Chris Rizik: Redefining "Success" in the Musical World

Well I know it sounds funny
But I'm not in it for the money, no
I don't need reputation
And I'm not in it for the show

I just want a hit record
Want to hear it on the radio
Want a big hit record
One that everybody's got to know

Well I know it sounds funny
But I'm not in it for the money, no
I don't need reputation
And I'm not in it for the show

I just want a hit record
Want to hear it on the radio
Want a big hit record
One that everybody's got to know

The Raspberries tapped into that popular music fantasy over 35 years ago with the song "Overnight Sensation."  And with the consolidation of the music industry over the next two decades, the dreams of thousands of artists followed a similar path: practice and play gigs in your hometown, working to create a buzz so that someday you'll be signed by a major record company.  Getting signed by a "major" was the Holy Grail that was necessary for success: They had the relationships with broadcast radio. They were the ones filling the bins at the Tower Records, Sam Goody's and Sears.  They were the ones helping to get tours together.  Ultimately, they were the ones that could "blow up" an artist and make a star.

Well, the oligarchy is largely gone, and the results are both exciting and scary.  The major labels are hemorrhaging money, traditional music stores are going out of business, and broadcast radio is losing its stranglehold on the listening audience.  The internet and other new technologies have gradually, yet inexorably, democratized the music industry, removing the unfettered power of a few to shape the music we hear and buy. 

Artists are now able to record music, press CDs, and market themselves directly to their fans more cheaply and successfully than previously imagined, with each artist effectively becoming his or her own record company.  By utilizing the emerging "parallel universe" of music marketing and distribution -  including internet radio, social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook, online music magazines (such as our soul music website, http://www.soultracks.com/), and retailers such as CDBaby.com and iTunes - independent artists quickly and economically establish relationships with their audiences in fundamentally new ways.

These changes have created breathtaking opportunities for groundbreaking new sounds. However, they may also test the veracity of the artist's claim - as voiced years ago by the Raspberries -  that wealth is not the real goal.  For with the new decentralized, democratized world of music comes a new reality:  The dream of becoming a multi-millionaire rock star with limosines and mink-lined toilets will be gone for all but a few.  But replacing it will be a more egalitarian dream for thousands and thousands of musicians:  the ability to make a sustainable living doing what they love.

The old world of music led, in most cases to three alternative scripts for artists: 

  • Reaching the pinnacle of stardom, with long recording and performing careers and wealth.  This has always been a rare feat reserved for the biggest of stars.
  • Attaining a shorter-term level of success with a major recording deal, followed by years of continued touring.  This category was a crowded one, with some acts doing it successfully but many struggling after their peak, with little to show financially and few practical skills to extend their careers beyond their hitmaking days.
  • Never reaching broad success, but playing gigs nights and weekends around a "day job" that supplied the money to survive.  This category included the vast majority of performers, as the portal to the first two groups was a small one with a few select gatekeepers.

What the emerging music world offers is an even narrower passage into the first group but much greater opportunity for the other artists to establish an independent recording, touring and merchandising career.   It allows talented young performers to gain regional and even international followings that - using the developing "long tail" school of economics -- can result in enough income to allow them to quit their day jobs and focus on their music. 

The biggest game changer is the internet.  It used to be that indie artists with niche potential audiences had few opportunities to reach those audiences outside of their immediate geography.  The internet has created ways to connect with audience pockets that are individually small (say, several hundred in each major city) but collectively can be quite large.  A well-organized indie artist can now sell tens of thousands of CDs on the web each year and can even tour, regularly and inexpensively connecting with the hundreds of fans he or she has in each geography.

Eric RobersonIn late May I attended a concert in Detroit by up-and-coming soul music star Eric Roberson.  With virtually no broadcast radio play, no record deal, no articles in the mainstream music press, and no traditional means of generating "buzz," he sold out Detroit's City Theater.  And the amazing thing was that most of the audience was singing along with his songs - songs that NEVER made the playlists on the largest, local urban radio stations.  Roberson is a success, but he is also Exhibit A of the new musical paradigm:  he has created a community of fans around the US and Europe by touring constantly, using the internet effectively, making his music known to the new generation of underground tastemakers (such as internet and club DJs and bloggers), and establishing an aura of approachability and even family with his burgeoning fanbase.  Equally importantly, he has adjusted his expectations to the new musical landscape.  He's not starry-eyed, looking at parlaying a platinum album into multi-millionaire status.  He's doing what he loves in a smart fashion and is making a living at it. 

That's the reality of the new world of music.  The transformation of the industry has created new ways for more artists to be able to make a living as artists.  But it won't happen for those who are passive.  This type of success requires organization, business sense and a good network of friends who have adapted special skills applicable to the current scene (such as internet marketing, building street teams, etc.).  It also requires an adjustment in expectations.  The principal goal needs to be to reach a sustainable level of success where the artist can make a satisfactory living doing what he or she loves.  The rewards of this DIY approach are manifold: the artist can create success on his or her own terms - accountable only to the fans and not a corporate hierarchy; the skills learned running My Career Inc. help the artist reach a level of self-sufficiency that should result in a longer, more sustainable career that does not require a monolithic, costly corporate structure behind it; and, perhaps most importantly, the odds of attaining this newly defined "success" are dramatically higher than the shot-in-the-dark chance of success of the traditional music system.

Much is made of the consolidation of the corporate world, where fewer and fewer organizations are controlling larger portions of our economy and our collective lives.  Ironically, it is at the same time that the world of music has become more decentralized than at any time in the past half century, with new opportunities opening for those willing to follow their passion and take chances on something new.  So in a country that has prided itself on its history of entrepreneurship, the newest successful entrepreneurs aren't coming from Ivy League business schools.  Instead, they're coming from the choirs of local churches, from urban schools of the arts and from the stages of small coffee houses.  Now that's the American Dream.

By Chris Rizik (June 2008)

 

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Choice Cut - V3 - "Getting Better"
Listening Room - Avery Sunshine - Twenty Sixty Four
CD of the Month - Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"

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