The pandemic kept indie artists at home recording music, and now protests are inspiring creatives to make music for the streets. After witnessing the video of George Floyd’s last moments, bassist Dywane “MonoNeon” Thomas Jr. created the soundtrack to his anguish.
“I eventually got my drum machine, made a simple beat, and started writing lyrics for how we (Black folks) were feeling. If anyone is familiar with my songs they know I usually write music that is lyrically wacky/risqué/loony,” says MonoNeon via email. As an experimental musician, he is known for his silly lyrics and neon-colored attire. “But even my mom said to me when she heard ‘Breathing While Black’ that I hit the nail on the head writing a song like that.”
Released in early June, “Breathing While Black” carries the weight of weariness, anger, and hope: “Let’s sing about revolution/To start a evolution.” These lyrics are over a Stax-era soul production with MonoNeon’s rumbling bass.
After completing the song, he knew he had to release “Breathing While Black” immediately. “I’m ready to put my art out when it affects me emotionally, it will either make me cry, laugh, [feel] sad or happy … if my music doesn’t do that to me first [then] something is missing.”
MonoNeon is accustomed to an overwhelming artistic output. He was Prince’s bass guitarist not long before his 2016 passing. Since working for the prolific artist, MonoNeon released over seven projects including albums, EPs, and singles. He prefers to share his music shortly after creation, which mirrors what many independent artists are doing across the country. CD Baby has seen album submissions skyrocket with an over 100% increase. And TuneCore estimates submission volume has gone up between 20 to 40%.
Kevin Breuner, who is CD Baby’s SVP of Marketing and Artist Brands, says that indies like MonoNeon should continue to release music. Breuner is speaking as a music executive and an independent artist himself. He is a guitarist in the Christian rock band, Smalltown Poets.
“Music services, especially platforms like Spotify, are really doing things to reward artists for releasing music more consistently.” For instance, new releases can get the attention of Spotify playlists like Discover Weekly and Release Radar that can put artists in front of new fans.
Breuner advises artists to view an album release not as a moment, but a season. “I would have a new single come out in June from that album. I’d have a new single come out in July, and then I’d launch the album in August and then I’d try to follow up with some remix versions like a remix EP or alternate versions or live versions. What that does is every time [you release music] you’re going to see a spike in growth of your audience.”
But sometimes, a release that’s not relevant to the pandemic and protests can go unnoticed. Breuner encourages artists to find new ways for fans to experience the song. This could be a stripped down version for an acoustic playlist or setting up a Facebook Watch Party or YouTube premiere to launch the song’s music video. For Breuner, his band is experimenting with remote live performances that mirror Zoom calls.
Marie-Anne Robert, Global Head of Artist Services at TuneCore partner Believe thinks that this window of opportunity could be closing. Indie artists filling the void of delayed major label albums may end soon. “We must also warn artists that fall will be intensely packed with new [major-label] releases, so they might want to avoid that crowded time.”
The challenge for artists like MonoNeon is responding to the urgency of this moment while also taking time to recharge after witnessing the loss of Black lives like Sandra Bland and Eric Garner through grief-stricken hashtags. “It’s very difficult at least for me to create when seeing and hearing about the traumatizing situations that’s going on in the world,” MonoNeon says via email. “But I’m gonna do what I can to find the ‘funk’ in whatever darkness I’m in, hopefully we can all find that funk too!”
Correction: Previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote by Marie-Ann Robert to Yaël Chiara, Global External Communication Director at Believe.