This a fantastic time to be an independent musician. Technology has transformed a business that for so long presented significant barriers to entry to emerging, young talent. Streaming platforms are open to all to release music on and they pay through (despite media noise to the contrary) meaningful earnings direct to artists for well listened to recordings.
Despite the tech revolution though the goals and aspirations of young musicians, in the early stages of their career, haven’t shifted with the times. Their definition of success is outdated. It is still based on how success was defined by traditional record labels decades ago — local chart performance. The result is a deep rooted mindset that what really matters is having hits.
This is of course completely understandable. It was the case, until recently, that the only way to break as an artist was a hit. Getting in the Top 40 and onto radio or TV were the measures of success because we lived in a world of limited bandwidth. Whether that was within record labels in terms of the number of artists they signed or music retail in regard to the number of singles & albums they stocked — there were bandwidth issues everywhere. Unless you had a hit you would fail to cut through, maintain the long term support of a record label and sustain a career in a very costly business.
But that is no longer the case. Bandwidth and gatekeepers are gone. There are no incremental costs to another person finding and consuming your music. Music audiences are truly global now — there are no borders. Streaming has changed the industry and as a result should change the goals and ambitions of emerging artists.
Aiming to have a hit is actually a crazy place to start from. What are the chances — when 20,000 new recordings are uploaded to streaming platforms everyday — of your song being a hit? That would be like a win on the lottery. Of course people do win on the lottery, but the chances of it happening to you are tiny. Winning the lottery isn’t a viable plan for anyone, let alone musicians.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a hit, just like there is nothing wrong with playing the lottery, but for artists getting starting in the industry my key piece of advice is this. Make having a hit the last thing you want NOT the first.
So what is the FIRST THING new and emerging artists should want? It’s pretty simple — and it is THE OPPOSITE of having hits. It is a less exciting, less newsworthy thing called predictable revenue. The truth is that starting out as an independent musician is a lot like starting a new business and what every new business needs to survive is predictable revenue. This has to be your number one goal as an artist. It is important for the obvious reason that it means you can pay the bills, but predictable revenue says something much more important even than that.
Predictable revenue IS success. It is a critical validation you are doing something right. It means that a group of people (your fans!) like what you are doing so much that they are willing and eager to consume your product on a consistent basis. They may be doing that for free on an ad funded streaming platform, as a premium subscriber, downloading, purchasing an album (maybe even a physical one!) or they may be buying a ticket to hear you perform your music live or a t-shirt with your name or picture on it — whatever, what matters is that they are doing it repeatedly and reliably. And because of that you are building monthly recurring revenue (“MRR”).
There is of course also the opposite perspective (and here is the reality check many artists just don’t want to consider). If you can’t create predictable revenue then maybe you aren’t on the right path. If you can’t engage a relatively small number of people to “pay” you regularly for the music you are creating then maybe there is something wrong with that music? Either it’s time to get creative, dig deep into the process and get better or maybe it is a sign that this should be a hobby and not a career. The good news is at least you didn’t have to stand in front of Simon Cowell on national television to find out!
So priority number one is all about driving growth in MRR. MRR is the key metric for pretty much every tech start-up and it should be the key metric for any new artist as well.
What is your MRR? Simple, it is the total amount of money that hits your bank account each month from all the platforms and places where music fans can consume your product. Initially that is going to be revenue from your recorded music released through a distributor like AWAL or Tunecore but in time may include song-writing revenue from the various collection agencies and your publisher, from your agent or venues for any live gigs, from your merch team or your online store and so on.
Add all that money up, log it and then set yourself a target to grow it by a specific amount every month — 20% is a pretty good benchmark. That may seem high but if you are currently earning £200 a month from your music then the idea of earning £240 next month doesn’t seem impossible does it? But keep going with that target and in 2 years you will be earning over £13,000 a month! Now that is a proper, sustainable career.
The other key factor here is that, unlike winning the lottery, building predictable revenue involves no element of luck. It comes from hard work, application and core business principles. It means writing and recording a lot of songs, putting them all out and doing lots of gigs. It is about building a body of work and driving an audience through constant content marketing & social networking.
If that sounds daunting then this isn’t the career for you. But by doing all this I guarantee you will build MRR and move on from feeling that it is impossible to become a career musician to it being inevitable.
And you know the other thing that WILL happen is you will have hits. Maybe not global hits but you will have some recordings that do significantly better than others, some social activity that performs and engages fans better than others and some gigs that work better than others. Through those mini-hits you will learn when you are getting it right (and of course when you are getting it wrong) allowing you focus your energy on the right things.
So take luck out of it, focus on driving predictable revenue as your key measure of success and make having a hit the LAST THING you want.
Do all that and having a real hit will be far more likely to happen.
**I should reference some inspiration here for this piece — the entrepreneurs and writers Aaron Ross and Jason M. Lemkin. If you do one thing after reading this article, go & buy their book “From Impossible To Inevitable — How Hyper Growth Companies Create Predictable Revenue”. I get that it has nothing to do with music and you may not think of yourself as a business (although you are!) but I promise that if you really think through what they are saying you can extract some brilliant ideas for building your own success as a musician.**