Making a Living as an Independent Musician: An Interview with Shane Wiebe

I often talk about the music industry when I teach population ecology theory, because the music industry is an almost perfect example of that theory in action. A large group of organizations – the major record companies and retailers – used to set the norm for how things were done, and controlled the allocation of essential resources (money, talent, production and distribution channels) so as to maintain their dominant position. But those organizations felt so secure in their dominance that they chose to ignore new entrants – independent musicians and record companies – that used other resources (the Internet, online sales, new distribution formats, easy-to-use music production software) to establish themselves. And what happened? The organizational field shifted and redefined itself, and the traditional organizations couldn’t adapt quickly enough to survive – as demonstrated by such recent events as the 91-year-old British record store chain HMV struggling with massive financial debt.

I wanted to write a blog entry about how the music industry has radically evolved, even within the past few years. But rather than looking at these developments from outside, I thought it would be more interesting to hear the perspective of an artist who has experienced some of these changes first-hand. So, via email, I interviewed Shane Wiebe, a former student of mine at the University of the Fraser Valley.

I first met Shane in an introductory human resource management class, but I got to know him better a few years later, when he returned to UFV after being one of the top five contestants on the second season of Canadian Idol.  In my pre-academia work as a music critic, I encountered many musicians much less successful than Shane who were completely incapable of accepting that their career was not progressing as they had hoped. So I was deeply impressed with how Shane returned to school and continued working on his degree, without the least bit of bitterness or “Don’t you know who I am???” attitude.

The cover of Shane's first album, released in 2007. (credit: music.yahoo.com)

The cover of Shane’s first album, released in 2007. (credit: music,yahoo.com)

A few years ago, Shane and his lovely wife Angela decided to give the music business another try, on their own terms, and they formed The Wiebes. As an independent self-managed act, they’ve released four CDs, toured across the country, won two Covenant Awards (the Grammys of the Christian music industry in Canada), and had a single reach the Canadian Adult Contemporary radio play charts. As you will see in the interview below, during this time Shane also toured and recorded as a member of the trio Tenore. And most recently, they have launched a weekly online show, The Living Room. (I should add that they have accomplished all of this while also raising two charming young children.)  Shane and Angela have done an admirable job of creating a viable career in the music industry, while doing the things they want to do and maintaining the values that are important to them – but I’ll let Shane tell you how they make that work.

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Fiona: Your first album was released on a major label, and all your releases since then have been independent releases. As an artist, what are the biggest differences for you between being represented by a major label and representing yourself?

Shane: I would say it this way: For the most part, I choose what time I wake up, how good of a job I do at brushing my teeth, and what kind of music I’ll listen to, create, and perform. And at the end of the day, if my family thinks our music is worth living on the road for, I’m good to go! If we sell an album, we take that money and put it into recording another album. We don’t waste our money on overly general marketing campaigns that have a dubious (at best) return on investment. We spend our marketing dollars on fuel to get to the next town, and we like it that way.

Under the umbrella of a label, it’s not your quality of life or family comfort that come first – it’s the label’s bottom line. You’re a drop in the ocean, and if you’re not Justin Bieber, get to the back of the line.  Someone that has never met you, or never even listened to your music, is making financial decisions that are “best“ for you, and in the end it all gets grouped into a pool of fiscal ambiguity under the banner of “recoupable expenses”. I used to carry a cynicism about this, but not any more – now I consider it a blessed reality. I bet you every dollar I have that my quality of life is heads above any superstar! (No, I’m not biased at all!)

All the power to the Justins and Lady Gagas; they’re amazing at what they do and there’s no way I’d be able to keep up to that kind of lifestyle. They’re on labels, and they’re making themselves and their labels millions of dollars. Conversely, when I was on a label, I couldn’t afford to be a musician. Now, I work alongside my best friend (who happens to be extremely hot) and my day job consists of dreaming, marketing, writing music, making silly YouTube videos, social media, website maintenance, and so on. I’ve got it very good. I am very blessed.

Fiona: As independent artists, you and Angela oversee everything to do with the Wiebes’ career, from recording to tour booking to performances. How do you go about planning, organizing and carrying out all the work associated with running your own career?

Shane: Balancing the juggling act of being self-represented musicians is a constant rehearsal. One thing is for sure, though: the fewer hands in the pot, the higher the likelihood of financial survival. When you do get help, wherever possible it should be volunteer help. We’ve had so many supportive friends and family members that have come alongside us in this journey.

Facebook has also been amazing as far as connecting with people that are in a position to help us with concerts. For example, if our tour route is going to bring us through Montreal, we can make a post on our page like “Hey Wiebes fans, do you know anyone who would help us find a place to play in Montreal?” I can’t remember a time I didn’t get a response. This is obviously just the start, but it all helps.

There’s no doubt about it, the work never ends. You can never be too ready for a tour, too ready to record, too ready for a concert, etc. So to answer your question, “How do we go about [it]?” – we kind of just do. The biggest difference between the musicians that can make a living at it, and the musicians that can’t, is work ethic. So we start by discussing our goals and dreams, writing them down, praying about it, and then getting our sorry butts in gear to make it happen. A big part of that is networking with other musicians; if you can glean from their experiences as well as your own, you’re reaping double the reward.

The Wiebes (credit: thewiebesmusic.com)

The Wiebes. (credit: thewiebesmusic.com)

Fiona: How do you personally balance the demands of being in two acts at once (the Wiebes and Tenore)?  Do you see an effect on the Wiebes’ career from your career in Tenore, or vice versa?

Shane: I don’t do it well. I’ve struggled with a double-mindedness that has brought me to a crossroads – a slave has only one master, and I sense a looming inevitability [hint: I made reference to my super hot best friend before – if you had to pick someone…].

Hindsight is an amazing thing, and looking back, while I have learned things that will help me for the rest of my life and career, I can now see conflict between the two that restricted both streams from achieving their full strength.

<Since I originally wrote this answer, I have officially resigned from Tenore; the next year will be spent touring Canada, Europe, and the Southern United States with my family.>

Fiona: Do you think that, with all the alternatives to radio that are now available (e.g. Internet, iTunes), radio airplay still has an effect on the success of a release? And how does an independent artist get radio airplay?

Shane: I think radio still has a huge impact on our industry. It’s a stamp of credibility, even to people that don’t listen to radio. It means something when you’ve “charted”. Independent artists in Canada have an advantage in that CanCon legislates that a certain percentage of music played on the radio, TV, etc., is Canadian. You get on the radio by writing great, catchy music, and then getting that into the hands of great radio trackers. Another popular path to radio is via radio station contests. A good friend of mine, Jodi King, recently won such a contest – now I can’t go a day without hearing her on some radio station somewhere. Incredible opportunities are out there, you just have to do the work. Another example of why radio is still important: I believe it was on the radio that Justin Bieber heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” for the first time – he Tweeted about it, and overnight, Carly became an international sensation.

Fiona: What types of promotion and marketing have you found to work best for an independent artist? I’m particularly wondering how an independent artist creates a presence on the Internet or gets sales when nearly every act has a website, sells product on iTunes, has a MySpace page, has a Facebook page, and posts on Twitter. How does an independent act make itself stand out among that incredible amount of information?

Shane: The limited resource here is time. Social media marketing is extremely affordable, but has a way of eating away your whole day. That said, there’s one marketing tool that trumps them all. Ready for it? Get out there! When someone says they bought our album because… or that they came to our show because… that “because” statement normally finishes like this: “our friends love you” or “my sister can’t stop talking about your new album”. The more people that know you (and love you), the easier every other form of marketing is.

I know I’ve already mentioned him, but Justin Bieber is a perfect large-scale example of this. He toured much of North America building a fan base long before his success story blossomed. When you launch a marketing campaign for a new album, and no one knows who you are, you’ve got a lot of work to do. When you launch a marketing campaign to a country in which a million young girls already love you and are advocating your every move to the masses, you’re in good shape! It’s like having a million super-promoters whose only motivation for your success is loyalty. In a socially-driven world where the hive-mind prevails, it doesn’t get more powerful than that.

Fiona: It seems that when the Wiebes started as a performing/recording act, you had a clear idea of what your market was (contemporary Christian music).  Do you think it’s important for independent acts to have that sort of focus when they start? Or can an independent act still be successful if they don’t know who their audience is, or might be?

Shane: I’ve heard it said best this way: you need to hit your target market with a rifle, not a shotgun. I think it’s incredibly important to choose your market. Secondary markets will arise, and love will come in from unexpected places, but specific is good! We found that a great way to nail your target market is by paying attention to who loves your music the most. Don’t change your music to fit your target market – simply take note of who already loves it.

Fiona: There are some music industry analysts who argue that the CD is dying. What percentage of your sales are physical CDs and what percentage of your sales are in other forms (e.g. online)?  Do you see that changing significantly in the future?

Shane: Going back to my answer about the importance of touring, you can imagine that our physical CD sales percentage is quite high. About 75% of our music is sold physically. I definitely see that the physical CD has all but faded away for everyone under 25, but I also know that there are MILLIONS who are still religious about the process of buying a CD: unwrapping it, putting in the player, browsing the booklet, and so on.

We don’t yet do this, but the time is coming when it will be imperative for us to have digital download cards for sale at our merch tables. The card essentially acts as a physical representation of your album on iTunes. People buy the card, and then enter the access code when they get home. iTunes dumps the album onto their computer, and that’s that. Most bands have already implemented this practice.

Fiona: Are online piracy and illegal file-sharing problems for independent artists like yourself?

Shane: Sure, but not any one of us can do anything about it. In the Christian music industry, there seems to be a higher level of integrity when it comes to this, but if people honestly can’t afford to buy our music, I WANT them to download it –  at least then we have the opportunity to make them our fan.

Fiona: The design of the Wiebes’ CD packages is obviously really important to you, because they’re so professional looking. If, as suggested, music sales are going to online formats, where the physical product is less important, what role do you see for the music’s package or presentation?

Shane: Most of our fans are between the ages of 25 and 49. Many of the people in this demographic (including myself) still appreciate having a physical copy of a CD, even if we just look at it once, import it into our computer, and then put it on our shelf. Furthermore, there’s a level of purpose involved in buying an artist’s CD; you’re supporting them in a tangible way. So presenting and merchandising our product will remain crucial.

The cover of The Wiebes' latest record, The Hymns Collection. (credit: thewiebesmusic.com)

The cover of The Wiebes’ latest record, The Hymns Collection. (credit: thewiebesmusic.com)

That said, an excellent album cover will remain important forever! This digital generation, more than any before it, is impacted by high-quality images.

The digitalization of albums also makes things like animated or video album covers possible – instead of just a static image, I believe album covers will soon contain video or other forms of animation.

Fiona: Going further than that, there are also some music industry analysts who say that the future of recorded music is not in saving sound files on your own computer, but saving them in a “cloud” server like Spotify or Rdio, where you can access them with whatever digital device you happen to be using. Do you think that this is going to happen? If it does, how will that affect how you work?

Shane: I do think this will happen. In an age where we can quickly record terabytes of high definition video on our cell phones, digital storage, in the most convenient way we can get it, is exploding. We seem to have this expectation of technology that if we can’t do it wirelessly, then it shouldn’t be done at all (at least I do). The ‘cloud’ will help us solve frustrations surrounding having all of our music accessible on all of our devices. Personally, I can’t see any negative implications of the ‘cloud’ for us musicians, and because we outsource our digital distribution to CD Baby and iTunes, I can’t see it affecting how I do my job.

Fiona: There are also some music industry analysts who point to computers and the Internet as the technological tools that have allowed independent artists to make a career without major label support (e.g. lowered recording costs because of programs like GarageBand, being able to collaborate through Skype). Can you talk about whether technology has changed how you work, compared to when you first started recording?

Shane: YES! When I recorded my first album, GarageBand and Skype didn’t even exist (and I’m only thirty). Musicians love applications like Skype – they help us do everything from co-write with friends around the world, to stay in touch with family while on tour. In my own personal experience, GarageBand has helped us achieve higher calibre production. Not being a trained recording engineer, the simplicity of a program like GarageBand can aid me in more accurately communicating an idea I have to my producer, and from there, the idea gets built on. Less time is wasted in pre-production in the studio, and more time is spent getting the final product perfect!

Fiona: And….when are you going to finish your degree?

Shane: Sigh….. not a month goes by that I don’t think about it. I have such warm memories of my time at UFV, with amazing profs like you. And I think… “I could use THAT kind of academic stimulus in my life”. But, as I learned in ECON 101, time is a scarce resource, perhaps the scarcest of them all. And for now, my specialization brings me to music… it’s been a wonderful ride, and it gets better every day. I WILL finish my degree though, that’s a promise!

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(I’m going to hold him to that promise….)

If you’d like to hear what Shane and Angela do, or want to learn more about them and their careers, please visit the Wiebes’ website. You can find their music on iTunes and CD Baby – and you can watch each week’s episode of The Living Room on YouTube.

One comment

  1. This couple is simply awesome and has blessed so many lives through there gift of music… Im a fan I HUGE fan and believe amentsly in there ministry…God has got HUGE plans for them so WATCH out world 🙂

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