Redefining for 2022
When I was in bands in my late teens and early twenties, I had a very clear idea of what success in the music business would look like. The idea was built around a 20th century “rock star” myth and what it took to make them successful.
As the industry recovers from 20 years of turmoil, it is time to address this idea of success. So many of its facets no longer apply or have become toxic. With a new focus on wellness and mental health, with the decentralization of the business, with more opportunities and sources of income, now is the time to redesign the image of success and work towards something. generative, sustainable and healthy.
“We’re really going to get there, aren’t we?” I remember “Bird” the bass player from my old band Sprokit telling me as we played our new demo in my Nissan Pulsar. “I mean, the singer in my old band was like ‘when we do it …, when we do it …’ and I knew for real the band was going nowhere but WE are going to be huge. “. Like over-caffeinated rats in a lab maze, we propelled the moves we thought we had to embrace, into a pre-revolutionary internet music industry. Outside of practicing, recording some brash demos, and a few occasional gigs, we didn’t have a clear path to that concept of “Making It” that was in our heads.
We knew that “Making It” involved a “Big Break” and that there were only a handful of protests. Maybe it’s because a tour group we supported decided we were so amazing they wanted to take us on their next run and it was all going to take off from there. Or we sort of get listed on Triple J, either from a debut in a specialty program or by winning the Unearthed program (while on tour) and it would all take off from there. Or we would send a demo to a label and they would fall in love with us and it would all go from there.
The concept “it would all take off from there” was blind faith in the machinery of the music industry. The idea that once the machine is behind us an unstoppable momentum would be on our side. This blind faith was reassured by every success story we heard about. The story stated that a musical act was short lived, they would meet a caretaker who loved them, then “voila”, the act became a highlight. Machines weren’t a big part of this story. We knew he was there, we just didn’t know what he was doing. We knew even less about the heavy wooden shoe that was about to be wedged into the gears of this machine by our own generation and how it was going to make a permanent difference.
In 2001, peer to peer file sharing such as Napstar, Galaxy Audio & Lime Wire promised my generation all the music they ever wanted for free. Not only was it free, you didn’t have to go to a record store, you could just search and download it. You didn’t need to know you liked it, you could try out an album or song and if it sucked you could free up precious megabytes by deleting the file. Even as the industry struggled to maintain the scarcity and value of recorded music, the genius was out of the bottle and recorded music was about to become ubiquitous.
Fast forward twenty years and the music industry now appears to be in a sustained recovery and spared from total annihilation. The streaming model offers the same (or better) instant access as hacking, but with a payment system that consumers are happy to subscribe to. The steam along with other changes have resulted in steady revenue growth for our once struggling business. On top of all this, the price barriers to making a decent recording have collapsed. Without the need to physically print discs, the cost of music release basically evaporated, resulting in a huge increase in the amount of music released.
The result being that even though the money has returned to the industry, it has to be shared among many more musicians. The pie has a lot more slices. Additionally, the long tail of streaming revenue lends itself to extended and sustainable earnings rather than larger cash injections during active release cycles. These revenues can continue for many decades as long as the public continues to listen to your music.
So how does this affect the definition of success? Rather than a handful of musicians crossing the threshold of professionalism each year, a living wage from recorded music is more accessible than ever. Many of the processes (machines) kept by the gatekeepers of the past are now accessible to the public and at low cost. You can have an idea for a song, follow it and market it in a week. More importantly, it can be done with little capital expenditure and can be done over and over again.
Like any business, a freelance artist should aim to make money from their recordings, which means that process efficiency is paramount. You can of course try to go back to your long-awaited “Big Break”, but sustainability dictates that if your music is a constant drain on your income, your operating window is limited. I would also say that not only are the big breaks no longer necessary, but maybe just an archaic concept.
If an artist makes high quality / low cost recordings, the reality of the profitability of these projects comes much closer. If an artist can organize themselves to constantly make and release music, then these new benefits of profitability multiply. If they have a few projects in progress at a time, they can test ideas and keep track of the most successful projects. Income from successful projects can subsidize passion projects. If an artist connects with an audience, they will grow. If they feed their catalog, it will grow. This can train the artist in effective exit processes that will apply to any business.
If an artist spends their time making music they love, collaborating with talent they value, connecting with an audience, and generating a profit, then they are successful. It is nothing like the image of success I had when I was 19, but the world is a very different place.
Reprogramming 20 years of aspiration into something achievable in the modern age has been a challenge for me. But balancing a handful of projects, writing songs, producing, collaborating, and encouraging people to listen gives me a lot of joy and excitement. These motivating feelings have been the key to my continued involvement in (what can sometimes be) a brutal industry.
Redefining their image of success for the modern age can also free an artist from a lot of unfair self-criticism. When we try to compete with an image of success based on a 20th century rock star concept, we will of course be disappointed. It is clearly bad for our well-being. Creating a workflow that allows us to make music while still leaving room for social connection, exercise, mentoring and community engagement is, without a doubt, a mature and sustainable approach. If we can also find a way to do it affordably (or even profitably), then we’ve opened the final door to a career as a musician.
We need to love what we do rather than just love a dream of who we think we can be. If you like the idea of yourself as a famous musician but find releasing music stressful, unaffordable, and overwhelming, then it will be very difficult to do the work you have to do to become a professional and it will be very difficult to do the work you have to do to become a professional. it will be very unlikely that you will be able to meet your precise aspirations.
Would I still wish Watermelon Boy had a massive hit streak? Yes sure, but it’s not the only model of success now and I’m happy to make and release the music that is close to my heart. My desire to live fast and die young faded as balance and sustainability became more important values. If I could explain this “long term” view of success to young musicians, it would involve dispelling the myth of the 20th century rock star and helping them build generative role models that will enable them to invest in a fulfilling career and to support them and their families for decades.
Arlo Enemark has spent over 11 years working in the music industry, from label and artist management to distribution and public relations. A longtime music producer, he released the debut album of his current project Watermelon Boy in November.