Scott Hansen’s rise to music success wasn’t a fairy tale story of the music industry. He was in his 30’s, working in various tech jobs, and quietly honing his music and graphic design skills in his free time for a good 10 years. On top of that, his music isn’t top 40 pop fueled by the supply and demand of the current industry. He creates electronic music with no lyrics and a slowed down tempo and free-form structures.
Creating music under the name Tycho, Hansen’s story shows that indie musicians can make a career in music with enough time, patience, and dedication. It’s no longer about getting discovered by some big label – it’s about taking the time to hone your craft and find your unique voice, putting in the work and understanding that a life in the music industry isn’t non-stop parties. More than ever, being a musician means being an entrepreneur, and your music career is a startup company.
Here’s 6 key takeaways from Tycho’s success. These points are from the article “How to make it in the new music industry: The long slow ascent of electronic star Tycho” by David Holmes. In the article he gives a lot more back story to Hansen’s career and breaks down some of his top revenue streams, so you should definitely check it out.
1. Do as much as you can yourself
Or, delegate tasks to people you trust in your inner circle. Whether it’s recording, artwork, promotion, or lighting, self-sufficiency gives artists more control over their destiny while lowering the number of stakeholders expecting to get paid. Most of all, this “one-stop-shop” mentality puts artists in a strong negotiating position when it comes time to sign a label deal. “You can say, ‘I’m already doing this,’” Hansen says. “‘I’m already building this brand. And I want to have a lot of control over this thing.’ So it’s more of a partnership [with the label].”
By the time the Tycho team joined Ghostly, they may not have had viral success, but they had something just as important: self-sufficiency. Hansen, as accomplished a graphic designer as he is a musician, handled the video production and artwork associated with live shows himself. He’s also a seasoned technician who understands the nuts and bolts of his equipment and is savvy at promoting his work on social media. “Understanding and mastering your tools is a big part of getting anywhere with any kind of creative thing you want to do,” Hansen says. The days of lackadaisical rock stars, sitting around in a haze of smoke and whiskey vapors while a team of roadies tunes and sets up their instruments, is a luxury modern musicians can no longer afford.
2. Give people something of value other than your music
Vinyl collector’s items, posters, and T-shirts that are cool enough to show off regardless of their association with your music not only drive sales — they make fans feel like part of an experience encompassing more than just music. The digital age has brought with it an overabundance of media, stored in the cloud and thus at a distance from our hard drives and CD racks. That’s turned music into more and more of a commodity, and so giving people a way to express their fandom beyond hitting “play” on Spotify is crucial.
Physical products, like Vinyl, t-shirts, and prints, is actually the second biggest revenue generator for Tycho. Hansen has used his passion for graphic design to give his audience something really unique.
3. Make the live show memorable
This has always been true, but the Internet offers so many rich media experiences that can be consumed at home that it’s more important than ever to make the live show a unique event. This can be accomplished through multimedia and visual accoutrements that are interesting enough to stand on their own (like at Tycho shows) and by building a sense of community within your fanbase by talking to listeners on social media or in emails.
4. Understand the business
Or if you don’t, find someone you trust who does. Even record labels with the best intentions have a business to run and are not going to give artists anything unless they demand it. Every case is different, but don’t be so ready to sign away rights to your art just because a label asks for it.
“I didn’t act on the business side of things accordingly,” Hansen says. “I thought of it as a side project — make a few bucks, always have a day job. That came back to bite me. I gave up the masters because I didn’t understand what I was doing. I didn’t even know what publishing was. I didn’t know what masters were. I blindly signed on the dotted line. It was the one of the stupidest things I’ve done in my career.”
5. But don’t get too greedy with fans
It’s okay and even advisable to behave like a cutthroat capitalist with labels, but not with fans. If someone uploads one of your videos to YouTube without permission, it’s usually not in the fan’s nor the artist’s best interest to have it taken down. Out of all of Hansen’s attempts to build momentum on social media, the most effective promotion is carried out by fans’ themselves.
“The big thing that works best is out of our control — YouTube videos, people just posting songs that got a lot of plays.”
6. Finally, be patient
“The arc of how this all came together is 14 years,” Hansen says. “I can look back, and look at all these points and say, ‘That went well and that was a good move,’ but it was just slowly trying things that didn’t work and trying things that did.”
That may not be the most reassuring advice. But like in so many other industries, from media to technology, there’s no longer a clear playbook for success. Making in it music has always been hard, but at least there used to be a career path — learn your instruments, write great songs, tour constantly, and, if you’re a lucky, a label comes knocking with a big advance for recording and the opportunity to get on the radio. Now the work of a musician is closer to that of an entrepreneur. Try something. Fail. Iterate. Get lucky. And of course, be a little nuts.