How to build a quiet road to success in music [Keith Jopling]

The competition is thick with most musicians having the same goal to achieve success and perhaps fame/ But in reality only a few make it that far. But there is also a way to reach your goals by taking a less-traveled road to success…

by Keith Jopling of THE SONG SOMMELIER

It’s not a new debate, but like you, I often wonder about who might be tomorrow’s music legends? Which of today’s artists can stand on the shoulders of giants…will London’s Wolf Alice blossom into something as big and as important as Radiohead? Could Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. become modern heirs to U2? Might Jorja Smith be as big as Adele? Is Gerry Cinnamon a new kind of Bobby Dylan? 

Photo by Pagie Page

You might think all these examples are unlikely, maybe rightly. The fact is, both the music business and modern culture have changed too much for any band or artist to hold ambitions to be “the best in the world” (even if that industry award still exists somewhere). The top slots are taken. And, those slots are held for far, far longer. Taylor Swift isn’t going anywhere. Indeed, those top slots don’t really even exist anymore, such is the crowded world we live in, in which every artist competes on three levels:

  1. Themselves.
  2. Their contemporaries, and;
  3. All the world’s existing content!

This idea of competition among artists is deeply fascinating to me. After all, the ‘music industry’ is designed to make artists compete with one another. The charts – still a central obsession for major label marketers, is a league table – a pure competition. Getting onto a playlist is a competition. TikTok virality sits outside these as a phenomenon, but the fact that everyone would like the benefits from it but so very few achieve it, makes that a competition also. To an artist it can feel like every song they put out is simply an entry ticket into yet another competition where the prize is some kind of established music industry marker. 

The thing with competitions is that the vast majority of entrants are set up to fail. So, if you don’t make the charts, or get on a playlist with your latest release, or get an award nomination this year, you have de facto, ‘failed’. Certainly you will have disappointed your label reps who will now find it that much harder to pitch you both externally and internally. 

Setting goals in this environment seems futile and yet any artist needs to understand their own definition of success. How will you know what you create is good enough?

The competitive music industry can make many artists feel like they are not as good as they actually are. My suggestion is to focus on building your own Quiet Legend. That’s what the guests on The Art of Longevity Season 8 have all done. 

Merseyside’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark never quite got to the heights of Depeche Mode or Tears For Fears in their heyday, nor did they achieve the lofty status of their own icons Kraftwerk. But look what they have created. They have iconic hits, one of the best electronic pop albums of the 80s and more recently, a run of albums that complete a varied, ambitious and distinctive catalogue. And now a fine new album, Bauhaus Staircase, may see the band achieve some new heights. No wonder they are enjoying their careers as much as ever after 45 years. 

Part of the next generation of indie bands coming up in the streaming era, Montreal’s Half Moon Run are achieving another kind of quiet legend. How does a band with no hits to speak of, albums that don’t chart and a virtually unrecognisable name (Half Moon who?) make a viable living after a decade in the game? Being brilliant appears to be the answer, mostly. Work as hard on your songs and performance as Half Moon Run does, and enough fans will follow you to the ends of the earth. But now, they have made a classic album – Salt is the best thing I’ve heard in ages. A classic album is an important stop on the quiet legend trail. 

Toronto’s Metric arrived in turn-of-20th Century New York City to join a hot scene of indie-rock that included White Stripes, The Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Emily Haines said something very interesting to me about this. She said that the ‘invisibility is important to the idea [of not having a hit record] in that it is foundational”. 

Zach Condon of Beirut is both amused and bemused by the band’s relative success on streaming platforms, not recognising most of the other songs and bands he is juxtaposed with on those playlists. But then his whole career has not been one of following the music industry conventional forms. Instead, Beirut has always found an alternative route. 

Whether you have the hit, get on the charts and the playlist, or go viral with a song, you must ensure those events are foundational – that you build upon them. Otherwise, it’s ephemeral. Here today, gone tomorrow. Possibly even detrimental. 

Want to have longevity and success in music? A quiet legend should be your goal. 

The good news is, a blueprint is available. Here is your checklist’:

  1. Forget about being very good – get great live. Practice your songs, your performance, sound, setlist, stories, your craft and leave your conscious self as soon as you take the stage. Your live shows are what lingers in the memory of your fans. Live performance matters more than anything else. 
  2. Remember your roots – that’s where your fanbase and your legend starts – a sense of place. Where you grew up, moved to and made your mark, where you first got traction. These places are first to work, work, work and lay foundations for your legend. 
  3. Strive for a classic. Make at least one classic album and your legend is, almost, secured. What is a classic? It’s harder to measure it these days, but you will know once you are asked to play it live back-to-back and enough people buy the tickets to sell out a venue of any size. 
  4. Be useful. Your music lifts people, it is therapy for some people. It will cheer them up, protect them from harm and give them strength and power. Just by connecting with people on this level, you’re going beyond ‘entertainment’ and into art. And artists become legends when entertainers do not.
  5. Forget about fame. You don’t have to become a household name. Solange and SZA are not household names anyway and try asking your neighbours if they know who Post Malone is. Nobody knows the music industry’s biggest artists any more. Those people who are interested in what you do – they are your people. Nurture your fan base – they love you and root for you, they will bring friends and family to shows, they will be your street team if you ask nicely.
  6. Take your time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is legend. It’s one project after the other, one tour after the other, one step at a time. Forget about attachments to industry markers – these may come and go, they go up, they go down – but your quiet legend keeps on growing.
  7. Channel your influences with respect not reverence – ‘alter the DNA’ of what they made before and meld those influences old and new, into music that is uniquely you. Legend is singular, but you may climb on those shoulders.
  8. Keep your eyes & ears wide open – there’s nothing like riding the crest of a wave. NYC alternative indie scene in the early 2000s, the South London jazz scene of the 2020s, the post-punk guitar resurgence – ride it but add something to it – make the wave higher and longer. Find the wave that you can make a contribution to and make a difference to that scene or genre. That’s where you can create a legacy even early on in your career.

The most viable commercial strategy for any artist in today’s music business is to build their own fan community. Get anyone in the middle to either help you or get the fuck out of the way. Build the community – My Morning Jacket has One Big Family. The National has its army of Sad Dads. Why waste your time and resources on anybody else except those who are interested and want to be part of the world you are creating?

And there is your manifesto for a quiet legend!

Share on: