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Life as an unsigned DIY Artist

Life as an unsigned musician and creator is much like being an eight ball juggler on a unicycle in a surreal 24/7 circus show; delicately poised and can fall to shit quick-smart. Okay, I’m being semi facetious, but I’m in no way exaggerating when I say the DIY unsigned route is an intense balancing act. One’s time must be divvied out between writing, rehearsing, recording, gigging (or live streaming), emailing, booking and online promoting, all the while trying to make a few quid to maintain a roof over the head and food in the belly. In my case, being the full of notions Renaissance man that I am, must also find time to film and edit music videos as well as see to graphic design obligations. One must truly possess a varied skillset to survive as an unsigned musician. Admittedly I could outsource but that can be costly and could lead to forfeiting artistic control and direction. Furthermore you must remain focused, self-motivated and enthusiastic for creative projects, while embracing the unknown and acknowledging the hurdles associated with artistic pursuits. It’s impetrative to not be too critical of your output but it’s also dangerous to give yourself too many plaudits. Too much self-praise can lead to delusion and stagnation. It’s a fine line.

Measuring ‘success’ as an unsigned act, and even defining success, is rather atypical and ambiguous. It’s not like we have a boss giving us a raise, or a ladder system in place where one can work their way up to a more prestigious position within a company. Personally I’m not even sure what success actually is or what it constitutes. Is it fame, prosperity, millions of streams, a plethora of online followers or a kind of social status? Or is it freedom, peace of mind and the actualisation of a desired vision? Is it happening right now in my life? Truth be told success is subjective and dependent on one’s disposition and frame of reference. A barometer of sorts is of course the live realm and audience reaction, however in the current Covid and lockdown climate this has been sadly removed from the equation.

The last twelve months have been a struggle for artists who are strapped for cash and confronted with a shortage of projects, having been out of rehearsal rooms and studios with no release gigs or tours lined up. Musicians find themselves bereft of a purpose lately. When one is not swimming towards an intended target you find yourself floating in and out with the tide as enthusiasm wavers. These are uncertain times. However uncertainty has always been associated with creative work, and there is no divine right for any of this to actually ‘work out’ for us, which is an important reminder. Struggle and sacrifice is par for the course. I recall in the DIT Music Department in 2010 a lecturer giving a talk on the realities of being a musician and composer. The overriding message: be under no illusions, this will be a massive Sisyphean-esque challenge that is not for the faint of heart. It was slightly disconcerting and almost ominous, but I adored the blunt realism and honesty. He addressed how paramount organisation is in addition to recognizing the inevitability of sacrifice in which one must contend themselves with the reality of possibly never having a stable income or owning a house of their own. However, I have chosen this path in life and any hardship is all on me, and if at some point I can’t hack it and choose to wave the white flag then so be it. However, for now I plan on committing unequivocally to this vocation. In the words of Charles Bukowski ‘if you’re going to try, go all the way, otherwise don’t even start’.

Misconceptions are ubiquitous. After my March 2021 iTunes number 1 I got hit with ‘Jesus, you’re doing well, you must be loaded’. Trust me I’m not; if I was a business I would have been liquidated a long time ago! ‘Would ya not try…’ is also a very rife Irish angle. ‘Have you ever thought of sending your music into the Late Late Show’? ‘Would ya not try get your music on radio’? ‘Ever thought of getting a manager’? Like how is one to respond, ‘Jesus that’s a fantastic suggestion, I’m a total dumbass and I never once considered any of these prospects pal, thank you for your sagacity’. My personal favourite is ‘are ya still at the auld music… ah fair play to ya’. I’m being somewhat flippant here, and people do mean well, but it is borderline patronising and can leave one feeling rather dim and ridiculed.

Finding time to address fans and followers online is an essential obligation in the industry nowadays. On a personal level I abhor the importance and prevalence of social media. While it does offer the possibility of connecting with a wide range of people and international fans, devoid of the music industry middlemen and gatekeepers, does it come at a cost? Is being active day to day on these platforms to the detriment of the writing process and productivity. I believe it is. Would Johann Sebastian Bach have been as tremendously prolific if he was posting quotidian selfies with his harpsichord? Of course not! Mind you Bach did manage to churn out composition after composition despite having twenty kids the dirty dog! So maybe the German genius could have balanced TikTok and Twitter? Anyway, jokes aside, for me social media devalues the art. Maybe releasing one’s creation is fundamentally anti-art at the core anyway? The art is in the conception, formation and development of a piece or work, when it is held dearly and caressed by the creator. Once released into the big bad ether the song or work is condemned to ‘product’ status.

In ways I’m being overly cynical and if it weren’t for social media you’d never have found this article! However, I can’t help but feel there is a sinister underbelly to it. We so often succumb to the inevitable and unavoidable epidemic that is mindless scrolling. We all fall victim to it. It becomes information overload, leaving people fragmented and overwhelmed, as our attention spans and concentration levels are increasingly bombarded and under attack. Recently I went to upload excerpts from my Transmission TV appearance to Instagram and before I knew what was what I was watching reels of the best poxy shots from this years World Snooker Championship! After five or so minutes of gormless vacancy I managed to reel myself in and continue on with my intended mission!

It pains me how much I rely upon the online platforms, and how cluttered and congested the short shelf life content is. However, if you reject it you become anonymous and alienated as an artist and even as a person. One must be active daily to ensure engagement, views, likes and favourable algorithms. There is pressure on a creator to also be something of a personality and celebrity of sorts, which can be gimmicky and overkill. It feels so superficial to me. One must be their own brand, and it’s naive and foolish of me to think it could/should be any different, and as the age old adage goes if you can’t beat them join them. I’m loath to pine for past ways and paradigms, as life is transient in which the only constant is the fact it changes (and I certainly don’t wish to come off sounding like Grandpa Simpson in all this)! The reality is social media is a firm part of modern music and society. It must be embraced. End of.

So after this rant and semi stream of consciousness you may be asking yourself ‘why do it then GC’? To tell you the truth I haven’t a fucking clue, but I’ve a deep merciless compulsion and animal magnetism that sucks me in and thrills me. The odds are stacked against creators but I enjoy the underdog challenge and status. All struggles dissipate when transcending on stage or in the flow state in a recording studio. These highs may be fleeting but they are truly magical. It’s a sick addiction you are powerless to chase. Aspects of it drive me crazy, but without it I’d go insane. Plus the DIY aesthetic is hardwired into the Clifford DNA, with my Dad being a former street trader, printer and graphic designer, among many other things! My brother too exhibits the self-employed tenacity having set up his successful practice DC Fitness Physio (check him out he’s the business). We can’t deny who or what we are, and we can’t silence our truest thoughts or inhibit our impulses. Music is my gateway into experience and hopefully authenticity. It’s a gamble, but much of life is akin to the spinning of a roulette wheel. The only failure comes in not trying. We must try.

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