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 :

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 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 :

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 !

Artist manager, music publisher, author (and a whole lot of other things too).

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