Emerging Artists – is it all about the music?

I work a lot with emerging artists on the digital side of things rather than the music making side, both here in the UK and in East Africa. What’s surprising is that the hopes, challenges and opportunities are very similar.

Emerging artists around the world are in a tricky spot with the way the industry currently works. The industry has evolved to be top heavy, where most of the money from a very lucrative global industry goes to a few top ranking global artists. These top artists are able and do hire, expert teams who can leverage digital and business strategy to create very successful empires, with merch, global stadium tours, and a continuing stream of highly successful musical products.

In comparison to 70’s-90’s where, physical sales, charts, reviews and formal industry influencers (radio/TV shows) were essentially responsible for a wider spread of the loot at the emerging to middle end of the market, based more on musical product than strength of brand. In other words it was more possible to convert from ’emerging artist’ to ‘artist making money’ on the strength of a great track, than it is now, even though the playing field to ‘take a track to market and monetize it’, is now something any artist can do easily with very little help or knowledge.

In opening up the digital side of the industry, the world changed, the way we consume music changed. Its a world where a 16 year old doing her makeup in her bedroom, gets hundreds of thousands of followers and likes on all her channels, where a guy videoing himself playing video games online, is one of the top earners on YouTube – ever! It’s a world where music doesn’t compete with music for a listeners attention but with everything else.

It’s a world where traffic (and therefor revenue) is at the mercy of algorithms which are biased towards those who can understand the complex organic ones or who have money to pay for the ad based ones.

This digital complexity has a few consequences

the way we consume music means that revenue per unit of consumption (stream/download) is going down – more people are consuming in more ways but money is in micro-payments – making it harder for industry professionals (who in the past were the support network around an emerging artist – agent, manager, label, producer, pr, marketeer, stylist, business manager etc) can no longer be easily funded from the revenue streams of emerging artists.
The importance of the record label has shifted. In a prior life they were a necessary step to an artist putting music out into the world. It’s now possible and common to have no label in the loop at all. Many of the smaller labels haven’t added digital expertise to their musical savviness and as a result have fewer funds to spend on developing artists. The ones which are succeeding are building strong reputations in niche markets, which in turn attracts artists, but money making is often a secondary agenda. The major labels are more interested in discovering potential big ticket artists, and looking at marketing or distribution collabs with others, to minimise expense and risk.
Artist brand/identity has taken over as a key metric to get noticed by, which can include anything like, who the artist knows, is seen with, where the music gets played, what the artist has to say, what they look like, what causes they stand for, how cool they are etc – brand can totally over-ride music. I’m not saying here that someone with bad music will succeed over someone else because of brand or identity, but I am saying that a good musician with a solid popular brand/identity will generally succeed over another good artist who doesn’t.
It’s become a self perpetuating digital cycle, those with access to big digital clout (expertise, budget, influence) e.g. top global artists, can keep and claim ‘digital’ territory which feeds their revenue streams. Those with low or no digital clout, can be on all the right digital platforms but are unlikely to have much attention or revenue, because they are sharing the same space with those bigger artist teams whose job is to acquire digital ‘bandwidth’.
The skewed to top-end share of global revenue and high volume with low unit value dynamics of the industry, means there’s less opportunity for the middle men in the middle to make money. Emerging artists don’t make enough to pay these middle men (managers, agents, pr, business manager, stylist etc), meaning that these skills, as they apply to emerging artists, don’t have much of a sustainable breeding ground.

In this context, there are solutions, but not easy fixes. Emerging artists either play for pleasure or it means adopting a strategy which puts focus and energy on brand/identity and digital strategy.

This is the area I’ve been navigating for a few years now. I don’t want to turn this into a sales pitch, but I’m happy to respond to emerging artists who want to know more how to make their music shine through the noise.