We live in an age where you can make a living playing Fortnite live on Twitch, posting Burger King menu reviews on YouTube, or doing Yoda-themed flash mobs on TikTok. Even designing, promoting and selling high-end sink splashes and luxury toilet paper holders can earn you a decent wage — and you could do it from the comfort of your own bathroom.
So why do we still define our success as an artist on whether we get signed by a label? Isn’t it time to update our definition for what it means to be a successful artist?
Even with the years-long pattern of independent artists increasing their market share — MIDIA estimated that in 2020, artist direct revenues jumped by nearly 35%, made up more than 5% of the global market and broke the billion-dollar mark — the formula for artist success has been the same for practically a century. The top 1% of performers/entertainers are wealthy, powerful and famous stars and the remaining musicians, songwriters, performers and artists are considered failures. If the music of the 99% does not fit the mold of commercial radio or the hot new app, it doesn’t get past the major label or algorithm gatekeepers, so promoters, brands and marketers ignore it. This has an impact on the collective consciousness of what gets heard but also what is considered “good” or successful.
This skewed view is backed up by data. In a Rolling Stone article from September 2020, a series of studies indicated that just 1% of artists on streaming platforms account for 90% of total streams. Anyone who listens to even a morsel of top 40 radio or top 100 playlists are not shocked by this fact. What is shocking is that despite more than a decade of music streaming online, we are even further away from artists breaking free from the major label success model.
I think we can all take a collective step back and agree that there are more ways to define success and artistic achievement than being on a list. And yet so many young artists grow up thinking that if they are not on that list, their music is a waste and they’ll just have to consign themselves to a life of accounting or a career in social media marketing.
The truth is, there has never been a better age for a self-defined music career. For every unique and individual artist in the world, there should be and can be a unique and individual pathway to success. If your music is a unique expression of yourself, it makes sense that your concept of success should follow that same pattern. Humans regularly do dozens of things on a day to day basis that require an up front investment of time or finances, knowing full well they will get nothing in return — so in this case, if they get even a small financial return on their music, let’s not hang up the towel and say, “Oh well, I guess I am not good.”
The major music labels spend millions to make sure we know their artists’ names and music, and they are quite happy with the status quo. So artists, listen: you don’t have to buy into that antiquated system and measure yourself on their antiquated success scale. Do you have 1,000 fans who for sure will buy your music? What about 200? To be honest, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that an artist with 100 faithful fans can have a very satisfying, fulfilling and inspiring life in music, one that fits into the rest of their life and brings them joy.
Of course, every artist/creator who is devoted to their craft knows that the ability to make art and share it with the world is rewarding and fulfilling on its own merits, without the need for ROI and revenue metrics. Just publishing music is counted as a success for many artists. It brings joy, passion, encouragement, empathy and resilience to those in need. It challenges cultural norms. It gives us a glimpse into other cultures that might seem foreign to us.
I have dedicated my career to artist and musician advocacy. As an artist myself, I have stared down the barrel of society’s expectations and found myself wanting — but I have come to realize that success is relative and self-defined. The sooner artists discover that freedom for themselves, the faster they’ll see they can make a decent living without signing to a major music label.
Hell, they could even do it from their own bathroom.
Joel Andrew is president of CD Baby and former senior vp of AVL Digital Group. He has been recognized in Billboard’s 2021 Indie Power Players as an executive to watch between labels, distributors and associations.