Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Music / April 11, 2012

Surviving, thriving in the music world

Bella Ruse offers tips on how to make it as an

independent musician

By Katy Sutcliffe

Co-Mosaic Editor

Attending orientation for a Ph.D. program in psychology, Kay Gillette, one-half of the band Bella Ruse, recalled a professor sitting her down with fellow students and offering a warning: if psychology was not the only thing that could make them happy, quit right then.

Gillette did. Instead of starting her Ph.D., she moved to Minneapolis, Minn. and joined with Joseph Barker to form Bella Ruse. The group, which has developed their music without the help of a manager or record label, came to Knox this past Friday and spoke about how to survive as an independent musician.

Gillette’s most stringent advice was the same her professor had given her.

“If you can be happy in any other way — if music isn’t the only thing that makes you happy — then don’t be a musician,” she said.

For those fated to a musical life, Barker and Gillette broke down survival into a five-part strategy.

“It’s awesome to write songs and perform them … but mostly what you’re doing is not music,” Gillette said, noting that financial viability came only through hard work on the part of the artist.


Barker and Gillette advocated for a band doing their own recording, using home equipment such as a MacBook, rather than renting out studio space, something Barker said was expensive and didn’t leave you with enough time to tweak songs.

“The average listener can’t hear what microphone you’re singing into,” Barker said. Instead, he argued that the most important things in recordings were the quality of the songs themselves and how well they were performed. Beyond that, no fancy equipment was necessary.

“Anyone can record,” he said.


It isn’t enough for a band to have great music.

“You have awesome music, but you also want to sell yourself as a musician,” Gillette said. She emphasized the necessity of a band deciding on a specific image and genre than an audience could recognize and identify with.

“People want a story,” she said. “[They want] to be a part of something they connect with and understand.”

Barker and Gillette do all of their design — from CD cases to concert posters — themselves, even learning HTML to design their website. This not only saved them money but helped them build relationships with other artists, something they recommended Knox students do as well.

“You’re in an awesome community where you have students willing to do this for cheap,” Gillette said. “Exchange your music for art. Those relationships are so important.”


One area in which both Barker and Gillette thought it worth investing financially was radio promotion. Blindly sending out demo CDs to radio station is useless, Barker said, since even college stations receive hundreds of albums a week, far more than they can listen to.

“Save your pennies and hire someone to do that promotion for you,” Gillette said, noting that people exist who already have relationships with radio stations and can ensure your album gets a listen.

Building a fan base, however, required more than the radio, Gillette and Barker had to start from the ground up.

“It starts with Facebooking your friends,” Gillette said. From there, she said, collect emails at every concert and start a mailing list. Suburban newspapers, Barker said, were more likely to give a smaller coverage; an article in advance of a concert could draw a large, enthusiastic crowd.

For the duo, good self-promotion came down to selling yourself.

“If you’re not confident about your own music, no one else is going to be,” Gillette said.


When booking venues, Barker said, it’s not worth looking online. Instead, he recommended contacting other bands with similar sounds and asking what venues were successful for them.

The biggest priority, Gillette said, was finding a venue appropriate for the audience size.”

“You always want it to be full,” Gillette said.


Although licensing used to be a taboo in the independent music world, the practice is becoming more and more successful — and something that, according to Gillette, is akin to “free money.”

“We do a lot of licensing,” Barker said, who said the band receives a fee every time someone plays their recording, uses it in local commercials or even streams it online.

“The reality is that this is a business,” Gillette said.

How-to: survive as an independent musician

Straight from Bella Ruse, here are the most important things to keep in mind if you want to make it as an independent musician.


When recording music: “Find a physical space that makes you comfortable,” Barker said.


“Package yourself,” Gillette said.


Make sure your music is on every single possible website. In addition, “being willing to give away your music is really important,” Gillette said.


“If people shut the hell up then you know it’s a good place,” Gillette said.


Take advantage of every licensing opportunity.

Katy Sutcliffe

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