Tips from Indie 101: Laura Imbruglia on releasing music all by yourself

Tuesday, 16 Jul 2019

Laura Imbruglia (photo: Kira Puru)

At this year's Indie 101 national event series, presented with our mates at AIR (Australian Independent Record Labels Association), the evening combined expert advice and case studies on how to release your own music with a side helping of tax time tips from industry number crunchers.

On the indie artist side for the Melbourne event was singer and songwriter Laura Imbruglia, who generously shared the strategies she has honed across her four albums, numerous tours at home and abroad, and many other creative, collaborative projects. A self-managed, self-booked, and self-releasing artist, we asked Laura to condense her presentation Releasing Music All By Yourself so that her top tips could be shared further afield with APRA AMCOS members. 

Q: Let’s start with the actual recording. How do you decide on what services you might need (recording, mixing, mastering) versus DIY? 

LAURA: Well, budget is a big deciding factor! I don’t usually bother with high quality demos unless I have a friend or band member with recording equipment who has a hunger for growing their skills and/or using their gear. Otherwise, I demo all my songs with a 4-track app or GarageBand app.

Part of the fun of recording is the magic that happens in the studio, and I feel like extensive pre-production takes away that fun. Of course, if I was living off music and had time, money and gear at my disposal to demo properly, I probably would.

Other factors to consider: 
What are you hoping to do with the recording?

  • If you’re only just starting out and you wanna use it to get gigs – try and find a friend or someone studying audio engineering who has access to equipment and a desire to record stuff.
  • If you are trying to find a record label who will then pay for you to record – maybe spend some cash on just recording 2-3 songs in a day in a good studio.
  • If you’re going to self-release an album and press up a few hundred copies and tour the songs for the next two years, don’t skimp if you can avoid it. It doesn’t feel good to promote an album you’re unsatisfied with. Don’t rush it, save money, apply for grants – try and make the album you want to make.
Budget, purpose and career stage will all play in to these decisions.

Technology has come a long way with recording, and whether you play lo-fi indie pop or super slick electro pop, you shouldn’t need to spend a bomb to get a good sounding recording. You need to sell a decent amount of records to make back the money you spend on recording and producing vinyl or CDs, so consider your projected sales when putting your budget together too.

Q: As a self-releasing artist, how do you get feedback on the music you’re making? What kind of A & R support is out there for a self-releasing artist?

LAURA: I mainly seek feedback from my band members, producer and close friends whose songwriting skills and music taste I respect.

Sometimes housemates are good to bounce ideas off too, as they hear the various lyrical and musical options being played over and over again through the walls and will sometimes sing their favourite bits back at me. I quite enjoy using non-musical friends as guinea pigs – I like hearing from people who are untrained and unencumbered by music “rules” and industry standards or trends.

For me, the most important thing you can do as a writer is to constantly feed your brain with art in all forms – music, film, writing, theatre, visual art, whatever. Surround yourself with people who are interesting, talk to them, and be open to new ideas and perspectives. As someone who is now 16 years into my career, I’ve learned that the most success I’ve had professionally AND artistically is when I’ve trusted my gut, taken artistic leaps which challenge me, and not tried to follow any current trends. Music is self-expression first and foremost.
I always enjoy this Patti Smith advice (by way of William S. Burroughs)…

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

Q: What part of the self-releasing process do you find is the trickiest, or murkiest part for someone starting out? 

LAURA: I think people starting out are often so excited about playing shows that they forget about promoting it properly, they play too often, or fail to plan ahead for their own shows to allow enough time to promote it. It’s important to remember to put the same amount of effort into promotion as you do into writing, rehearsing and recording. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? (Yes – it does…but there was no one there to hear it…and the tree was left feeling like it was a real waste of energy).

There are some basic gig promo rules an artist needs to get their head around that will serve them well throughout their career:

- Don’t play too many shows in the same area/city in the same week or fortnight.
It will negatively impact the turnout for all the shows, and will irritate the booking agents at the venues, and the artists you are playing with and may burn bridges for you.

- Don’t agree to take a last minute headline spot offered to you if it’s an important show for you (e.g. a single launch).
You need at least six weeks to promote it properly on social media, e-news, posters etc. Bad turn-outs upset venues and the news can also spread within the industry if you’re trying to find a booking agent, manager, label etc. It also feels crappy on stage and is a bummer vibe for the audience. Don’t rush.

- If you’re doing a headline show, take posters for your show into the venue at least a month out from the show.
Some venues will withhold payment or rider if you don’t. It’s also basic gig promo 101.

- If you’re filling a support slot, promote the show.
That means adding it to your Facebook events, website, Spotify and doing at least a couple of posts on social media platforms about it.

- If you’re headlining, make sure you send all the promo assets (poster image, press release, facebook event, ticket link) to the venue
And send to the other artists playing and ask them to promote the show.

Better promo = more audience members = more fans = more money = more music = more enjoyable experience.

Q: What kinds of digital tools do you use for promotion, social media etc? Does a self-releasing artist also need to be a social  media expert?

LAURA: I post my linktree URL on social media instead of my website, and you’ll notice that a lot of musicians and businesses are starting to do this. Linktree is an app that creates a page/URL where you can list hyperlinked buttons to whatever key things you’re promoting at the time. You update your linktree whenever you need. For instance, rather than directing people (who have limited attention span in this day and age) to my website, which has every single thing on it, I instead have a list of buttons to direct URLs like:
Shows, Merch, Listen to my album, My latest music video, Website etc.

It's really good for Instagram in particular, which doesn’t let you post clickable links in your captions. You can post a gig poster on Instagram and say “Tix on sale for the album launch – link in bio” – and the fan can quickly get to the tix.

The next day, you can post a video snippet and say “My new video is out – link in bio” and you don’t have to keep updating your bio link. Linktree ROOLS.

Another thing I use for promoting new music is smarturl, which works in a similar way to Linktree, but it’s focused around music streaming services. You set it up and it creates a page with your release art, preview audio and direct links to Google Play, Spotify, Bandcamp, iTunes etc, which allows the fan to pick their service of choice, rather than you losing a potential listener by promoting Bandcamp to someone who only uses Spotify.

I learned about these services by observing other artists - I saw Loose Tooth using Linktree and Dolly Parton using Smarturl – haha!

You don’t need to be a social media expert to be good at music promo, you just need to be observant and organised.

If you’re really hopeless at doing promo in the moment or too busy with your day job to do promo at the times you need to (e.g. on the morning of a new song being released), use a social media scheduling app like Later.

TIP: Set aside one hour a week to schedule some posts and they will just roll out on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for the time you’ve scheduled them to. It’s really useful, as you can schedule them on the computer too, which is way less painful than digging around files on a phone.

When you play festivals and support slots for bigger artists, they will usually email you the promo assets ahead of time and tell you an announce date.
Open the scheduling app, drag the assets into the scheduling app and set them to go live at the date/time requested – voila! Look at you go! Don’t mess the date up and post it early though or they will really hate you.

Q: Playlist pitching – how can a self-releasing artist pitch their music to DSPs? Should they use a digital distributor that offers that service?

LAURA: I use Ditto Music for digital distro – you upload your album to their platform, give them a scheduled release date and they then issue it to Google Play, itunes, Deezer, Spotify – all the streaming services – heaps you’ve never heard of. Once your music is scheduled to go live on Spotify, you can submit songs to Spotify for Playlist Consideration through Spotify for Artists. Read about it here. I don’t know how many artists are successful with this, but it’s a simple enough process and it’s free – it’s gotta be better than NOT doing it.

Some digital distributors have better relationships with playlisting services than others, it’s worth investigating to find a good one for you. I’m still getting my head around playlisting. I ended up on a Spotify playlist which is apparently algorithm-based – it trawls international blogs and things. This playlist inclusion sent my song from hundreds to thousands of plays overnight.
Another time I was googling “Double J Music Submission” and ended up on an American playlisting site called Double J which had a playlist submission form, so I filled it in and they added my song to their playlist! If in doubt, at the very least – try Google – it worked accidentally for me.

Further reading: Get to know your local aggregator and How to get your music on Spotify, Apple Music and beyond

Q: What are the key business management skills a self-releasing artist should have? Any good resources?

Four albums into my career, I have only JUST started using Tour Budget and Album Budget spreadsheets, and when I am REALLY organised I also use a cash flow template.

These spreadsheets are really useful for planning, and allow me to estimate how much of a profit or loss I might make on a tour. The one I use (made by White Sky) even lets you estimate how much you’ll make in ticket sales by entering in a venue’s capacity, your ticket cost and the percentage of tickets you estimate you’ll sell. With the figures in front of you, you can figure out a plan of attack, or scale back some spends you hadn’t thought through.

Unless you’re playing decent size venues, I would recommend paying supports $x per head rather than offering them an arbitrary guarantee and just hoping you’ll make enough money to cover it. With a per head deal, they are incentivised to bring people and you’re unlikely to end up in the red.

Back to the spreadsheets…
You have to fill out budget spreadsheets and provide a timeline when you apply for grants, and if you GET the grant, you need to report back on actual figures at the end.
Even if I am unsuccessful with a grant application, I will still use the budget spreadsheet and timeline from my application to help form a plan moving forwards.
Once you fill out the expenses and income columns, you will quickly realise that there’s a lot more money coming out than going into your bank account. A budget spreadsheet helps you prioritise your spends and think about more potential income streams.

Look at crowdfunding, investigate various grants available, and make sure you’re chipping in some money too. It’s unlikely a funding body will entirely pay for your project.
It's worth spending money to make money on merchandise because a lot of people are not buying music, but they might buy a t-shirt.

Further reading: Track your cash: templates and tips for doing it right and Tips of the Trade: Grant Applications

Resources: Apply for an ABN and Register a business name

Q: Lastly, why is it a good time to be a self-releasing artist?

LAURA: It’s a lot of work but it’s really empowering to be a self-releasing artist, and it actually teaches you business skills you will need to have a sustainable career. Whilst technology advances have negatively impacted sales income for musicians, they have also made it cheaper to record, release and promote. So take the good with the bad and make the most of it.


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