How to make it in music in the 2020s

Shaun Hand

If you’ve ever wanted to “make it” in music, you’ve daydreamed it: the Svengali at your gig, waving his chequebook, and saying “I’ll make you a star!” Cue million-selling albums and sold-out arena tours. One problem: this daydream belongs to a long-gone world—and it’s never coming back

But don’t stick your Fender on Marketplace just yet. You can still make it, but what that means has changed significantly over the last decade. Let’s see how…

 

From Napster to Now 

In the early 2000s, file-sharing platforms such as Napster (the Betamax to Spotify’s Blu-Ray) allowed people to access music digitally for free. Nowadays, Spotify and YouTube are the norm, but to those pioneering millennials, it was revolutionary.  

Yet rather than embrace it, the music industry by turns ignored or tried to smother it. Of course, neither approach worked. The model that had operated more-or-less unchanged since the 1950s was thrown in the air, never to land.   

Today, the industry is forever adapting to the furious pace at which platforms emerge, transform, and disappear. Its lack of foresight left it playing catch-up while artists exploited the power vacuum. By the time execs had got their heads around Myspace, everyone was on Facebook; by the time they were clued up on that, everyone was on Instagram, and so on.

 

Music marketing 101

“Okay, so what does that mean for my music career?”  

In one sense, not much. Fresh artists still face the same challenges in marketing and representation. However big your organic following, you’ll probably still need third parties to connect you with a bigger audience. 

FABRIK are one example: One of their songs became the theme tune for a podcast, bringing them hundreds of fans. However, they still engage PR agencies to broaden their audience. “Artists are more empowered now,” enthuses bassist Dave Breeze. “We’ve learned how to do everything from artwork to hustling festivals. But agencies offer access to networks it would otherwise take years to build.”

There are two key takeaways:
•    It’s easier to self-market your work than ever before. But with thousands of others doing the same on the same platforms, it still takes a decent agency—and, therefore, money—to fully exploit your potential. 
•    Because streaming is now the norm, placement on a Spotify playlist is, arguably, more important than radio-play. However, it’s still a case of the right person making the submission—which leads back to the first point.

 

The dream is over…

Another area where music is changing is exclusivity, something the pre-internet industry model was built on. Those Svengalis of our daydreams would sign artists exclusively to their company and, therefore, their rules. Artists gave up a lot of creative control. Stars such as George Michael became locked in court battles over contracts, forbidden from releasing new music. Promising acts would be signed, only to be “warehoused”, wrecking their careers.  

These days, although there are still as many would-be star-makers as would-be stars, things are different. There are, of course, pros and cons. Rock ’n’ roll romantics, I’m sorry but the rags-to-riches dream of being discovered by a maverick manager and becoming era-defining millionaires (The Beatles and Epstein, Oasis and McGee) will probably never happen again. Besides anything else, the shift from individual sales to streaming platforms has affected the incomes of even the most successful musicians.  

If it’s any consolation, such dreams were a myth; a façade covering what is, essentially, a sales business. It just so happens that the product is a timeless, beautiful art-form.        

 

…But the dance goes on

Few things are more dispiriting for an artist than finding out how calculated the music business is. But it can also be empowering.

As an emerging artist, you have more potential power than ever before. Those who anticipated or moved with the changes have become entrepreneurs. The likes of Jay-Z have become a brand; creating a business empire and taking full control.

Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are another major development. Persuade your mates, aunts, mate’s aunts, and aunt’s mates to chip in, and you can raise enough to press your own records and merch, using the profit to fund promo. Suddenly, you’re not just an artist; you’re an artist and an entrepreneur. Much more 2020s!

 

An exclusive look at non-exclusivity 

A natural extension of artist empowerment is the shift towards non-exclusivity in representation. “The industry is changing; talent are becoming more involved in managing their careers,” agrees a major London agency. “Working non-exclusively with multiple agents is the best way to bring in more work, build your network, and capitalise on different revenue streams.”

Time for another quick history lesson…

Since the millennium, non-exclusivity has become standard in everyday life. Take television: those of us (un)lucky enough to grow up before 2000 only had four or five channels—unless you could afford Sky. Nowadays, we don’t even need a TV to watch what we want when we want. The same goes for phone contracts, energy providers, you name it. People can go where they want to, not where they have to.

The same applies to artists, especially with the pandemic. When the live industry shut down in 2020, everyone, from unsigned talent to the world’s biggest artists, was affected. Unable to gig, both you and The Rolling Stones simply flipped your camera and performed from home, connecting directly with your audience without having to ask or pay anyone. This is a new level of independence likely to remain long after COVID is under control.

 

You have (more of) the power

To succeed, both artists and agencies must rise to the challenge of a shape-shifting industry. In the same way that a song can be made and marketed on one device, a PR agency can be set up and run on a smartphone. If you’ve ever encountered promoters who make ridiculous demands about pre-selling tickets etc., you’ll know they don’t last long. Talent agencies demanding exclusivity are on the same level.

Today, the competition is tougher than ever. Neither artist nor agent has the upper hand. Money is still a big factor but, as we’ve seen, you can give yourself more leverage than ever before. 

A world is evolving based on mutual interest: Being free to engage more than one agency may lead to an opportunity through one that benefits the other. The rags-to-rockstar story has been replaced by a tapestry of competition and co-operation and a new model of the artist as entrepreneur.       

It’s a mix many artists have found works. “Non-exclusivity means you can work with a range of people, each of whom specialises in promoting music in different markets and on different platforms,” explains FABRIK’s Chris Inns. “We’re promoting our new album through PR and playlisting with two agencies, spreading our budget as we see fit. In an exclusivity-driven industry, we’d probably have had to choose between the two, or had the balance chosen for us.”      

The Svengalis of old, with their jive and expense accounts, may have gone. But in their place is something that, although less superficially glamorous, is far more rewarding and sustainable for artists looking to make it in music.

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