Derek Sivers

Entrepreneur, programmer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.

Interviewed by CIRAA

I was interviewed by Aisha Wickham Thomas, Executive Director of the Canadian Independent Recording Artists' Association (CIRAA), who gave me permission to reprint our interview here.


Your advice to artists on marketing and promotion is well-documented, but what is the main strategy for artists to balance the creative and entrepreneurial duties in order to capitalize on the opportunities that this new DIY world has presented?

I encourage artists to realize that the marketing of their music is just an extension of the same creativity that created their music. It should be fun!

After you write a melody and harmony, you make creative decisions on how to arrange it, then how to perform it.

After that, you make creative decisions on how to record and mix it. The amount of distortion or effects, for example.

After that, you make creative decisions on how to package it. The band name, the album title, the album artwork, the photos.

These are all just further expressions of the original song idea.

My point is that the marketing is just the next step. It should be as creative as anything else. Creative decisions on how to get it to fans, how to approach sponsors, even what you say when you call up the venue owner to try to get bookings. It's all just further expression of the music, and can be just as creative as the rest of the process.

What was the main motivation behind you writing the e-book “How to Call Attention to Your Music”? What type of response have you received from independent artists? Do you have plans to write more books in the near future?

Those are mostly articles I wrote over the past 10 years in response to people's questions. They've all been free online for years as separate web pages, but now that I put them together in PDF form for easy printing, people are thrilled! I'm really surprised, honestly.

I'm always going to keep writing anything I think can help. And I guess I've learned I should keep publishing them as e-books every now and then, yes.

When talking about your career evolution, you've mentioned that you spent time “working inside the music industry just enough to know I didn't like that side of thing”. What were those roles and what specifically did you not like about that side of the business?

I ran the library at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing in New York City from 1990 to 1992.

Most deals I saw were based on friends-of-friends and he-said-she-said stuff. Successful artists would come into my library and vent about how they were no longer in control of their music, not allowed to make the choices they wanted, not allowed to release the songs they wanted to.

Rebellion is what drew me to music in the first place, and I still have that spirit of never answering to anyone. So it was personally revolting to see that once an artist signed their rights over to a label, that label was now the boss that owned their music and could tell them what to do. I realized I wanted no part of that.

Of course we want to touch on the recent news that you sold CD Baby. You’ve spoken about how you weren’t very involved in running the business from a day-to-day standpoint for quite some time and that you were interested in pursuing some new interests. Explain how the deal with Disc Makers evolved, and why you made the decision to move on to something new.

It was just a personal challenge. I like to push myself to never get comfortable. I started CD Baby over 10 years ago, so it was just time to challenge myself to take all of these new ideas I've had for the past few years, and turn them into reality.

As for Disc Makers, I had always been impressed with their operation, so I gave them first dibs. I had much higher offers from other companies, but Disc Makers were my first choice, so I'm glad it worked out.

You recently stated that “CD Baby is in better hands now, and I'm off to new things.” What are the newest projects that you have on the go?

Mostly educational things for artists. You may have noticed that even though I was running a music distribution company, I always had a heavy focus on artist education. Now I can give that my full attention.

A series of success stories will share the details of what the most successful independent artists are doing.

A series of documentary shorts will profile the venue bookers, magazine writers, film/tv music supervisors, etc. Taking a video camera into their office and showing things from their point of view. It's important for musicians to understand what it's like to be on the receiving end of their music. To understand the frustrations and how they can help make their jobs easier.

But my pet project is MuckWork : a system for remote assistants to help artists do all the boring uncreative dirty-work that goes with being an independent musician.

Talk a bit about MuckWork and how the concept behind that fits into the new “Do It Yourself” music world.

I always encourage artists to turn off their computer and focus on their unique value to the world - their writing, recording, and performing - not in the endless clicking on MySpace.

I hate to see amazing musicians or songwriters spend hours a day doing the completely-uncreative work of updating profiles, approving friends, registering copyrights, researching venues, etc.

I'd love to tell them all to hire an assistant, but you know how that goes. So I thought if there was a great network of assistants that was optimized to take care of the work that musicians needed, it could be cheap and easy for any musician (with no management experience) to dump their dirty work on us.

On your site, you’ve got a section with all your recordings from 1989-99, with the line “They're all free for the taking. If you'd like to record and sell your own version of any of these songs, you have my advance permission, and I'd love to hear the final result!” What are some of the results you’ve seen from this? Have you had a lot of response from artists taking you up on the offer?

None, no. Maybe songs are like business ideas or babies. Everyone's got their own. They don't want to hear yours.

Canadian Independent Recording Artists Association