Corey Smith Details His Experience In Becoming A Massively Successful Indie Artist

from the it-can-be-done dept

About a year ago, we wrote about the massive success of musician Corey Smith, creating not just a sustainable living as an independent musician, but a multi-million dollar operation — built on a combination of closely connecting with his fans, using free music, touring relentlessly, working hard to gain new fans (including reserving some cheap tickets to shows) and (the important part) really great music. What caught everyone’s attention was that this totally independent musician, with no record label, no radio play, no massive publicity campaign had grossed about $4 million in 2008. Now, of course, tour grosses (which made up the lion’s share of that amount) are a bit misleading, as the venues take a cut of that, and there are certainly other expenses to be paid, but as a starting number it’s still really impressive. Luckily, Corey is now sharing some more details about his path to success.

Corey recently did a fantastic podcast with CDBaby where he details how he went about building up a fan base and building up support, and it basically involved exactly what we discussed before: good music, a real connection with the fans, hard work through touring and careful targeting. While he jokes about the $4 million gross touring number, he does admit that his “corporation” (as he now has a support staff) netted over $2 million last year. Frankly, that’s more impressive than the $4 million gross numbers. He notes, of course, that there are still expenses on top of that, including staff (manager, accountant, full-time salaried musicians who play with him, recording expenses and touring expenses — especially in support of new markets, where the return isn’t guaranteed). But, even with all that, bringing in over $2 million in topline revenue is really impressive for a musician without any additional outside backing.

One of the things that he discusses in the podcast is that what really got him started down this road was realizing that it could be done. He read Dave Kusek and Gerd Leonhard’s excellent The Future of Music, and it made him realize “hey, this is possible.” And that, alone, made a huge difference. It’s amazing what you can do once you realize that something is possible — and one of the great things we’ve seen in writing about Corey and numerous other musicians and their success stories is that they, in turn, inspire many other musicians who realize that it really is possible to do quite well despite the naysayers and the doom and gloom. There are a bunch of people who seem to have a vested interest in tearing down the success stories (in many cases because they profit from having naive musicians sign over their lives), but the obvious success stories shine through and inspire many more who follow. It doesn’t mean that every musician is guaranteed success. In fact, Corey’s story highlights the amount of hard work and dedication that was needed, combined with some great music and a bit of luck as well, to make all of this work.

The podcast also has an interesting section where Corey discusses the various major labels who have approached him, and how it’s even tempting at times to go that route, since it could lead to more people hearing his music (especially by getting radio play, of which he doesn’t get very much). But, so far, he’s realized that it just isn’t right — and that everything that’s made this model work for him probably would work against him at a major label (for example, they would try to polish up his sound and clean up his lyrics, which would actually make his music sound less authentic to his biggest fans who have supported him all along). As he notes, one of the key things that he and his manager and other partners have been doing is trying to build a business model for the long term, rather than the typical music industry “flash in the pan” model, whereby a label tries to make a musician huge and then squeeze as much money out of them, as quickly as possible, before that artist dries up. While that star might burn brighter, it’s a lot less likely to ever burn at all, and the chances of a very quick flame-out are high. Instead, Corey has shown what’s possible by focusing on what makes the most sense for building a long term, sustainable, and quite successful music career.

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Comments on “Corey Smith Details His Experience In Becoming A Massively Successful Indie Artist”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It’s a nice story, except that Corey Smith got well known because he won a contest that includes a record deal, which allowed his music to be widely distributed, specifically on college radio. Without that boost, it is doubtful that anything else that followed would have happened.

Congrats for him for doing what he has done, but let’s not rewrite history to change where he came from.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I would argue that entering contests to increase your exposure is itself a part of the self-promotion strategy. How many other contests did he enter? How many other opportunities was he pursuing at the same time? Without having the answers to those questions, I still think it’s safe to say he wasn’t just catapulted to fame by a single stroke of good luck – he was out there actively working to get that career boost somehow.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s a nice story, except that Corey Smith got well known because he won a contest that includes a record deal, which allowed his music to be widely distributed, specifically on college radio. Without that boost, it is doubtful that anything else that followed would have happened.

First off, I don’t see how that changes the story at all. As Marcus pointed out, it fits exactly with the story.

Second, to clarify, it was not “a record deal” as you imply, but free studio time. Yes, that was certainly helpful to him in recording his first album, but only somewhat. And, no, that wasn’t “what made him famous.” He already had a decent following at that point, and what made him famous was continuing to work hard and make something of every opportunity he got — including the free studio time. And, as he notes in the podcast (which you appear to have not listened to), even the free studio time wasn’t enough, and he had to put forth “a mortgage payment’s worth” of his own money in order to have enough studio time to complete the album, and then had to go out and sell it himself.

Either way, there’s nothing in the story (even your incorrect version of it) that takes away from the points raised.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s interesting only that I cannot find the old bio that explained how that first album was recorded as a prize which included distribution to many college and university radio stations, which created his fan base.

Sadly, everything that I can find now is very sanitized and very professional, with some high end bio writers doing the deal rather than what was there a year ago or so.

Welcome to the big times, where you can afford to have history written in your image!

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

…or maybe you misremembered the story? Wouldn’t be the first time you’ve been adamant on here about “facts” that turned out to be completed false.

Besides, as regularly pointed out here, it’s impossible to completely remove information on the internet once it’s become publicised. Find an old forum post, news article from a source that doesn’t paywall its archives, an archived site at – IF the information you recall actually existed at some point, some original news of the competition will be out there somewhere. Go at it.

marija (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yup….and THATS what some of us are Working towards.. Oh, to have ambition and drive.. seems the more ambitious someone is the more Resistance they will garner.. hence your comment. I would hope his bio is more polished, as that is what we do, get to better songwriters, better bio’s, working towards a goal, not going backwards, but then the critics are usually the ones who have not figured out how to do this…yet. Sorry, but all you are doing now, is proving that he has achieved much success, because sadly, success breeds the loyal critic! Good news for an idependant artist.. mosty you see this with signed artists! Hooray Corey!

Cafe Latte Express (user link) says:

Cory's story really is an inspiration

Cory’s story really is an inspiration. For those willing to work hard and hang in there, there may be hope. His story gives the beginner DIY independent a brighter outlook for the future. Gerd Leonhard’s “The Future of Music” sounds like a must read. Thank you “it-can-be-done dept” for the article, I enjoyed reading it.


Catherine Fitzpatrick (user link) says:

Edge Case

Another fake story about fake “Creative Communism” results with no real numbers supplied, and no awareness that this can’t be replicated through an entire industry.

If the guy one a contest with a record deal, that put him in a tiny, tiny percentage of musicians with an incredible boost that probably 98 percent of the rest of the ‘indie’ artists trying to get by with social media, concerts, some CD sales, etc. will never achieve. It’s really cruelly misleading to imply they can.

I’d like to see if any of this revenue is made up of lecture fees or consulting — often that’s the secret behind the person who claims to be making a living by “giving stuff away”.

I’d like to see a breakdown of how many freebies he gives away, what that revenue would have been, and what, if any, revenue is received then from record sales.

The concert circuit is saturated and difficult to break into. Once there, an artist apparently can make money, but he also has a lot of expenses. What are they? Have they been calculated for this year or are we looking at one of those Silicon Valley ballance sheets with no expenses shown yet? How punishing a schedule does he have to have, and what is sacrificed for it — and more to the point, can it be maintained at this level with the same revenue?

Regardless of whether the copyleftists and technocommunists at TechDirt keep shilling these edge-case stories, the overwhelming majority of musicians will not be able to do it this way. And for a small percentage of them, as well, the traditional path of the record company will be a path of profits, too.

What’s always missing from these shills is a willingness to concede that a free economy will have *choice*. It will have a range from technocommies who want to give everything away and dine out on lectures about how they do that (Cory Doctorow) and people who traditional multi-million dollar contracts with actual record sales and some free youtube songs (Rhianna).

But choice is never what Mike Myasnick ever wants to acknowledge or ensure — he wants the whole world to become a giant commune with stone soup — you bring the turnip.

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