What Independent Artists Need to Succeed
The advance of the internet has led to the entertainment and — more specifically — music industry becoming more transparent. Industry secrets, methods, and processes that are used — from a song’s creation, to its packaging and promotion — are being exposed. Collecting this information allows us to — theoretically — analyze and implement the advanced strategies used by the industry. Historically, one would use a record label in order to achieve a goal (i.e a certain number of supporters). The record label would provide its services, knowledge base, connections, and financing in order to advance the career of an artist. This approach to music has been a standard for 100 years.
A parallel advancement in technology has allowed the average person access to the tools a record label uses. In modern times, it’s possible — but not common — for an independent’s record to match the quality of a record a record label outputs. In addition, decentralization of the music process allows one to consider which responsibilities to delegate to achieve a musical goal. For example, one may take sole responsibility for a record and its production, while delegating distribution and promotion of a project to other agencies (i.e distribution deal). When all of the responsibilities are assumed, the person assuming them — but not necessarily completing them — is classified as an independent artist.
The theory behind collecting the information described above lies in the fact that human objectives often have a ‘correct’ way of being completed. Record Labels are companies; companies are a group of people. As a result, record labels are run by humans. This means that individuals — like you and I — are using specific strategies and programs to perform tasks to the same capacity that anyone else could; had they used those strategies. As a result, the main difference between a group (record label) and an individual (independent artist) is how many individuals the group is composed of; in addition to their roles. By breaking down the group into its roles, we are able to see how higher output is achieved. In this case, a record label is able to create commercially viable music and market it effectively.
Skill is the consideration of how good and consistent one is at an objective. An example is shooting a basketball: Players practice their form and have attributes that allow them to play the game in an efficient way. If one were to be 100% skilled at shooting a basketball and perform just-the-right actions, they would — in theory — never miss. While there are many ways to skin a cat, one can assume that there are optimal ways to do things that result in an optimal performance. This process can be validated by college (education): Normal people are placed in a system to perform a task with a certain amount of skill (or rather knowledge that gains them skill). This skill consists of specific information and methods to complete a task (known as a job).
It is key to note that the industry is constantly changing and 100 years is relatively new. We must understand that certain information may be rooted in habit or legacy rather than efficiency. In short, one must always be looking at information critically rather than haphazardly following it. In modern times, the world’s fastest runners are often of a certain height due to the way humans are trained to run. If someone were to find other optimal-ways for people of other heights to run, it may change the characteristics of the world’s fastest runners. Just as new information would change the outcomes in the previous example, new information that arises in the industry may make certain processes obsolete.
A Snap Back to Reality
The modern music landscape is dominated entirely by signed artists. In the last decade, there has been less than a literal handful of truly independent artists on the charts. The number is always smaller than whatever you think it is. Based on this alone, it’s obvious that a signed artist has a clear advantage over truly independent artists. We want to figure out why.
Show Me the Money
Let’s begin with the money. Typically, signed artists are given an advance — which is essentially a loan — by their record labels in addition to investment from the record label’s services. While there is no standard advance, data by the IFPI estimates an average advance of $50,000 - $350,000 before recording, video, tour, or promotion expenses. To put this in a tangible perspective, Taylor Swift’s father invested a modern day equivalent of $175,000 in her record label prior to her debut album in 2004. In reality, modern record labels are likely more efficient with their spending. In contrast, the median household income in the U.S is only $67,000. This means that most people don’t have the amount of money a signed artist has; nor the efficiency to use it.
If you equate monetary value and time, it becomes clear where the disparity in the probability of a signed artist’s success and independent artist’s success lies. To be clear: A record label — directly and indirectly — employs thousands of specialized workers; for 40 hours a week. If you are not matching this output, you are likely losing a viewer’s attention to a signed artist. Most people are not specialized in even one task; let alone an entire industry (i.e marketing). Most people don’t have enough money to fund their careers; nor access to top-tier talent in those industries.
From a perspective of reality, it’s pretty clear that being an independent artist — especially one who has no team — has an improbable chance of success; and it shows. There is one case where an independent artist is able to output more than a record label: automation. If one is able to automate more efficiently than a label, they will be in a position that allows them to reach their goals.
Time is Limited
The other aspect that most will fail is time: there is a limited amount. We’ve established that a true independent artist would require mastery of multiple fields to gain an advantage in the current music environment; in addition to creating great music. You must realize that every field (within an entire industry) has a level of depth that even specialists fail to reach. Just as an independent artist must spend their money efficiently, they must also spend their time efficiently. Most humans do not have access to the amount of information required to do this; they are gambling. In this case, an independent artist — even one with a large team — is still at a severe disadvantage compared to the signed artist.
You Need to Be Willing
A common saying you may hear is that “you need to love creating music to succeed”. While this may not be true for signed artists, it is especially true for an independent one. This is because creating music for money makes no logical sense. You will spend 10s of thousands of hours and end up in the negative. There is no reason to do this, when you could simply spend 10s of thousands of hours learning a highly-paid skill — such as programming — and get paid for it; without the need to sacrifice your avocado toast.
More important is whether the independent artist is actually willing to place the time forward. In my personal opinion, this delves down to an environment. A person who is already satisfied (in terms of security or support) will not sacrifice their time to advance their career. Moving past the fact that most people are unable to see themselves at the top of anything; most people also will opt to go out with friends over a “hobby”. If there is anything that makes a true independent artist the least likely to succeed, it’s this. Even when a person is willing, they require those around them to also be willing.
One reason that the rich get richer is because there is a fundamental difference on how they approach each other. When a rich person (or rather person with a rich mindset) approaches a situation, they look at how it may benefit them. Non-rich people approach a situation and also look at how it may benefit them, but — and perhaps this is personal opinion — are more likely to look at options that solely benefit themselves; including tearing the other person down. Two rich people in a room may disagree with each other, but it’s still possible for them to generate value from their experiences. There is little compromise with non-rich people and this translates to the environments of most independent artists.
Music Isn't a Sport
The music business is a business; this merits competition. The entertainment industry is the best industry I’ve ever seen at hiding anti-competitive practices in plain sight. We live in a time where “music is more accessible than ever” yet the top 1% of all artists earn 77% of all recorded music income. This happens because music accessibility doesn’t matter at all; music discovery does. Record Labels have realized this and maintain a monopoly on music discovery to fight among themselves. To better understand this point, let’s walk through the day of a normal person.
A Day in the Life: Normal People
“I wake up in the morning and prepare to eat breakfast. I realize that I have no milk, so today I must go to the store for food before work. I play the latest Editorial Playlist on Spotify while getting dressed, which has added new songs from a few newly signed artists. I don't know their signed though. "Spotify is so great for music discovery!" I exclaim while heading out the door.
In the car, I decide to be ambitious and turn on the radio. Not much has changed from the usual 30 - 40 songs on rotation this month. However, one of the newer tracks turns out to be an artist I heard earlier. They are really blowing up! Super cool.
I arrive in the parking lot. A soundtrack grows louder and louder with each step I take in the grocery store. It is at step 1265 that the new song I've heard starts to play. If I'm being honest with you, I did NOT like the song at first. However, it's really starting to grow on me.
At work I'm assigned with a highly classified research project. I decide I will use Google for this project, since they are known to respect consumer data. I type the first letter of a word in a search bar, only to find that new artist in the suggestion bar. "Interesting", I think. I've never searched for that artist before.
During my break time at work, I decide to watch a bit of TV. It's not long until I come across an advertisement with the artist that created the song I saw earlier. "Wow, they look amazing." Nonetheless, I manage to resist the urge to tend to my ultra consumerist tendencies that involve buying products featured by attractive people. You can't get me this time, capitalism.
I'm heading home and am a little low on gas. The first thing I do is turn off the car, because refueling with a running car is dangerous. Then, I reach down to open the gas cap, hop out of the car, and insert my credit card. So far. So good. I grab the pump - with a wipe - and turn around. Just as I insert the long shaft into the hole of the car, a light moan startles me from behind. Wait... American gas stations have ads? A short-lived thought as a wonderful person appears on the screen.
When I get home, I decide to watch some YouTube; while eating of course. There is nothing more efficient than ritualistic multi-tasking. I click the first video - a 100% Truthful Grammy-Winning Artist Interview - that's recommended. As I watch it, a single crumb of fried chicken drops to the mousepad; resulting in a liter of grease on my keyboard. I pull out a single wipe from the nearby tissue box and apply it, misclicking in the process.
While I wait for the page to load, I decide to browse some of my favorite TikTok stars. I find it interesting that they are playing the song from earlier even if it just came out. “What a coincidence”, I think to myself. The webpage on my laptop finishes loading… At first, I have NO IDEA which website I'm on. "Y-You. Tube... Music." Ah. I see. I can't help but notice that the playlist looks similar to the Editorial Playlist I listened to when I woke up; which reminds me that I should be heading to bed…
That is until I receive a text from a friend. It reads: "Hey, please let me know what you think of this new song I've made." Ugh. I make it 1.27 seconds through the song before realizing it isn't Pop. I wait roughly 30 seconds then respond: "You really need to get a real job... :)". As I'm about to sleep, I wonder why so many artists don't even bother to promote their new music...”
Competition Isn’t a Resource
The previous options (time and money) we've discussed are achievable by an independent artist. With competition, there is nothing to achieve; only work against. The average independent artist cannot wine and dine themselves all the way to the radio. It is this competition that makes it highly improbable for a true independent artist to be viable at a self-sustaining yet profitable level. You need to be delusional to succeed.
When most consumers point to an independent artist, they are usually wrong.
However, even when they are right, they often point to artists who were previously signed. It is important to look at these “pseudo-independent” artists; because they ARE viable. One can question the extent that they are independent, but it shows that an independent artist with a true fanbase will maintain success. This means that the question for new independent artists lies on whether those artists are able to gain that fanbase; provided the obstacles above.