A couple years ago, watching the Brit Awards, a few different artists of the chart-topping kind were asked what they defined as “success”. I expected some level of humility and an answer with some semblance of artistic integrity. You know, along the lines of, “I consider success the fact that I am able to make music for a living, and do what I love.” or perhaps, “Success to me is giving even just one person who listens to my music a little bit more belief in love and in themselves.” Music is art after all, and so one would hope these artists have the desire within them to interpret what’s in their heart into something of cultural relevance, with social redeeming value, an expression and symbol that elevates humanity. Boy was I wrong. Over and over success was touted as units, sales, and accolades. To them, success was charts and awards and recognition. Perhaps, fair enough, as that’s what society has nurtured in these recording artists, so are they really to blame for chasing after it?
The thing is, I’ve heard that same question asked to some of the musicians I love, the ones that have affected my life and whose message is one that impacted me. And it’s their humble and heartfelt responses that set my aforementioned expectations. Now, some of these artists are also chart toppers and big sellers, which is great. However, some have had careers that are far more low-key. They write songs, record albums, and play gigs as the superstars do, but their audience is not what you’d call “mass”. I’ve had the pleasure to work with people in both camps, and in-between.
Small or large, the principles are the same, and often so is the work. The difference you’ll find lies in the compensation they receive, which is simply a question of scale. Artists of mass appeal can conduct careers of equal scale, but today I want to focus on the acts that aren’t necessarily household names, well perhaps just not in as many houses. If we think of the larger-scale artists as a something akin to a big retail chain of supermarkets, then perhaps we can consider the less known acts as small, family-owned grocers. Both establishments perform the same basic business, but on a very different scale. So where the superstore can afford to spend more across the board, from staff to marketing, our mom and pop grocer has to to do things in a much more cost effective way, as they just don’t have the margins. Much is the same for our two classes of musician.
Major selling artists can justify dedicated teams of people working their releases, planning their tours, and even producing their albums. And rightly so, they need that professional help to service their audience. And if all goes to plan, their margins can justify it, as they operate their career like big business. For our smaller artist, running their career is more akin to that of running a small business. They can’t afford massive overheads, and as such need more streamlined systems to support them. In the past, this might have meant a sacrifice in quality, but scalable technology has meant that professional grade tools can be available to a much wider range of musicians.
One musician I’ve had the pleasure to work with is able to sell about 8-10k copies of his album, each time he makes one. Most of them, he sells on tours. On these tours he frequents small to middle-sized venues across the UK, performing to a dedicated fanbase. He is able to make a living making music, and releasing it to a willing audience. On the back of this he supports his family, and has what I see as success.
Now, what enables him to do the above is technology. He records in his home studio, emails his fans about tours and music, and rides around the country in his van. The mechanics are the same, he just can’t afford to give up as much margin. As such, he does more himself, or with the help of his small management team and even family. His success depends on scalable technology.
More and more technology like this is available to the burgeoning artists. It allows for connection and communication with fans. It allows global digital distribution with no up front costs. It allows a video to be seen by pretty much any one with a screen and an internet connection. As I said, the mechanics are pretty much the same, it’s just the scale that changes.
It’s artists like this that give me passion for what I do. The ability to create tools and tech that will allow then to keep the lion’s share of their profits by doing it themselves. They may never become global superstars, but for a lot of them that was never the intention. The intention was to make something from their heart that they can share with dedicated and connected audience.
In today’s world an artist can pretty much do it all with this kind of technology. They can certainly record an album, and distribute it, having it available for millions on streaming platforms and digital download sites around the world. (cue shameless plug for AWAL, a company I’ve worked with for nigh on 8 years). They can also broadcast themselves live to anyone that might listen everywhere, from YouTube to Facebook. They can sell tickets directly to their fans as well as pre-sell and plan those tours based on demand with a number of services out there. They can even run their own merchandising and physical record sales via D2C platforms like Music Glue.
But the caveat to all this, is that it takes a certain kind of artist. An artist that sees the benefit of keeping their rights and the bigger share of revenues, especially if those revenues are limited. With the right partners, and solid artist fan connection, success is something available to far more of today’s artists than one might think.
So the moral of this story for any artists out there in this category, running your career like a small business, the thing to remember is keeping as much of the pie as possible. Of course you’ll have to sacrifice some, but certainly have the opportunity to keep far more than would have been possible in the past. Look for companies who are in the service industry, serving you as the client, and allowing you to retain your rights. It’s your intellectual property after all; and your greatest asset.
Top photo: Mika © Mariano Regidor / Shutterstock.com