How to make a living from your music? Among the questions that an independent musician can ask himself, this one is essential. And streaming makes it all the more delicate: the golden age of $20 CDs is over and many people wonder how Spotify's payment system can allow them to live.
But making a living from streaming is possible, as the journey of DLJ, a 25-year-old French lo-fi hip-hop composer and producer, shows. Since his debut album in 2017, he's racked up over 100 million streams across all platforms while setting up his own music label Retro Jungle Records in 2019, as well as a YouTube channel.
Today, DLJ lives from his online music. But if his rapid ascent can make some envious, his success did not happen by itself. We asked him a few questions to learn about his journey.
Can you tell us about the birth and rise of the DLJ project?
I played piano for 10 years in a classical setting, which gave me a musical culture and ear, but DLJ's history, beatmaking, and composition is a whole other world.
In 2016 I finished a bachelor's degree in Music & Sound Technologies in Portsmouth, England, during which I experimented with several styles of production, hip hop, synthwave, house. I really got hooked on hip hop and boom bap and I discovered little by little the world of "lo-fi", all these tracks sampled from vinyl, passed through samplers like the SP404 or produced with MPC 2000XL...
It became a passion to discover this world which was not necessarily mine, culturally and rhythmically!
It was far from my rock references and what I knew (Queen, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, etc...). I discovered J Dilla, Nujabes, Knxwledge, Ras G, Flying Lotus and so many others, as well as the new Lo-fi scene on Soundcloud. I released my first lo-fi album in 2017, followed by several singles, which today count several million listens on Spotify.
It didn't come by itself: since the beginning of DLJ, I was working on the side: I worked as a radio host, a music-for-picture composer, and a sound designer for various audiovisual production companies.
It was only in 2019 that I was able to dedicate myself to the DLJ project. I had a job as a sound designer on the side, which I had to leave to live the DLJ adventure 100%. Even if I liked very much what I was doing, I had the opportunity to live from my music. My employer was very understanding and supported me in my decision, so I seized the unique opportunity.
"I quickly understood that it was possible to make a living from music, especially from royalties, but that the path was long and depended on the quality and communication around the projects."
How did iMusician help you in this adventure?
My sound engineer friend, Smilin Beats (who mastered my first album) told me about iMusician. When I asked him if he knew a distributor for my first musical project, he told me that they were serious, with a French after-sales service as well because I needed help for my very first digital release.
I had a few email exchanges with the French managers of iMusician who guided me through the first months for my releases, and gave me the necessary details so that I could fill in the forms on the site (big up to Selma and Jordan).
I then quickly understood that it was possible to make a living from my music, especially from royalties, but that the road was long and depended on the quality and the communication around the projects.
How did you manage to get so many streams on the platforms?
I didn't foresee the success on streaming platforms, but it didn't come by itself either! My first album "Flying Leaf" had accumulated 1500 listens over the year 2017. I hadn't released a new album after that for several months, and my music promotion had been quite limited.
I then realized with the singles that I was releasing that networking, music marketing, and word of mouth were very important and slowly I went from 100 listeners a month to 8,000 on streaming platforms, with the support of playlist curators and with the release of several singles.
I then released a track called "Let Me Know" under the Parisian label Hip Dozer, which took me to another milestone of 20,000 listeners a month through their playlist on Spotify. I was thrilled to see this development and then got my first editorial playlist from Spotify in October 2018. This one jumped my track Blue Shades to several million listens and earned me many new fans. I then kept working on my network, communication, and releasing tracks regularly, without putting pressure on myself not to lose quality.
Lessons to learn from DLJ's journey to make a living from streaming
If DLJ's journey is an example, each artist and each project is unique. There is no secret to making a living from your music or a magic formula for success. DLJ's advice will help you adopt the right attitude to grow your fanbase and make money: an attitude made of hard work, patience, collaboration, and boldness.
Breaking into music is not easy: it's through a subtle mix of hard work, learning from a network of professionals, taking risks and opportunities that DLJ has managed, in only three years, to turn an amateur project into a musical career.
This is what every independent artist can take away from this journey:
- Don't be afraid to work hard.
One thing is for sure, DLJ's journey did not happen alone. This is the most obvious lesson: breaking into music as an independent artist takes determination and hard work.Choose the right professionals to surround yourself with.
- Being an independent artist does not mean you are alone!
Communication, press relations, social media management, etc.. Managing your musical project is a real undertaking and if you want to put all the chances on your side, you must be able to surround yourself with trusted partners and collaborators. Starting with your online music distributor.
- Understand and exploit the way the music industry works today.
In the age of streaming, strategies for selling music are changing: the advent of the playlist, for example, means that an independent artist has a better chance of being discovered by releasing several singles, rather than focusing on an album. DLJ understands this: he climbed the ladder of the Spotify algorithm by releasing single after single. By analyzing his streams, he understood the playlist potential of his project and adjusted his strategy. If you're not sure which one is right for your music project, we've compiled a list of the best release strategies in the streaming age.
- Seize opportunities when they arise.
The road to making a living from your music online is long and winding and you often need, especially at the beginning of your career, to be able to count on additional income: via industry jobs like DLJ, or by diversifying your musical income (merchandising, merchandising products, private concerts...)
The example of DLJ shows that it is important to remain cautious when launching a project. It also shows that it is crucial to feel when it is time to focus on your music and to dare to invest 100% of your time in it.
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