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Stability from chaos: How today’s artists find sustainable success in a turbulent music industry

Cover image for Stability from chaos: How today’s artists find sustainable success in a turbulent music industry

Photo: Tobias Carlsson

Photo of Keith Jopling
by Keith Jopling

How do we take the pulse of success for music artists in 2024? 

In 'Sustainability from chaos: How today’s artists find sustainable success in a turbulent music industry' , we explore this question from the artist’s point of view and from the perspective of artist services companies. Using MIDiA’s fifth annual survey of global independent music creators, in-depth conversations with artists, and secondary research on topics such as career longevity and success, we re-evaluate what success looks like and how it can be measured more holistically for the modern-day music artist.

Over the past decade, the music industry’s approach to talent discovery, marketing, and artist careers has become too data obsessed, near sighted, and damaging to the industry’s lifeblood. Artists are being sold short and, in turn, this has created a dysfunctional creative-commercial ecosystem. 

We are not saying that the music industry does not put talent first. Managers and A&Rs are looking to tap into and nurture talent. Live promoters and agents will have a glimpse of whether an artist or band can stand the test of time based on early performances. Senior leaders in the recorded music sector, in publishing, and in the live space have a vested interest and mission to help artists build long-term careers. Notably, the most frequent obstacle is the industry itself, where everyone wants to ride on ‘success’ by building on markers and metrics that reduce risk or guarantee quick returns. This has turned the artist's journey into a self-fulfilling prophecy: go viral or give up. The music promotion cycle is relentless. With ever-shorter timelines given to campaigns and artists required to generate seemingly endless new content - be that new compositions or social media clips - the system is turning artists into content creators whether they like it or not. This behaviour is not sustainable long-term for the vast majority of music artists.

In the white paper, we analysed an artist survey (n=450) and spoke with several emerging artists from different global scenes. We extensively researched existing material on the topic of success - with a particular focus on artist interviews across various media outlets. 

The report considers the implications for labels and artist services companies, including: 

  • Today’s music creators believe that connection and moving audiences with music is their main definition of success, regardless of how big those audiences are 

  • Creators prioritise artistic integrity, creative fulfilment, and long-term sustainability as they navigate the ever-changing landscape of the music industry

  • Many of the factors and metrics that underpin success are embroiled in the vested interests of the music industry machine and rarely set in the context of artist’s own goals

  • Breaking through the noise is the number one challenge for artists, followed by not having enough time to create

  • Although artists aspire for independence, they cannot sustain a career without help and partners. More artists than ever are seeking to make a career out of making music, yet less than 5% are signed to labels – 1% with majors, and the rest with indies. A whopping 95% of artists are what we call ‘artist direct’, i.e., artists who release music independently through a distributor / artist services platform (with around 2% of these having previously exited the label system)

  • When asked about their ideal partners for creating and releasing music, artists showed a preference to working with distributors, self-serve platforms, and independent labels

  • All labels and artist services companies should take a longer-term view on artist relationships, focusing on the unique and multifaceted aspirations of success that artists themselves have, to meet their needs in the increasingly complex and demanding environment

Getting ahead of the curve on success and artist careers

Chasing spikes in metrics is simply pouring fuel on the fire of streaming algorithms and forcing artists into narrow lanes of success. Many of the measures of success that drive the industry now are hype indicators: measures designed to achieve spikes in the hope of triggering other markers. Tracing these indicators from artist to follower still does not truly indicate how many people artists can define as a fan, or the type of fan they are. It makes career building more difficult from the start. Artists would prefer full creative backing behind a song or album project and more sustained marketing - even if the result is steady, incremental progress rather than immediate spikes in short-term metrics. 

For artists, success boils down to five universal career goals:

  1. Sustainability – to be able to make a living and ultimately give up the day job

  2. Recognition – from peers in a scene and from audience numbers, but also audience feedback

  3. Progression – to improve as an artist from the perspective of creation, performance and recognition in / contribution to a scene

  4. Longevity – to have a career that will last, with creative twists and turns that will bring some fans along and win over new ones while losing others

  5. Legacy – to build a catalogue of work that has a chance to be evergreen, recurring, and recognised as classic

Artists are ambitious. They enter into a world that is ultra competitive and full of risk and uncertainty, placing themselves in the eye of the hurricane. What artists really seek – as many managers, executives, and collaborators know – is a sense of forward momentum that encapsulates creative progression, the respect of peers, and a growing fanbase.  

This white paper has identified developing attitudes that are necessary to redefining success in the music industry. While the hard work has been done in bringing around this change, there is still substantial progress needed.

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