What it’s really like to be an unsigned act in 2017

Signing a record contract used to be a route to fame, but with the rise of social media and DIY culture, today’s musicians don’t see it like that. Thomas Smith spoke to three acts to find out what life’s really like for up-and-coming artists

Jungle Brown

Old-school hip-hop with eclectic and modern twists

Members: Ric Waters, Tony Bones, Maear Kofi
From: Bournemouth/London
Formed: 2014
Best Moment: “We’re supporting De La Soul soon and they’ll be the biggest shows we’ve done.”
Worst Moment: “I wish that we’d understood quality control earlier!”

How do you get over the financial challenges of being unsigned?
Maear: “We’re quite resourceful. So for example we’ve done most of our own videos so we didn’t have to pay. Most artists would have to pay for that, which would make it even more difficult, to be honest. It definitely helps us stay in control.”

What have you learned from doing support slots for other bands?
“We supported EPMD in London a while back, and an artist called Ms Banks was also playing. It didn’t sell well because of poor promotion, but when she played she acted like it was a packed room – and that’s how you’ve got to be at all times. It’s important to be like that during those slots and we’ve definitely seen an increase in following and listenership since then.”

Is the ultimate goal for you to sign a record contract?
“Independent, I reckon. I think that’ll be the best route. I feel like there’s no point putting yourself in that position when you’re so creative and you make music for yourself and you have a label telling you what’s right and wrong. That’s a bit wrong. All people need now is distribution, marketing and branding. Chance The Rapper is a perfect example of not needing a record label.”

Haula

Soulful, soothing electropop

Members: Haula Nakakembo, 25
From: Oxford/London
Formed: 2014
Best Moment: “Playing Truck Festival and having a tent full of people singing my song back to me.”
Worst Moment: “One time some of the biggest booking agents and managers came to see me and I bombed.”

Is it difficult getting people to come to your gigs?
“I was gigging quite a lot the year before last, but people weren’t turning up! I wasn’t really getting a lot from it in terms of a following and I wasn’t getting the labels to come along – so I stopped doing that until I built up a fanbase.”

How have you done that?
“I started building a following via online methods like social channels and then did a few gigs again. I soon had booking agents, labels and managers coming to my gigs.”

People used to go into music wanting to be a big star – is that still the aim?
“Not really, and I think that’s because we’re a little bit more aware now. There are so many of us trying to make it in the industry because music is so accessible and open. Personally, I’m hoping to start working with some great writers and producers and then hopefully everything falls into place.”

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Thundering and melodic ‘distorted pop’ trio

Members: Jen Hingley, 27, Chris Warr, 27, Josh Sellers, 26
From: Manchester
Formed: 2015
Best Moment: “We’re going to play SXSW this year.”
Worst Moment: “We did a gig in Bradford and we basically played to about 10 people.”

If you were to get a record contract, what would you invest in first?
Jen: “I think everyone has this dream of being in a really popular band and doing well, but that’s never going to happen overnight. I think we’d just get a bigger practice room because we basically rehearse in a cupboard at the moment.”

What would you say is the hardest thing about being an unsigned artist?
“Time is our enemy because we all work full-time jobs. Josh works in a call centre, Chris is an IT support for an architect company and I’m a graphic designer.”

Finding time is obviously a big factor when recording – how have you found that?
“It’s more the cost, because we’re trying to keep everything as cheap as possible. Though one time we did manage to get into Abbey Road through a friend. We booked the whole morning to do drums but someone from the studio above said they could hear us while they were doing a string quartet, so we ended up having to do two tracks worth of drums in 20 minutes while they were at lunch. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life!”

In conjunction with The Unsigned Guide, we spoke to over a 1000 emerging artists to understand what life is like being an unsigned act in 2017. Here are some of the key results.

  • Playing live was confirmed by respondents as the best way to grow audience
  • Over 70% of acts support their career with a job/salary
  • 60% are playing gigs to 200 people or less
  • When asked if joining a label is goal, 82% said they would want to be signed.
  • 21.4% of responses said that employing social media services to handle their channels was not something they were considering
  • 38.6% said that they spend between 2-5 hours a day promoting themselves on social media
  • 6.8% of acts said they were currently under management – but only 6.5% said that they would not consider management

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