Comparing artists to start-ups isn’t just lazy. It’s unhealthy and beside the point.
This is a follow up post from the great “Artist as a Start-up ?” panel at the Sonic Visions conference in Luxemburg I was recently invited to debate on.
Comparing artists to start-ups is a trend that has emerged this last couple of years as music and tech became ever more increasingly tied and the latter churned out its daily dose of spectacular stories and unicorns. When a particular field is successful, it would be a shame not to try to find some key take aways and apply them to an ecosystem like music where everything has been challenged and turned upside down these last 15 years or so.
Artists can definitely learn a lot from start-ups.
In addition to the points made in this article I recommend you read if you haven’t already, the 3 things artists and start-ups have in common are that :
- Everything starts with a vision and the founder/artist’s passion. He or she will share it with people and attempt to win them over so they will join them in this crazy adventure
- A&Rs are like VCs : listening to a demo and signing an artist is like investing in a founder. They decide to support him or her on the basis of their perceived potential as a person rather than expect immediate returns on the concept they pitched / showcased. It’s a bet on how they can evolve with the tacit acceptation that they will probably make mistakes and not get it right the first time round, but they will mature and grow as a result of them.
- Signing with a major label and getting a royalty advance is like raising funds for a start-up : the higher the artist or start-up is valued upfront, the bigger the pressure to « deliver » financial results short term (quarterly reportings or recouping the advance as fast as possible for the artist) and (litterally) the more indebted the artists or founders become to their investors who have their own idea of the next steps to take and crucial decisions to make. It can quickly become both a real dilemna if the artist or founder’s initial vision is different and a tough decision not to heed professional advice as to how to shape their sound (or product/service for the latter), thereby taking the risk of losing those crucial connections/open doors.
Irreconcilable differences ?
Not so long ago, before the words « disruption » and « innovation » became so commonplace they somewhat lost part of their true meaning, the trend was to compare artists to brands. There is still mention of this from time to time, and it still holds some truth : building your ‘brand’ as an artist still implies you think about who your fans/customers are, what formats they priviledge, how much they are ready to spend, through which most efficient means you can reach them, you have a business model with different sources of revenue (products, royalties, gig fees, sponsporship deals), you are careful about your image and who you associate with when it comes to sponsorship etc…
For all these similarities, I nonetheless think there are fundamental flaws in comparing artists to brands. A bit like systematically equating artists to start-ups.
- The starting point of creation is what the artist wants to share : a message, an emotion that the artist expresses a certain way. It is necessarily personal and subjective. If artists proceed like a start-up, looking to fill a gap in the market, it quickly becomes a slippery slope and questions the sincerity of their output. The same reflex applies when some artists have such long-standing careers that many people say they’ve ‘found their sound’ and each new release is but a variation of it. Are they creating for monetisation purposes or trying to monetise something they created ?
- Start-ups are expected to scale quickly, to go for a business model that will make sense for a very wide audience. If this can apply to some extent to an artist enjoying worldwide success for example, it becomes nonetheless extremely difficult to guarantee anything when starting out. If we could already be sure of which artist and/or sound is sure to ‘work’, noone would need A&Rs anymore (or to collect data and analyse it) and it could somehow suggest we are 100% predictable as humans.
- Another aspect of scalability : there is so much you can do as an artist with 24 hours in a day. Even if the artist’s presence isn’t always necessary for fans to enjoy his or her art (listening to recordings, watching videos…), key components of the human connexion to fans (live gigs, meet and greets…) end up limited in time (that might change with VR but that is an entirely different matter). Eventually, you hit a wall : you can’t outsource emotion as an artist and you can only industrialise it up to a certain point. If the message comes from you, it has value, if it doesn’t, it has less to none at all.
- Last but not least, the ‘utility’ criteria : when a start-up fills a gap in the market, the type of need that its product or service caters to is clear and in turn becomes the basis for assessing the start-up’s potential utility. But to apply this to music for example ? How do you calculate the potential scale and value of an artist’s music on the basis of the utility criteria ?
The recurring philosophical debate about balancing art and commerce
The underlying question boils down to this : the music business has changed radically to the point methods from the past rarely make for good advice anymore. Criteria for success have evolved, the gatekeepers have different faces and rules, music discovery is a whole new planet altogether. So how can artists, especially the ones starting out (up ? no pun intended) develop a sustainable career in such a fast-changing environment ? Start-ups seem the obvious comparison because they thrive on agility and the acceptation they must constantly adapt if they want to have a chance of survival.
This keys back into the very old debate of balancing art and commerce (a difficult thing to strike, especially in the long run). Funding remains at the heart of the issue which is why crowdfunding and its different stages of evolution is to interesting :
- Phase 1 : before Kickstarter, Indiegogo and KissKissBankBank came along in 2007, you had a first wave of crowdfunding plateforms that were allowing people to fund artist projects such as Sell-A-Band or Slice The Pie. In France, one particularly stood out because it allowed one of its first artists to land the #1 spot in the charts and enjoy phenomenal succes. MyMajorCompany was about investing : people were being sold the idea that they would be artist angels, coproducers of the album : their contribution was a investment allowing them to expect a share of profits. This approach produced 3 artists (Grégoire, Joyce Jonathan and Irma) who did very well by traditional music industry standards (sales, radio airplay, media visibility, award nominations/wins even for some etc…). The result was that people funded projects with the most commercial potential and that meant betting on artists who sounded just like so many who had already ‘made it’ to the mainstream before.
- Phase 2 : project-based platforms emerged (Kickstarter et al.) with a different pitch. You could fund a specific project and return on investment did not depend on sales but on the capacity for an artist to meet their financial target for their crowdfunding campaign. As long as it was met, funders knew they were going to receive the rewards they had pre-paid for. The artist/fan relationship was changed. People were giving money because they had much more control over the outcome of a campaign : they could become directly involved in its success by leveraging their own circle of friends and family, developing an emotional connexion with the artist’s project (by making it theirs — the IKEA effect, much ?).
- Phase 3 : along came Patreon (created by an artist and it’s no coincidence either), basically allowing fans to give the artist a fixed amount (albeit small) for every ‘thing’ he or she would create. This is most interesting as it frees artists from the pressure of all-or-nothing for crowdfunding phase 2-type campaigns and allows for a healthy relationship between artist and fans. In some way, it brings us back to the ideal situation where we are all A&Rs, funding the artist while accepting that their creative output is entirely up to them. We are betting on their potential and accept the artist will surprise us (founding principle of what we are funding), yet the situation is much more manageable as the total amount is split amongst all members of the crowd, each person freely deciding how much and how long they want to support the artist.
Does this mean that crowdfunding Patreon-style is the future of artistic freedom ? Maybe it is for some, probably not for all. It depends on each artist’s personality, career stage, musical genre, fans and so much more.
Key take aways for artists
So where does this leave us ? Of course, noone lives off thin air and any artist setting out to build their career should definitely be intent on figuring out how to best navigate the ecosystem to make a living. As much as business acumen is needed, it is also crucial for artists to find the right team and have a clear vision of where they want to go, both artistically and professionnally. In that sense, artists are closer to entrepreneurs than to start-ups (I first developed this idea in my very first Midem blog post back in 2011). Yes, they can find a business model that works for them, I don’t believe however, that artists should be reduced to being compared to administrative entities.
The problem I have with such comparisons becoming systematic is that it often leads to unhealthy recommendations for artists. They should not feel strategy must come before creation.
The same goes for money. It is absolutely crucial but shouldn’t take the focus away from the importance of creating. Art is not just futile entertainment, it is vital and I don’t know anyone other than Jesse Von Doom who has made this point so passionately and eloquently (please read it here — while you’re at it, I recommend you also read this other piece he wrote).
First create, then figure out how you can work from there to outline what makes you and your art unique and find your tribe. Thinking it all comes down to good marketing either means you are being lazy or you lack confidence in your artistic instincts. Either way, you’re probably not ready to go out into the world just quite yet (and that’s ok).
Moreover there is a scalable reality right around the corner, and that’s automated music, with the rapid progress of Artificial Intelligence. Google’s Magenta project, Jukedeck and other start-ups like i-muze are raising funds and winning awards for creating self-generated royalty-free music so people don’t have to worry about clearing rights to use it on their YouTube videos.
So artists : all the more reason for you not to create something you think must sound a certain way to please a certain audience. Machines are very good at that. You’re human after all : follow your heart and instincts. That’s where your uniqueness lies. Embrace it !