Right now, all over the world, boys and girls are hunched excitedly over laptops, unzipping fresh cracked versions of Ableton or FL Studio or Reason, their fingers itching to crank out the next festival anthem. Their minds are whirring with the possibilities. What if they get one million plays on Soundcloud? What if Tiesto likes their track? What if Ultra Music called them with a contract?
It would all be so cool, but one German independent producer wants them to ask themselves another thing. If Ultra Music did come calling, what if they said “no?”
“There are incredible opportunities today for artists,” Christian Büttner says. He’s been making music professionally for 12 years, mostly as a ghost producer, but in the last 18 months, he’s switched his focus to building under his own moniker, TheFatRat.
Even though he recently took time off to be with his newborn daughter, he’s amassed more than 183,000 followers on Soundcloud and 700,000 YouTube subscribers. Now that baby girl is old enough to travel, he’s setting up his first North American tour.
He’s making a career in music work, and he’s doing it all without a deal.
“The all-mighty internet is full of blogs, communities, YouTube channels, forums and a million more things,” Büttner says. “They all can help you to get your music heard, but it’s often difficult for big record labels to use those opportunities.”
Büttner has learned to leverage these sources without the trouble of red-tape and licensing complications. If a 15-year-old boy with a wildly successful YouTube gaming channel wants to use his song, The Fat Rat can give the green light without any hang-ups. Deals like that expose his wildly energetic and genre-blending electro to millions of viewers in an instant. He’s also free to sell his music to app and game developers, and when he strikes such deals, he reaps 100 percent of the profits.
And that brings up another point of contention. Artists who are signed to labels barely see revenue from Spotify or other streaming services, mostly because of contractual fine print. Büttner has learned to be a shrewd business man. These labels are looking out for their bottom line, not his baby girl.
“In some of the deals that were offered to me, I had a base split of 25 percent,” Büttner explains. “When I did the math, I found out that I would effectively end up with not even 7.5 percent of the worldwide streaming revenue. When you sign such a deal you have to generate 130 million plays to make the same money as an independent artist with 10 million plays.”
He also advises independents to take the time to connect with their audience on social media, comment sections, whatever way they can. Without a label to answer to, your fans run the show, and a relationship with them is what makes or breaks your career.
“You want to create an emotional connection with your audience, and you can connect much better to people if you listen to them,” he says. “That way you learn what they are interested in and where exactly you can reach them.”
The independent life ain’t for everyone. It takes a lot of finesse to handle a label-less career. It takes incredible self-motivation and determination. It takes strategy and acumen, and not least of all skills and creative vision. Your first taste of success is addictive, but even as things get better, they don’t necessarily get easier.
Büttner says one of his greatest hurdles is staying focused. He’s an enthusiastic guy. He wants to stay open to as many opportunities as possible, but you’ve got to learn to draw the line somewhere, choose the projects and opportunities that best align with his professional and personal goals as well as his creative voice. Still, if you’ve got the chops, the time and money management skills, and the attention span to handle the ups and downs, it’s a creative lifestyle unlike any other.
“(It’s) creative freedom,” he says. “It’s such an amazing feeling when you sit in your studio, freaking out to the song that you are creating while you can be 100% sure that the song will be released and your fans will hear it. And you don’t have to explain to the whole record company why you are doing a trap song with full orchestra while your last song was chiptune mixed with glitch hop.”
It’s not that TheFatRat would never sign a deal. He just has to be sure it’s the right one. He’s come too far to just hand over his life, and with a big tour looming and growing opportunities on the rise, it’s hard to imagine if that deal will come. There really is no clear road to success for an independent artist. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself, take a page from Jimminy Cricket and let your conscience be your guide. Büttner is doing a good job, but even he says to take his own advice with a grain of salt.
“Don’t look too much on what others do and what is considered ‘best practice,’” he says. “Instead, ask yourself the basic question, ‘who might enjoy my music, and how do I reach those people?’ You’ll probably come up with answers that you never thought of before – and more than anything else, focus on your music.”