Making the artist: What does it take to break through in music in 2017?

What are the core components of artist discovery and development in 2017?

From A-list to more intimate audiences to individual artists going the DIY route, we look at how musicians are breaking through to achieve their creative and, in some cases, commercial goals.

By Katie McQuater & Doug Zanger

Radio and A&R are two of the most established cogs in the well-oiled music industry machine due to their roles in bringing new artists to the world. And while they both still play an undeniably important part, today’s digital world and innovative new live environments have given rise to new means of artist development.

In recent years, a host of disruptor platforms have shaken up the music industry, leading some to question the importance of radio as a means for artist development. Increasingly, musicians are making waves of their own outside of official airwaves.

Meanwhile, artists and repertoire (A&R) – essentially the music industry’s R&D arm and the ears on the ground unearthing new artists – has undergone rapid change these past few years as the nature of music creation and discovery has evolved.

How record companies go about discovering and developing new artists is by no means straightforward. It’s a high-risk, expensive process that yields few successes; labels spent $2.8bn on A&R in 2015, while the average cost of breaking an artist in a major market ranges from $0.5m to $2m according to a report published in December by record company industry body the IFPI.

The same report also found that some labels estimate the ratio of commercial success to failure as one in four, while others put it at one in 10, so the stakes are high.

What then does it take to discover, develop and break a music artist in 2017?

Keeping it real

Gone are the days when every new artist we heard on the radio was the result of an A&R person’s venture to an underground club to unearth the next big thing. With a multitude of channels now available for artists to get their work out there, the opportunities for music discovery have broadened the function of A&R. According to Camille Hackney, executive vice-president of brand partnerships and commercial licensing at Atlantic Records and a Clio Music juror for both 2016 and 2017, this means that developing artists remains a bigger marketing challenge for labels.

“The A&R people aren’t going to clubs and finding people who’ve been working it out for years, slogging it out at local clubs and performing and honing their craft that way,” she says.

“A lot of times it’s a kid in a basement who makes beats who has hooked up with someone who can sing and they’re uploading stuff. They might never have played a live show in their life, never done an interview or anything. The challenge, once the A&R people discover those folks who are truly talented, is really making them ready for primetime.”

That now involves far more than just getting a single on the radio. For Atlantic, says Hackney, the focus is on the hard slog of performing live and selling tickets.

“It’s so not about radio these days. They can make amazing music, we can get it out on Spotify or Apple Music and run the playlist game, but for us, they’ve still got to be able to perform at a live show. That takes a lot of time, and a lot of preparation and rehearsals. Really, it’s about putting in the 10,000 hours at shows and on the road. A lot of artist development for us takes place working out their live show and getting out there on the road.”

Managing artists’ expectations is a key element of their development, and it can be difficult to tell someone upon being signed that they’re not going to become Taylor Swift or Kanye West overnight, explains Hackney.

Rather, she says it boils down to “everyone in the building” having a realistic view and “hard conversations” with artists and managers about what they can expect and when.

“Back in the old days, conversations with artists were controlled a lot by the person at the top and everyone else followed the marching orders of the chairman of the label. We don’t work that way any more,” says Hackney.

“Many of our artists come into our office and hang out and have conversations. They’re not in the chairman’s office but they’re with their product manager or their digital marketing rep. They spend time on my couch and we talk about brands. It’s having a real relationship – a real conversation with artists about what it’s going to take to break.”

Balancing art and science

Radio now constitutes a smaller part of a much larger puzzle. It’s a challenge iHeartMedia, part of Clear Channel’s media empire, seems to be embracing.

Mark Adams, program director at iHeartMedia San Francisco, is unsurprisingly positive about what he says is still “an extraordinarily important part of the landscape and arguably the most important vehicle for breaking artists and for music discovery”. He cites a November 2015 study of consumers in the US, UK and France which found that 70% use radio for music discovery, as evidence of the medium’s power to break new artists.

“It’s easy to overlook the power, the reach, the immediacy, the locality of radio because we’re not the new kid on the block,“ he adds.

According to Adams, it’s a matter of balancing the art and the science. For iHeart, data plays an important role in helping the company evaluate music. It also works closely with music labels and directly with artists on music discovery initiatives and live events, including an artist integration program, album release parties and music summits.

Community collaboration

For Sofar Sounds, the company that organizes concerts in living rooms and other off-the-beaten-track spaces, the focus is on live performance, albeit on a more intimate scale.

Launched in 2009 when its two founders held a tiny show at a flat in north London after growing frustrated by people talking at gigs, Sofar now hosts concerts in over 300 cities around the world. Playing host to musicians including Bastille and James Bay before they broke through, it prides itself on creating intimate live experiences and a new means of music discovery, according to Christine Cook, Sofar’s head of artist services.

“No one speaks while the artists are playing. Everybody sits cross-legged on the floor and listens.”

As well as working with labels as an A&R resource and helping to connect artists to agents and managers where possible, Sofar also aims to foster connections between artists across its various communities around the world. For instance, at one of its recent War Child shows headlined by Lianne La Havas, the singer was so impressed by the performance of Sofar alumni, pianist Tokio Myers, that she invited him to open for her at a major show.

“The artists that have got a lot out of it are those that really embed themselves in the community and take advantage of the resources we have to offer,” says Cook.

Playing on an equal stage

For those artists not attracting attention from labels, a number of alternatives have emerged to help them fund their art in order to break through and, in some cases, take a different route to the primetime.

Social media has long been a core component for artists looking to build reach, while of late, streaming platforms are creating their own artist investment offerings to rival record companies. Spotify, for instance, launched its ‘Singles’ program to invest in original musical content in late 2016, prompting some to consider what streaming sites’ original music initiatives could do to pave the way for breaking new artists.

And for those who’d rather go it alone, crowdfunding has emerged in recent years as an alternative to the traditional music industry model, with platforms such as Kickstarter, Bandcamp and Patreon allowing musicians to fund album releases and tours by enabling them to access the kind of investment that would traditionally have come from getting signed.

Scott McCormick, music producer and associate director of UK digital marketing agency Prodo Digital, says crowdfunding platforms can allow artists to develop independently of a record deal or partnerships with Spotify et al.

“People don’t realize how many musicians are using crowdfunding platforms – the margins for record labels are so tight that they’re risk-averse in investing, so it makes a lot of sense. If a first single doesn’t make an impact, there isn’t likely to be a second chance with a record company. And with platforms like Spotify, the royalty return is poor for artists; it’s necessary but the general feeling is that they’re getting milked by the man, he’s just got some new threads on.”

Sticking it to the man

Alaska-based independent artist Marian Call is not motivated by deals with third parties or getting signed, but the internet has allowed her to build a small, committed fan base to enable her continued focus on making music – crowdfunding in her own small-scale way.

Call explains she has her own small private forum of high-level supporters, akin to the Patreon model, who fund her work in exchange for sneak peeks, artwork, additional photography and behind-the-scenes videos.

“They let me have the time and space of two or three years to finish a major project and that is my jerry-rigged solution that has worked better for me than a larger trendy startup corporate solution,” she says.

There is a “Cambrian explosion of ways” to be a musician at the moment, she says, but sticking to a ‘sustainable’ approach means she can stay true to her personal values and ignore any strategy that makes her uncomfortable.

“There were two or three ways to be a musician for a while and now there are a thousand ways, and everyone’s pursuing a different strategy to make it work. For those of us down at the sustainability-seeking levels, the diversity of ways is the strength right now.”

While breaking through in music is no easy or simple task, the diversity of approaches makes today’s landscape a dynamic place for emerging artists. Signed or not, the platforms available at their fingertips have levelled the playing field for musicians and irrevocably changed the role of record companies. Yet while the industry is more democratized than ever, today’s artists also have more competition than ever.

As McCormick says: “There’s so much music being created these days that most new artists regard getting exposure and maintaining attention as their biggest challenges. It’s still a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.”

This article is also published in The Drum's special music marketing issue.

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