Not-at-all newsflash: The music industry is a completely different animal than it once was. While it’s true that the music industry has been a perpetually evolving beast since the beginning, never before have we seen such super-sized, fundamental shifts in such a relatively small time in terms of how music is produced, shared, bought and sold, and how success is quantified and achieved.
For future generations, this new way of making and consuming music will seem natural; For kids who are growing up right now, this is the reality they know, and they will dream/plan accordingly. For anyone in their 20s and older, however, the fact that they spent a good part of their lives watching the music industry exist in a pre-Internet world means that there is a stark contrast between what their pre-conceptions of working in the industry should be like, and how it really is presently.
As a result, artists are compensating in one of two ways, generally: either they are trying to make their careers flourish according to the “old” industry rules and practices, or they are going all the way in the opposite direction and operating under the assumption that nothing from the pre-digital days holds true. The truth is, both of these tactics is failing to hit the mark. The key to making the most of your music career right now involves finding the perfect balance between embracing the newest, most relevant aspects of the music industry while still being able to identify and hold onto the old school stuff that has remained viable and true.
Sound like an elusive task? No worries – we’ve got a cheat sheet.
1) Let go of: Waiting to be discovered
Sorry babes, the dream of playing some poorly-attended show in a dive bar and having a Fancy A&R Rep from a Big Name Label walk in the door, see “it” in you, and hand you a mega contract is likely never going to come true. Even back in the days when this happened more often, it still didn’t happen that often. And it only happened at all because, before the internet, that was one of the only ways to find new artists. Even in the online world, simply putting your music online and sitting back waiting to be “discovered” that way is more than likely not going to work. There are too many ways to be ambitious and deliberate and motivated about gaining exposure for your music, and too many other artists are taking advantage of those channels – and those are the people who have a shot at making it big.
Hold onto: Networking your ass off
It’s true that music industry success is more nebulous than just having a small number of powerful label gatekeepers running around tapping a few, chosen bands to become famous. Nevertheless, there are still huge industry institutions – labels, media, etc. – that can and do catapult artists into a level of visibility that very few could reach without them. There is nothing wrong with continuing to try to network your way into the good graces of these industry big boys, and in fact, you definitely should be trying to do that. There are just different ways to go about it these days.
2) Let go of: Radio charts
There was once a time – Let’s call it “most of the 20th century” – when people listened to the radio to find new music, and when they heard something they liked, they ran out to the record store and bought it. The more your music got played on radio stations, the more likely it was that lots of people would hear it, love it, and buy your albums. It was a simple, sweet formula. Clearly, that is not how things work anymore. Does anyone still even listen to Top 40 radio? Maybe if the cable that plugs their iPhone into their car speakers is broken, and they lost their headphones, and someone stole their computer, and civilization fell apart completely. But if none of that has happened, corporate radio stations are merely echoes. They reflect success being achieved by artists through other means. In other words, you don’t try to get on the radio to try and become famous; you get on the radio after you already are famous. So if you’re an emerging artist, focus your energy elsewhere.
Hold onto: Sales charts
There used to be two go-to ways to measure popularity in the music industry: the list of artists/singles getting the most airplay on radio, and the list of top selling albums/singles. While the former is all but obsolete at this point (to be clear, there are still vague ways that radio charts can be useful for seeing certain info about the industry, but in this case, we mean they simply don’t carry nearly the weight they used to), the latter is still super important. Guess what? Selling music still matters. That’s not likely to ever change.
3) Let go of: Caring about MTV at all
This should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: don’t watch MTV to get a feel for what’s popular, or worse, what’s good. Aside from basically not even being a music channel anymore, and playing almost no videos at all, any music you do see on MTV is there because it was bought and placed. MTV is a great way to see which bands have big marketing budgets behind them, but not so much a place to effectively get a feel for the pulse of the music industry.
Hold onto: Making music videos
Maybe MTV has forgotten about music videos, but the rest of the world definitely has not. YouTube is the biggest music streaming service in the world and it’s not even a music streaming service. There was a lull in the popularity of music videos for a few years right when everyone was first getting strung out on the internet, but it quickly passed, and now having a really amazing, well-made, heavily promoted music video is as viable a way to bigger popularity as having a hit song. Ideally, have both. Furthermore, music videos are the perfect opportunity to collaborate with other creative professionals; photographers, artists, dancers, directors, illustrators…bands are working with all of these people on their videos, and the result often turns out to be multi-media treats that can open your audience exponentially. The point: music videos are as good a way as ever for bands to represent their music visually and work with other creative people to further establish who they are, what they’re about, and reach a bigger audience.
4) Let go of: Letting labels change you too much
Bands (at least the successful ones) are no longer isolated to the towns where they’re from, or maybe the other places they visit to play shows. Artists currently have a limitless access to their fans and potential future fans. This means, more of less, no one is more aware of what your target audience is into, and thus, what they might want from you in terms of the music itself, and your overall brand/image. This makes your opinion about all the aspects of your career much stronger and more relevant than bands in the past who tended to rely a little more on labels, PR people, and producers to shape their sound and image according to their much more thorough knowledge of what audiences wanted. Bands now are arguably even more in touch with their fans, and as such, should feel very empowered to be a little stronger and a little less flexible when it comes to industry people who want to change too much. It’s okay to know who you are and stick to your guns.
Hold onto: Listening to pros with experience
That said, really amazing producers and engineers have the skills and experience to genuinely make your music sound better. That doesn’t have to mean different. Same goes for PR reps or anyone who wants a say in shaping how you look or sound as an artist. As long as you come to the table with a clear idea of who you are and how you want the end product to look and sound, it’s a great idea to keep yourself open to availing yourself of the expertise these people have to offer. In the right relationship, letting some awesome industry pros into your process can greatly elevate the quality of your work, without necessarily turning it into something else completely.
5) Let go of: Thinking only big labels matter
Major record labels are not for everyone. When we think of “success” in any profession, it’s instinctive to think bigger = better, but that’s not always true in music. Don’t get us wrong – the major labels are still making big things happen in the industry. They still matter, and there is still nothing wrong with signing with them. But they tend to work in very different ways than smaller labels, and it’s worth doing lots of research on all of your options before committing to anything. There is no longer a whole lot to be lost by signing with a not-so-mega label, so don’t immediate side with size. Find a label that actually works for you. (Or more realistically, sign with anyone who wants you. Let’s be real.)
Hold onto: Love of the indie label
Sure, the Big Guys have huge budgets and there will always be power in that. But there are also downsides: they tend to engage with media and fans on a much more mainstream level, which might not be right for your band or your music. If you already have a more indie-minded fanbase, and actually like existing in that part of the music world, you could very well be much better served by working with a slightly smaller indie label. Those guys will probably have a keener sense of who you are as an artist, what you’re trying to achieve, and have the access to the media sources, booking agents, and other artists who you want to notice you, love you, and work with you. And increasingly, the days of indie labels being lame, shoestring budgeted, basement enterprises are over; indie labels these days are highly professional, badass teams of people who will work their asses off for their artists.