Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before iPhones were there to wake you up, I’d wake up for school to a radio alarm clock. I had it set to my favorite local country station, and would immerse myself in the music in the few minutes before reality hit and I dragged myself out of bed. These precious minutes were filled with the voices of Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson, Faith Hill, Leann Rimes. My music education centralized around the pristine voices, the lyrics, the melodies. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized just how much the music business is about numbers.
I should have known all along, really. Anything with the word “business” in it has the goal of meeting a bottom line, and the music business is no exception. It is, in essence, the production and sale of creativity and art. And as much as we’d love to believe good music and talent shines through, numbers talk.
This manifests in a variety of ways, the obvious one being money. Back in the days when the internet was brand new and people still bought physical copies of albums, labels went out to search for talent that they could market. Because it was a world based around physical product, the ability to steal music was limited to what you could carry with your own hands- they didn’t have to worry about illegal streaming or downloading. You could always burn a CD off your friend, but for the most part, some of the experience was in the packaging- anyone from this era remembers leafing through the CD lyric booklets, squinting at the size 7 font to memorize every line of a song. Money, for the labels, was a lot easier to come by, because people were forced to come by their music more honestly.
With our modern hurdles, the amount of money a label can make off an artist is much less about album and song sales, and much more about merch and concert tickets (limiting the pool of income from which to draw). It’s the whole idea behind the dreaded “360” deal, where the label takes a cut of pretty much every revenue stream an artist has access to. There’s less of the pie to go around, so our pieces get smaller.
This unfortunately translates to young, unproven artists trying to break into the industry. Labels, like any business, are concerned with their ROI (return on investment). If they spend a million dollars marketing you to radio, what are the odds that they not only see that money back, but make enough of a profit to make it worth the time and effort? The less risk the labels have to assume in taking you on, the better for them. Is it any wonder that artists with monetary backing and investors make bigger strides, faster? As someone without an endless pool of money to spill into my career, it has its disadvantages for me. My job is to prove the same lucrativity to these labels by working the numbers in another way.
One of these ways is streams. Because we’re largely a streaming generation now, very little profit comes from purchases; we are a subscription society. While the legalese catches up to the pace at which the industry has evolved, we are resigned to accepting cents on the dollar for each “spin,” meaning that our number of spins on these services has to be more exorbitant than before in order to prove we can turn a profit and are worth investing in (from a label perspective). More spins equals more money. Because the availability of music online has expanded, it’s easier to get lost in the shuffle. So, the challenge of this, as an artist, is that you need more fans and listeners than you did (who in turn, have more music options and are less likely to check out your music). Numbers are fun 🙂
This is why much of the industry now places a much bigger emphasis on social media. Each like, view, interaction, etc. is an indicator to the industry that people are receptive to your music and your brand. Should it matter if I have a lot of likes on a picture of my coffee with a vague, hipster caption? No. Does it? Yes.
Part of my morning each day is dedicated to social media. Whereas before I saw it as an optional nuisance, it’s become a necessary aspect of keeping my “business” alive. I try to respond personally to each DM I get in my inbox. I interact with other people’s posts and profiles. I post videos, photos, and stories that I think will appeal to my followers and keep them wanting to continue to follow my journey. In a lot of ways, social media can be very cost-effective. While it doesn’t replace touring and playing shows, it gives us a way to connect with a ton of people from wherever in the world we are. Contrast that with playing a random bar in Kentucky where I would spend a ton of money on travel and paying my band to be seen by maybe twenty people (nothing against random bars in Kentucky). Social media allows me to be more selective with my shows and maximize my time.
Which brings me to another “number”: that ever-ticking clock, time, which indirectly leads me to one of my least favorite questions that I ALWAYS get asked in industry meetings- my age. Age, especially for female artists, is seen as another indicator. What’s her shelf life? How long is she commercially viable? Whether we like it or not, most women entertainers in country music are expected to look a certain way and are often turned into sex symbols. This might not always be overtly. But I bet you can count the number of female country artists who aren’t pressured to be beautiful on one hand. That’s not to say men are not expected to have sex appeal, but the pressure is much less and there are more examples to the contrary. Sex appeal goes hand in hand with age- labels have to ask themselves if a thirty-year old female is going to be as commercially viable as a twenty-three year old. It’s sad that women are reduced to this number, but statistics show a greater audience acquisition and retention for females who are physically young and attractive. And if we want to compete in the arena, we play the game. If I look twenty-two, I let people believe that I’m twenty-two. It’d be nice to be completely transparent without the attached evaluation of my potential, but all I can do is use what I’ve been given to make myself a contender.
Despite the challenges the numbers pose, sometimes they bring you the greatest satisfaction, like when you get to play your song on a festival stage in front of thousands of people and they all sing along. Without numbers, without the listeners and the people who we make music for, we would never pursue this career in the first place. We are nothing without fans and people who care about our lives and what we have to say. All we can do is pour our very best selves into our art and our entrepreneurship and pray we have the patience to solve the ever-changing equation that is success in the music business.