Thinking small: a meditation on scale vs. success for artists
Here, we explore the complex issue of scale vs. success in the music industry, and why it can sometimes be better to think small when it comes to your musical aspirations.
Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4, pause for 4… Repeat.
When we think success, we tend to think big numbers. Most familiar examples of success have big numbers in common, especially those examples discussed around the world in newsletters and blogs like this one. The logical conclusion: success = big numbers.
Yet, when discussing success with musicians, I’ve found most would just be happy to make a difference to some people & be able to make a living off of it. If the goal is to make a living, then why does success necessarily involve racking up small amounts of royalties through thousands of plays until you finally have enough to make a living when combined with live gigs?
Our success maps are lousy. They’re based on highly visible examples of success which leads to a biased map. It also models strategy after something that worked in the past, but may not work as well now. If an artist achieved scale by cleverly playing the game of early-SoundCloud & the iTunes charts (Yellow Claw comes to mind) it’s impossible to copy that exact foundation since the context for the methodology has changed.
Breathe in, breathe out, think small
If the goal is to make a living, why bother playing the game of big numbers? Pitching playlists, building various social media profiles, gaming algorithms and spending countless hours on all that in the hope that the thousands of followers will translate into sufficient streams and bookings. It’s considered ‘the way’ to do it, but what if the goal can be achieved more efficiently on your own terms?
- What does making a living mean for you? How much would you need monthly?
- What do you enjoy doing? What would you like to have more time for?
- How much time do you want to spend on your craft?
- What do you dislike doing?
Take a moment (actually, take a week, or a month: this is your life we’re talking about). Breathe. Reflect. Define your goals by what you want, not by what you think is needed. Is having hundreds of thousands of fans a fun goal or is it actually methodology masquerading as as a goal? Achieving massive scale as an artist may look like success, but it’s often just a symptom of the methodology to achieve goals and not the goal itself.
Question your goals. Carefully & deliberately choose the game you play.
Why scale matters / mattered
Scale is a game. For companies that make money exploiting catalogues, scale is required in order to turn low margins into a big business. The same is true for ad-funded business: each individual ad serving isn’t worth much, but if you manage to get lots of people to constantly pay attention to your platform and your ads, you have a business. These dynamics underpin a lot of the modern music landscape: labels, social networks, music services – they generally all play a game of scale.
In the past, the range of available business models for musicians was quite limited, so musicians often opted to play the game of scale in order to sell lots of low margin products to make a living.
Imagine you could only ever have 1,000 fans (not necessarily ‘1,000 true fans‘). How would you turn that into a business? Your livelihood would depend on the patronage of these people: how would you win that patronage?
But a fanbase is not actually the starting point of either your strategy or the ‘user journey’ to becoming a paid fan. Thinking small requires you to question how people discover you and your music. What do you need to convey in order for people to understand that being a fan of your music is different?
Inhale, hold, exhale, wait, repeat.
Ask: What are you leading your fans towards? What can you ‘sell’ to them and at what price? Remember: the higher the price, the smaller you can keep your numbers. Small scale has considerable advantages: the communication overhead is smaller, signal to noise ratio is better, you personally feel much more connected to your fans and so will they, plus it will be easier to reach them. A common trap is that people focus on ‘how to get heard’ by new people without thinking carefully about ‘how will they hear me again?’ In the case of small scale, you could potentially drop everyone a personal note or even a call.
Be brave in imagining scenarios. What if 90% of your art was only available to your Patreon, Substack or OnlyFans subscribers?
Create scarcity early
Figure out what’s the smallest number of fans you could monetize in order to make a living. Making abundant what’s easy to replicate is typically a good idea, as it helps with word of mouth & leverages the network effect of platforms & organisations that play the game of scale. But pause there.
Hold your breathe for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, wait, and breathe again.
Now consider the fan journey: if people discover you through word of mouth or a playlist, what do you want their first impressions to be? What type of relation do you want them to have with you & your music? Through what tools and platforms? How do you bring them there when they’re first introduced to you? What does this introduction look like?
Reward fans with scarcity and do so early on. Scarcity is everything that can’t be easily made abundant: a one-on-one call, limited edition items, an NFT, playing a video game with you online, etc. Align it with what you like & what your fans like. Consider how you reward: perhaps you reward everyone who completes certain steps in the fan journey with something scarce, which can be as simple as a personalized message or a public shout-out. Of course, in order to build a business model, you will also reward people with scarce items in exchange for currency.
You can’t start early enough. Set your goals. Think about scarcity. Think about your fan experience, even if nobody has heard your music yet. Build it out together with your community.
(And if you decide you want scale: that’s fine)