Can you define a musician? Then, presuming you can, can you define a successful one? Many technologists bemoan the “old” music business because they didn’t “get” new technologies. Yet those same people largely don’t “get” that those we define as a successful musician has also changed.
What fired me up about this was last week’s blog post on The Trichordist entitled, “If the Internet is working for Musicians, Why aren’t more Musicians Working Professionally?” They trotted out well-used established facts such as:
I agree with these facts. However, they presume a successful musician is predicated on albums and selling said albums. If I follow on that logic, then I’d also like to declare the internet is dying because dial up access has decreased significantly in recent years. Naturally, the internet is not dying. The reality just scares many because not only is music thriving, but it’s largely thriving in the world of the uncool, unhip, and whose talent is not found in a traditional “critical” sense.
First, let’s set a benchmark for success of recorded music. If we’re to say that 10,000 albums is the bar of success, then one can say that someone needs to gross around $100,000 in sales (10,000 units x $10 album price). So, are there more than 228 artists grossing over $100,000 in recorded music revenue? Plenty. Who are they?
1) SINGLES ARTISTS
Several artists are foregoing releasing albums when their singles are selling so well. Even bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers have announced releasing only singles. When they release 18 songs as singles instead of on one album, that’s just one more sign of the album’s decline. But that’s not the decline of the music business. And the Chili Peppers are not alone.
2) SINGLES LABELS
Whole labels are set up around the new music business. Kontor in Europe has over 1 BILLION YouTube streams from dance singles. That’s a lot of revenue before digital or physical sales. They do release some full length albums and compilations. But the bulk of the business is in singles that aren’t counted in that top level album roundup. It’s not just the dance community, and it’s not just Europe.
3) MUSICAL ENTERTAINERS
I’ve previously written about unsigned artist Alex Day getting UK chart hits. Some people in comments criticized that he built a following thru non-music entertaining videos. So then we should discount Disney stars who were actors before they sang a note? Should Jana Kramer’s foray into Country Music not count because she had previously been on a TV show? Let’s not double standard someone just because they’re on YouTube. They made music. It made money. Get over it.
4) COVER ARTISTS
Have you gotten annoyed with all these singers racking up millions of views doing covers on YouTube? Well, you’ve just written off a whole class of musicians. Many of them are making six figures a year. Some solely off of YouTube revenues. Should we not count these folks as artists? Then we should erase the many Pat Boone covers from the charts of the fifties. Or all the covers on the Beatles’ first few albums. Performing covers should not disqualify you from being counted in the music business.
5) PARODY ARTISTS
What, just because you make funny music, you shouldn’t count? There was a time when a comedian named Vaughan Meader had the best selling album of the year. The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles won a Grammy (which is comedy AND covers). “Weird Al” Yankovic has routinely had best selling albums. Just because you’re not serious doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be TAKEN seriously. And many of these parody artists are selling lots of singles AND earning lots of YouTube revenue.
6) CUTE KIDS
Awww…those precocious young kids who can rap Nicki Minaj and end up on Ellen. How cute. How novelty. Also, how rich. Not “buy a mansion” rich. But certainly “gross $100k” rich. Just because they’re not of legal age yet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t count them. They sing. They make money. They count.
7) CHILDREN’S MUSIC
Dirty secret of the business. They used to sell a shit-ton of kids music. And they counted in overall yearly roundups. But with that business drying up, they no longer count. Where has it gone? YouTube. I should know because I played endless videos for my daughter when she was a toddler. Have you watched Gummibar? That’s making a lot of money. Someone has even turned public domain kids songs into a business with Super Simple Songs. If we used to count them years ago, we should still count them now.
By the way, this is before we even talk about musicians who are making great strides outside the system WITH great music like Amanda Palmer and Zoe Keating. In my opinion, saying there’s a decline in musicians is cultural elitism. It’s still alive and well, just not in the form a true “passionate music fan” would like to see it in. The music business is alive and well in many splinter forms that don’t involve radio or labels. But they also don’t involve what a traditional music career might be. I’m OK with this. Are you?
FYI…here’s a list of 40 artists who are clearly doing very well in music just from YouTube revenue who don’t have a record company behind them. They’re not traditional, but that shouldn’t take away their success. I know there are many more, but these are ones that are at the top of the pyramid.
Emmanuel & Phillip Hudson
The Gregory Brothers
The Key Of Awesome
Kurt Hugo Schneider
Mystery Guitar Man
The Piano Guys
Super Simple Songs