This guest post by Kenneth Estrada y Santiago originally appeared on the Soundfly Blog Flypaper
Over the last 15 years, I’ve been part of seven different musical projects. I’ve played in all kinds of bands: a shoegaze trio, an experimental metal duo, an electronic pop group, an indie rock band, an ambient octet, a punk rock quartet, and a German teen pop group.
I ended up leaving all of them. Why? For various reasons, sure, but all with the same thread of ambition attached: I had a vision for myself and my own music making that these projects weren’t entirely satisfying. I wanted to write my own songs. But most importantly, I didn’t want to fight for every single idea I had in my head anymore.
Writing music together, in collaboration, and compromising on your vision in order to make space for a variety of ideas and voices, can lead to an incredible creative output. It’s one of the great joys of being in a band, and it’s a fascinating process to watch and become involved in when it works. But there comes a time when every artist should seek to be able to transmit their vision and voice without compromise. For artists who start craving that freedom, it will always feel like something is missing when they show up to band practice. That’s how you might realize it’s time to think about starting your solo career.
Before you make the move
Don’t get me wrong — just because you’re looking to start a solo project, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave your band right away. There are special bonds in every long-term band relationship, and you should always try to keep them intact. You’ve shared so many memories, and you’re probably closer with your bandmates in some ways than you are with some of your best friends.
So don’t drop everything at once unless it really is time to do so. The creative gap can be filled without having to replace one with the other. Take time to explore some ideas on your own and really think, “Would this sound better with the other members playing, or just myself?” Perhaps some of the ideas you come up with will suit one project and not the other. See where it leads and feel it out — there’s no need to rush.
I had to form five bands until I finally realized that a solo project is the only way for me to do exactly what I’d wanted to do all along. And this isn’t even my first attempt at a solo career! When I first decided to go solo, I still had to decide what musical influences I actually wanted to emulate, and whether I should be writing songs in German or English. It didn’t take long before my motivation dwindled and I needed to retool for the project, so this is sometimes a slow process. That’s why I wanted to share with you the following thoughts on how to responsibly go about starting a solo project.
Tips for starting your solo project
The journey becomes much easier if your project is built on a solid foundation. Like a home, your solo project can become the familiar base to which you can always return, no matter how far away you’ve traveled. Take a pen and a piece of paper, and write it all down — all the stuff you’re thinking about when you ponder your solo music.
1.1 Define yourself
Step one is to draw out sketches and write down what you’d like to incorporate into your sound, your influences, and really anything that just interests you. Visualize yourself on stage, use colors, words, ideas, images, put it all in there. I guess this resembles the process of making a mood board. Essentially, you’re creating the building blocks of your brand — and a brand is nothing more than a set of characteristics that, when combined, readily define who you are and how people can connect with you.
What is it that you want to “say” or “share” with the world via this project? What is missing in the world of music, that you want to create?
1.2 Understand your goals
Sometimes the best way to start a new project is to think all the way through to the end of what you’d like to accomplish. Whether that project defines who are you or not, perhaps this project needs a clear end in order to function. If not, it’s still always helpful to develop a set of milestones through which you can test your progress.
1.3 Fit the pieces together
Now that you’ve got your “brand” identity, your influences, your message, and your goals all laid out, it has to come together in the music. That may sound like a lot of pressure, but it’s really not so dramatic. Think of it this way: whenever you write a song, you now have this incredible lens through which to examine its effectiveness, and you can tweak it as much as you want until it reflects that vision and identity you’ve already laid out.
Having that wealth of identity work already done also makes it much easier to conceptualize the visual artwork associated with your project, like album art, music video aesthetics, and artist photos.
1.4 Now give your baby a name
Are you going to use your real name? Or a version of it? Or call your project something entirely different? Perhaps something plural to give the impression that it’s a new “band?” Your project’s name carries the mood and image representing what you’re trying to do as an artist. Think long and hard, because changing the name of a project is annoying and complicated.
1.5 Don’t rush this process
Identities come together over entire lifetimes, not overnight. Give your project a bit of time to marinate, and make sure you feel comfortable performing within the guidelines you’ve set for it. You’ll feel more confident and able to clearly articulate your work — and the more honest it feels to you, the more honestly the music will come through to your fans (new and old).
1.6 Have fun
This is probably the single most important point. Don’t start anything if it’s not fun for you. Don’t force things to happen just because you think it’s the right move. Fun gives you the power to stay in action. It’s what fuels your car(eer).
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Tips for promoting your solo project
2.1 Social media (obviously!)
Alright, you’re ready to go public with your new solo project now. How are you going to differentiate this new project from both your old band and your own self? Start by creating artist pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or whatever social platforms you regularly use. Through sharing information, content, imagery, and unique sounds, you can easily use this space to separate the brand identities so there’s no confusion. If you have social pages for your other projects, those are great places to announce the new project.
2.2 Know the audience you’re targeting
If you’re like me and speak a few languages and live all over the place, it can be kind of hard to actually communicate with your audience. But communicating through music is just as hard sometimes. In my case, I realized early on that fans of my kind of music probably didn’t live in Germany as much as in the U.K. and North America, so I wrote my songs and my social media posts entirely in English. It’s important to learn as much about the audience for your music as possible, and meet them where they are. Creating your art in a vacuum doesn’t really work unless you’re already super famous and people follow your every move, but don’t pander too much to a hypothetical fan community or you’ll risk leaving your identity behind.
2.3 Do whatever it takes to make your music as widely available as possible
Even if you only have one song recorded, release it! Get it out there and use it to your advantage. Now, go show people what your project is all about, later you can worry about releasing physical albums, touring, merch, etc. Once your song or EP is on platforms like Bandcamp, YouTube, and Spotify, start working on getting it into playlists. Getting your song into a Spotify playlist these days is like investing in stocks: sometimes it’ll stagnate and go nowhere, but every now and then you hit big and can see some serious returns!
You can also check out websites like Jamendo Music, for example, where creators are looking for free music to use for their videos. This option is pretty interesting and brings me to my next point.
2.4 Open yourself up to be seen
One powerful way to do that is to assign some of your tracks a Creative Commons license, perhaps with a clause about attributing credit. If someone stumbles across your music and wants to use it, this could potentially open up hundreds more opportunities for you. Of course, it’s entirely up to you about what you charge to use your music, and sometimes it’s worth waiting for the big fish to bite, instead of giving it away for free.
Check out this collection of articles, and learn more about licensing and the world of music royalties with Soundfly’s free course, How to Get All the Royalties You Never Knew Existed.
2.5 Play tons of shows
It’s never a bad time to get in front of an audience. Don’t wait for your fanbase to grow — take all the opportunities you can to advance a new project forward. Especially if you don’t have a lot of recorded material out there yet, or you haven’t had the time or momentum to build your social following, playing gigs is a fun and rewarding way to start getting people familiar with your sound.
And on a similar note, if you still don’t have a physical album to sell after just starting a new solo project, make some DIY, handmade merch or cheap stuff to give away. The goal is to spread the word and spread the reputation that you put your heart into your work. Making sure people go home with a download code or something to remember you by, like a sticker or a button (especially if it’s made by hand), is the best way to start spreading the word at live shows.
2.6 Talk it up
Be available to anyone and everyone interested to chat. When you first start out solo, there’s no hiding behind other members of the band; the spotlight is on you. So go plant yourself behind the merch table and make eye contact and connections.
Well, that’s it for now. From here, a circulation of daily practice will take over as you are used to doing what you always do — creating awesome music and watching out for new opportunities to present themselves. That’s what I’ve learned over the last 15 years. It has always worked, and still works for me as a musician today.
One last tip: Don’t give up! Fear and insecurity is normal, but don’t let it get the best of you. Those feelings are almost always temporary, and should never keep you from doing what you love. Take risks when you believe it’s worth it. There is a place for everyone out there!
Kenneth Estrada y Santiago is a producing songwriter, musician, and YouTuber, based in Berlin, Germany. In his YouTube channel, SHOEGAZER he reviews effect pedals, teaches guitar chords and interviews weller known bands of the shoegaze scene. He was the frontman of the band Downhill Willows and releases his own albums on Bandcamp.