Amidst the institutionalizing of the new music industry, a certain type of music artistry has stood up and proved its true potential. An artistry of more diversity, direct contact with listeners and less meddled-with art. We’ll call them: The powerful artists.
The powerful artists aren’t powerful in a tyrannical way, but rather in the way that they have power over themselves and their music. These artists have been able to dismiss the formula presented by major record labels and actually thrive, which of course, has lead to increased success for their record labels as well.
This isn’t by any means a completely new phenomenon. There have always been artists paving their own path to success with high creative integrity, but with the distribution chain of music becoming less expensive, we might expect to see more of them. And if labels want to capture the future cultural role models, they should prepare themselves.
A lot has happened to the music industry over the last 20 years, good grief! With revenue shrinking from a peak of roughly 40 billion dollars down to 15 billion dollars, the surviving music companies have had a very, very sobering experience.
The old luxury of tangible assets in the form CDs is long gone, and so the music industry has had to find supplementary ways of income. Record labels for instance, are increasingly taking on more functions in areas such as touring, sponsorships and merchandise under the so called “360 deal”, working very hard to prove their worth to artists.
The cause of all this change is of course the internet, the invention that truly transformed music from scarce physical objects, to computer files that could be copied in endless numbers for virtually no cost. Seeing their revenue decay in a devastating pace due to piracy, record labels won a few battles trying to stop this transformation, but ultimately, they lost the war.
Power to the artists?
The internet radically opened up distribution of music to everyone. To get your music out 20 years ago, you had to either spend a lot of money, or sign a record deal. With the demand for music in physical form dramatically shrinking, very cheap distribution was allowed, which allowed for the current situation of artists directly uploading their music to a potentially limitless audience.
For many, this trend seemed to be headed towards paradise, where art and originality would flourish, uncorrupted by insidious record companies and gatekeepers. Artists would give their music to fans directly and art would finally be set free. The problem with utopias however, is that people never have the same idea of it.
Today, there are still gatekeepers as there were, they’ve just shifted shape. TV has become Youtube channels, media has become social media, and radio hosts have become playlist curators. Arguably, many artists have even less creative freedom, since music companies know exactly what people find enjoyable with the increase of data points. They can now point to a graph and tell an artist: “You must do that and nothing else”.
As a music producer myself, I’ve had many songwriting sessions start with a record label A&R(Artist and Repertoire) walking in to the room and showing me these graphs, giving me very specific directions of how the song must sound like.
Short-term vs. long-term
I’m not blaming the A&R, if I was working at a major label, I’d probably do the same thing. An A&R that doesn’t exhibit positive financial outcomes is very rapidly displaced. Record companies are a lot like venture capitalists, signing an artist is an expensive investment and a lot of artists aren’t able to make the label any meaningful profit. Accordingly, every chance of recoupment is promptly taken.
However, using data to predict music trends most often only works in the short-term. Predicting longer-term cultural change is very difficult, and isn’t helped much by data points. As told by the manager of The 1975 and record label owner Jamie Oborne, when asked about the use of data in the music business and its success:
Fine. But when have you ever, ever been able to predict culture? That makes no sense. Look at all the fashion houses in the world. They all release different collections each season, which indicates that no-one, no matter how clever or respected they might be, can really be sure where trends are going.
In many cases, rushing an artist in terms of generating revenue and limiting their creative integrity can be a devastatingly wrong decision. Not only from a cultural perspective, but a financial one as well. And when done to the powerful artist, it will effectively turn potential long-term cultural impacters into short-term entertainment products.
What makes the powerful artist?
The powerful artist has to maintain her integrity at all times. As soon as the music is influenced by noticeable “commercially strategic” rationale, the engaged listener is going to take notice and lose interest. Music listeners are smarter than many think, and most often, they feel when the creative direction is being decided for by something other than the artist’s true voice.
This is where a lot of record labels kill off potentially long-term success stories: A new artist emerges with a unique, interesting and successful debut track, and instead of letting the artist further develop her own unique voice, she is lead down the path of the currently most popular sound. Suddenly she has lost everything that the listeners initially found interesting about her, and has to struggle to win her audience back.
2. Differentiating yourself
As music distribution is now opened up to everyone, an unbelievable amount of music is being released. Many of us listen to new tracks on the radio thinking, “Are people really listening to this? Even I could create this track!”. We might be right, but most likely, that track either have ungodly amounts of marketing money behind it that we don’t, or it was one of the first of its types.
Nothing correlates as much with organic growth as uniqueness. The more an artist’s music sounds like something else, the more money is going to have to be spent in marketing to get listeners’ attention. A unique artist however, is much more interesting for listeners, and those listeners want to show the artist to their friends. Additionally, influencers are always working hard to be associated with new cool projects, and voilà, the powerful artist has the promotion all sorted out.
If a recipe was made for breaking an artist in the modern music era, uniqueness would be the main ingredient.
3. Engaged listeners
1000 listeners or one engaged listener? Almost always one engaged listener. This is more important now than ever. However free artists are, one might argue that music listeners are freer than ever. With an unlimited amount of songs available at any time, there is really no limit when it comes to selection. Yes, listeners are still being curated by playlists as they were by radio hosts, but the curation is more personal and much more broad.
With freer listeners, music selection becomes more voluntary and therefore the artists that listeners actually choose themselves hold more significance to them. The engaged listeners show up to concerts, purchase merch, listen to every song over and over, and convince others to also become engaged listeners. Consequently, the absolute number of listeners pale in comparison to the number of listeners that actually care about the artist.
If you want to measure an artist’s impact today using Spotify’s measurements, you’re much better off looking at followers than streams. Spotify followers very often reveal how engaged listeners are in an artist and can disclose whether listeners are interested in only one song, or the artist.
Examples of Powerful Artists
Disclaimer: This list should not be interpreted as examples of a failproof method. It is merely a showcase of particular cases where this approach has worked well.
Below, I list examples of artists that have been so firm in their integrity that they have transcended the concept of genre and its limits. They possess all the characteristics of the powerful artist, and would not have been as wildly successful as they are today had they followed an ironbound formula set by the typical major label.
1. Billie Eilish
When Billie Eilish released her debut track “Ocean Eyes” in 2014, two things mainly popped into people’s minds: “Who is this divine voice singing over this beautifully intimate bed room production?” And; “Is she really just 14 years old?”
The voice belongs to Billie Eilish, whose songs are created with her brother Finneas O’Connell in their parents’ house, with Billie literally sitting cross-legged in Finneas’ bed for every vocal recording she does. You can hear it in her music as well, Billie’s music actually makes you feel like you are sitting in that bedroom yourself listening to her speak to you.
And yes, Billie was 14 when she released “ocean eyes”, showing people that young people are very much worth listening to, not the least because of the key difference between youth and experience, that is; having feelings and experiences for the first time. This arguably gives Billie even more authority to talk about things like love and anxiety, since she is experiencing them through a pure and unbiased lens.
Mainly however, Billie’s differentiation origins from her relentless integrity.
After having huge success with her initial extended EP “dont smile at me”, many major label A&Rs would have gotten panic attacks when presented with Billie Eilish’s new material. Songs like “bury your friend”, “good girls go to hell”, and “xanny”, manifested a new direction both lyrically and musically, and it was not radio-friendly.
However, Interscope Records seems to have a good understanding of how to manage powerful artists. As told by Billie’s co-writer, producer and virtuoso brother Finneas regarding hit single “bury a friend” to The New York Times:
When the song came out, I said to Billie, I was like; ‘I think we get to do whatever we want now’.
Listening to Billie Eilish’s songs, you feel like music is her means of radically communicating her most honest emotions. There is no holding back. Whatever she feels when getting in to that bedroom studio, is what the song is going to be.
Billie Eilish is a superstar in the truest sense of the word. On the 5th of April, Billie held 8 of the top twenty spots in the “Global top 50”-playlist on Spotify. But where Billie differs from many other streaming stars is the proportion of her listeners that are actual engaged listeners.
These listeners set up tents outside her venues days before the concerts to see her perform. They speak extensively about her and her music with their friends, analyzing every little nugget to be found in her lyrics. These listeners stay engaged because they are actually interested in what Billie has to say, not her record label. And listening to Billie’s music, they get to hear her words.
2. Frank Ocean
To simply call Frank Ocean an R&B-artist would be a vastly deficient description. Frank Ocean really should have a genre named after himself. Mixing elements from R&B and hip hop, with experimental production, voice manipulation, analogue synths and distorted guitars, Ocean’s music creates an entirely unique, what he himself would call, “environment of sonic goodness” to envelop his stories.
Few people tell stories as beautiful and captivating as Ocean does, and like any true artist, these stories come directly from his own experiences. Originally gaining prominence for his membership in the Odd Future collective, Frank Ocean very much came from a hip hop world. And through the topics of his stories, including his experiences of same-sex relationships, he has had an enormous impact on that world.
It is very hard to find any similar artists to Frank Ocean. He has truly carved his very own path, and he has done so through his radical integrity.
As mentioned, for most powerful artists, having to take too many things other than your own artistic vision in to consideration really limits their potential. But no one showcases this as distinctly as Frank Ocean.
After having enormous success with his debut LP “Channel Orange”, Ocean jumped out of his record deal and bought back the rights of his songs. After what he himself called a “7-year chess game”, Ocean gained complete control over his music and who was working on it. And that is what it is all about for Ocean; control.
The reason Ocean’s music sounds like no one else’s, is because of his radical means of neglecting artistic decisions based on what should be done, or what has been done before. Frank Ocean has seen through the pitfalls of nostalgia, and he acts thereafter. In 2017, Frank Ocean decided not to submit his music for Grammy consideration, saying; “I think the infrastructure of the awarding system and the nomination system and screening system is dated”.
I’m not making any judgements here, but it surely speaks to Ocean’s integrity. He is the one making his choices, and it seems to have worked out, as his first independent release “Blonde” made the highly scarce and prestigious list of independent albums that have sold platinum. An incredible feat, but more than that, he has become one of the most prominent cultural figures of our time. Few artists set the tone as heavily as Frank Ocean does, and as soon as we hear artists copying him, he has probably already gone off somewhere else.
As interesting as Frank Ocean’s music and stories are, and the way that he navigates in the musical industry is, it would be very strange if he did not have one of the most engaged fanbases out there.
One of the absolutely best places to examine how engaged someone’s fanbase is, is to look at how large their subreddit is. Subreddits are the place where fans gather to talk about lyrics, concerts, happenings, send memes connected to the artist… everything really.
As of May 27th, Frank Ocean is the 353rd most listened to artist on Spotify, yet he has the 4th largest subreddit of any music artist in the world.
You might ask, which of these charts are the most important? Well, they both have their own pros and cons. However, from a perspective of cultural impact, the artist actually starting the conversations, would be the victor. And most often, starting the conversations translates into both longevity and bigger stages.
3. The 1975
The english indie/rock/pop-band The 1975 started getting traction during a period where indie-pop bands received big time mainstream interest. At a quick glance The 1975 may seem like any other of those bands, but really, they are not.
With the band’s initial rise to popularity, the main component that differentiated them from the rest was the vocals from lead singer Matty Healy. With lyrics sang with completely uncompromising emotions and an accent barely understood by most(maybe best showcased in breakthrough hit “Chocolate”), it truly felt like something we had never heard before.
With time, The 1975 have proved to possess many more unique qualities. The ability to make a broad array of genres feel like the same one, and Matty’s ability to make sense of the zeitgeist perhaps being the prominent ones.
But, the main component that differentiated The 1975 from others, was their sheer integrity. In an era where indie bands were becoming cash cows taking direct orders from major label executives, The 1975 carved their own path and stayed true to their voice.
While watching their peers signing major label-deals and having massive mainstream success, The 1975 got rejected by every label they met, being seen as too emo and left-field for widespread success. After years of rejection, they finally decided to release their music through an indie label where they had full creative freedom.
It paid of big-time, as their unique sound proved to be highly appreciated by the millions. “Chocolate” wasn’t a pop song with indie elements to it like The 1975’s peers’ songs were, it was an indie song with pop elements to it. This was the crucial difference between The 1975 and other bands; The 1975 stuck to their guns, even when there were unique opportunities for radio fame.
In 2015, the indie band trend was starting to fade, and the majority of bands we heard on radio with it. As these bands focused on capitalizing on the popular sound of the moment, they became less interesting in proportion with the decay of that particular genre.
The 1975 however, left with their musical integrity, not only survived the change, but thrived as well. Today, they’ve released two more albums with massive commercial success, topping both the UK and US charts, as well as gone on several arena tours. Feats that wouldn’t be possible without their engaged listeners.
The 1975 have one of the most engaged fan bases I’ve observed. If we compare the images displaying The 1975’s and the band Walk the Moon’s Monthly Listeners and Followers on Spotify, we notice that both of them has a similar amount of Monthly Listeners, but that The 1975 has more than double the amount of Followers.
This is always at the least a clue that there is a difference in how engaged listeners are. Even if Walk the Moon had bigger absolute number of streams than The 1975, but less followers, we might expect The 1975 to “outperform” Walk the Moon in areas such as venue size, merchandise sales, sponsorships, and maybe even cultural impact.
Like most models, this one is not going to show a perfect result. There are exceptions to it, and there are too many parameters in play to do a controlled study. For instance, an artist may be older than another, which of course allows for more time to build an audience. But on average, it does indicate something, and most often, followers do add up to something meaningful.
The hard truth
Not everyone can become a powerful artist. For many, complete integrity only leads to an empty market, where they can still create exactly the music they want, but not make a living off of it.
There is however something to be learnt for everyone. Perhaps music isn’t the place where you’ll find your true voice flourish, but there are plenty of other games to play. With our markets going from local to global, the chances are very high that enough people in the world are interested in your true voice. Finding them can certainly be very hard, but for the first time ever, it’s possible.
Helping your powerful artist
This piece may seem like powerful artists don’t really need anyone besides themselves. That is not true. There are ways for music companies to enhance the powerful artist’s power further, and make sure the artist reaches his full potential. It just takes a highly customized way of doing it, compared to the traditional recipes carved on the walls of most major record labels.
More importantly however, since every artist and individual is unique in their own way, labels have the power to actually create powerful artists by finding the intersection between the artist’s true voice, and what the audience values. That is the intersection where all of our time’s big and long-term success stories reside, and our future ones will too. But that is for another time.