After seven years playing small clubs and colleges, singer-songwriter Charlie Mars hit it big.
With a sound that reminded some of Tom Petty or U2, he was signed to Richard Branson’s V2 North America label in 2004, alongside such rising stars as White Stripes and Josh Ritter. It was a huge step up in lifestyle and status for a little-known artist: The deal included $250,000 upfront, $5,000 a month for living expenses for a year, major-label resources to back his CDs and concerts—and the potential to bring in a huge income if he took off.
Then, all too quickly, it was over. As the industry reeled from plummeting record scales, V2 changed hands, and Mr. Mars’s contract was dropped, just three years after he was signed. His manager and agent stopped returning his calls.
“It was like I had a scarlet letter on me,” says Mr. Mars, now 41.
His first reactions were fear and apprehension, as he wondered if he could keep making a living doing what he loved—writing and performing music. But those emotions soon turned to anger and determination. “I wanted to prove it shouldn’t have happened to me,” Mr. Mars says. “I felt like Rocky, the underdog. I wanted to prove I could come back.”
He knew it would be tough to find a new home among big labels, which were increasingly unwilling to gamble on artists without megastar potential. So he decided to create a label for himself—an operation that would let him record and promote his music, and turn a profit doing so.
Today, Mr. Mars oversees a business that grosses several hundred thousand dollars in a good year, including touring, record sales and licensing. He no longer receives a monthly stipend from a record company or travels with an entourage. But in an era dominated by label-backed superstars like Taylor Swift and One Direction, he is proving it is possible for an independent musician to create an international operation without corporate support.
“As the industry crumbled, people like me had to figure out how to move forward,” he says.
Mr. Mars, a native of Oxford, Miss., got started in songwriting while attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He formed a band and spent years touring, but the record industry didn’t come calling, so he decided to go for broke. He took out a $50,000 loan, with his parents as co-signers, to record an album.
In 2004, the recordings caught the attention of several top labels. Mr. Mars settled on V2 North America, which had a hip cachet and wanted to expand in his genre, Americana music. “It was incredible,” he says.
The cash from V2 let him pay off his loan, and he was thrilled to mingle with some of the top names in the music business. But by 2007, things were falling apart. With more people buying (or illegally downloading) digital music, CD sales plunged, destroying the margins for the traditional music business.
And Mr. Mars didn’t look like a good risk for a record label anymore: He released only one album for V2 in the three years it represented him, and it only sold 15,000 copies, a disappointment in the industry. When the label was acquired, no others called to pick him up.
His passion wouldn’t let him abandon music. But he knew he’d have to come up with a new way to make a living in the industry.
“I knew, at that point, no one would do it for me, there was no shoulder to cry on,” Mr. Mars says. “Either I would have to do it myself or be a tumbleweed on the music-industry highway.”
Still, giving up the backing and prestige of a major label was a major mental adjustment. “My mom always says that once you get a raise, it’s hard to go back to minimum wage,” he says. “That’s what it felt like.”
One of his first moves was to tap his dwindling resources and put together a new CD. One of the songs, “Listen to the Darkside,” started generating radio play in Austin, Texas, where Mr. Mars was recording and performing regularly. “It gave me a lot of confidence,” he says.
To promote the song, he made another huge investment, laying out about $10,000 to create a video that featured actress Mary-Louise Parker (who later became his girlfriend for three years). The video went viral in 2009, attracting more than 300,000 views on YouTube. That in turn helped propel sales of his CD “Like a Bird, Like a Plane,” which ultimately sold 25,000 units at about $10 apiece, mostly through shows, stores and digital downloads. The showing wasn’t all that impressive for a major label, which needs to cover a lot more overhead, but for an independent solo act, it meant real money.
The video “gave the radio people something to talk about,” he says. “That kind of made all the difference.”
He also realized that touring was an even more substantial source of revenue, and he would be on the road constantly—both performing shows and visiting radio stations to try to boost airplay. That involved some big adjustments. For one thing, he couldn’t afford his usual touring band of three or four musicians, so he had to re-create himself as a solo act, developing into more of an entertainer on stage. “I had to learn how to talk to the audience,” Mr. Mars says. “There is an art to that.”
He also had to get involved with the nuts and bolts of touring in a way that he didn’t have to do when he was attached to a label. He now had to absorb all the costs, including hotels and gas, and make reservations and other arrangements.
Another stretch was setting his ego aside and playing gigs in tiny venues, even private shows like parties and corporate events. The ups and downs of the business “certainly humbled me,” he says.
At the same time, he realized he couldn’t do everything himself—he needed help with jobs that were more complex than, say, booking rooms. So he began to stitch together a network of independent contractors and service companies to do the jobs that the label had once done for him.
A tour agent, for instance, books his shows, getting 10% to 15% of the proceeds. (Mr. Mars can take home as much as $10,000 from concerts and sometimes as much as $15,000 for private shows.) He also hires a publicist for every record, paying anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 a month for three to six months after a CD release, as well as a promoter to help get him radio airplay. To get his discs into stores, he works with Thirty Tigers, one of several companies that provide independent artists access to distribution for, typically, about 25% of sales.M
Early on, he also hired a rep to pitch his songs to TV and movie producers. His songs have been used in more than 40 programs, including “How I Met Your Mother,” “Bones” and “Smallville.” He earns anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000 for each use of a song, depending on the show and how the song is used.
Mr. Mars calls it “mailbox money”—the checks just show up—but it is fickle. After selling 12 placements worth almost $100,000 in 2013 and 2014, he had only one in 2015 (in the TV show “Nashville”). “Over the last few years, it has become an important part of my income,” he says. “But it’s not money you can count on.”
Over the years, the business has come to fill his everyday life. He usually begins his daily routine with an hour spent updating hisFacebook and Twitter accounts and his mailing list, which now has more than 15,000 people. Some of those fans also help cover crucial expenses: For his last two discs, which cost $25,000 to $40,000 to produce, he partially funded production through Kickstarter campaigns. One fan donated $10,000 for a chance to be mentioned in a song.
He often spends more time in a day working on promotions and booking hotels than music. But he is enjoying running his own business, which allows him to pursue his passion. “It’s fun,” he says. “It’s not a burden. It’s not like I’m selling soap.”
After seven years of working the road, driving overnight in storms and dragging himself out of bed at 6 a.m. for radio-station interviews, he is still ambitious. He would love to tour with a tricked-out bus and stay in five-star hotels, he says. “I’ve never stopped being hungry, never stopped chasing that metaphorical dream,” he says.
But now he wants it on his own terms. He enjoys his independence, the creative freedom and ability to control his music. “I get to call my own shots,” he says. “I haven’t had to make a lot of compromises.”