Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve heard a lot of chatter about “breaking” new musical acts. The current bone of contention: can a truly DIY artist sell more than 10,000 albums?
The debate kicked off in mid January when Tom Silverman — founder and president of the legendary hip hop label Tommy Boy Records — was featured in a series of articles on musiccoaching.com. During the first interview, Tom referenced 2009 data from SoundScan, the company that tracks retail purchases of music, which indicated that only 112 records reached platinum status in 2009 (that’s 1 million albums). He then focused on the other end of the sales spectrum, pointing to the dearth of artists that have broken the 10,000 sales barrier without label help. Tom said:
In 2008 there were 1,500 releases that sold over 10,000 album units. Out of that there were only 227 of them that were artists that had broken 10,000 for the first time. So in the whole year only 227 of the artists were artists that had broken what we call the “obscurity line.” When you sell 10,000 albums, you’re no longer an obscure artist; people know about you. […] We looked at the 227 and identified that only 14 of them were artists doing it on their own and all the rest were on majors and indies; a little more than half were on indies.
Tom’s pronouncement became immediate fodder for the blogosphere: which 14 artists was he talking about? And why is 10,000 albums sold the magic number of viability? The biggest pushback came from Jeff Price, CEO and founder of TuneCore — a digital aggregator service for independent artists and bands that delivers music and metadata to the primary digital music outlets. (We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that other companies, like ReverbNation and CD Baby, also provide such services).
In a blog post on the TuneCore site, Jeff Price called Tom’s math “dead wrong” and noted that, if it were correct, TuneCore would be responsible for releasing all of the DIY music that made up Tom’s tally. Jeff then name-checked a handful of artists that had sold a significant number of digital downloads — some in the millions — without major label help. There was a lot more to Jeff’s argument, which you can read here.
Let’s set aside “I’m right, you’re wrong” angle and instead focus on why the conversation is interesting. We see two primary reasons. First, only a handful of artists seemed to have broken this elusive 10,000 album sales threshold. How did they do it? What was their strategy? Of course, it’s smart to study these successful artists, to dissect their careers and try to mimic their plan, but remember that each artist is different. There’s no magical, unifying formula for success.
There’s also a more fundamental issue than Tom and Jeff’s disagreement about the effectiveness of SoundScan, or even the value of label support: how are we — meaning musicians and the music industry in general — defining success?
It’s 2010. We are now in an environment where revenue streams for artists have exploded, if not in cash dollars, than certainly in the number of places an act can earn money. In addition to the “traditional” revenue streams like retail sales (tracked by SoundScan), now we’ve got bands that have built up incredible fan bases that tour North America — even the world — without significant radio airplay or even noticeable retail movement. You’ll see punk bands selling 35,000 t-shirts at Hot Topic. There’s indie-rockers licensing songs for iPod commercials and underground hipster acts on the Jimmy Fallon show. And, although a lot of these activities are done to promote record sales, they also count as revenue streams. Sometimes really, really big revenue streams.
Back in October, FMC published a blog post called 29 Streams that aimed to catalog all of the possible ways for today’s performers, songwriters and composers to make money off their music. Mostly we did it to highlight the fact that today’s marketplace has grown beyond the three traditional buckets of compensation: money from selling CDs, playing shows and so-called “public performances” (radio/licensing). These days, music comes to us via a wide range of delivery platforms: video games, TV soundtracks, even greeting cards and on-hold music. Plus, there are now new revenue streams that didn’t even exist ten years ago: digital sales, ringtones and performance royalties from webcasts and satellite airplay to name a few.
And no doubt the landscape will continue to change. Perhaps instead of arguing about how a particular artist sold 10,000 albums we should be asking ourselves if retail sales are still the best metric of success. Will they be a relevant measure as new revenue streams mature and consumer trends evolve? Most importantly, how will we quantify artists’ success five or ten years from now?
Currently we don’t have the answers, but we’re working on it. FMC has been designing a multi-stage research project that will ask a very simple question: on which income streams do today’s musicians, performers, songwriters and composers rely? The results of the research could provide the music community with a comprehensive analysis of how musicians from many different genres are getting paid in the digital age.
What does success look like? It’s likely all in the eye of the beholder. But as the digital music landscape continues to grow and mature, the entire industry would do well to remain flexible about definitions. Success may no longer look like a stretch limo with a fully-stocked bar. Could be it’s more like a Vespa with an extra coffee holder and an iPod dock, towing a trailer full of merch.