In the last couple of years many of us have started to become more aware of our mental wellbeing. Meditation apps have millions of users; travel providers offer relaxation holiday retreats; schools, workplaces and even prisons are introducing programs to help develop mindfulness.
Awareness has led to talking about mental health more openly, particularly in the workplace. An increasingly open dialogue should be welcomed in the music industry as much as anywhere.
Over the past year a number of new initiatives and media pieces have helped increase awareness of mental health issues for musicians.
A mainstream media platform giving space to this is certainly a positive thing, but strangely and somewhat sadly the majority of the 300+ comments below the line ignored the main issue being highlighted and instead focused on arguing the merits of electronic musicians as real artists.
There are two omissions from the article that would make for a more balanced and compelling argument, and by extension lessen audience focus on whether decks or drums are more legit.
The first is to feature viewpoints from a more diverse range of artists, and the second is to broaden the conversation to those working across all areas of the industry.
As with music, media is becoming a headliners’ market and the big names are what get media platforms the clicks they crave, but The Guardian not featuring the opinions of those in other areas of the scene feels like a sorely missed opportunity.
The touring schedules of the likes of Above & Beyond and Steve Aoki are no doubt heavy and intense, but the majority of artists travel in a less salubrious manner. For every DJ with a tour manager, private jet and a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, there are hundreds more flying solo on Easyjet or Ryanair every weekend and making do with a hotel room club sandwich.
Viewing things through the eyes of these artists may improve getting the message across because their situation is far more relatable. Most of us have probably felt some pang of desperation while fighting fatigue waiting for a delayed flight home from a barren airport.
More broadly, it’s to be applauded that as well as artist support there are now mental wellbeing initiatives for fans with the likes of Calm Zones being rolled out.
However, no one seems to be talking about depression amongst those working in the industry away from the artist side. It’s a growing issue and one that should have a public platform; not just for the dance music scene but the music industry as a whole.
The issues surrounding those working as executives and service providers in the music industry differ from those affecting artists, but I would argue they are no less dangerous.
The risk of depression can loom largest for the service providers operating at the front line, representing the creative and mercurial; their roles can include strategist, hustler, debt collector, confidant, investor, therapist and a whole lot more. Sometimes they are part of a larger organisation, but often these are individuals or collectives trying to operate and grow a company as well as deliver for their clients.
All this in an industry that is highly competitive, mainly unregulated, rarely measured on meritocracy, often insular, and struggling to find solutions against wave after wave of disruption.
The perceived wisdom for moments of uncertainty and anxiety seems to be to either front up aggressively or hunker down and ignore.
Neither of these positions are effective in the long-term, and many in the industry suffer from status anxiety, if not something more serious.
There are such a range of evolving skills, strengths and sensitivities needed by the modern music industry executive that even the very best are going to stumble from time to time, let alone the rest of us.
I wrote about the need for music industry mentors in this piece.
Alongside mentors, I suggest three more actions to help combat depression in the music business:
Professional coaching: How do you deal with a client who has depression? An artist having a manager is one thing; having a manager who is trained to deal with these issues is quite another. Knowing how a publishing contract works isn’t going to help when your client is threatening to self-harm in a hotel room on the other side of the world. There’s a great opportunity for quality executive coaches to help those in the music business.
Round tables and music mindfulness: A few conference panels have talked about depression, but they don’t feel like the best forum for such personal matters. Smaller, private groups where mindfulness and open discussion are encouraged would be a good step.
Artist awareness: A lot of the pressure for those working in the business comes from their clients. They may not mean it or even be aware of it, but why not find ways to increase artist awareness of the pressures their teams have to deal with on a day to day basis, in a way that builds genuine collaboration and empathy?
Depression is a real issue.
It’s positive that the importance of mental health for artists is being recognised.
It’s also crucially important not to forget all the tour managers, agents, managers, promoters, PRs and others who are taking care of business away from the spotlight.
thanks to Jacinta O’Shea-Ramdeholl for reading drafts of this article.
Two things that are ingrained in many countries’ cultures are football and music. To an extent they go hand in hand — both blend art, commerce, fashion and entertainment, and have huge numbers of passionate fans.
In both businesses (and they are businesses, like it or not), there’s often one person in a quarterback position who is more likely to get fired than get the limelight, and arguably has a thankless task no matter how much success the wider team accrue. That’s right — the manager.
In music, I see a manager as CEO of an artist’s business. The artist themselves is the visionary founder, and the majority of artists are best off following that visionary creative path rather than moving into a CEO role (although they should never take their eye completely off the business side…that’s a very dangerous position to be in).
A football manager may not be the CEO of the club, nor the players’ individual businesses (that’ll more likely be the agents), but just like the artist manager they have a close connection to talent, and this article in the Financial Timesreally resonated with me. It’s definitely pertinent for talent managers, but the advice here can be translated to almost any other area of business where star talent is a key to success.
What the artist manager and the football manager do when it comes to identifying and developing talent can also be compared to the technology industry’s recent wave of startup studios.
The Startup Studio
I came across the startup studio concept fairly early on during the journey towards setting up my new company Rozel. It’s very well summed up in this post by the guys over at Makeshift.
Note: It’s also worth checking out their product Attending — I’ve used it a few times now and it’s a very useful tool for all sorts of event planning. (I’m not on the payroll, by the way)
In the Nesta session that Makeshift were part of, they identified the following attributes that were part of a startup studio. Taking each one of these in turn, I see strong correlations with how talent managers develop their rosters:
1. focused on building multiple products / startups simultaneously
a talent manager will often have several clients on a roster, and to a growing degree more than one of these clients will be active at any one time and need servicing accordingly.
2. generally own the majority of all the things they work on from an equity perspective
the area of music rights isn’t getting much clearer (companies like Kobalt notwithstanding) but most likely that at an early stage, the talent and the manager will be the only two people due income or owning IP.
3. generally have full time staff working on design, dev and marketing
consolidation at the top end of the music industry as well as a shift towards direct-to-fan models and the rise of the attention economy has seen management companies have a need to build teams to take care of their clients’ growing design and marketing needs. Whether the majority will be in-house remains to be seen, but having a retained team of some sort is likely to continue as the lines blur further.
4. attempting to make their process additive — i.e — more value from each thing as you do it
generally, an engaged fan base for a musician are tribal. if what’s being added is of good quality and fans want is, the value derived from each fan should increase.
5. “lab” is frequently used to describe a startup studio because they conjure up a “digital workshop” more so than an agency or accelerator. They’re a place to tinker away on different ideas and build multiple things at once.
whilst talent managers may not consider what they do a ‘lab’, the nature of their setup is much more akin to this to an agency model (whether booking, marketing, etc) where projects and clients are rotated at a much more rapid rate.
Managers as Startup Studios
Taking the idea of a manager being CEO of an artist’s business one step further along, it could be said that early-stage artists can themselves be considered as startups. This is because they usually;
are high risk
have a very small chance of breakout success
have no product-market fit defined
need to make something people really want if they are to succeed
are able to grow rapidly
The manager’s role as the startup studio is to develop a number of these startups at one time, with the hope that one or two will become big hits (i.e. a ‘Unicorn’ in startup parlance), and maybe a few others become solid ongoing businesses, whilst the rest will unfortunately face the inevitability of not reaching the heights that the founders set out to achieve at the beginning (i.e. in effect they will fail).
Furthermore, managers, just like founders and startup studios, are now more often called upon to make their own investments of capital.
In the technology world, a lot of startup studios are being backed by an exited entrepreneur, or in the case of music it may be a talent manager with a big breakout artist on their CV. I see a future where these studios increase in popularity, but without as many big names above the door (simply because there are proportionally not enough of these available, especially in a music market where the big breakout successes are growing in scale but dropping in frequency).
The main challenge for a relativity fledgling manager/entrepreneur wanting to continue develop their ‘studio’ offering is therefore one of capital. In technology, this typically means angel investors or VCs.
But what about the music industry?
I’ll be looking at a few ideas around this, and also what a future music industry accelerator/incubator could look like, in part 2… coming very soon 😉
Travelling on a train from London Fields to Liverpool Street last week, I came across this article via Pitchfork’s Twitter feed, focused on English band Arctic Monkeys and their success in South America.
I got 2 paragraphs down and emailed the link and a note to a friend.
One paragraph more and I followed up to the same email with two more notes.
Another two paragraphs, another note. I decided to read the rest before brain-dumping any more ideas to my friend who already suffers from inbox overload (and the train had arrived at my stop).
This article really resonated with me and I found myself generating ideas with more fervour than anything else I’ve read recently, so I thought I’d write a few words around why that may have happened, and some of the ideas I had.
Some of the people who knew me in my time as a music agent will be aware that I ended up (half by design, half by accident) booking tours in a really broad range of territories.
In 2014 I booked shows in about 65 countries; I’m sure there are a bunch of agents that do more than that, but relative to my experience and size of roster it was still pretty high.
There were a number of reasons I ended up working this way. Two of the main ones that were more by design than happy accidents were;
I felt there was growth in developing areas within a consolidating industry, and that there was a need to diversify a client and customer base in line with that
If I could help develop a live career for an artist that was strong and stable across many different countries I felt they would experience more longevity and be more immune to the trends, cycles and fads that inevitably come and go (now more than ever)
Most people often actively avoided this way of working, and with good logical reason; higher risk of failure, more unknowns, customers you haven’t worked with before, challenges with currencies and exchange rates, difficult logistical hurdles, things being lost in translation/time difference between teams, etc.
(Sounds kinda like working at a startup, no?)
Despite all these challenges (some more clear and present than others) I still dived in, and one of the most challenging yet also rewarding territories I did business in was South America.
From Angel Falls to Patagonia, plus Bebeto’s baby
Like a lot of people, I love to travel, and have been intrigued by South America in particular for years. The landscapes, the food, the people, the music… and the football.
I think my interest first came about through watching the 1994 World Cup — Maradona in overdrive, the tragedy of a Colombian defender who was murdered for scoring an own goal, Bebeto and the ‘baby’ celebration, and Jorge Campos’ dayglo goalie kit. Growing up in suburban England, these guys were like something from another world.
South America was also one of the reasons I started learning Spanish (I’m still pretty rickety but can keep it together in most everyday conversations), and I got to make a visit a few years ago which was a genuine life-changing experience.
One of the things that was really stark whilst on that trip is that there are a ton of parallels between music and football, and in South America I think the two are as closely linked as almost anywhere in the world.
Now I’ve got my minor football digression out of the way, it’s time to go back to the Pitchfork article.
Ways of working
There are a bunch of learnings from the Pitchfork piece which I think are worth expanding on a little bit with regard to breaking the market.
Leverage partnerships, think laterally
There are a lot of products and services that may not be well known in an artist’s home country but are huge elsewhere. Think about combining medium and message, like the actress in the Arctic Monkeys’ music video (see below)
For example, services like Uber are becoming very popular in Mexico (yes, they are in most places — but it’s worth looking at what’s nascent in the region and thinking about strategic partnerships that can increase reach and visibility far more than a targeted Facebook post can)
Don’t ignore or shun cultural differences, embrace them
Arctic Monkeys used a very well known telenovela actress in a recent music video — this kind of leverage can be huge. Local star + band seen as aspirational to their fans + high growth video delivery platform = Crash Bandicoot.
Street cred and star quality
Jason Borge of the University of Texas says; “[Brazilian] middle class kids, young people and intellectuals, mostly white, establish street cred through their embrace of foreign popular culture,” Borge explains. “It allows them to perform or display a rejection of the status quo, particularly if they’re embracing rebellious-seeming celebrities like James Dean or Elvis or Mick Jagger.”
I wrote about star quality in another article, doesn’t matter whether it’s a muddy field in England or an sports arena in Rio…
Watch out for streaming, and not just on the big players’ services
Smart phone ownership is growing enormously in the region (there’s still growth in Europe/North America but the curve here is much steeper), and streaming services are going hand in hand with that. There are a handful of services that are either native or lesser-known in Europe/North America that have serious traction in South America. Also watch out for video, streaming music services don’t necessarily just mean audio.
<plug> One of the companies I work with, F#, are experts in the digital music landscape and how it all fits together. If you want to know more about all this stuff, ask us, we do workshops 🙂 </plug>
Never forget how passionate the fans are, especially the core
Another football parallel; musicians can have their own section of Ultra fans, and in South America the people are enormously passionate. I know of several artists who have been playing shows in the region for nearly 20 years and the fanbase shows no sign of dilution, boredom or losing their fervour — I can testify that stuff like this that’s mentioned in the article really does happen, and you don’t need to be an arena band for it to be you. Cultivate and connect with the fans in an authentic way and they will stick with you, just like they stick with Boca Juniors, River Plate…or Crystal Palace.
Before Murphy’s final tour date, in Lima, Peru, a fan posted the arrival time for Murphy’s plane to his Facebook page. Upon his arrival, 100 to 150 screaming fans were waiting for him, the kind of scene one expects to hear described when One Direction touch down anywhere in the world.
The example above is actually a good marketing tactic that artist teams should look at — pop-up gig in the Arrivals hall? If you want to look at the sharing economy model, airports have a ton of excess floor capacity that could be filled…
Booking an artist in South America is (generally) no different than anywhere else in the world
The agent mentioned in the article states that all the money needs to be paid at least a week in advance. I’d times that by 4 and say a month ahead (at the minimum). Otherwise though, it isn’t that much different to elsewhere around the globe — just make sure common sense prevails.
Present brand and creativity in a way that appeals to the market
I’m not sure if Arctic Monkeys deliberately stylised themselves around this campaign to appeal to the specific audience in South America, but I see a lot of artists who don’t adjust their messaging to suit the market. Sure, sticking to what you’re about creatively is core, but there’s a spectrum and nudging towards one end of that for a particular market can pay dividends. A lot of the most successful electronic artists actually do a really good job of this through their social media and the design and targeting around the content they produce.
I’d like to see more clever marketing ideas in this vein — as a basic example, a couple of years ago emojis became particularly big in Singapore so the SingTel telecoms company ran a campaign where fans could enter MMS-based competitions by guessing a movie title only through a couple of emoji clues. This also ties into looking at the main media channels in a market and leveraging them.
Have that key person on the ground
This is important. There are unfortunately some unscrupulous people out there, and having a trusted and reliable partner protects against many potential pitfalls, some of which are easy to forget about because they just don’t happen all that much in developed nations.
Finding that partner can be difficult, but a good booking agent will likely know a few — and one with the right connections is worth their weight in gold. The right agent (and also the right point person in the territory) will understand the nuances between competing promoters, the politics where multi-national brands are looking to enter markets to the chagrin of the incumbents, are likely have a cross-agency map of who’s reliable and who’s not, and should have a good feel of where there are rafts of non value-adding middlemen in a process.
Most importantly, a reliable and trustworthy host can really make an artist’s tour; the benefits of local knowledge and a warm welcome is never to be underestimated.
I’m by no means a master of doing business in South America, but I’ve worked with quite a lot of people there and have seen just how amazing it can be when tours are executed well.
I think that every modern music business person should seek to gain an understanding of the market there; the mechanisms, the fans, the business, and the wider cultural touch points that make it one of the most exciting places in the world.
Things are going global, but at the same time they’re also going more local — to succeed a strong understanding of both is needed.
And if you needed any more motivation, just think about the authentic Peruvian Ceviche, Brazilian Feijoada, Venezuelan & Colombian arepas, and the unbeatable Argentinian parrilla that’s waiting for you… hopefully I’ll see you there sometime.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter (@howardgray) or in the comments below…
Not so long ago, when someone said ‘Stratford’ to me the first thing that came to mind was not William Shakespeare’s hometown but the Stratford Rex venue which became synonymous in the late 90s and early 2000s for its jungle and garage raves.
Now when I think about this part of East London it’s a bit of a different story — the small matter of the 2012 London Olympics, the gigantic Westfield shopping centre, heavily upgraded transport facilities and of course a lot of new high-rise apartments (with many more still to come).
Tucked away behind the older of the two shopping centres is an arts venue that opened just before the Olympics. Stratford Circus is a contemporary performing arts venue, and it was there last Thursday that East London Arts & Music (ELAM) held their inaugural industry awards.
A little about ELAM
ELAM is an academy for 16–19 year old talent who want to break into the music industry, either as a performer, producer or executive. The trainees work alongside industry professionals on real world projects and work placements, as well as having regular mentoring sessions to help them develop. The academy is a Free School funded by the Department for Education, inspected by OFSTED and completely free to attend. And it’s not just music — every trainee works towards Maths and English qualifications too.
By 2017, the Academy will have 300 full-time Trainees studying on either the Music Programme or the Digital Arts Programme (launching in 2016 — this is a really exciting addition).
Frankly it’s something the industry has been crying out for (maybe not loudly enough), and the event in Stratford was to celebrate their first 75 trainees completing their first year at the academy.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that I felt strangely nostalgic about being at my first ‘school’ awards for nearly 15 years, but I was.
What made this a little different to my previous outing back in the late 1990s was that the standard of production and talent on show was on a different level (apologies to my alumni).
The live music of course was fantastic (with my personal favourite performances being ‘Dancing’ by John Parry, Tamika Watkin-Wallace and Louisa McClure, and a cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Shannon Brown), and there’s no doubt that a lot of the musicians who played on the night are going to forge careers in the future.
What was also very impressive was how confident, articulate and fearless so many of the trainees were when it came to public speaking. The majority of us (including me) get pretty petrified when it comes to speaking formally in front of an audience, but not many of these guys…
The other thing that came across so clearly was the bond that the teachers, students and academy as a whole seemed to share. The word ‘family’ gets bandied about far too much in organisations, but with ELAM I really got the feeling that what has made its first year so successful is a positive and supportive culture where the F-word doesn’t seem like it’s being thrown around cheaply.
It was a genuinely inspirational evening, full of talented, positive and determined people following their passions — both teachers and pupils.
What happens next
The trainees from this year’s intake will be back at ELAM’s new space in September, along with a new group working in both music and digital arts.
Even in a very tiny way, I’m delighted to be involved — something like this is long overdue.
ELAM may well be the pathway for the future of UK music…watch this space.
It’s also home to Winter Music Conference (WMC), a slightly misleading name as a) I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have attended the actual conference, and b) winter is these parts is 80 degrees (not exactly Canada Goose weather).
For the uninitiated, WMC is a week-long event in late March consisting of pool parties, club nights, people-watching, networking, spring breakers, tricked-out cars, new music, sunburn, more pool parties, and the huge Ultra Music Festival.
In short, you probably wouldn’t want to bring your Mum along.
During my WMC 2014 visit, I had a breakfast meeting one morning with a US-based music industry friend who I’ve known for several years. We’ve never done that much direct business together but have followed a similar path and ethos in our respective careers, so whenever we get together the conversation is always flowing from the get-go.
This time I wandered down to see him at the Mondrian Hotel, out of the glare and madness of the Collins Avenue hotels (I’ve never understood the appeal of paying $400+ a night to have a 12 hour party outside your window from 11am every day), to be greeted with a big welcome and a pre-paid large and tasty breakfast from my compadre — he was looking well; business was good.
I was wearing a slight hangover and mild sunburn (didn’t listen to my Mum’s advice), but after imbibing a small vat of filter coffee, we got chatting and conversation moved towards working with new talent.
Working with new people there’s often a lot of unknowns, particularly in a competitive business that also has large elements of gut instinct and passion involved. When it’s a new artist there’s a lot of investment involved — blood (sometimes), sweat (often), tears (before bedtime), and of course time and quite possibly money.
Therefore I feel it can be useful to have something to help guide the head as well as the heart.
During our chat, I was reminded me of an old note I made and never finished. At the time I wasn’t able to list the contents of this note verbatim to my breakfast partner, but he got the gist and we threw a few ideas around as to how it could tweaked to be a useful tool for everyone involved in creative business relationships.
This post is a much belated write-up of those ideas.
I started using this list of questions when talking to prospective clients (usually artist managers, either by email, phone or in person); some people really didn’t like answering them, and some just didn’t answer them at all, but I found that I got a lot of value from the responses of those that did.
This list was created for my music booking work but with a little tweaking it could be used in a bunch of different scenarios.
I’ve made a few notes alongside some of the questions as to the reasoning for their inclusion.
1. Who is in the team and what is their experience?
(i.e. PR, Manager / Assistant, Label, Accountant, Lawyer, Publisher; but also other people who may be Brands, Advisors etc.) An artist manager friend drilled this one into me — you’re not just taking on an artist, you’re taking on the whole team, and it needs to fit. You’ll probably know pretty quickly if it doesn’t fit.
2. Who take cares of the back-office work?
Never to be underestimated — if this stuff isn’t handled well it can create a lot of pain all round. The pain I have experienced here is broad and deep (especially when I was starting out), and definitely not for a pre-watershed article such as this.
3. What partnerships and affiliations are in place/planned?
Whether it’s brands, record labels, support gigs…leveraged partnerships can be hugely important. I’ll write more specifically about these another time.
4. Does the artist want to be famous?
This is my favourite one. I received answers that were either an instant and adamant Yes, an instant and adamant No, a very long pause for consideration before answering, or getting one answer before swapping for the other, then something in the middle. It sounds an obvious question but the answer will tell you a lot. It’s also worth noting there are different levels and perceptions of fame.
5. Who do they admire?
Which other artists and why? People in other fields? This can help both tactically and strategically. Often you hear about other artists they don’t want to be associated with too…
Without anything here, it’s unfortunately tougher to succeed.
8. Who is the audience and what demographic?
Top-line social media numbers don’t cut it — genuine insight is what’s needed. Who are we actually talking to? Where are they? How engaged are they? What are their habits and interests? Whilst a manager should know this stuff, it’s not their primary role or skill and I firmly believe there is a need for more business analysis/data science capability in the music business; not just in large companies nor as a bolted-on marketing function.
9. What makes this different to everything else out there?
In business-speak this would likely be referred to as a USP or Unfair Advantage. Hugely subjective in the music industry but still relevant. Star quality as I mentioned here is a good USP.
10. What is the happy ending to the story?
I like this one because it encourages visualisation- and it’s actually a lot harder to answer than you may think.
11. What do you want?
12. How will you know you’ve got it?
(These two are nabbed from an NLP video I saw online but are very good questions to ask, and are surprisingly difficult to answer, especially the second one; what are the things that will let you know you’ve got what you want?)
Whilst there’s not really any substitute for gut instinct and a personal relationship, I feel this little set of questions can really help accelerate a decision making process, and the strategy and plan that (hopefully) follows it.
I’d love to hear your ideas for ones to add, change or remove — you can let me know on Twitter if you like (@howardgray). For more thoughts and discussion about music, entertainment, business and technology, feel free to subscribe to my email list or join the Stems music industry meetup event I help organise.
Working with various artists, labels and collectives in the last few years, as well as trying to keep an eye on what’s going on in the music industry as a whole, I’ve noticed a number of traits that have tended to lead to success.
There’s certainly no magic formula for succeeding (if there was, things would get boring pretty quickly, even if in our more rapacious moments we may believe otherwise), but I’ve had a go at distilling down four elements that can certainly help get there.
Some artists are in the position where they have two or three of these, and a few maybe even have all four. I’d say if you’ve got at least two of them you’re in a pretty good position.
Of course, these elements aren’t permanent; they can shift, slip, expand and contract on an almost constant basis.
In this post I’ve outlined these elements, with a couple of artists who I think are good examples. I’ve put this together with electronic music in mind, I’d be interesting to hear whether you feel this applies (and to what degree) in other genres.
And I’ve left out the Fifth Element (or rather the First) as its value is too large to be dissected here — great music. That kinda goes without saying ☺
The Four Elements
1. The Tribe
2. The Niche
3. The Hit
4. The Star
1. Be part of a dominant tribe
Many things in life revolve around the concept of a tribe.
any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea.
I’d say electronic music is no different.
You could call it brand (and there a lots of examples of brand and marketing being an element of success — in fact, that could be the subject of another series of blog posts on its own…), but more from a purist’s point of view I think the idea of a tribe ties in better with where all this came from in the first place.
It’s also not as easy to sum it up in the types of (buzz)words that brands tend to associate themselves with, but people want to be part of something, something that connects them. It sounds corny but music is one of the best ways of bringing people together.
If an artist is part of a tribe who have dedicated followers, that association alone can put position them in a place where they wouldn’t otherwise be.
How to create, lead and bring in new members to the tribe is something for another post (I‘ll be writing about that some time in the near future).
There are a bunch of tribes out there in electronic music, one good example of where a tribe has become successful and created a halo effect around itself is the German deep house collective Diynamic, led by DJ and producer Solomun.
2. Own a niche
In an industry where there are three major labels who seem to have a stranglehold on the mainstream, it would be safe to assume that a niche is not a good place to be. The likes of Bob Lefsetz have written about this on numerous occasions, and the excellent book ‘Blockbusters’ by Anita Elberse also looks at the head vs the tail and why the Long Tail concept may be a red herring.
For the most part, I agree — things are generally moving towards being a headliners’ business, but I feel that it can be a different story if you can own a niche and a lot of people overlook the value in this.
By ‘own’ I’m not talking about the $$$/£££/€€€ (although it often goes hand in hand), but more about being a figurehead — the person or one of the people who is instantly associated with a certain genre/sub-genre/movement.
I think people underestimate the fan bases, businesses and longevity of artists in particular niches — sometimes they go onto have either fleeting or longer term crossover success, but a lot don’t and can still maintain long and successful careers.
A good example in electronic music is Chris Liebing. He’s been around a long time; honing his craft, playing challenging underground music, never really crossing over, and certainly never having breakout mainstream chart success. However he seems to be as popular as he’s ever been, with an ardent fan base and a packed worldwide gig diary. I’d also recommend his Resident Advisor exchange — an insightful look into his history as a music fan and DJ.
When I think about heavier, underground, full-tilt techno — he’s one of the first names that springs to mind. He’s a figurehead, so much so that for me his name is almost an adjective for a particular sound.
3. Have a hit (or a few)
This one is more obvious, but a hit track can change everything for an artist almost overnight.
The explosion in popularity of house music (particularly in the UK) over the last couple of years has included numerous top 10 national and international chart hits for artists that were otherwise relatively unknown and underground up until that point where the sound tipped into the mainstream.
The traction an artist can suddenly get from a hit track seems to be as strong as it’s ever been, especially in the live arena (but certainly in other areas such as sync). Festivals need to be able to sell many thousands of tickets and booking an act with national radio support, high chart placings and Shazam virality is going to get the attention of customers who may not be familiar with only niche and underground names.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s a headliners’ market right now and the rewards for being one can be significant, especially when compared to a middle that is often squeezed.
The other side to this coin is that when there’s only 1 or 2 hits and the next release doesn’t connect, things can get much tougher. One of the harshest examples of this is when an artist is perceived to have departed the scene that they came from (aka ‘selling out’) and are unable to find a place in the underground again. The risk of this is arguably getting greater as the speed of turnover on all fronts increases, so it’s about good management and positioning to ensure an artist protects against the downside when they start to crossover.
The examples of artists who have had a number of hits and risen from underground to overground are pretty numerous and obvious; a few from the last year or so include Sigma, Gorgon City, Breach and of course Disclosure. (always good to see a ‘Howard’ representing…)
4. Star quality (or an unforgettable impact)
One of the first festivals a close friend went to was The Big Chill festival (in 2007 I think — feels like aeons ago now). On his slightly dishevelled return after 3 days in the wild, we went to the pub for a catchup.
The first thing he told me was about a DJ who played the previous afternoon. This particular act was playing a set of big bass-heavy music, which was just starting to become popular in the UK at the time. More notable though was that he was pulling the needle off the record currently playing, rewinding tracks at seemingly random times, letting tracks finish without having the next cued up, and various other faux pas — possibly due to a degree of intoxication.
The crowd went nuts, and DJ was a guy called Skream.
Whilst inebriation may not necessarily equal star quality, it’s worth remembering why people admire rock stars (and arguably DJs too).
It’s not just their musical ability, it’s that they’re larger than life and ignore the rules; they operate in a way that regular people can’t, don’t or won’t.
Whilst a purist would say it’s all about the music, particularly in a live event setting people want to be entertained and to feel a connection with the performing artist. A slightly bored bloke looking at his laptop doesn’t always hit the spot here. Skrillex stage-diving or Steve Aoki riding a dinghy across a crowd more likely does (whatever you may think about that…).
I think a good example of someone who has a big personality and projects it well is Eats Everything
So if you can be part of a tribe with a global band of ardent followers, own a particular niche or movement, notch up some hits, and happen to possess that elusive star quality and buckets of charisma, you’ll probably do ok.