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From TikTok To Handmade Merch, Independent Artists Talk Staying Afloat In the Pandemic

Independent acts are meeting uncertain times with fresh strategies — and hoping they pay off.

Curtis Waters was understandably stressed when the coronavirus began to wreak havoc on the music industry in late March. Like many independent acts, the 20-year-old recording artist was in survival mode before the pandemic — but the moratorium on touring and global economic crisis amplified all of his existing challenges.

“I didn’t have health insurance and stuff, so I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to die if I don’t make money soon,’ ” recalls Waters. “At one point I was like, ‘I might just sign a crappy [record] deal — whatever deal comes to me.’”

Waters was able to find stability, thanks to a combination of clever digital marketing and fortuitous timing. After studying online music marketing tutorials, he chose to download TikTok and relentlessly promote his single “Stunnin’ ” on the platform. Within two weeks of consistent posting, the song took off in May — and a handful of major-label offers followed. By June, Waters had signed a licensing deal with BMG. “I was becoming less desperate because the song was growing,” says Waters, who debuted on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart in July. “I realized I don’t need a label. This is going to be huge on its own.”

At a time when the independent community is being hit hardest amid the ongoing pandemic, Waters is not the only one who has turned to what he calls a “gimmick” to stay afloat. The majority of independent artists earn under $10,000 a year from music, according to a September study from MIDiA Research, deriving roughly 28% of their revenue from streaming and 18% from live performances — the latter of which has come to a halt.

Such concern led Colombian-Canadian multidisciplinary artist Lido Pimienta, who released Miss Colombia on ANTI- Records in April, to bolster streaming revenue with handmade merchandise: vinyl covers, ceramics and soon a line of clothing designed to be worn while making art. Many of the items have sold out. “I’m not a rich artist, I’m not a huge commercial artist, but I’ve kept myself focused and occupied,” says Pimienta. She’s now turning her garage into an art and music studio to maximize productivity, placing her among the nearly 70% of independent artists that spent more time than usual making music during global lockdowns, according to the study.

After canceling her plans for a “live-heavy” 2020, London-based musician Arlo Parks shifted to writing her debut album. “I wanted to focus on my work, hone my craft and spend time absorbing new content, figuring out what kind of direction I wanted to take as an artist,” she says. The result, Collapsed in Sunbeams, will arrive on Transgressive Records in January. Despite uncertainty over when concerts will resume, Parks is selling tickets for a fall 2021 tour to give fans something “to look forward to.”

And while livestream performances remain an option until then, virtual shows have become an increasingly difficult way to attract attention in an oversaturated market, with Bandsintown listing over 44,000 global livestream events in the first five months of the pandemic alone. Plus, major-label A-listers like Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa are delivering high-production ticketed events that, without proper staffing or financial resources, are more difficult — if not impossible — for indies to pull off.

Some, like 88rising/12Tone Music artist Joji, have managed to deliver global livestreams to stadium-size audiences; his show, titled The Extravaganza, was viewed in 105 countries. But many indie acts are going in the opposite direction, offering more customized virtual sets. Texas rock group Band of Heathens has sold over 300 private virtual concerts at $100 each for a session with frontman Gordy Quist or $200 for Quist and bandmate Ed Jurdi. “It certainly doesn’t compare” to prepandemic revenue, says Quist, but coupled with donations culled during the livestreams, “in terms of allowing us to keep the guys in the band making a baseline so they can pay rent, it has been huge.”

More financial assistance could be on the way. In March, the CARES Act — which allows self-employed workers and independent contractors to apply for unemployment assistance for the first time — was signed into law. One of its fiercest advocates was American Association of Independent Music president/CEO Richard Burgess, who is now focusing his efforts on the long-delayed HEROES Act stimulus package, which includes provisions to provide financial assistance to indie music venues.

“This is a billion-dollar problem not just for the music industry, but for everybody,” says Burgess. He notes that the indie sector is the backbone of the music industry. “Every artist is independent at some point in their career.”

Merlin, the digital rights agency for indie labels, is also doing its part by pushing out digital revenue payments on a faster-than-usual basis and signing new licensing partnerships with social video platforms like Snapchat parent company Snap Inc. and Triller to help artists generate additional revenue. CEO Jeremy Sirota, who joined Merlin in January and has since welcomed over 70 new members from around the world, says that indie artists have had to be “very adaptive” to the ever-evolving music industry long before the pandemic.“

Being independent,” says Quist, “you may not have the huge budget of a record label, but oftentimes, I think that’s what makes a record great — the limitations.”

For Parks, her upcoming album will be proof of that. “This was a curveball that no one could have anticipated, but in terms of the independent artist community, there was a sense of resilience,” she says. “We’ve been dealt this blow. How are we going to grow from it?”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2020 issue of Billboard.