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The 10th Anniversary of the Original "The Indie Band Survival Guide" and What It Taught Us About Creating Your Own Opportunities

by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan
01/12/2016

File Under: Music Business News

Audiences at our speaking engagements often ask us about how and when we got started writing, teaching, and speaking about music business. The “when” was 10 years ago this week. The “how” however needs a bit of an explanation and sheds light on why we write, teach, and consult the way we do.

When we first started our geek rock band, Beatnik Turtle, nearly 20 years ago, there wasn’t a single book that would give us the answers to the practical questions we had as indie musicians. Every book out there was about how to get signed by a label. But we were a DIY band that, as NPR would later put it, was “remarkably prolific and fiercely independent”. We had no desire to be on a label, but we did want to be heard.

Worse, guidance on what we should be doing as a band to get noticed, get heard, win fans, and get sold were scattered everywhere -- in magazines, newspaper articles, and the (early) web. What we realized was there was no single place to find what we really needed to know to solve the problems we were running into day-to-day and we couldn't figure out why.

So, we decided to take it upon ourselves to research, compile what we learned as a band the hard way, and write the book we wished someone had given us when we first started out in 1997. That way we could share it with other musicians so no one would have to struggle to find the answers the same way we did.

Creating Your Own Opportunities

Last week we wrote about how you could create your own luck. Although the article is based on a lot of the success we had with our own music, it also outlines the recipe we followed to get our first book deal. If you recall, the first 3 lessons of the article are:

1. Get out there.

2. Recognize opportunities when they present themselves.

3. Take advantage of opportunities when they come in.

Using the 10th anniversary of the original The Indie Band Survival Guide as an example, we’ll show you how we used these three techniques to get a book deal as well as how it got us teaching, consulting, and speaking on the new music industry.

1. Get out there.

By January of 2006, ten years ago, we released a 50,000 word, 101-page, professionally-edited PDF from our band’s website. We called it “The Indie Band Survival Guide” and, to help “get it out there”, we opted to give it away for free via a Creative Commons license. The license we choose to use was one of “attribution” and “share alike” which meant anyone could download the PDF, but they had attribute it to us as the authors and couldn’t restrict sharing it. Our hope was that if musicians found what we wrote valuable, they’d share it with other musicians.

But why would anyone know to download it in the first place?

By this time, we'd learned a bit about being scrappy marketers. So, we used a technique we now call "borrowing an audience". This works for getting your music discovered and heard, but it worked equally well for helping us get The Guide out there. We did a lot of name-dropping of thought leaders who had inspired us in The Guide, quoting well-known bloggers and personalities. After releasing it, we emailed them to tell them that we talked about their work. They were pleasantly surprised and often wrote and linked to it, which got our message in front of their audiences. This caused The Guide to be downloaded tens of thousands of times.

At this point, we believed our mission was accomplished. In fact, we moved on to plan and work on a new music project we had in mind for 2007 called TheSongOfTheDay.com. We decided to the best way to release one song for every day of 2007 (365 songs!) was to get writing and recording in 2006.

2. Recognize opportunities when they present themselves.

However, that summer, in the middle of recording, we got contacted by BIllboard Magazine. They wanted to interview us about The Guide. Apparently our online book was getting circulated widely and, much later, we learned it was printed out and discussed at major conferences like SXSW.

We quickly recognized the press that could be generated from Billboard could further help get the word out about the free PDF we wrote, so we accepted the interview and planned what we would say and what we would do once the article was published.

The Billboard article ran in the October 2006 issue. When it did, we re-contacted all the thought leaders, bloggers, musicians, and personalities we had written earlier in the year to share the good news. Many ended up writing about The Guide once again, spreading the word further.

To our surprise, shortly after its publication, the Associated Press and Reuters contacted us to interview us. We accepted all the interviews and discovered this additional press helped The Guide go international.

All of this was great as we wanted the information out there for musicians to benefit from. However, it didn't directly affect our day-to-day lives. Most of the time, you’d find us in the studio writing and recording like mad since we were so focused on bringing our TheSongOfTheDay.com project to life by January 1, 2007. In fact, around this time we were struggling with two of our original band members who thought we were nuts to take on the project and decided to quit over the decision. Since the core of the band was committed to the ambitious project, we had to find replacements to keep it going.

3. Take advantage of opportunities when they come in.

But in the background, another opportunity was in the works. The Guide had caught the attention of a literary agent. He contacted us and believed the free PDF had potential of becoming a “real” book with a major publisher. Although we were skeptical, we recognized this as yet another opportunity. We decided to put together a book proposal so he could pitch it to publishers. When handed it into him in late December 2006 -- about two weeks before launching TheSongOfTheDay.com.

To our surprise -- and simultaneously, our dismay -- the proposal we wrote resulted in us getting a book deal from St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan by January 2007 -- just as TheSongOfTheDay.com project had launched. By that point we only had songs completed through April, and had a lot more to write and record. The problem was, the first draft manuscript was due by September 2007. Still, it was a major opportunity and we decided we’d make the time to write the best book we could.

Needless to say, 2007 was a busy year. But, we found the more we took on, the more we could produce. We not only wrote the 1st edition of the book -- researching, interviewing thought leaders, writing, and editing the initial drafts -- but also released two albums (a live album we had recorded the year before, plus a studio album called All In A Day's Work which was the result of us doing the RPM Challenge that February) and successfully completing TheSongOfTheDay.com project in 2007, releasing 365 songs in total.

Then, by early 2008, while editing the final draft and working with St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan to prepare it for release, we released the 12 albums from TheSongOfTheDay.com, plus recorded and released the award-winning Sham Rock album which was featured on NPR. Then, in September of 2008, the first edition of The Indie Band Survival Guide hit stores everywhere and was well-received by critics.

Other Opportunities

In our experience, whether it’s been with our music or with our music business writing, once you manage to “get your stuff out there”, opportunities tend to come to you or build on one another. This often requires patience, the wherewithal to recognize when they present themselves, and time to take advantage of them.

  • Teaching
    Thanks to the book, by 2009, we were asked if we’d teach music business regularly in our hometown of Chicago. This was certainly something we never thought to in a million years. We were indie musicians, not music industry insiders. And yet, that’s exactly why they wanted us to teach. So, we dove into this opportunity.

  • More Books
    It was also the year we went on to write and release the European version of The Indie Band Survival Guide for Ebury/Random House -- The DIY Music Manual. It was yet another opportunity for us to get the information out there -- this time beyond our borders. We couldn’t say no. By this point we were getting pretty good at writing while creating our next studio album -- this one about looking back to us growing up as kids, When I Was Your Age.

  • Second Edition
    The Indie Band Survival Guide ended up selling out of seven printings, so in 2011, the publisher asked us to create a second edition. We agreed and did a complete rewrite, with additional chapters containing three years of additional research, teaching, and speaking information as well as changes the industry had undergone over the preceding three years. This became the book that’s available today, The Indie Band Survival Guide (Remixed & Remastered) -- Second Edition.

Looking back on the last decade since the original PDF guide, no one’s been more surprised than us. Because at the heart of it, we're just musicians working on next album and happy to share what we've learned about navigating this ever-changing music industry. What drives us to continue researching, learning, and writing about music and music business is simple: we enjoy sharing everything we know with other musicians so they can bring their music into the world.

We see ourselves similar to how some musicians discover they have a knack for a specific skill like mastering, producing, or photography. We seem to be able to explain music business, law, and technology concepts in a concise and actionable way for musicians.

And we're happy to do it -- on the side. Music is still our first love (we’re working on our 21st album!).

Besides, you shouldn't make our mistakes. Go make your own. And if you, like us, get lucky and get something noticed, follow it -- find out where it can lead. You never know where it will take you.

Related:

#news #luck #musicbusiness #theindiebandsurvivalguide

Photo credit: St. Martin’s Press


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