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The industry’s narrative is not always the same as the artist's narrative: Redefining success for independent artists

Cover image for The industry’s narrative is not always the same as the artist's narrative: Redefining success for independent artists

Photo: Kobe Subramaniam

Photo of Keith Jopling
by Keith Jopling

Last weekend, there was a fascinating quote from Maseo of hip hop legends De La Soul in the UK Guardian:

“On our second album, we learned the importance of controlling the narrative. I learned early on that a hit record can hurt your entire body of work if you let the industry control your narrative”. 

That second part struck home - that “a hit record can hurt your entire body of work” - wow! But the statement comes along with that next part “if you let the industry control your narrative”. This is a super-relevant comment on the current music industry from the artist’s point of view because hits drive the business more than ever. 

Hits (i.e., streaming or viral video hits, not necessarily chart hits) ‘break’ the artist - they are the vessel by which the artist can reach industry gatekeepers, introducing them to a wider audience. For this reason, hits are at the top of every rising artist's priority list. As an artist, a hit can take you a long way. Sometimes it can provide you with a career that lasts for decades.

Plotting artist success markers: hits still matter most

The report Crossing The Rubicon evaluated 25 artists’ careers by using a mix of industry markers: 

  • Peak album chart position (sourced from Ultimate Music Database, UKOCC, and Billboard)

  • Album review scores (from Metacritic and / or Album Of The Year)

  • Spotify top songs (by streaming count)

It is not flawless. Firstly, scoring a #1 album on the UK or Billboard chart in 2023 only takes a fraction of the ‘sales’ required to achieve that same position in 1993, or 2003. Critic scores are a reasonable proxy for quality, and fan rating scores tend to match closely with the reviews. Spotify top songs are unequivocally revealing, however. An artist’s songs get the ultimate public vote (in most cases - though not all - these songs were originally singles that had a strong showing on the charts).

Hits should not become the narrative

While every artist is grateful for a hit, maintaining a successful career is another thing altogether. None of the established artists studied wanted to be defined by a single record (or just by their top songs). And yet, that is how they are defined - their songs are ranked for all to see on streaming platforms. It is those big songs that still get played on the radio and are still brought up in interviews. 

Likewise, other success narratives set by the music industry are not the same narratives that matter most to the artist. Consider these contradictions: 

  • Artists do not usually want to make the same record twice, but labels (and maybe fans also) want them to repeat their success by sticking with the style that made them popular

  • Artists make music for themselves rather than with an audience in mind. Yet, from the moment the record is finished, the industry machine kicks in to find the audience for the music. Artists may make ‘art for art's sake’ but the music business exists to make ‘money for God’s sake’

  • Artists do not think in terms of genre, but the industry classifies music that way - something only recently underscored by The Brit Awards introducing a genre category in 2022

  • To judge success, the industry obsesses over numbers; sales and streaming stats, viral spikes, and follower counts. But artists look at the faces in the crowd and judge their success on the strength of the connection through live performance, or by gaining recognition amongst their fellow creators

Some of these things are not so cut and dried of course. Plenty of artists now ‘break’ themselves via TikTok, YouTube, and social platforms on which they are almost certainly making music with an audience in mind. Yet, that is in an attempt to gain an early audience - and usually under their own initiative. While genre is seen as restrictive, artists certainly see themselves as part of a scene - something that has helped to drive the growth of artists’ collectives in recent years. As many artists struggle to establish themselves on the live circuit, their social media following is the nearest proxy to seeing immediate fan feedback. 

Remodelling success with new industry markers

We have been considering the question of what success is for artists for a while now. Our work at MIDiA with rising artists and their managers, constantly throws up the problem of defining success - how does one know that they are building an artist's career? Although artists want to make a comfortable living, success is not always about money. It is not always about fame and fortune. For artists starting out now, their own success markers tend to be whatever defines the next step: becoming a featured artist/writer, collaborating with a certain producer, a tour support slot or festival stage, or being reviewed by a specific magazine. 

It is about recognition, affirmation, and connection. 

This point is only made in the context of how we should celebrate the success of all artists who are moving along nicely in their careers, whether or not they have reached streaming playlists, the charts, or the last hurrah of industry award ceremonies

In this context, it was a good move to see UMG in Germany introduce tokens in the blockchain for certifications. This might be the start of something new in terms of recognition, particularly if the fans can become invested in it. 

A ‘streaming’ award / certification might include hundreds or even  thousands of artists who have, say, hit 5000 monthly listeners or achieved over one million streams for a track released this year. It might contain extensive categories by scene and could even incorporate fandom by notifying the 5000th monthly listener or one-millionth listener, encouraging them to share in the artist's success in a similar style to ‘Spotify Wrapped’, etc. 

In the past, the markers of ‘mainstream’ success (charts, radio play, awards, and sales) would give bands true cause for celebration and a half-decent run at longevity. In the streaming era, however, those mainstream success markers do not mean as much. It is good PR to be on the radio, but then what? Great to pick up an award, but how much does it really mean to your fans?

If artists measure success by the looks on the faces of a live audience, why has the live music business failed to mobilise data into a form that artists can peg success on? A sold-out tour or festival is one thing, but why can artists not connect those fans with their recorded music output - or even their social content - in better ways? Some early data-first live initiatives have fallen by the wayside, and live streaming has yet to come of its time.

While hits are of central importance, the underlying factor for longevity is the artist's ability to grow and maintain a core fanbase. For new bands, being free of the baggage of industry success narratives might well be the most empowering thing about creating music today. There is no need to get attached to the industry’s badges of success. If, as an artist, you are fulfilling your own goals, why get tangled and or bogged down by the weight of the music industry’s expectations?

Moreover, for the industry to recognise this and foster a new generation of successful artists, remodelling those expectations is overdue. To quote one artist manager:

“I’d love to see us, as an industry, move on from the notion of ‘breaking artists’; it’s not about that anymore, it is about building careers and artist businesses. The more we can accept and support that notion, the more successful career artists we’ll have”.

In other words, we must facilitate an industry in which the artists control their own narratives.

You can dive deeper into these trends in the free-to-read Crossing the Rubicon.

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