Why Most Artists Rely on Luck

What is luck and how much does it matter?
Mar 31, 2022
10 min

Everyone agrees that you need luck to become a successful artist: So what is luck and how much does it matter? Let's start by clarifying that there is a difference between an artist and an individual. An artist is a role that encompasses many definitions while an individual is a person (who is or plays said role). Understanding this distinction is important because luck as an individual and luck in the music industry are two separate things.

An individual who wants to become an artist (for a living) requires a separate definition of luck, than an individual artist — already in the industry — that wishes to advance their career. Subsequently, a group of people working together as an artist (i.e songwriters, producers, etc) also maintain a separate definition of luck. A record label’s definition of luck is even further from the former. As we traverse the spectrum, the definition of luck changes.

You are an individual. You want to succeed in a certain profession. However, you are relying on luck to do so. In order to understand why, you need to identify the stages of luck as it appears on the spectrum.

An Individual Limitation

The majority of card games are decided before a card is ever drawn. While the highest levels of card games (such as Hearthstone) DO involve in-game decisions based on probabilities, a game's outcome is largely decided by the deck of each player. It's a given that professionals — "who are really good" — maintain the best decks.

The "issue" for an individual is that they are unable to pick their deck. There are a number of factors that no one maintains control over at birth: Gender, Color, Attractiveness, Parents, Culture, Location, Socioeconomic Status... We can go on. For most people, the concept of luck with regards to any profession stops here. 

Good luck becoming a model if you're unattractive. Good luck becoming the fastest Olympic runner without the physical mechanisms to do so. Whether it be a result of physical limitation or opportunity deficit, at-birth luck will decide whether you experience the next stage of luck. When it comes to the music industry, the requirements are initially straightforward: Be able to use a musical instrument (for other people).

What is Talent?

If everyone in the world created a song, some would be — subjectively — good and some bad. However, being able to consistently place out pieces takes time. Often, new music creators can be labeled “talented”, when their talent is actually a mix of music taste and (re)creating that taste correctly. As a result, people who are unable to do so believe themselves to be “untalented” when they just need practice. This isn’t to say the way your brain picks up information has no influence on your “talent”. However, a “lack of talent” is NOT an equivalent to the inability to use a musical instrument (for other people).

Environmental Assessment for Risk

The second stage of luck occurs among those who are able (to participate in a profession). Its definition focuses on the psychological state of an individual and their willingness to place effort (in said profession). A human is an animal driven by reward. The environment determines how rewards are earned. If your psychological state is driven by reward, but the environment defines it, then your psychological state is a reflection of your environment. In other words, any action you take is a risk that — you believe — the environment will reward you for.

A person who grows up in a middle class environment may be motivated to attend college. This is because the risk of attending college is prospective to them: Since others in their position have succeeded by going to college, they believe that going to college will result in their success. The individual person’s chance to take the risk of attending college increases as the probability of them attending college becomes more favorable (i.e scholarships, parent, or government support). These people don’t succeed in non-wage activities because they let college take up all of their time.

When it comes to the music industry, we see luck — at this stage — apply to each side of the socio-economic spectrum. An impoverished person — not knowing statistics — may see a specific profession as their only way out of poverty. In contrast, a person in the music industry who has wealthy or connected parents can use their resources — to find the tools necessary — to become a superstar. To reiterate, both the impoverished and wealthy person have to find the tools necessary; which requires them to be motivated to do so. The second stage of luck does not lie in actually finding the tools, but in the motivation to find the tools.

Actual Assessment of Environment

The actual assessment of an individual’s environment fits the colloquial definition of luck: Some believe that luck is all there is to success, while others believe that luck has nothing to do with success (in contrast to hard work). The reality is that there are a number of factors that affect the outcome of a decision. However, these factors aren’t recognizable because they are taken for granted. The reason that this stage of luck is argued upon so much is because it’s complicated to understand. Bear with me for a moment.

How much of a person’s success comes down to luck? Jeff Bezos and Taylor Swift are wealthy individuals, but their parents have given them "loans" worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. So how can you determine their work ethic? Some people will compare the success of their peers (who have also received loans) to themselves. However, it's not that simple...

Here is what we know: If your parents can afford to loan you hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are more benefits than just money. You don't deal with the psychological stress that being poor brings. You received a top of the line education. You are surrounded by other "smart" individuals. It's only a bonus (for Jeff and Taylor) that their parents supported them.

It goes deeper. In a capitalistic society, those with the most capital are rewarded. If the only people who can take these risks are wealthy, it makes sense that they will maintain most of the rewards. So while the difference in wealth between Jeff Bezos and Taylor Swift is influenced by their decisions, the actual amount of luck — at this stage — is very similar… Or is it?

What happens when you give a poor person surrounded by other poor people money? More importantly, do those people choose to act that way or is their behavior learned? Place Jeff Bezos or Taylor Swift or Elon Musk or any of these people in another person's position at-birth and I doubt they would be where they are today. In this regard, they are not that special. No one is. Not even yourself.

Third-Stage Implication

As we can see, the factors for luck at this stage are a way of life: You are not affected by them (unless you are). When someone asks another person, “How much of your success is tied to your work ethic?” The answer will be disingenuous. There are entire levels of luck that are disregarded and other aspects that aren’t considered. Most people define luck as something that happens; not predetermined.

The Just-World Hypothesis is a cognitive bias that assumes that "people get what they deserve". In this case, this hypothesis (which is regarded as fallacy) results in misinformed decision-making. If you believe that a person is homeless because they don't work hard, what will your decision be on the prospects of welfare? If you believe that becoming a billionaire is a conscious decision, how will you respond to them?

The implication of actual environmental assessment is that an individual does NOT maintain control over their success, since an individual does NOT maintain control over their luck; which applies to every aspect of your psychological state including your work ethic. However, when we ask, "How much of one's success comes down to luck?" We make the assumption that that the individual DOES maintain control over their work ethic (at some level).

Following this assumption, the reason that MOST INDIVIDUALS rely on luck is because they fail to recognize their luck (comprised of inherent advantages and disadvantages) in the first place. Decisions are made on the basis of others’ paths to success. Effort is placed on tasks that have a low probability of effectiveness. When everyone follows the same methods for the same outcome, luck is predetermined, a statistic: You either have what it takes or you don’t.

To be clear, the third stage of luck is defined by how much an individual’s effort matters (work in relation to their environment). Every person can place the same amount of effort towards the same objective. However, the amount of productivity one derives from that effort will always be different. This presents a calculation that is incalculable. Life contains endless complexity. Luck is no exception.

Luck In The Music Industry

Let’s analyze a practical example. Watch an interview by any artist and they will say that you need luck to succeed. Such a simple answer is disingenuous. There is the first form of the answer, which goes a little like this:

Interviewer: "Did you know this song would be as big as it was?"

Actor: "I did not."

The actor answers unaware because there is no guarantee any song they release becomes a hit. However, the actor also knows that they signed the contract to place marketing resources behind the song; which was submitted weeks in advance. The fact that they are now on the radio (with all the paperwork that involves) should signal that the song was going to be a "hit". So when the second form of the question comes along:

Interviewer: "What does it take to become an artist?"

The answer doesn't matter at all.

The actor can tell you to work hard. The actor can tell you to use TikTok. The actor can tell you to jiggle your butt an incoherent amount of times. It doesn't matter. You don't have their life, brand, resources, or any similarity that entails taking their advice.

It's problematic when an actor answers with, "I just blew up on <insert social media platform>". This results in other individuals using the social media platform; who end up wasting their time. The actor doesn’t tell you about the campaigns their marketing team ran. The actor doesn’t tell you why the platform was used. The actor may not even understand how marketing factored in their success. However, they (as a front-facing position) can still take credit for it.

Your luck as an individual is now affected. When you work with a consumer who likes that actor, guess where they will be directing your efforts? Can’t we just work with non-consumers? No. Everyone is a consumer; especially marketers. You are doing the same thing as everyone else. You are expecting a different outcome. You are playing a game of luck.

There are moral implications to the decisions by these actors; that we won't get into. If I promise you the world to take out the trash, but give you a rock, you will be mad. It's a lot less clear when the world is some form of satisfaction, taking out the trash involves thousands of hours, the rock is a lost opportunity, and the person behind it all continues to gain from it. In any case, the individual loses. You relied on luck but you're not the 1%. The 99% isn't showcased.

Do you have vocal coaches, songwriters, distribution companies, and operational teams at your fingertips? No. Why are you using the same strategies that superstars use? Or worse... directing your friends to do so. Stop wasting your time. Stop wasting your money. Stop relying on luck.

Natural Decision Making

A musical artist is a person who makes music. When most people make music, they do it for themselves. As a result, their success lies in how many people relate to them. Wait, how did you reach that conclusion? Read What is the Best Song or Album? When everyone makes music for themselves, the most successful people are going to be the most relatable people. As a result, only mainstream music remains sustainable (in a capitalistic society). Enter the modern record label; which makes music for other people (for their money).

The modern record label is successful for many reasons. As explained in the article above, a record label does not hire artists; they create them through aggregation. Producers, songwriters, singers (actors), marketing teams, operations, and other roles are AGGREGATED to output musical content under various names; which are assigned to ACTORS. When most people (consumers) think about an artist, they are actually thinking about an ACTOR. When most actors "make" music, they do it for other people. 

Actors are the 1% of the music industry (that make 77% of the revenue). I don't call them actors because of the individuals' previous professions: Yes. Ariana Grande, Britney Spears, Blackface Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera, Demi Levato, Drake, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Latinaface Ariana Grande, Olivia Rodrigo, Selena Gomez… all are or were literally actors. I call them actors because these are individual people — like you and I — who ACT as an artist for an audience; regardless of the authenticity of their music.

When it comes to third-stage luck, the difference between an individual and an actor is that the individual relies on their predetermined traits in an attempt to succeed, while the actor (as a role in a record label) supersedes luck all together. Most artists — the 99% — rely on luck because they are not actors.

Generating Luck

Aggregation warrants a higher stage of luck. There is a difference in the chance for a single individual to succeed, and the chance for a single individual in a GROUP of individuals to succeed. In most cases, the latter is higher than the former: If an individual has a 5% chance to succeed, how many individuals do you need to guarantee that any ONE succeeds? As we can see, "generating luck" by adding individuals is almost equivalent to the elimination of luck.

YouTube is a video distribution platform. Without YouTube, an individual must host and distribute videos on their own platform. The chance of the INDIVIDUAL's success lies on the videos the individual creates (on their platform). In contrast, the chance for YouTube's success lies on the videos every individual creates (on YouTube). YouTube benefits as long as a single creator makes a good video, while the single creator may only have a 20% chance of doing so. As a result, the YouTube algorithm is concerned with videos that increase ad revenue, rather than individual creators.

The modern record label functions as a financial institution with direct oversight into an artist's business. People who already maintain stage three luck are chosen to fill the roles of said business; eliminating stage three luck all together. The record label generates luck by doing this for a group of artists' businesses. For example, over 600 acts are given an upwards of $100K in a single year, but only a select few make a return. The label benefits for every artist that reaches the 1%, while the individual must pay back the loan.

A Venture Capital Fund or any other investment institution uses the same model for startups; which are also businesses. However, startups aren't necessarily required to pay back investments. In any case, 19 failures and one unicorn startup is a success for the Venture Capitalist (but not for every individual). There is a reason that Google is big into generating luck (albeit through their employees): It's also why they kill so many products. As we can see, luck generation (through aggregation) is a common pattern among 21st century companies.

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