Independent Artists Are Making More Music Than Ever
Since musicians began social distancing, distribution platforms that cater to unsigned acts are seeing huge surges in activity
On February 21, the rock band Younger Hunger released “Yung,” a new single that cataloged a litany of horrors — everything from stubbed toes to poisonous salads to vehicular manslaughter — on its way to a chorus that is stirring and alarming in equal measure: “They’re comin’ for my life!”
“The inspiration was being paranoid and looking around at all the things that can come and kill you,” says the group’s lead singer, Tony Davia. Just a month later, the song seemed scarily prescient. “We put it out and two weeks later, there’s coronavirus coming for your life,” Davia says. “It’s insane.”
But Younger Hunger continue to push doggedly forward. The group released a new EP, Yikes, on Friday; they’re shooting a series of music videos while stuck at home; and Yikes will be followed by another new single on May 1. “We’re excited to be following it up as quickly as we are,” Davia says. “We live together. So we can spend our quarantine making each other laugh or doing something that moves us.”
Not all artists feel this way: Amid the turmoil brought on by a global pandemic, many of the biggest singers on the planet have parked themselves on the sidelines. Touring is impossible, and even the volume of audio streaming in the U.S. initially fell in the weeks after many Americans were ordered to shelter in place. At the highest levels of the music industry, each album release is a risky commercial gamble, and more than two dozen artists have decided they don’t like their odds, resulting in a slew of postponed albums.
But outside of the rarefied air of the big labels, things look different. Data from the digital distribution platforms — which make it possible for you to listen to Yikes without Davia having to mail you a CD himself — suggest that many lesser known indie acts are taking the same approach as Younger Hunger: putting out more music than ever.
TuneCore, Vydia, CD Baby, Soundrop, United Masters, and Ditto all push music to streaming services (among other things) for a fee, providing a useful service for acts without a label or artists who want to retain ownership of their songs. All six platforms have observed surges in activity since many Americans have been stuck indoors. (Another similar platform, DistroKid, did not respond to requests for comment.)
“In the last week, we’ve seen record volumes,” says Zach Domer, brand manager for Soundrop, which has around 45,000 users. “Artists are saying, ‘What can I do right now?’ The answer is: Record music at home and put it out.”
TuneCore, which boasts around 300,000 subscribers, has seen both “an uptick in new artists coming in for the first time and returning artists creating more content,” according to the company’s CEO, Scott Ackerman, who estimates that the volume of submissions on the platform has increased between 20 percent and 40 percent.
“I can’t remember the last time I was this productive,” says the singer-songwriter Joshua Radin
Lee Parsons, CEO of Ditto, which has around 250,000 subscribers, including Younger Hunger, says the company has “seen a 300 percent increase in music uploads during this period and a record high for new sign-ups during March.” “Album submissions were up over 100 percent” for CD Baby, which has around 800,000 users, according to Kevin Breuner, the company’s vp of marketing. Lauren Wirtzer Seawood, the president of United Masters, has also watched weekly music submissions nearly double.
Unlike some of the other platforms, Vydia is “closed” — artists have to apply and be accepted or be invited to use its services. But Roy LaManna, the company’s CEO and co-founder, says Vydia also saw a 50 percent increase in the amount of music being pushed to streaming services in the first two weeks following widespread lockdown.
These platforms often see a jump in interest in the spring. And some of them, like Ditto, were also running new marketing campaigns during the last month. Still, even taking those factors into account, the uptick is unusually large. “March, April, and May tend to be more active anyway,” Domer acknowledges. “But we see all that, with the booster jets on.”
Those jets are partially fuelled by commercial imperatives. Vydia’s spike is “mostly from artists looking to offset potential revenue dips from touring,” LaManna notes. And if singers can’t use shows as a way to retain old listeners and find new ones, “the way you’re going to get more engagement is to keep releasing music and broaden your catalog,” Breuner says.
But there’s also just the fact that artists are cooped up at home with an unexpected amount of time on their hands. “I’ve been isolated for five weeks in my house alone,” says the singer-songwriter Joshua Radin, who puts his music out through TuneCore. “I go for hikes. I see the mailman. But I’m not talking to anyone in person. What else is there to do [other than work on music]? I can’t remember the last time I was this productive.”
Even though, as Radin says, “the window between coffee in the morning and a glass of wine at night is shrinking,” he’s still making strides: “I’ve already in this isolation written a new album.” And unlike major label acts, Seawood points out that “indie artists don’t have any restrictions around when and what they can release” — Radin and his peers can put out music whenever they feel like it.
This new stream of songs is flowing into an already massive reservoir. A year ago, there were roughly 40,000 new tracks appearing on Spotify daily, according to an earnings call with the company’s CEO, Daniel Ek, adding to the 50-million-strong stockpile that was already available. Only a small portion of all this music will ever reach a wide audience.
But right now, some of these songs might actually have a slightly better chance of gaining exposure since there are fewer major releases guzzling oxygen. “New Music Fridays [on Spotify] have been super weak because people are being gun-shy,” says one major-label A&R who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Labels are scared right now, they fear a lot of things. Streaming services need content, but they’re being fed less fresh things. That’s good for indie artists who are going through TuneCore and the like.”
Either way, Domer believes a diversity of options is better for listeners. “The more music that’s out there, the more a listener can find music that really speaks to them,” he says. “As the buffet gets bigger, your appetite doesn’t necessarily get bigger, but you might be able to compile a meal that’s more pleasing to you.”
And the number of options available to casual listeners continues to increase daily. “I just looked to see if things are starting to slow down,” says Breuner from CD Baby. “The jets are still on — in full force.”