Adele has just sold 4.5m albums. You’d be daft to try the same.
So where does that leave the rest of us?
Anybody living above ground in the last few weeks won’t have missed Adele’s impact on music. In the first two weeks, ‘25’ has sold 4.5 million albums, the first album to sell a million copies in two different weeks since Nielsen began tracking in 1991.
It’s a huge achievement by music standards. But let’s put this into perspective: Computer Games, like GTA V, which cost 4 times as much and sold 6 million copies in week 1, and the final Harry Potter book sold 15 million copies on it’s first day. We might not be comparing similar fruit, but even Apple’s iPhone 6 sold 4 million copies in 24hrs, and that cost $649 USD.
So whilst this is remarkable, it’s not time to pick up the guitar and resume working on your psych-goth concept album just yet. You’d have to be crazy to assume that making albums is the main way to build success nowadays. In fact it is the opposite, especially when we begin to investigate the ‘profitability’ of selling albums versus other routes.
What’s really changed is the way in which you can have ‘cultural impact’ and build a career. Adele’s success was driven by a mysterious spot in an ad-break on the UK television show X-Factor, followed by some judicious promotion by the likes of SNL and the BBC, and in the weeks that led up to the release Adele was everywhere. She still is.
Cultural impact for most artists doesn’t mean re-igniting a lithe cohort of music fans with a tantalising song like ‘Hello’, but delivering a consistent campaign. Buying a ‘one-hit’ advertising spot costs $$, but there’s more opportunity in areas where you can reach people. Your ‘X-factor’ break is on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Radio, Reddit and Snapchat. Therefore your goal is to be as present as you can in the minds of the would-be fans, as often as you can, in the hope that some of them may share your ‘releases’ to other people. Some will engage in streaming your music, a fraction of those will convert to give up cash for your recordings, merchandise or hopefully— a concert ticket.
Let’s put an album into context. 12 tracks, painstakingly recorded over many weeks in a studio with your most trusted collaborators. It’s an expensive undertaking, and ultimately — though it might make you money-it’s just one area of your creative capital that has potential.
Start a list.
Write down everything you can produce that people might find interesting enough to share or engage with.
- Lyric Videos
- Concert News
- Talking about subjects you feel passionate about
Your list is probably not long enough. Don’t just think about the content, but participating in the conversation it provokes.
Now put ‘Music’ at the bottom of the list.
Your music is just another piece of collateral. Something else you can use to engage with your audience.
The goal is to create a conversation, every day, and to tell your audience what you are about, what you are interested in, in the hope it resonates. Your music will do the same thing.
Most people’s subconscious perception of music is one of two elements: the recording, and the connection. For anybody to succeed, you have try to offer the best in both spaces. That means consistent, interesting, authentic engagement as both a personality and a musician.
Given all that, when you’ve spent weeks poring over your beautifully created album, why would you drop it all in one go? In the future, huge megalith artists (of which there are few) will drop one off ‘albums’ and leverage massive media placements to get there. Everybody else might well release 10 or 11 tracks, and then finally, weeks later, an album with a final track on it. 12 releases, 12 conversations.
It’s time to shift the perception away from just audio releases, into releases of ‘anything’. Some of these will make you money (concerts), some of these will not (photos on Instagram).
So, write another list — of all the areas where you might be able to make some cash.
I’m sure there’s more. Then try to work out how much work it is to create each one. Think about how long it takes to rehearse and play a show, or how long it will take to design and produce a t-shirt. Then, think about how much money you might make from each one sold and how many you might sell.
Mix the lists into one, in order of how much work it takes to produce one ‘release’ and write down the amount you expect to make from 1 ‘release’ of each. In many cases it will be zero. In some cases you might be able to make money from people outside your audience, for example synch in movies, games and advertising.
Some of these items are interrelated; if you don’t release music, you can’t play shows etc. But the internet has broken down many of these relationships. You can release merchandise without playing a show. You can build a profile without any music (nb: this generally means you are not actually a musician). You can make money from advertising without releasing any records. You might want to understand which of these your audience likes most, and produce more of it.
This is the point I am trying to make: if you intend to make a career out of music, an holistic approach to your output, rather than an obsession on the album, is the way to go. Don’t worry about saving up for X-Factor TV advertising spots until you’ve made your first $300k, because that’s how much it costs. There’s more to music than breaking records.
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