When the going gets tough, the musicians get tougher.
“The marriage of art and commerce has always fascinated me – they can’t exist without each other – yet the concept of creative freedom, and the need to control costs in order to have a business, are eternally locked in a Vulcan death match.”(Passman, 4)
The labels “musician” and “entrepreneur” have become so closely intertwined, following the “digital revolution,” that one might say they are inseparable. Along with streaming, the Internet has brought a whole host of functionalities that musicians can use to their benefit, in order to develop themselves as artists independent of labels; “Ultimately, as the encrusted shell of the old music business disintegrates, digital technology has made the music business an entrepreneurial one once again” (Baskerville, 16). The Internet has created a democratization within the industry, granting the tools of the music trade straight to the artists, causing the barrier to enter this industry to be lowered. Investments and profits are not only being made by the big stars, now, they are also coming from smaller and medium-sized artists in the industry. 99% of the growth of the United States streaming market in 2019 was generated from the mass “second-tier” artists outside of the top 10 staple musicians (Ingham).
Yet, because entry into the industry has become significantly easier and the attractiveness of this profession has remained high, a misconception has been created that anyone can become a professional musician and fulfill their dreams, for “the same way that it’s easy for you to set all this up, it’s easy for everybody to set this up” (Passman, 76). The industry has never been more crowded with novices, professionals, and everyone in between. This has only intensified the competition. There are over ten million artists on SoundCloud and Facebook alone, creating an industry where talent and passion are not enough to cause an artist to stand out amongst the crowd (Passman,76). Additionally, the Internet reduces barriers of entry to musicians but does not necessarily increase musical diversification or social democratization. For instance, just because the music is available does not mean it will be consumed. Major music labels still hold a certain degree of influence in the current music sphere and can more easily leverage popular music downloading services to have their music and advertisements featured on their websites (Mazierska, 259). Digitization, despite its democratic promise, has still led to a concentration and solidification within a fragmented industry.
Now, more than ever, musicians have had to learn how to produce, promote, and distribute their music – and do it on a high level. “In the post-Napster era, pop stars could no longer rely on album sales to generate income. They had to transform themselves into what communications scholar Leslie M. Meier calls ‘artist-brands.’ In the twenty-first century, pop artists have to sell themselves – the more an artist’s brand refracts and engages different identities, the more the artist can command attention and profits”; so, what does this mean for the competing individual artist (Sloan, 110-111)? Who is this person? What do they look like? The current musician benefits from embracing an entrepreneurial mindset and takes ownership of being both a musician and an entrepreneur. The need for entrepreneurship has become an industry function.
According to Babson College, “entrepreneurship is about the ability to organize resources, and provide the leadership, to act on opportunities to create social and economic value…,” and, therefore, an entrepreneur is someone who takes charge of accessing and organizing resources to create said value (Lopez). Now more than ever, a musician is demanded to suss out from the plethora of resources which will benefit them the most, while taking finances into consideration. The musician must also have enough self-awareness to understand which activities are better outsourced to others, yet still align with their vision. In being a musician, the artist is creating their own sound, brand, and identity that fills a void for listeners; maybe this artist speaks to them and for them in a way that others cannot. Then, when all of the activities are arranged, can the musician be confident in their odds of being heard by audiences and their value communicated. This increasingly close tie between product and producer is often challenging to balance, but, when the artist, music, brand, and business all align, it becomes an electric, unstoppable force.
Start-Ups and Entrepreneurs vs. New Music and Emerging Musicians
For many reasons, musicians operating in the music industry are, in fact, very similar to entrepreneurs operating within a startup ecosystem. Start-ups rely on sales, marketing, operations, and finance acumen in order to turn their idea into a reality and the Internet has disrupted what it looks like to be a business owner; now, anyone with an idea can start their own business. An entrepreneur can independently contact vendors, sell their product online, and market and promote their business through online ads, social media, and influencer networks. This business can be funded through venture capital firms, banks, and angel investors, as well as friends and family. Similar to how a passion for music compels the artist to embark on their professional music journey, passion drives the mission of the business as well. This passion in addition to the uniqueness of the product offerings are critical to the business, differentiating the venture from its competitors. The nature of the competing entrepreneur, we see, is not so different than that of the starving musician. As a result, the more one views their venture into the music industry as a business venture, the better off one will be, using the start-up model as a blueprint for their activities.
However, it might seem distasteful or disingenuous for a musician to reveal stardom as their end-goal, to discuss brand development, or use the terminology that entrepreneurs use when they are in the business of selling a good or service. Brand, profit, sales, and business are common terms that are more likely to be used by entrepreneurs when talking about their start-up, then they would be with a musician, whose main purpose is to create art. What one learns in business naturally has a tension with what one’s art might say.
Nevertheless, the most surprising finding from my thesis study is the fact that all ten musicians interviewed, despite their demographic differences, identified themselves as entrepreneurs and undertook entrepreneurial activities. The subjects understood the value of identifying as someone that is business-minded in the industry and who would comfortably take on such a label. All of these artists tapped into the different facets of business that they engage with the most that cause them to identify as entrepreneurs. The musicians mentioned doing the same concrete tasks that entrepreneurs also engage in, such as promotion or marketing, diversified financing, establishing partnerships, having a product, and forecasting. Additionally, the artists mentioned facets of the entrepreneurial mindset, like creative problem solving and recognizing the need for outsourcing, goal setting, and acute self-awareness.
But, nothing about being a musician says that one is going to be good at any of these things. This is where a musician must rely on their experiences and education in order to formulate good decision making skills that will help in their venture. An individual’s experiences shape their understanding of the world and, consequently, an evaluation of their opportunities. In harnessing their core competencies and iterating through failure, a musician can become more adept to entrepreneurial thought and action.
Stay tuned for next week’s article on “Conclusions for the Music Entrepreneur”
Baskerville, David, and Tim Baskerville. Music Business Handbook and Career Guide. 11th ed., SAGE, 2017.
Ingham, Tim. “US Streams Topped a Trillion Last Year. But Is a Superstar Recession Looming?” Music Business Worldwide, 9 Jan. 2020, www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/us-streams-topped-a-trillion-last-year-but-is-there-a-superstar-recession-looming/.
Lopez, David, “Intro to ET&A” , 06 September 2016.
Mazierska, Ewa, et al. Popular Music in the Post-Digital Age : Politics, Economy, Culture and Technology, Chapter 12, et al., Bloomsbury Academic & Professional, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/babson/detail.action?docID=5607552.
Passman, Donald S. All You Need to Know about the Music Business: 10th Edition. Simon & Schuster, Incorporated, 2019.
Sloan, Nate, et al. Switched on Pop: How Popular Music Works & Why It Matters. Oxford University Press, 2020.