Has Pretty Lights Shown Indie Musicians The Way? #Opinion

BBack in August, we published an in-depth case study of Pretty Lights, the “analog electronica” act from Colorado brought to life by Derek Vincent Smith. From his very first productions under the moniker Pretty Lights, Smith has been experimenting with a host of groundbreaking and unconventional promotion tactics that tackle the new music industry’s problems and doubts head-on, without any compromise.

Note: The post is written by Yannick Servant, editor of The Digital Edge, a blog for music industry 2.0 by Official.fm.

The question the article asked was simple: is the “Pretty Lights way” the answer to being discovered and promoting your music in today’s new musical paradigm?

It received some very interesting and passionate feedback – there are clearly a lot of strong opinions out there. So, with the merry folks of Dotted Music, we decided to go a step further and ask the question directly to a wide range of key players in the business to get a debate brewing with some strong ideas for our industry.

You can read the result below. And this is just a starting point, so take to your keyboards, and let us know what you think!

And if you haven’t yet read the case study, here are broken down for you the three core ingredients of the Pretty Lights way:

  1. All of his music available for free download (with a “Donate” button) on his website to maximise outreach
  2. Concentrating on the experience of being a fan you create as a pre-requisite to fans investing in you
  3. Re-investing massively into the live performances to deliver on that “trademark” experience

If you were an artist starting out in the music industry today, would you do it the Pretty Lights way?


Loren Weisman

Loren Weisman

Loren Weisman: “Apply individually – Do not copy completely”

Loren Weisman is the author of The Artists Guide to Success in the Music Business 2nd Edition.

Pretty Lights shined brighter with a plan because of a higher wattage audience. The basic elements of the Pretty Lights approach is great and each aspect can be applied to artists, but it has to be applied in specified ways to make sure you garner the results you are looking for.

Everyone thought Amanda Palmer was trailblazing with Kickstarter. The part most missed was that she had an established, pre-existing and larger fan base already in place. The same story goes for Pretty Lights. Derek has been going strong well before he established his label and his new format. These elements are working for him and aspects of these elements can work for you, but if you don’t have the fan base he does, you might want to adjust to a plan that will work for you.

Should artists give away tracks? I think so. But not everything. Once you give something away, how do you expect to ever make money for potential licensing opportunities or sales as you are building up your audience. There is a happy medium. With Pretty Lights, it doesn’t need to be there and maybe once you get to that level of success, you can give away everything too, but for right now, you may want to split it up some.

Apply individually – Do not copy completely. Aspects of Pretty Lights are excellent marketing and promotional ideas that artists would be smart to apply. BUT… These elements need to be applied with the consideration of where an artist is at as well as being able to track for themselves what is working and what isn’t.

Read the full response here.



Lifelike: “There are nearly as many DJs as MacBook Pros”

Lifelike is a French producer who pioneered the “nu-disco” sound years before it took over indie charts worldwide with singles like “Discopolis” or “So Electric“.

I meet a lot of emerging artists these days, and I see them all struggle, with tiny payouts from live gigs and intense competition between DJs. Generally speaking, if you want my opinion, there are just too many players in the game, a problem clearly linked to the democratisation of computers and music software.

It’s reached dramatic proportions. There are nearly as many DJs around as there are MacBook Pros. So, yes, if doing it the Pretty Lights way got people to find out about me, even if it meant giving away my music for free, then why not, anything’s worth a try.

Jon Ostrow

Jon Ostrow

Jon Ostrow: “Give fans a unique experience”

Jon Ostrow is the Campaigns Director for Cyber PR. Follow him on Twitter @jon_ostrow.

The Pretty Lights way is really no different than The Grateful Dead or Phish way. Yes they had albums for sale, but the focus on their explosive fan base growth was the fact that they let people share taped shows (the former equivalent to the “free download” offer). Hundreds, and now even thousands of shows have been legally taped, and shared by diehard fans all over the world. These bands invested heavily into building a unique experience surrounding their live show, toured mercilessly year-round and allowed the fans to do the marketing for them.

I think this is a brilliant way to give your fans a unique experience and let them really become involved with your marketing machine and would absolutely do something similar if I was an artist starting out in the music industry today.

Christopher Knab

Christopher Knab

Christopher Knab: “Every act is not created equal”

Christopher Knab is a co-author of Music Is Your Business-the 4th Edition, available on Amazon.com.

I’m very pleased for Pretty Lights and the path to success he has discovered and worked hard for. However, HIS path is NOT your path!

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve come across an indie act that comes up with a unique idea that was put down by everyone at first, but worked for that act.

My point is simply this: When an artist, like Pretty Lights, breaks thru using truly alternative methods, then they start getting attention for what they’ve accomplished, and before you know it they are the talk of all the social media networks, magazines, blogs, etc. and suddenly unimaginative ‘copycat’ acts are blindly following in their footsteps!

Will what Pretty Lights is doing work for you? Probably not, because you are trying to take a shortcut to success, instead of doing your own pain-staking research on who YOUR fans are, (like he did) and how you might reach them.

Every act is different, every act is not created equal. So yes, study what he has done and learn from it, be inspired by him, but carve out your own path.

James Moore

James Moore

James Moore: “Invest in yourself”

James Moore is a founder of www.independentmusicpromotions.com.

I think it’s critical not to accept any one template, but I would certainly tear some pages from the Pretty Lights book, as he’s doing something very simple; thinking like an entrepreneur and using serious drive and business fortitude to make the creativity happen on a large scale.

Look at what The Weeknd did. It’s very similar. Many artists today have it backwards, recording an EP and becoming upset that no one is paying 99 cents for their tracks. Get popular. Invest in yourself. The money comes later.

Clyde Smith

Clyde Smith

Clyde Smith: “Take your path and keep learning”

Clyde Smith is a DIY music biz & music tech blogger @ Hypebot & Crowdfunding Music.

Pretty Lights employs a specific bundle of tactics including giving away all one’s music for free, connecting directly to fans via social media, offering fans the opportunity to pay and focusing on live shows as the key experience.

I would use those tactics based on how they fit with what I would try to do as an artist. Since we’re supposing I’ll base it on actual alternative paths that have faced me that are currently roads not taken.

Editor’s note: make sure to read Clyde’s full commentary at this location.

Giving away all one’s music for free: I think this works for Pretty Lights because he produces a hell of a lot of music. I just checked the site and he doesn’t seem to have as much of his back catalog readily available as a year or so ago. But he’s still got a heck of a lot of music from the last couple of years and that’s not something all artists can do.

However, I think Pretty Lights started hosting his own downloads before there were such an incredible array of options from BandCamp to BitTorrent Bundles. I wouldn’t host those downloads on my own site and would probably start off with BandCamp.

Long term I’d be most likely to use a mix of free, pay with a social action, set your own price and fixed price offerings.

Offering fans the opportunity to pay: There are so many tools and approaches to offering fans opportunities to pay now that it’s getting a lot easier. I would tailor the opportunities to whatever I was doing at the time though certainly employing now widespread techniques from pay-what-you-will for downloads to bundling recorded music and merch.

But I think the creative energy we’ve seen related to crowdfunding pledge rewards should be a reminder that every project can lead to unique offerings that fans will appreciate.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t take the exact same path as Pretty Lights but I would definitely pay attention and keep learning from what he’s doing.

Read the full response here.



Donovans: “Find your micro-trendsetters”

Donovans is a French producer who has released singles on high-profile labels like Fool’s Gold or Turbo Rec. He’s also the founder of 11 Heads Records and half of “Little Freaky Things“, a musical project with Mai Lan Chapiron.

When I look at the scene I’m a part of, I feel the “Pretty Lights” way is pretty much the norm. Most young artists are “obliged” to give away free content to their would-be fans from the very start. It could be free remixes or free EPs, the idea is to share your sounds with as many people as possible through blogs or social networks.

It’s a way of making your first step into the scene you’re shooting for, creating a sort of proto-fanbase composed of those individuals constantly on the lookout for new artists. Micro trendsetters, who will amplify your work through word of mouth. And this first fanbase is built by giving them interesting and fresh new content through non-mercantile exchanges.

Neil Gillis

Neil Gillis

Neil Gillis: “Engagement adds economic value”

Neil Gillis is a President of Round Hill Music, American Creative Rights Management Agency.

Pretty Lights is to be respected for having found a way that works for him and his family of artists. As a music publisher by trade, our “chain of causality” is a bit different, but does intersect with some of his ideas.

Basically, traditional publishers do not make direct income from touring or merchandising at those concerts. We do make indirect performance fees off the songs played at a concert based on Performing Rights Organizations Live Performance rate cards. Additionally, while downloads may be few and far between, the pennies per song per unit help in the overall business model.

A publisher’s concept of “engagement” is more on a business to business level as the eyes and ears of potential consumers who will get engaged by seeing and hearing something amazing in a TV show, film, ad, trailer, video game, etc. One essential difference comes from the fact that there is still a free market approach to pricing these opportunities. What this means is that the vehicle for engagement adds economic value to the artist/writers from the business user, and ultimately the consumer then chooses how they’d like to participate. It may not be rocket science, but when done right (and with some hard work and luck), it can benefit all – artists, publishers, and audiences – in the chain.

Read the full response here.


  • bassling

    What’s Derek Vincent’s music like?

    Seems there are a bunch of opinions here from people about marketing but little discussion of artistic merit.

    The good thing about marketing is that no one is really totally sure what works. Which is a bit like what’s good about music too.

  • The Legendary Frank

    @bassling:disqus The discussion is about marketing. Artistic merit does not come into it and as you say no one is sure what it is about music that works. Obviously if music is being marketed it has to have some merit or it will bomb and that applies to X Factor music as well.

    However to have “good” music isn’t enough. I know dozens of bands whose music is very good but it’s unlikely they will get anywhere because of many factors – poor knowledge of marketing being one of them.

    I agree that no one is really sure what works as regards marketing but we do know what doesn’t work.

    I think the principles of marketing can be boiled down into one sentence:

    If you don’t really know your fans then you’re going nowhere.

  • Thanks for the comment! And thanks Frank for the comment too, you were a minute quicker than me :)

    Derek’s music is very good, and that’s enough for this discussion, in my opinion. There is a market, just as for any genre basically. The quality of music is extremely important, and it is high in Pretty Lights’ case, hence no one has been focusing on it within this particular debate, but the quality is not enough for success.

    This documentary covers the musical side pretty well btw: http://youtu.be/C402fprLRDw

  • Great article – always good to have opinions from so many respected names in one place, too!

    I think in this day and age it’s important to offer something for free – whether that’s a full album or EP will depend largely on the artist. In my opinion, offering a free track in exchange for an email address is something that most, if not all, independent artists should be doing. Offer something you weren’t planning on releasing – a demo, a live track, an acoustic version of one of your most popular tracks… something that is exclusive and gives people a good idea of what your music is like.

    Offer streaming on your website, but don’t give everything away for free. Or at least, don’t give everything away for free forever. I know a lot of artists who are giving away their first EP away for free in exchange for email addresses, and it’s working for them in building their fanbase. That way they actually have an audience to market to when they have a paid EP or album coming out.

    What people have to realise is that the industry has changed, and following the model set by the major labels pre-2000s is not going to work for independent artists. Hell, it’s not even really working for many of the majors anymore. Give people an experience, know what your audience wants, and overdeliver.

    At the end of the day, your music has to be good. All the marketing and free downloads in the world are not going to help you if your music isn’t good. And likewise, if your music is good, not being proactive and engaging in your approach is going to result in it going unheard. Both aspects are important and can’t be ignored.

  • Hey Ross, thanks so much for the detailed reply! Wise words.

  • No problem! I didn’t mean to write a book on the subject, but looks like I’m well on my way ;) Haha.

  • It’s great. Hope you will write here more :)