The 19-year-old rapper Desiigner, whose song “Panda” is one of the year’s biggest hits, on stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in July. NICHOLAS HUNT / GETTY IMAGES

Making a living with music in the YouTube era

“Listening to technology… a great example, my kind of canonical example, is copying. So the internet is the world’s largest copying machine, you can’t stop the copies, copies flow. There are lots of music and movie industries, all trying to prohibit copying. You can’t because there is a bias. The technology wants to copy. So you listen to the technology, see what it’s doing. It says it wants to copy. You don’t fight against it, you work with that.” — Kevin Kelly on The James Altucher Show.

When I listened to this, it all fell into place. Before, I understood –to some extent– that this is the way the internet works, but I could never quite put it together like this. Copying is the internet’s inherent bias, of course!

I’ve watched, puzzled, as Taylor Swift and other artists crusaded to enforce copyright infringement on kids who played a certain song on the background of their vlog, and cursed the streaming services that brought their margins to the floor — because otherwise people would buy the music, right?

In their desperate reluctance to adapt, Neil Portnow and Common made a last plea to the public in the 2015 Grammys, questioning whether a career in music will be viable in the future: “What is music worth to you… would anybody ever say ‘it’s only worth a penny’?”

Alas! Music is worth a penny. You can whine all you want, the heartless invisible hand has the last word. There’s little anyone can do to command higher prices on a product that can be copied at will. I guess you could stay away from the internet, see how that works.

The thing is, the copying bias changed the landscape of the market, in music and beyond. It shifted the focus from an economy of ownership to an economy of access. Here’s how I think musicians could approach their business in 2016.

The New Gatekeepers

So perhaps musicians could stop seeing every stray copy of their song as dollars lost and start seeing them as leverage. Every time someone hears your song, regardless of the medium, they have given you permission to take their attention. And every time your song falls on the same ear, they’ll give you more and more permission, that’s your leverage. Because when you have their attention, you can channel it into your sources of income. Panda ,by Desiigner, being the perfect example of the kind of leverage virality can yield.

Now, there’s a saying that “there are no gatekeepers” on the internet, that’s bullshit. There’s a clear group of gatekeepers called social media. YouTube and Facebook are two of the most viewed websites in the world, only topped by the all mighty Google. Twitter and Instagram are not far behind.

They draw more attention than any other portal on the internet. They provide an unparalleled opportunity for exposure, distribution and connection, and they are open for you to seize them at any moment. Each has particular preferences for their content that are worth learning, but two of them stand out across the board:

The gatekeepers like visuals

Images are even better than audio, and if you can have both you’re golden. Knowing how to use video across social media is indispensible for your brand as an artist.

As a musician you’re in a unique position to make audiovisual content (I wonder why more musicians don’t produce their own lyrics videos, considering they’re such a hit). Since you’ve got the quality audio, you’re already halfway there. Now you need to sharpen the visual aesthetic to fit the music.

Video production for musicians is not just about showing your music. The right visual presentation and charisma in front of the camera can go a long way in communicating your brand. And it doesn’t have to be too complicated, if you can’t access professional video production.

In social media, people appreciate the amateur producer as long as the content is shared with passion and charisma. There’s a charm to the simple relationship between the creator and camera sharing something personal, which drew people to vloggers. If you exploit that with incredible musical talent, you have captivating content to be copied.

The gatekeepers like consistency

Keep it coming! The machine demands and you gotta obey. I think the metaphor of stock and flow is helpful to understand the distribution of digital content. Although I agree the difference between the two is getting a little blurred over time.

In essence, music is your stock, the durable stuff. Your music videos could also be considered as stock. It’s the kind of material that people are going to enjoy in a year as much as they would today (hopefully). It is going to take a longer time to produce, since most people can’t pump out great songs every day. And you want it to spread as much as possible.

In order to funnel attention to your stock, you need to create a connection with your audience, a constant feed that keeps you in their mind and creates engagement, that’s the flow.

Flow is the dayly update. A small appetizer to keep you in mind. It’s the vacation photo or the selfie that gives a small window into your personal life. It’s music teasers or backstage videos. It’s sharing music that inspires you. Anything that makes a small statement about your personal brand. Anything that you can pump out often, in between your stock.

Using your leverage

Think of yourself as though you were selling a “freemium” service. Like a freemium app that gives access to enough content to enjoy on its own and sells “premium” access to the most avid users. You don’t necessarily have to give all your music away for free — although Chance the Rapper does it with huge success.

The goal is to get people in the door with the free music and use the exposure of the new media to cultivate “true fans” as Kevin Kelly would call them. This is the small subset of fans that will pay for anything you sell, and you only need 1000 of them, according to Kevin Kelly, in order to make your music lucrative. Here are a few simple — and kind of obvious — ways to grow your audience into paying customers.

VIP access

Services like Patreon have given artists platforms to create through monthly subscriptions of multiple contributors. If you give special access and recognition to the most devoted subset of your fan base, many of them will support you directly. You could build a whole rewards program. Early releases, special rates on merchandize, exclusive messages and videos, exclusive sneak peeks into your projects, exclusive AMAs. You name it, there’s thousands of things you could do.

Sell Merchandize

Merchandize is like buying access to your community. The most influential artists have a really tight relationship with their fans. Merchandize is an important part of creating that kind of bond with your audience.

Sell Tours

Access to you! That is the most valuable access you can give your fans. The more your music is copied around the internet, the more you can charge for people to see you in person.

I know these are not groundbreaking, but they are essentially the best resources for artists nowadays. Even for people who are not musicians. YouTubers like NigaHiga and Superwoman have been successful putting on shows for their fans and touring around the country.

That’s the advantage of the type of connection you can make through social media. You can create an intimate relationship with your audience and find a niche that makes music viable. You might not get to be Drake, but living off your music is quite possible regardless.

Read 1000 true fans by Kevin Kelly for some more invaluable ideas about creating paying audiences!

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