emerging artists, serving as a stepping-stone to larger contracts. But today, music executives require indie artists to do more for themselves before even approaching a label, which means performers must be savvy self-promoters as well as skilled musicians.

The technological revolution has both lowered the barriers to entry in the music industry and raised the barriers to sustainable financial success. High-quality, do-it-yourself recording and remixing programs allow artists to record an album on a laptop computer and film a music video on a smartphone. But that means there is more competition than ever for people’s attention, while artists earn less from digital sales than they could earn from CD sales in the days before Internet downloading.

“Since all this ‘do-it-yourself’ stuff happened, labels have been relying on artists to get themselves to the first rung or two on their own,” notes Dan Krimm ’78, who spent 15 years after Prince­ton trying to establish a career as a jazz musician. “Back in the old days, independent musicians were just the ones who were still trying to be signed by labels and who hadn’t been successful in doing that yet,” he says. “All of a sudden, a lot more people can produce quality recordings without having to have the resources of a label or even an independent label.”

Krimm has given up on his dream on becoming a full-time artist. After self-producing two albums — using his savings, money from his parents, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — in 1993 Krimm “ran out of gas.” He still plays occasionally with the jazz group Fortune Smiles and recently re-released his two albums. But he acknowledges that a ­do-it-yourself musical career “is still a middle-class endeavor, not for someone struggling to make ends meet.”

A growing number of independent artists are questioning whether they need record companies at all. Record labels always have taken a share of the profits from song sales, but today are reaching into revenue sources that traditionally belonged almost exclusively to the artist, such as merchandise and concert-ticket sales, musicians say.

Somer Bingham ’03, who plays guitar, bass, and ­keyboards, founded the band Clinical Trials and mixed and self-produced the group's recent EP, “Bleed Me.”
Somer Bingham ’03, who plays guitar, bass, and ­keyboards, founded the band Clinical Trials and mixed and self-produced the group's recent EP, “Bleed Me.”
PHOTO: MEENO

Somer Bingham ’03 is one independent artist who is determined to stay independent. The leader of ­grunge-electronica band Clinical Trials and a cast member in the Showtime reality series The Real L Word, which traces the lives of a group of lesbian friends, Bingham says a contract from a major record label holds dwindling appeal.

Instead of hoping for labels like EMI or Universal Music Group to take notice, Bingham — whose band has released two “extended-play” recordings, which are longer than a single but a few songs shy of a full album — talks about trying to use the Web and YouTube to build her following. Rather than hire an agent who will take a cut of her songs’ sales, Bingham uses websites such as iTunes, eMusic, Bandcamp, Amazon, and Pump Audio that will license and sell her music for a fraction of the cost. This social media-fueled grassroots promotion may be an untraditional approach for indie musicians, but it’s not an unproven one: Teen pop idol Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube.

“It’s like we’re all in the Amazon and we’re hacking our way through, trying to create a path, while there used to be a superhighway — you got on the on-ramp and you were on the superhighway to being a musician,” Bingham says. “Everyone is just trying to figure out how be a D-I-Y musician and not go and get a 9-to-5 job.”

Matt Wong ’10 changed his Prince­ton major from East Asian studies to music as a junior, whetting his appetite for original composition and performance. With grant money from the University, he was able to compose, record, and produce an album for his senior thesis, while playing bass guitar on the side at the eating clubs.

Since graduating, Wong has moved from performing at Terrace Club to playing at music festivals, bars, and small clubs. He plays with bands during studio sessions and tours. Folk-rock band Up the Chain took him to clubs and bars from Philadelphia to Char­lotte; he joined indie musician Zach Djanikian for shows at local theaters around Philadelphia; and he played a handful of gigs with singer-songwriter Sharon Little along the East Coast.

The most memorable was a concert opener Wong played with hip-hop artist Chill Moody before more than 3,000 people in a waterfront amphitheater at Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing. Wong recalls plucking his bass with his back to the Delaware River, watching a sky made orange by the setting sun, and reveling in the feeling of fans pressed up against the stage, fists pumping and arms waving.

And then there are the shows Wong would rather forget, like the ones with inebriated fans who don’t listen to the music. “The depressing ones are when people have complete lack of respect for what you’re doing,” says Wong.

The hustle to find paying gigs may yield unforgettable shows, but not necessarily a living wage. Indie labels accounted for just 12 percent of all U.S. music sales last year, while Uni­ver­sal Music Group alone claimed nearly 30 percent of the market, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

None of the six independent musicians interviewed for this article have achieved a career in music that could support them without a second job, though in nearly all cases that is the goal. Cameron McLain ’10, for example, spent two years after graduation trying to get momentum behind his band Mandala, but in the summer of 2012, he moved to California to take a full-time job at a talent agency.

“Parts of it were tough, and I did some soul-searching,” says McLain, who continues to write and record music on the side. “But overall, it was a tremendous experience that I’m very grateful for.”

Chen has a full-time job in advertising, Bingham works at least three nights a week at Manhattan concert venues as a sound engineer for live shows, and Wong spends 40 to 60 hours a week as an SAT tutor and as an engineer and arranger at a Philadelphia recording studio. Wong often will tutor from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and then put in a shift at the studio. Or he might play a show that finishes about 9 p.m., then pull a six-hour shift at the studio, heading home about 3 a.m.

“I see a lot of friends in different industries, and everyone is paying their dues,” says Wong of his grueling schedule. “For me, paying my dues right now means maybe I’m not living full time off of music, but I made more money this summer than I did last summer and more money this fall than last fall. That way I can look at it from a growth [or] career-track perspective. I’m putting in an early investment.”

Bingham, who also supplements the income she makes from her music, said she might earn $100 in a month selling her songs on iTunes — she keeps about 70 cents for each 99-cent song sold — and “every once in a while” will get a royalty check for $50 to $150 from Pump Audio, a company that helps independent artists license their music to TV shows, Web videos, radio stations, and advertisers. She ­estimates there have been 1,200 songs downloaded from Clinical Trials’ two EPs, which were released in 2010 and 2011.

That doesn’t even cover the costs of rehearsing, let alone equipment and living expenses. In New York, where Bingham lives, she must pay at least $15 an hour to rent studio space where she can practice. Bingham’s band meets twice or more each week for three-hour practice sessions, which means Clinical Trials spends hundreds of ­dollars just on rehearsals each month.

So why does she do it? “I guess I’m a masochist,” she says, laughing. “That’s the most obvious reason.”

Matt Mims ’06, who plays in the band HERE with his twin brother, says their most recent album cost about $10,000 to record, remix, master, and produce. Each has a full-time job — Matt works at an electronic-music booking agency — and can dedicate only a few hours each night, at best, to planning gigs, doing publicity, and practicing. He hopes that HERE will become successful enough that he can hire someone or get backing from a larger team to take over some of those tasks. “The dream is to be able to sustain the joy of this whole experience and not have to be operating hand-to-mouth all the time,” Mims says.

There’s one essential aspect of being an indie musician that hasn’t changed, even in the age of YouTube and Twitter: the soul-charging, body-tingling thrill of playing to a live audience. There’s still no substitute for the incredible rush that comes from standing on stage, hot from the lights, crowd, and nerves; feeling the audience members more than you can see them, and creating art that exists in you and through you.

“When I’m playing my music, I have this energy,” says Bingham. “Words can’t explain how great it feels.” 

Bianca Bosker ’08 is excutive technology editor at The Huffington Post.