Giving Art Away / The Struggle of Self-Promotion

We’ve come into an age where it is very easy to enter the music/arts industry. People can create and publish good art with little gear from their own home. In these beginning stages of getting the art out into the open, self-promotion is necessary. It’s not enough to simply post your work. You need to increase its likelihood of being discovered. There are many different tactics to accomplish this self-promotion, and one emerging technique is to give it all away for free. In recent memory, large-scale acts such as U2 and Wilco have even done this, and countless independent musicians give away their music on platforms such as Noisetrade and Bandcamp. Then there are streaming platforms, which technically do pay artists, but at embarrassingly small margins.

At the beginning, all of this can seem frustrating. Artists pour their soul into their work, so it can be draining to receive marginal recognition and zero dollars of financial profit for such work. The payoffs can be discouraging, and it can feel like you’re getting nowhere. But this business model has merit, even for established artists who are looking to further widen their influence. The goal in the approach of giving art away is that the listener will then be prompted to further support the artist by way of purchasing physical merchandise, attending shows, and sharing the music with their friends. This approach has received a mixed response, even within the indie community that popularized it the most. Here’s what one independent artist has to say about this current trend.

I feel there’s an overall pressure for independent artists to give [music] away, especially when it comes to streaming. Like if you don’t allow Spotify or Apple to sell your own product for their own gain, you probably won’t get discovered by as many new listeners.  ~Dan Snyder of Paper Lights

When asked if he agreed with this pressure, here’s what else he had to say.

Nah, it’s something I’ve succumbed to based on the situation. We could try to make a stand, but it wouldn’t be heard without the attention of a major publicist or promoter. So in the end our best move is to go all in with it for the time being and hope to gain loyal followers.

Yet there are others in the industry who feel differently about the situation. Here’s what Michael Minkoff, an independent artist and president of a non-profit arts foundation has to say.

I think, generally speaking, that financial support for the arts should be voluntary, so I like the idea of musicians giving away their music and relying on word-of-mouth and good will to support them. Art isn’t a commodity, and as soon as you start selling it, you increase the likelihood that artists will be forced to make art that sells in order to pursue their callings. Some art that sells is worth making. Plenty of art worth making doesn’t sell.

The bottom line of the current status of free art is that there really isn’t another way at this point for indie artists. We have to engage with the market as it is before we can change things, for better or for worse.

However, here’s the tricky business about artists giving art away: they are incredibly emotionally involved in their work. Just to let a piece of their very being go for free is disheartening. Particularly in American culture where fast results are prized, not reaping immediate dividends can cripple someone with the potential to be a great artist. Art requires patience, which is hard to come by – even more so for younger, less seasoned artists. This patience also isn’t a sit-back-and-wait patience like when a package is due to arrive; it is an active patience that requires the artist to stay consistent through empty times. Nevertheless, the artist can’t force his own success. He can only work towards it, or altogether prevent success from ever arriving.

Once the patience and action starts to come naturally, though, more emotional conflicts arise regarding self-promotion. In his efforts to get his name out in the market, with the boldness of saying, “I’m willing to give away my work just so you can hear it,” the artist’s attitude and character comes into question. You generally can discriminate between a sincere self-promoter and an arrogant one. But to the artist who is self-promoting, it can be hard to judge where that line is and if he’s crossed it. As is the case with other components of creating art, the artist must be assured of his identity and confident about his character and worth. It’s generally easier to manage overzealousness than to crawl out of a self-dug grave of timidity. When the artist is sure that his intentions are pure, he must maintain consistency, which will improve his art, hasten his success, and hinder undesirable attitudinal flaws.

Now we find ourselves at the beginning of our cycle, which can indefinitely continue. But the difficult practice of self-promotion is indeed necessary. And the approach of giving art away does work. Many of the artists you see on this site were discovered by way of a free download offer, and I have continued to support many of the artists I have discovered in this way by writing about their work.

So at the end of the matter, we see in another way that being an artist isn’t an easy road. It can be unfulfilling and feel like a compromise in the beginning. What artists can do amongst this struggle is strive to constantly improve their craft by surround themselves with fellow likeminded artists and constructive critics. It can be easy to take a loner’s path as an artist; but it is critical to stay in fellowship – fellowship with God being the most important of all.


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