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There is a myth involving the music industry that seems to persist from generation to generation. The myth that, when it comes to music, the cream always rises to the top. That is, the best music/artists will always get signed to a major label, get played to the masses, make it to the top of the charts, become a sit sensation, etc., etc. That the music constantly getting played on the radio or that finds its way onto a movie soundtrack is the best of the best. This is simply not true; the sheer amount of pedantic crappy pop music that constantly assaults our aural peace is proof of that. Naturally, artists and labels generally don’t want to dispel this myth, as they benefit financially from the illusion that things like constant radio play means that the music is popular and thus worthy of your money ala download sales and concert tickets.
The reality is that determining which music/artists that get to ‘rise to the top’ is primarily an issue of access. Access to the right people and the right funds is what drives the music industry (or any industry for that matter).
It’s all about who you know (or networking, networking, networking)
Every industry has gatekeepers. There are gatekeepers everywhere you turn. As if dealing with them wasn’t challenging enough, figuring out who the ones are that can provide any actual help is damn near impossible. The guy claiming to love your sound and absolutely will get you signed and make you rich and famous usually turns out to be some coked up blowhard looking for a new drink ticket hookup. Meanwhile, that slightly awkward guy you just accidently bumped into and made him spill his drink because you were too distracted by that coattail-rider putting dollar signs in your eyes and didn’t even offer an ‘excuse me’ like your poor mother taught you, is a major label rep who just wrote you off.
The good news is that no single gatekeeper can make or break you. There are many paths to success, but they ultimately all rely on your network. Who you know and, more importantly, who knows you. You can have the best music in the world, but if the right people don’t have access to it, it will mean nothing in terms of a career. Now, if you are just making it for yourself, or for that one hipster and his bragging rights for finding your unknown work after an all-night smug fueled search, driven by the constant worry that he won’t be allowed in the gluten-free locally sourced vegan coffee shop without scowls and jeers from the artisanal baristas unless he produces something previously undiscovered, then this need not apply to you. But if you want to build an audience, and make a career in music, then you need a network.
Not only is your network crucial for exposing your music to “important” people in the industry, as well as building your audience, it is vital for you to improve and refine your crappy pop music so that you can build a bigger and wider audience and move on up the ladder within the industry. There are no overnight successes, despite what you may hear, there are just people that have access to better networks.
Money money money money, money
If you don’t have access to money (whether it be yours or an investor) you aren’t going to be that chart-topping artist that you promised all your ‘haters’ you would become. Money makes the world go ‘round, and the music industry in no exception. Aside from needing money for obvious things like equipment, accessing listeners (you know, the ones that actually pay for your songs and for those overpriced tickets to your show and gives you value as a selling artist to labels and venues) costs money, mainly through both direct advertising and indirect advertising (like radio play or those crappy CDs playing in stores that retail clerks have to listen to all day long and then die a little inside when you ask them what song is playing right now because they have no idea and they just want you to buy that damn shirt so they can go refold all those clothes you just messed up looking for that perfect black V-neck).
One of the advantages of being on a label used to be that they essentially acted as an investor. They would take care of getting the music beyond your own small fan base and activate their hype-machine to get your work exposed to the mass market, just like any other business and product, all to maximize their return. Given the, now, low return from digital sales and the extreme saturation of available music, this model has changed and you basically have to already be profitable before you will be taken seriously. Further, everyone has all but relegated to compete for listeners online (usually on the same limited sites and social media platforms). To make matters worse, the algorithms that expose content to people on these sites are always changing, making it even harder to get exposed without any kind of substantial investment.
Think of it this way… Beatport, one of the more popular digital retail outlets for dance music, has over 4.6 million songs just in their Progressive House genre alone. When they first started 11 years ago, you could search and sort by artist, the site is so saturated now that it no longer remains an option. Further, let’s just use a safe round number and say that you are competing with 1,000,000 other artists worldwide for attention. This means you have a .0001% of making into the top 100. Want to be a top 10 artist you say? Well, then that would be .00001% (and this is all assuming of course that your music isn’t complete crap, which, odds are it is).
The truth is that the odds you are going to be a superstar are very low, sorry to be the one to have to break it to you. Unless you are one of those lucky few that just happens to make the right kind of network, or have the right amount of funds to invest millions in advertising, you might want to start making friends with that hipster after all.
Disclaimer: Yes, I know that there are always exceptions to the rule and that there are examples of your sister’s cousin’s ex-roomate’s, former dog’s owner’s lover that made it to the big time after being discovered in the ghetto while doing dishes in the back next to the toilet. There is a reason those stories stand out, because there are extremely rare. Being at the right place at the right time can play a role when extreme talent is involved, but access to a good network is still key even in those cases.
Disclaimer part 2: I’m not trying to discourage you from making music or following your dreams. Ultimately I just want you to be realistic about your goals and how to get there. If you have real passion for the music, and you have a vision that you really want to share, share it. Now, if you are just trying to be famous for the sake of being famous, I am actually trying to discourage you. The music industry is saturated with enough meaningless crappy songs, quit.
Step 1: Don’t take yourself too seriously.