Independent used to mean “can’t get signed” or “not good enough” or “no one will listen to me,” But with the enormous growth of streaming and a whole heap of tools that let artists make it on their own, ‘independent’ has become a badge of honor—And more importantly a sustainable career for music creators.
Luke Rathborne is an independent musician by choice. Why? Because in today’s music industry it simply makes sense…
The New-York-via-Maine singer songwriter serves an irresistible sound that captures the daydreams that float between the bedroom and the garage—A polished jangle that stays in your head long after the amp tubes have cooled.
But it’s Rathborne’s career arc as an independent artist that lets him make human and organic music. There are no walls between Rathborne and you, the listener. No go-betweens. Just him and his sound. His journey from Punk bands and college radio in Maine has led to a body of work that kept one vision in mind: Getting his music in front of as many people as possible on his own terms.
Rathborne has done just that. A combination of self-releasing, self-promotion, self-management and pretty much every other ‘self’ you can think of has let Rathborne keep control of his music and preserve the self behind the sound—Racking up over 10 million Spotify streams along the way. It’s DIY artists like Rathborne that inspired LANDR Promolinks—a tool that allows artist to share their streaming links on one simple page.
The present and future image of the modern independent musician could truly be drawn from Rathborne’s silhouette. We sat down with Rathborne to find out how he’s made it work, why your best asset is you, and how a new model for ‘making it’ is emerging from the streaming revolution.
Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get your start?
I grew up in Maine and played in punk bands from the age of twelve. I had access to a local college radio station and realized there was a recording studio in it as well. From there, I kinda got curious about recording music and wanted to do it. I realized that if I did a radio show it would give me access to go in the backroom and use the recording studio. I did that for the first record I ever made. It took me probably 2 years. That’s how I made my first record After Dark.
After I graduated High School I moved to New York and After Dark was the record I used to start off everything in my music career. From that point on I continued making and recording records all the time, with producers and sometimes contributing to other productions.
Is that where your DIY approach to music started then?
Yeah, fast forward from all that and I eventually started a label called True Believers that put out my record called Soft, and some other singles. That record did really well in what I’d call “the new platform of music:” streaming and all those “new” ways of discovering and listening.
But to make all that work I’ve also done a lot of touring through Europe and the US. The more music I would release, the better ideas I would have of how to promote an album, how to tour an album, how to release an album, or just how you get people involved and listening.
I’d meet with A&Rs and label people, but it always ended up making more sense to just self-distribute and self-release. I’ve tried some different approaches, and released some stuff with other people, but I do find that I always come back to doing everything on my own in the end.
YOU inevitably have the most time for yourself. There’s different circumstances that come and go, but in the end as a musician I always felt like I was gonna do all that stuff for myself anyways.
"You'll end up going further because you don't have to rely on a hundred different people for what is ultimately up to you in the end."
So you approach your music knowing that you’re always gonna be able to take the best care of yourself if you can put yourself in that position?
Absolutely, the psychology of only having yourself to rely on is so much different. You’ll end up going further because you don’t have to rely on a hundred different people for what is ultimately up to you in the end.
Your newest single was recorded at Philip Glass’ Studio. What was that process like and how did that come about?
Working at Looking Glass happened pretty organically. I came upon the studio while I was trying to get a microphone fixed. The tech was at the studio when I went to meet him so I fell into working there through that.
That’s also how I ended up working with the members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I really wanted Clarinets on a track. Through the contacts at the studio I was able to request a woodwind section. They said “here’s every clarinet player in the city” (laughs).
The musicians I was able to connect with from that list were some of the most amazing players in the world. Not just woodwind either, we ended up playing with Julia Kent on cello, Tahrah Cohen on drums and Maxim Moston on violin. Sessions like that. Those people are actual geniuses!
How do you think DIY distribution opens up possibilities for artists like yourself.
I think digital distribution has become the most important method of putting your music in front of an audience.
Physically distributing a release is important, but where are you going to physically distribute it to? It’s not gonna go to Tower Records anymore. Those days are over. It’s important for all musicians to start viewing digital as the most important pathway of distribution.
I think with LANDR there’s a stress on retaining your royalties, which is hugely important if you’re trying to make it on your own. A service like that is pivotal if you’re doing it yourself.
With streaming services, artists will start to find that it really is a whole new landscape, and that there is a way to monetize your music.
"The more music I would release, the better ideas I would have of how to promote an album, how to tour an album, how to release an album"
How did you make platforms like Spotify work for you? How would you explain that to a musician that aspires to the same goal?
A lot of the reason why I’ve always done my own releases and distribution is that you can encounter sooooo much rejection. You can choose to be defined by that rejection. But at the same time there’s always that voice inside me saying “I connect on this deeply enough where I know that other people will too.”
The problem with involving other people is that only you can understand that personal voice. Doing it on your own lets you trust the mentality that there’s something of value there that’s worth sharing.
I look at it like I’m just stepping over some sort of buffer or middle person that might end up telling you that you can’t do something, or that your art isn’t viable.
Doing my own label has always been about trusting the idea that artistic intuition has value. Coming into your music passionately believing in something that you made is always better than coming into it with a bunch of different priorities and motivations. In the end, you’re your own best asset.
It can finally be as simple as ‘you have to make really good music.’ It puts the focus back on the importance of creating and making music you believe in. You get to focus on the fans and finding ways to get your music in front of the people that care. That gets to be your job again!
"In the end, you're your own best asset."
Do you think taste and word of mouth has become more important then?
The fact music has been democratized that much is really exciting. That’s what I mean by you being your own best asset. Someone in a small venue is going to look at you, and they’re gonna see YOU. Not a middle person representing you. It’s much more human.
The democratization has become about good music over business. It’s a great time right now because of that. In the past “business” would take a priority over that real genuine human connection to music that we finally get to enjoy again.
So what’s the one key thing you’re trying to do on your own?
My goal has always been the same: Get the songs I’m doing in front of as many people as possible. I’ve always felt like certain songs, songs in back catalogues that I go back to, when I listen to them it’s always a healthy thing to do. I think that if those songs being available can help me, then my stuff being available to as many people as possible will give my music the best chance to help people as well.
It’s the idea of your self-expression, doing what you believe in and the opportunity for other people to respond to that. It’s not a crazy dream anymore to think you can sustain yourself off that connection. That’s the ultimate dream.
Today I can create a body of work, and know that there will be a record coming out next year, but in the immediate sense I can focus on releasing singles and playing with the formula of getting them in front of the people it will help the most.
I don’t know if it comes from punk music or something, but it gives me so much satisfaction to do something that someone said I couldn’t do. I focus on that so much. Streaming is almost the same as that ‘F-U’ energy you get when some venue tells you they won’t do your show so you say “ok fine then we’ll rent a church and do the show there.”
Right now for releasing music there’s no rule-maker that can tell you where something should or shouldn’t go. You can define whatever you want.
That’s always going to be my ethos for better or worse: No limitations. Inevitably that will make you a true independent artist because it’s a very independent mindset. That approach just ends up meaning more to people. With the doors streaming has opened, you can make that mindset a career.
Photography by Landon Speers.