Each one I would define as an “indie,” but you may be wondering: what does that even mean nowadays?
5 key aspects of an indie creator
Firstly, I’ll list what I believe are the five key characteristics of an indie creator. I’ll say a bit more about each one below.
An indie creator…
- Is an individual who creates content.
- Owns their content (including: they’re not beholden to external investors).
- Is in a niche market; i.e. they’re not part of the mainstream.
- Controls their career or business path.
- Builds a direct relationship with their audience.
Now let’s explain each of the five aspects of being an indie.
Is an individual who creates content
All of the creators I’ve interviewed so far are one-person operations. I expect that will be the case in the majority of the creator interviews I do.
Often they have a DIY philosophy too, and directly manage most aspects of their business. That said, it’s smart to outsource the specialist parts of your creative work; for example when I self-published my novel, I hired a book designer and an editor as contractors. But I oversaw everything and of course had the final say.
It’s not essential to be a sole operator. I include in this definition founding CEOs of niche content startups, provided they created the content strategy for their business and continue to direct it. (Perhaps I say this in order to claim I was an indie creator in my ReadWriteWeb days. Which I think is true, especially since I started it on my own.)
Owns their content
A startup, however, must be bootstrapped to qualify as an indie. If you’re VC or angel-backed, I’d argue you don’t fully own your content because your investors have a stake – sometimes a significant one, if you’re trying to get big fast.
Most individual creators own their content. In my profile of cellist Zoe Keating, I noted that she owns the rights to her music and controls the distribution. She puts it up herself on iTunes and other platforms like Bandcamp.
Note that it doesn’t really matter what platforms Keating uses to distribute her music. The key is that she owns the rights and so can decide for herself how to sell it.
In an ideal world, open platforms are the best distribution method. For example, it’s much better to publish a blog on WordPress, than on a centralized platform like Medium or Facebook. But ultimately it doesn’t mean you’re not an indie if you choose the latter. Sometimes you have to go where the audience is.
Is in a niche market
Being outside the mainstream is perhaps the most common understanding of what “indie” means.
Indie music, for example, is a genre of music that is “produced independently from commercial record labels or their subsidiaries, a process that may include an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing.”
Indie films is a similar concept. In both cases, the creator doesn’t work for one of the large corporations that still dominate the creative industries.
Controls their career or business path
The ability to set your own agenda and create the type of content you want is vital to being an indie.
One note on this: you won’t necessarily control what is allowed on the platform you use. Tal Oren the YouTuber and Rachel Bracken the Instagrammer have both had issues with platform censorship. But regardless, they are free to continue making the content they want – even if they have to shift to another platform. Oren has already begun favouring Facebook over YouTube, due to the latter’s stricter rules on what content is acceptable.
Builds a direct relationship with their audience
This is the aspect of being a creator that the internet has changed the most. In the old days – that is, the twentieth century – indie artists found it very difficult to have a direct relationship with their fans. Usually there were intermediaries, aka middlemen. For an author, her publisher was the primary intermediary. If a fan wanted to reach out to the artist, they might send a letter to the publisher – but they’d likely get no response.
These days, almost all indie authors have an online presence. Most can be reached directly via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Many also have their own websites. It’s different for mainstream authors, who can still rely on the old tactics of letting their publisher ‘protect’ them from the masses. But if you’re an indie author struggling to break through, you’re almost required to use online tools to make connections with potential readers.
Having a direct connection to fans might also be key for future distribution, if a dominant platform like Amazon or Facebook suddenly drops their support of indies. As Eliot Peper told me in last week’s creator interview, “authors (and publishers) who build direct relationships with their core audiences will be able to send those readers elsewhere, if or when they choose to build or use new distribution channels.”
I’m not suggesting this is the definitive definition of ‘indie’ for the creative industries in the internet era. But the five points above are, I think, a good guideline to what it takes to be an indie creator in 2019.
One thing I didn’t mention, because it’s a characteristic that can’t easily be pinned down, is the fiercely independent nature of many of the indie creators I know. They don’t want other people, especially middle managers at corporations, meddling in their creative work. These creators have a vision for what they want to produce, and – thanks to low cost digital tools and the global internet market – they can successfully implement that vision on their own, or at least under their control.