The goal of many musicians is establishing mega-stardom, becoming a household name, or at least spreading their music to a large enough fan base in order to create a sustainable and long-lasting music career. As mentioned in Breaking an Artist in the Digital Age Pt. 1: Odds, Facts and Figures, mega-stardom is an extraordinarily difficult feat. However, creating a sustainable living off of one’s music is reasonably obtainable for many artists, especially those who are smart and flexible when it comes to utilizing their talents.
Determining the number of artists who create a living off of their music is often difficult, and most statistics on this point are misleading and under-inclusive. As such, aspiring musicians should not rely solely on music sales statistics in planning their route to achieving longevity in the music industry. Being a professional musician is just one aspect of the music industry, and is very much a business within itself. With that in consideration, it is useful for artists to develop a business plan with regards to his or her music that takes into consideration the various ways to promote one’s music and the numerous avenues available to generate a profit beyond music sales.
A Successful Music Career is More than Just Music Sales
Music sales provides only a portion of revenues within the music industry, and often does not include the music sales of artists who are “under the radar” or unaware of the process in which music sales are calculated. Music sales (and music video products) tracking is calculated by Nielsen Soundscan, which provides figures for music charts such as Billboard music charts. Sales figures are also calculated by the Recording Industry Association of America, which provides the data used to determine RIAA certifications (gold, platinum, multi-platinum, and diamond).
Nielsen Soundscan calculates the actual sales of items, but only calculates products that carry a unique UPC or ISRC and that are registered with Soundscan. In order for the sales to be reported to Soundscan, the retailer must have a point a sale inventory system, and comply with other requirements for sending sales data to Soundscan. Sales data is collected from more than 14,000 retailers in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, including large retail chains, independent retailers, online stores, digital media services and venues.
RIAA certifications, on the other hand, collects sales data from record labels and artists who request (and pay) to have sales figures calculated. RIAA audits are considered more inclusive because it calculates sales data by looking at net shipments after returns. This data differs from Soundscan as Soundscan only looks at sales without taking returns into consideration, and RIAA audits looks at outlets that are not used in Soundscan calculations.
Although Soundscan and RIAA audits are comprehensive and used to estimate the sales, and ultimately the profitability, of an artist, relying solely on those figures fails to take into account the countless artists who are not included in these calculations. With grassroots means of distributing music, digital distribution and ancillary music markets, many artists are generating a lucrative and fulfilling music career outside of the traditional and publicized music industry business model.
Artists continually discover unique methods to grasp the interests of fans, record labels and music execs. Whether an artist gets noticed by going viral, selling copious amounts albums and digital downloads, or selling out live performances, making a stable living off of one’s music requires musicians to overcome many pitfalls. In the digital age, two of the biggest pitfalls that end the careers of many artists are (1) artists getting too much hype too soon, and (2) not being versatile as an entertainer.
Premature Hype: “It takes a lifetime to write the first album”
The history of the one-hit-wonder dates back long before the Internet became the most used means of accessing music. However, the Internet the infinite access to music has allowed more artists to gain worldwide listenership more quickly than ever before in music history. Consequently, the multitude of available music has also created an increasingly shrinking musical attention span, requiring artists to act quickly in generating new music. For the artists who manage to receive hype off of one hit song, video or record, most are unable to produce a subsequent hit album quick enough to retain the attention of their fans. Even more unique to the digital age, many artists who create a hit song are unable to deliver a full length album in enough time.
Creating a catch-22, aspiring artists must release songs and albums strategically to prepare to deliver the same level of entertainment as established musicians – being a world-class performer the moment they break. In the past, artists were were given a chance to develop as artists. Many notable, multiplatinum selling artists from the past were able to spend many years growing as an artist; beginning their careers with slow-moving albums, performing disappointing live performances, creating a unique persona, and generating a substantial fan base after several albums. Today, artists aren’t given such leniency. Regardless of a musician’s talent, an artist must perform as a polished entertainer the moment they break to the masses and produce enough music to remain relevant.
Another troubling pitfall that many musicians fall into is not being versatile in the ways in which they can exploit their talents. Digital music services alone provide musicians with a multitude of outlets to distribute music through streaming and downloading services. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s 2010 Digital Music Report there are over 400 services licensed worldwide by music companies with ISPs that engage in music services, a number that will continually increase as technology expands.
Having one’s songs distributed one way or another to listeners is not the only way that a musician can create a living off of his or her music, which is often overlooked by artists. The music industry provides musicians with many opportunities to use their skills in various ways. Many bands and solo acts have developed a successful music career writing songs for other musicians, playing back up instrumentals, licensing music for various uses, becoming producers, etc. Other artists have also found unique ways to transform their experiences as musicians into well-founded careers on the business side of the music industry, becoming A&R reps, agents, managers, etc.
Making it in the music biz has become the dream for many musicians, many of whom begin their career unaware of how the industry works and how the business is evolving. If an artist wants to break into the industry, the artist step quickly into the limelight, deliver amazing albums and performances, and do whatever it takes to remain relevant. Artist unable to do so, or unwilling to take on the pressures of being a superstar, can establish alternative careers within the music industry so long as the artists is versatile and can creatively develop ancillary career paths.