"The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” ~ Malcolm X
It’s been interesting to read predictions and speculations as to where the music business may be headed in the coming year. Honestly, no one fucking knows, but that’s not as compelling as catch-phrase-barfs like “we can expect a proliferation of services meant to enhance user’s streaming experience”, or “added value will become the focus as ticketing transitions to mobile exclusively”. Oh, cool. That explains everything.
2015 was a year defined by a handful of massive, record-breaking success stories. Adele and Taylor Swift both proved that there is an elastic boundary surrounding the notion that recorded music is still a valuable commodity, and that the limiting rules surrounding sales are meant to be broken. Last year also marked a breakthrough for artists like my dear friend Rachel Platten, who proved that hard work and great songwriting can be rewarded to great effect. When signing Rachel back at Rock Ridge several years ago, I had a feeling she would win and win big, mostly because she never stopped working hard. It’s easy to work hard when you’re winning – Rachel knew how to work hard in the shadows, and to never assume that the Universe was going to create success for her, that she would have to do it herself, at least initially.
2016 is going to be the year of songs and authenticity. The artists, like Rachel, who will break through will be those with honest songs that are undeniably hooky. People don’t have time for anything less. How is this different from years past, you ask? Fundamentally, it isn’t. However, the means through which an independent artist can break on the strength of a hit song are more readily available than ever before.
Forbes has a relevant and interesting take on what to expect in music this year, a worthy read: http://www.forbes.com/sites/bobbyowsinski/2015/12/30/5-bold-music-business-predictions-for-2016/
In this article, the variables discussed are all available to an independent artist: Pandora, Facebook, Amazon, and Spotify. I will not include vinyl in that list, because I view that format as an ego-driven massive waste of time and cash. Let me save you some time and cash – don’t make vinyl. Ever.
Back to my point: Pandora, Facebook, Amazon and Spotify are all services that allow for a direct pipeline to fans, all available to an independent artist. Granted, it takes creative thinking and aggressive marketing to break through via these services, but that is something that is possible without engaging with traditional outlets such as radio, print press, television, etc.
What breaks through? There are two answers, and only one is sustainable.
The first answer is cash – an artist can gain attention for their music on Faceblast etc by spending money to boost posts, or by spending money to advertise their new release on Spotify. That works in the short term, as it does drive impressions and essentially forces the digital marketplace to pay attention to a song for a finite period of time. If that song is authentic, hooky, and great, maybe this type of marketing will stick. Cash is great if you have a healthy budget, but it is hard to determine when to stop spending and to just let a song sink or swim on its own merit.
The second answer is persistence – an artist must make a focused, creative, unblinking effort across multiple platforms to market and promote their jams. On Facebook it’s about consistent and interesting communication, participation in the constant chatter online. On Pandora it’s about chasing their encoding team to deal with your record and to get it positioned within their service. On Amazon it’s about being available and priced competitively. On Spotify it’s about playlist marketing, soliciting as much playlist love from other Spotify users as possible while creating your own playlists and joining the conversation there. All can be achieved for a budget of zero (after distribution costs if you use a service like TuneCore etc). Digital outlets like Pandora and Spotify are a wonderful proving ground for a song and an artist – if a song raises its hand in this digital environment, maybe then it’s time to engage with some more expensive, traditional outlets for exposure (radio, press, licensing, etc).
I feel extremely optimistic about the coming year, and for the opportunities that lie ahead for hardworking artists. Great music will always find an audience.
Related, but unrelated: my favorite clairvoyant has always been Conan O’Brien: “Yo, God, don’t play me, sucka”