Access to worldwide distribution and marketing has changed the game for the music scene in general and our scene specifically. Streaming and social media have knocked down barriers that have long kept us regionalized. …but just because the playing field is bigger now, doesn’t mean it’s any easier.
Knocking down the barriers of entry in an industry always increases the suppliers and therefore the competition. It’s easier to reach the masses, but it’s harder to gain market share.
There used to be oligopoly of discovery and exposure tools that the vast majority of music fans used; so if you were able to get your music into these channels, the likelihood of gaining momentum was substantially more feasible. It’s accepted in the marketing world that people need to hear or see your marketing message seven times before they act. So, five years ago if you were dropping an album, new potential fans needed to be made aware seven times before they’re likely to listen to it. Because of the limited geography and regionalized scene, getting that message out there to those tuned in to the scene was not very hard. Pay a promoter to get your single out on radio and on the radio charts, pay a publicist to get you placement in magazines, websites, newspapers and blogs, reach out to popular Texas radio and television shows, get your album up on Lonestarmusic.com, plan a few CD release parties at good venues, make a few FB posts, and voila you had a good chance of accomplishing 7 points of impression. Sure, there were fewer musicians who had access to the top exposure tools of the day, but the success rate of fulfilling those impressions was higher for those that did. If you had the means, it wasn’t difficult to make people aware of your new music.
Now, much fewer people in our region listen to the radio, check the radio charts, pay attention to music blogs/websites, and are on Facebook; and those trends are only going to continue. We’re now in a world of stories, snaps, tweets, podcasts, playlists, and algorithms. None of us follow the same people, subscribe the same podcasts, listen to the same playlists and therefore, the algorithms that are being shaped around our consumption habits are all different. We’ve gone from the masses being provided information from the same couple of sources to everyone getting their own individualized feeds that are different from everyone else’s…and good luck keeping up with it all. Everyone is overloaded with information, and things move way to fast to even make a dent in it on a daily basis. We actively try to keep up with it all, and it’s becoming almost impossible.
The good news is, there’s nothing stopping someone from discovering you, becoming a fan, and then spreading your music, seeing your show, buying merch, etc…If you have a social media account and your music is on all of the digital distribution platforms, hundreds of millions of people have access to your music and information at the touch of a button, and all at a minimal cost.
While this decentralization has a lot of positive benefits, the burden of catching someone’s attention falls almost exclusively on you now. Sure, there are outside sources that can help (Playlists, Radio, Publications, etc…) but without centralized sources reaching the bulk of the masses, the heavy lifting is on you now and catching someone’s attention has never been harder. And if you do get it, hopefully, you can keep it. This is the way it’s going to be for at least a little while (who knows what the future holds).
Consumers have gone from a restaurant with a limited menu, where everything is a la carte to an extravagant all you can eat buffet. How do you get them to try something new when there’s only so much room on their plate?
Welcome to the vast expanse of music consumption, promotion, and discovery of the digital age. It’s an era where fans don’t really care what websites, radio charts, award shows, or any other authoritative sources have to say. Those mediums no longer create the movement for an artist; they only help validate it. Marketing, publicity, social media, and radio play don’t start the fire; they only fan the flames. You can learn all the social media tips and tricks, get placements on the top websites, and go to #1 on the radio charts; it won’t do anything for you if you don’t have fans who are overly passionate about your music behind you. It’s bottom-up, not top-down anymore.
There are few boundaries and limitations, but a lot of noise. When almost everything is held constant, it’s up to the product to sell itself. So this is now an era where pretty much only the cream rises to the top. Only the music that moves people. That captures them. That compels them to want more in a day in age where capacities are stretched, and alternatives are plentiful.
I’m not saying things like publicity, radio, and Facebook are obsolete (they’re still good fuel for the fire), but they’re no longer the message, they’re only a megaphone for the message that’s forming organically now. Turning the volume up only helps if it’s something people want to hear. In 2019, you have to get people to naturally talk about you and recommend your music to their friends. Dropping music that’s powerful enough to penetrate the individualized feeds of music fans, has legs of its own and can generate a grassroots movement of organic peer-to-peer sharing is not only a big part of the game, it’s pretty much the whole game now.
So is this a bad thing? It sounds daunting, but we’ve been transitioning to this landscape for 2+ years now, and I think plenty of examples show us while the path to success may be a bit steeper, the climb is worth the view. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that acts at the top of the scene like Cody Johnson, Aaron Watson, Cody Jinks, Whiskey Myers, etc.… have exploded as this transition has taken place. I don’t think that the ground-breaking rise of acts like Koe Wetzel and Parker McCollum is any surprise. It’s not much of a wonder as to how William Clark Green, Flatland Cavalry, Shane Smith and the Saints, Mike Ryan etc…can go sell out shows in Colorado, California, Illinois, etc.. Look at what’s currently happening with Kolby Cooper who’s pretty much breaking down here in large part due to Spotify. He’s 19, hasn’t dropped a dime on radio promotion or publicity and yet is one of the fastest rising acts of the last six months.
But for newer musicians, it is also important to note, that while the music is your only weapon, it doesn’t mean if you don’t hit a home run, it’s a strike. When you’re starting out, people you already know will likely want to support you because you’re new. No one is expecting a masterpiece, so build that fanbase however you can, while you have the luxury of being young and new. Just don’t expect the headlining gigs and booking agencies to come knocking on your door until you have the fanbase to support those opportunities. That requires the music and that will likely take time. But paying your dues is the best way to go about it anyway. 99% of musicians who are successful in our scene (even the new ones), didn’t start by putting out great music. They went through the struggles everyone else goes through. They were ignored and had their doubts too. Their live show and catalog of fan-captivating music didn’t come without time, practice, and a journey. But make no mistake, it’s ultimately the catalog and live show that got them there, and it’s the only thing that will help you climb the ladder today.
There’s a lot of good that can come in this new landscape, but you’ve got to have music that slices through the noise. The game is harder to play, and you have less control over it, but it’s open to everyone, the buy-in is less, and the reward is greater. This is a great thing if you have the tunes, and I think we have a scene full of qualified players!
Music addict, a sucker for heartbreak songs, and avid Houston sports fan! I’am also the Editor-in-Chief of Texas Music Pickers.