Review: ‘Instaband,’ starring Sam Tinnesz, Paul McDonald, Phangs, Charlotte Sands, Ray Wimley, Farrah Boulé and Amber Stoneman

August 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Tinnesz in “Instaband” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Instaband” 

Directed by Bob Rose

Culture Representation: The documentary “Instaband” interviews a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans and Latinos) in the music industry about how independent and unsigned artists are making money in the era of digital technology.

Culture Clash:  The pros and cons of signing to a major label are discussed in the film, as well as artists’ ongoing battle to get paid more money for their work.

Culture Audience: “Instaband” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in what relatively unknown independent and unsigned artists have to go through to get money and recognition; therefore, people looking for celebrity gossip will not find it in this documentary.

The Ries Brothers in “Instaband” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary “Instaband” (directed by Bob Rose) gives a practical and informative look at what it takes for unsigned and independent artists to make money in an industry where album sales aren’t what they used to be, but opportunities to release homemade music have grown exponentially, thanks to technology and the Internet. The good news is that it’s a lot easier and less expensive to record and release music than it ever has been before. The bad news is that this increased accessibility has resulted in a more crowded marketplace for consumer choices, making it harder for new and emerging artists to stand out and rise to the top.

All the artists interviewed in the documentary are unsigned or independent American artists. There’s some footage of artists performing live or in the studio, but the majority of screen time for this documentary is for interviews with artists sharing their experiences of working in the music business in an era where digital technology rules. Even though the title of the documentary is “Instaband,” Instagram marketing is not the focus of this documentary.

Watching “Instaband” can be a little irritating at first because most of these artists have very little or no name recognition to the average music listener. Therefore, people watching this movie might wonder why these artists are worth listening to for advice, when most of them admit in the documentary that they still have day jobs. In other words, most of these artists don’t earn enough money doing music to be able to do it as full-time professionals, which is the reality for most people who are music artists.

The artists interviewed in the documentary are Sam Tinnesz, Paul McDonald, the Ries Brothers, Ray Wimley, True Villains, Future Thieves, the Aquaducks, Kid Politics, Jeremy Claudio (Tiger Drive, Sensor the Artist), Charlotte Sands, Svrcina, Nappy Roots, Adara, Stealing Oceans, Ray Wimley, A.J., Phangs, Infamous Her, Farrah Boulé, Forest Fire Gospel Choir, Mahlleh, Salt Salt and Rellraw. The documentary even interviews the Naked Cowboy, who’s famous for singing and playing guitar in his underwear in New York City’s Times Square, because he sells his own music and merchandise.

Other people from the music industry who are interviewed in the movie are Wendy Duffy, president of Resin8 Music; former MTV personality La La Anthony; and Amber Stoneman, who is CEO of music media/promotion company Nashville Unsigned. The independent retailers featured in the documentary include Bananas Music owner John Allen, Bananas Music employee Jennifer Trunbull and Ernest Tubbs Record Shop’s David McCormick.

Most music artists make the majority of their money through performing live, merchandise, sponsorship deals, product endorsement and/or licensing their songs. Even top superstar artists can’t really get rich anymore from selling new recorded music (albums and singles), because a lot of people expect to get recorded music for free and because the percentages that the artists gets for recorded music are very low, after record companies and distributors take their large cuts of the revenue.

However, having recorded music available is still essential for music artists who want to be taken seriously. People can record music on their computers or phones with sound quality that’s almost as good as an expensive recording studio. And there are numerous options for artists to make their music available for sale or for streaming online, other than their own websites. Spotify is currently the top site for independent artists to sell and stream their music. Apple Music, SoundCloud, YouTube Music and Amazon Music are also popular choices for independent artists.

Artists also have to decide which formats they want for their recorded music. Many artists (such as indie pop singer Phangs) say that they only want to release music digitally because their fans only ask for digital music. Phangs comments, “I’ve never had physical music. What’s wild is that no one asks for it … because it doesn’t matter anymore, unfortunately.”

However, the retailers interviewed in this documentary say that vinyl is making a big comeback and should be considered a viable option for artists who have the type of fans who are inclined to buy vinyl. The biggest drawback to vinyl releases is that a lot of music consumers don’t have and don’t want turntables. As for cassettes and CDs, demands for those formats have been decreasing for years, but CDs are still fairly popular with people who want artwork packaging but don’t want the size of a vinyl album.

Songwriting publishing is a type of revenue that’s separate and different from money made through record sales. A record company handles the money made through sales of the music. A music publishing company handles the money made through licensing songs—for example, if a song is recorded by another artist or is used in visual media. And a performing rights society (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the three biggest ones in the U.S.) handles the money made through songs being played on the radio, in nightclubs or wherever recorded music is played. “Instaband” makes the assumption that the artists watching this documentary already know this information.

While some unsigned artists want a major record label to sign them, the vast majority of the artists in this documentary say that major labels (and the major labels’ “indentured servant” type of contracts) only benefit the artists who are on the superstar level, because those artists can afford to pay back the debts that the major label collects as part of the contract. A lot of artists know this already (but many artists still don’t know) that major labels and large independent labels have a contract system where the record company acts as a loan institution to artists.

Whatever money the record company spends to promote an artist is really a “recoupable cost” (or loan) that the artist has to pay back. Furthermore, most contracts for major labels and large independent labels require that the artists sign over the rights to the master recordings of any songs that the artists record under the contract. The record company then has the right to decide when, if or how the recordings will be released.

Considering all the control that artists give up when they sign to a record company, “Instaband” asks the question: Is it worth it? The answer is “It depends.” The general consensus is that artists who want complete control over their music and higher percentages of payments from their music sales generally shouldn’t sign to a major label. The down side is that independent or unsigned artists have to find a way to pay for everything, since they won’t have a major record company to finance tours and do marketing and promotion.

Now that it’s become easier for artists to record their own music (instead of having a record company pay for a recording studio), signing to a record company isn’t the coveted prize that it used to be. It’s why more artists are choosing to bypass record companies and release their music themselves, so that they not only have control over how and when to release music but they also have the rights to own the music. Record companies still have most of the power in getting radio airplay for artists, but a lot of artists don’t need radio airplay to promote themselves and make a living from their music.

In the documentary, Infamous Her (lead singer of the country rock band Her & Kings County) shares her experience of when she and her band were signed to Warner Music Nashville in 2010. She says that the record company demanded that the band spend $250,000 to record an album, even though the band wanted to record the album for a small fraction of that price. Warner Music Nashville threatened not to release the album unless it was done the record label’s way, according to Infamous Her.

Warner Music Nashville released Her & Kings County’s self-titled album in 2011, but the band ended up parting ways with the record company. Looking back on the experience, Infamous Her says that she probably won’t sign with a major label again because she’s learned firsthand how much control an artist gives up to the label for a long-shot hope of making it big.

Tinnesz, who works as a solo artist and as a member of the pop band Wave & Rome, has also gone through the experience of being signed to a major label. He was signed to Curb Records early in his career. According to Tinnesz, being an independent artist is financially harder in the short-term, but the financial rewards can benefit the artist in the long-term. He comments on his experience of being an artist signed to a major label: “The more we learned about the music business, the more we realized that we were never going to recoup. The system was made to keep us in this financial slavery thing.”

In the documentary, Tinnesz says that he makes most of his money as a musician by licensing his songs to visual media. His songs have appeared in a Samsung commercial and on TV shows such as NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” ABC’s The Rookie” and “The CW’s “Riverdale,” “Batwoman” and “Charmed.”

Tinnesz states, “When I started owning my own master [recordings], it changed the game. I can put out music whenever I want, wherever I want.” He comments on the type of royalty payments he receives as an independent artist, compared to being an artist on a major label: “Maybe it’s less, but it’s all mine, and that’s better.”

Claudio mentions that writing songs for other visual-media projects has its own set of challenges: “I think the hard part of this is that you can easily get stuck in writing music that doesn’t mean anything. You can get stuck in writing music about whatever the pitch is or whatever the movie is about. I think where you have to find a happy medium [is] always be yourself and [by] refusing to write music that is not you.”

The Music Modernization Act, signed in 2018, aims to update copyright issues by taking into account digital/streaming music, and giving artists better payment for their music. And although music streaming services such as Spotify have a lot of clout in the music industry, they still can’t completely replace the financial support that artists can get through a record deal.

“A [record] label is a bank,” comments Nashville Unsigned’s Stoneman. “Is Spotify a bank yet? No. But do they help dictate if an artist is successful in streaming? Absolutely.”

Some people in the documentary say that the Music Modernization Act is a step in the right direction for artists getting paid more for their digital music. However, almost everyone in the documentary says that there’s still a long way to go before music artists get the same level of fair-paying labor contracts that other artists (such as actors) get in the entertainment industry. Stealing Oceans comments: “Music is so powerful, but it’s so undervalued … I don’t think songwriters, creators, artists are getting paid what you deserve.”

Many people interviewed in the documentary mention social media as a perfect example of how technology has given artists more control over how they are marketed. Some artists (such as Phangs and rock duo the Riess Brothers) are heavily involved in social media, to the point where fans know the artists’ daily activities off-stage. Other artists, such as pop/ rock singer Paul McDonald (who was a Top 10 “American Idol” finalist in 2011) say that they’re comfortable using social media to only promote their music, not as a way to show a lot of what’s going on their personal lives.

And there are some artists who end up having a viral video that leads to opportunities that most artists don’t get. That’s what happened to rapper Ray Wimley, who makes money as a street busker in New Orleans. When famous rapper/actor Common happened to join in with Wimley for an impromptu, freestyle street performance in July 2019, the video went viral with millions of views on YouTube. A month after the video was filmed, Wimley and Common appeared as guests together on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” It remains to be seen if Wimley will become a well-known hit artist or if that viral video was just his 15 minutes of fame.

While some artists (like Tinnesz) make most of their money through licensing songs, and others (such as Phangs) say that they make most of their money through selling their own branded merchandise, the vast majority of music artists still make most of their money through live performances. (This documentary was filmed before the coronavirus pandemic.) For independent artists, that usually means bars and nightclubs, while those who develop a large-enough fan base can be booked at larger venues and at major festivals.

And for some independent artists, corporate gigs are the way to go. Boulé, who is a New Age R&B artist, says that performing at company events has been a “lucrative” way that she makes money. She comments that it’s allowed her to find “people who are aligned with me,” because she says it’s important to her to only book gigs with companies that are in line with her spiritual values. Boulé also notes that it’s easier to network with important contacts at a corporate event than it is at a regular nightclub show. “It’s all about aligning and being true to yourself,” she says of corporate gigging.

Although making money in the music industry can be more difficult in an oversaturated marketplace, Stealing Oceans has this optimistic view: “It just blows my mind when people choose to complain where we’re at today. Because really, we are so lucky, and there’s so much at our disposal.”

“Instaband” doesn’t really reveal anything new for people who are very familiar with the music industry. But it’s a fairly good introduction for independent music artists who might be looking for ideas to take their careers to the next level. The documentary assumes that people should know that having good representation and getting good legal advice are essential before signing any contracts, because lawyers, managers and agents basically aren’t mentioned at all in the film.

“Instaband” leans heavily toward artists based in Southern states (there are many people from the Nashville music scene in this documentary), so “Instaband” could have used more variety in interviewing people from other parts of the United States. Because technology and the music industry keep changing, “Instaband” will probably be outdated in about five years, but the documentary has some valuable lessons that can stand the test of time.

Gravitas Ventures released “Instaband” on digital and VOD on July 28, 2020.