The Independent Artist Spotlight is a behind-the-scenes look at what life is like for musicians who are building a career without the support of a record label. In this five-part series, you will learn about the pros and cons of being an independent artist directly from the bands themselves.
PART 4: Interview with Jon Stephenson of DIGITAL SUMMER.
Digital Summer is not your “typical” rock band by a long shot. Along with being professional musicians, the members manage to maintain additional professional careers. These additional careers are what drive the lyrical and emotional foundation of what Digital Summer’s music is about. From death and tragedy to passion and endurance, the songs on a Digital Summer album come from their real lives and their very own experiences.
You’ve had a lengthy career as an independent band, dating back to 2006 just before social media allowed bands to connect with fans. How did you build a fanbase in the early days?
As cliché as it sounds, we did everything grass roots. We literally burned thousands and thousands of demo CDs, went to venues where national acts were playing, passed out CDs, flyers, etc. just to get our name out there. We had to repeat this a bunch of times, but eventually we started getting positive responses like “Hey, I remember you guys. I listened to that CD a while back and it was kick ass. Let me know when you guys play again.” From there, we would start promoting our own shows.
It was basically never losing sight of that mentality. When social media came into play, we did the same thing, just through digital mediums. You’ll NEVER see us not promoting things, not responding to tweets, emails, texts, calls, etc.. We wanted to establish a name for ourselves, and now we gotta keep it afloat!
Was it a conscious decision to remain an independent band? If so, why did you choose not to go the label route?
Once we stepped onto the national circuit and started doing big tours across the country, we got a glimpse of how signed bands operated. It was really an eye opener to a lot of things. It was unreal to see bands that we’ve played with having #1 singles on the radio, yet still struggling financially. At the end of the day, we all have bills to pays, mouths to feed, etc.
The public perception is that “rock stars” are still living lavish lifestyles w/ fancy tour buses, endless booze and strippers, and fat bank accounts. Those days are long gone, but it’s sad to see talented musicians give up this financial & musical freedom just to be a “rock star” for a short period of time. We basically sat back and said to ourselves, “Hey, we can do all that. We may not have the full exposure that record labels can give to us, but at least we have freedom and full control of everything about this band.” As it turns out, we made a very wise decision. Nowadays, record labels are falling apart and rock artists are getting dropped left and right (and losing all rights to their music). It’s pretty cool to hear from big names in the industry, and also up-and-coming bands who say to us…“Man, we should’ve done what you guys are doing!”
Funding is always an issue for developing artists, but you guys are different than most independent bands because you all maintain careers outside of the band. Is that how you have been able to fund recording, touring, merchandising, etc.?
Actually, no. We are 100% fan funded! We all hold career jobs to support ourselves, and that’s it. We have been fortunate enough to have our music and merchandise sell pretty well, so all of the money that we make goes right back into the band. It’s basically a machine running itself. However, our fans have helped us exponentially. Over a year ago, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to release our latest album, “Breaking Point.” We set our fundraising goal at $25,000, and raised just over $51,000. That was a huge help! Our fans absolutely kick ass, and we owe all of our gratitude towards them!
How are you all able to maintain your careers and still find time for extensive touring?
It’s tough, but we make it work. Some of us have tenure at our career jobs, so it allows for flexible schedules, but others in the band basically make a choice… go on leave and hope you come back to a job, or don’t go and keep your job intact. Sometimes there is a balance where we do both. Ian (guitarist), for instance, will work 4-5 days in Phoenix, fly out to where we are on tour, play a series of shows on his days off, then fly back to work.
You’ve taken the business side to another level with Victim Entertainment. Can you share a little bit about the company, its mission and how you have it structured as a band?
Victim Entertainment is our own label. We basically publish anything Digital Summer through this medium. We have a solid business model that we use, one that’s been proven to be effective. It would take forever to explain it, but I can sum it up like this…
We all have individual roles in the band that keeps the machine going. We are ALWAYS on social media, and we respond to every fan interaction that we get. The bottom line is that we hustle 24/7!
We’ve had a Grammy-winning artist (and many other bands) contact us about signing with Victim Entertainment. We are flattered to hear these kinds of things, but these people don’t realize that we are busy 24/7 just pushing Digital Summer alone, so taking on more artists would take away from that.
How are you leveraging social media and technology to increase your fanbase?
We are always on the lookout for new mediums of social media. There are so many potential fans out there that have never heard of us. We are constantly brainstorming on how to bridge that gap and tap into new resources and fanbases. We’ve got a pretty substantial social media following, and our fans’ word-of-mouth alone has brought us in tons of new fans. Our social media presence brings in decent income from people buying albums and merchandise. With that, we are able to pay for advertising on different sites. It’s a huge spider-web with tons of weaving going on!
Our social media presence has been boosted by national radio play as well. I feel like we’ve gained a good bit of “online” fans from radio, but the majority of it comes from simply responding to people. It can really make someone’s day when they see that your band is verified on twitter, and they send a simple tweet like “You guys rock,” and you reply with “Thank you so much. You are awesome!” Little things like that are going to cause those fans to tell all their friends and family, and in turn, we have new followers/potential diehard fans. This tends to lead to merchandise and ticket sales. Everything can work to your benefit if you think about the ultimate outcome.
You’ve shared the stage with a number of well-known hard rock acts. How were you able to do accomplish this in the early days?
Stage presence and live performance played a huge role in this. You will often see bands with kick ass logos, poster designs, etc., but all that means nothing if you can’t sell yourself. First impressions are everything. If you promote a show or your band, and you can’t live up to the expectations or the hype you’ve provided the public, good luck getting that potential target audience interested again.
We put a lot of emphasis, and pride ourselves, on our live show. Everything is energetic…constant moving and super interaction with the crowd. Honestly, our live show is what gets people talking. The more people talk, the more attention you get! This, along with being good business people, has been very beneficial to us for landing national tours.
What advice would you give to other hard rock artists who want to remain independent?
Be ready to work your ass off! The more you put in, the more you will get out. Never settle for promoting your shows on Facebook or text messages only. A lot people don’t check that shit anyway (especially with Facebook constantly changing). Spend a little bit of cash, get some decent flyers printed, record a decent quality demo, and get your ass out there on the street and physically hand stuff out! You meet a lot of cool and interesting people doing this too. Just remember, not everyone is going to like it, and some may put it down, but at least you’re getting your name out there one step at a time.