Advice for a musical artist about to release their first track

I started writing a piece of advice to a new artist whose first work is being released by the record label for which I work. The advice ended up being so long that I figured I’d just post it here…

There are too many consumables in the market. I mean everything from songs to TV shows to movies to books to tweets and status updates. There has never been so much stuff vying for our attention. And with social media, the people who were traditionally the consuming audience are now also your competition.

There’s this formula called the Peter Principle. It says that 80% of your gains will come from 20% of your efforts, and vice versa. But because the market is so saturated, this formula has been pushed to the extreme. There are 2 million artists on Spotify. Spotify makes 95% of their revenue from the top 5% of those artists, and only 5% of their revenue from the bottom 95%. That’s the reality of the democratization of media.

So what does this mean for someone who is just starting out?

1. Adjust your expectations.

The era of the superstar is over, but the hype machine is still working. Just because the radio or TV is giving an artist a lot of attention doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actually doing well in sales or streams. So if you’re creating any kind of content, make sure that it’s something that you love, either in the creation of it or in the product of that creation. Love for the process or the product can keep you going a lot longer than a financial windfall can. And you control whether or not you love something, you don’t control whether or not your content becomes a hit that rakes in millions of sales.

2. Assume that you have an audience somewhere.

The chances are high that somewhere in the world, there is 1 person whose tastes align perfectly with yours. But that’s a sliding scale. The more people you add, the less perfectly aligned your tastes will be. Somewhere on that scale is a balanced point between the number of people there are and those whose tastes are more or less aligned with yours. And that is your audience. The goal of marketing your work is to find them.

3. Stay in the game and always be creating.

The most successful creators are the ones who keep creating. Both in quantity and longevity. The more content you create and distribute, the more chances your audience has to find you. The longer you stay in the game, the more chances your audience has to find you.

The most successful artist on our label was only releasing content through us for a little under 2 years before moving on to other opportunities. But in that time, he released around 70 tracks through us. That’s your biggest competition — people who are that prodigious because they’re obsessed with the work.

4. Don’t rely solely on track sales.

Sales aren’t what they used to be. Prior to Napster, single sales are what drove revenue in the music industry. Major labels would hoard that revenue, forcing artists to rely more on revenue generated from live performances. (This is how the Grateful Dead made their money for decades.)

Napster completely undermined that model. Then iTunes came along and forced those major labels into digital distribution at pennies on the dollar of what they used to make. Which left even less profit for artists. And which put even greater emphasis on live performance as a revenue stream for artists.

If you want to make assured money in this game, you’ve got to be performing live. For a beginner, you’ll make more in a few months of live performance than you will in an entire year of digital sales and streams. Those at the top of their game can make more in 1 or 2 live performances than they will in an entire year of digital streams and downloads. And now that Apple is phasing out downloads, there will be even less revenue to go around.

5. Hits are an exception.

The tracks that break out and become hits are the exception. They cannot be predicted. You can make what sounds like a hit song but there are so many uncontrollable variables that need to fall into place in order for it to break through. Currently, hip hop reigns supreme. And everyone is trying to cash in on that trend. But it won’t always be the trend. And successful artists create trends, they don’t follow trends. And how do they create trends? By just doing what they do.

So just do what you do, don’t try to force a hit-making formula, and if one or more of your tracks are lucky enough to be hits, then they will be hits.

6. Be present on every platform.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Even if you don’t use any of those platforms, get a profile up and at least link to your main artist hub. If you don’t have a website of your own, get a Soundcloud account. Link to your Soundcloud profile from all your social media profiles. Or to your artist profile on Spotify or iTunes. Separate your personal use of a SM platform from your artist use. If you have your own personal Facebook account, create a Facebook fan page and use that as your artist hub on Facebook. Your personal account maxes out at 5K friends. A Facebook page has no limit to the number of followers.

All that said, don’t rely exclusively on social media. Every SM platform has huge problems with fraudulent users and activity that might make you think you’re popular but, if you look at your page statistics, you end up finding that 70% of your followers are in Bangladesh and don’t even speak English. And then you’ve got to pay the platform to target posts around those fake followers.

And once you develop a following on a SM platform, your connection with those followers is locked into that platform. You can’t export your followers data for your own use. So ultimately, you don’t own the access to your audience on social media — Facebook does, Twitter does, Instagram does.

7. Own the access to your audience.

Start building an email list. Any email list you build, you own the access to those people until they unsubscribe from your list. Email marketing gets much better return on investment than other forms of digital marketing. Separate your email list into different kinds of audiences — friends, fans, DJs, etc. — because each of those audiences serves a different purpose.

Record labels will usually send out a promo email to DJs prior to the release of a track to solicit support for the track. To be able to provide to a record label that is about to release your track an email list of DJs who already support your work increases the chances that the track will be successful.

I know it seems insurmountable to have an email list with thousands of subscribers if you don’t already have one. But start now, and 10 years from now, if you’re still in the game, you’ll have that email list with thousands of subscribers and you’ll be able to bring it to bear whenever you release new content.

If you do any live performances, always tell the audience where to go to get more of your content. Make sure they have the ability to subscribe to your direct marketing (email list) at whatever location you direct them to.

The ability to activate an audience of consumers who align with their tastes is the greatest strength that any artist can have in today’s market. Though he was already successful when he became fully independent of any major label, Trent Reznor is a great example of how owning the access to your audience is what makes for a successful career.

8. Build stability.

Obviously, make friends. Ignore assholes and don’t be one. There are more people who want to see an asshole fail than want to see an asshole succeed. Be the version of you that people are rooting for — it’s the path of least resistance.

Build stability in your content too. Don’t put all your apples in one basket. It’s cool that we’re going to be releasing your first track ever. And that you’re going to send us a follow-up track. But what if you develop a distribution relationship with us, release all of your work through us, and then in a year an asteroid hits our office and we all die? Then you’re right back to where you started a year earlier.

So cultivate relationships with more than just one distributor. Cultivate relationships with other artists. Cultivate relationships with fans. Soak up as much information as you can about how everything works but take it all with a grain of salt. Because there is bullshit everywhere.

9. Check your name.

All DSPs (digital service providers — Spotify, iTunes, etc) employ automation on their platforms. Otherwise, they would not be able to efficiently scale to millions of product suppliers. Every DSP automatically generates an artist profile that lists all the tracks by that artist on their platform.

If you select an artist name that is already in use by another artist, you will end up automatically sharing a single artist profile. And some platforms, like Spotify, allow artists to claim their profile to add photos or a biography.

If you share an artist name with another artist, not only do you run the risk of confusing fans (y’know, the people who buy your products) but there is also a chance that some other artist will claim the automatically-generated profile you share with them. And any fans your work may have driven to that profile and who subscribed to it thinking they were subscribing to you are now part of some other artist’s subscriber base.

Google your name before you lock yourself into it. Go on Spotify and iTunes and do a search for it. If another remotely similar artist is already using the name you want to use, too bad for you, they got there first. Pick another name. If you cannot be uniquely identified on the platforms that sell your products, it’s going to be much more difficult to a) sell your products, and b) develop a fan base.

10. Keep a consistent brand name.

The inversion of the above rule is also valid. Once you’ve decided on a unique artist name, don’t change it. Nobody cares what you call yourself. Nobody cares that you’re experimenting in a new sub-genre of house music. They either want to consume your creations or they don’t — your name is merely a search term that is used to find your creations.

If you develop a fan base with one name and then switch to another, you’re basically throwing away your existing fan base and making it more difficult for fans to discover the breadth of your work.

Obviously there are some cases in which legal issues force you to let go of an existing brand name. When he couldn’t use his artist name because it was contracted to a label with which he no longer wanted to be associated, Prince temporarily switched to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. He understood the importance of brand consistency and he was clever enough to suffer no loss of brand value.