A couple years back, I ended up sitting next to someone from Spotify on a flight to Austin for SxSW. I had no idea who she was at the time but decided to pick her brain for an article I was working on. Ironically, the article was about the possibility of streaming services replacing major labels. As we discussed the huge door that streaming services opened for independents, she made a statement that I totally agreed with but still found completely unnerving.
Drawing from her years of experience dealing with talent, she pointed out how platforms like Instagram and YouTube now made it possible for anyone to build a personal brand around whatever they loved doing. She explained how people were entering six figure partnerships with major companies based on playing video games or doing makeup tutorials. As she passionately proclaimed, “Everyone can become a millionaire!” I nodded my head in total agreement before feeling the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My inner economist had awoken.
While I totally agreed with her sentiment, a small syntactical error nagged me. EVERYONE cannot become a Millionaire. It’s simply impossible due to the law of scarcity and inflation. If everyone was a Millionaire, then a million dollars would no longer be worth a million dollars. Setting all that nerdiness aside, I nodded in agreement because I knew exactly what she was saying... ANYONE can become a millionaire. That’s a very small change in wording that produces a drastically different statement. It’s the difference between possibility and probability. If you buy a lottery ticket, you could possibly win a million dollars… but you probably won’t.
Spending the next few days on 6th Street surrounded by thousands of aspiring artists and industry professionals, I couldn’t help but think about how such a small change in wording could produce such an enormous change in meaning, and how missing that subtle difference could lead to a lifetime of frustration and misery.
Just like ‘everyone’ and ‘anyone’, the words ‘stardom’ and ‘success’ are not interchangeable, but are often used that way in the music industry. The terms have become so synonymous that many new artists now equate success as nothing short of stardom, even though nothing could be further from the truth.
1. "Success" is not "Stardom"
If you achieve ANY level of stardom you’ve also achieved success, but you can reach great levels of success and never achieve stardom. By only acknowledging stardom, extreme cases of success, we falsely make it the ruler by which many artists measure themselves. Imagine measuring the size of a home in square miles instead of square feet. If I told you my house was 0.0002 Square miles, you would find that far less impressive than me saying it’s 5,000 square feet (even though it’s considerably larger).
2. Success is not Objective...
A movie that makes $150 Million dollars at the box office seems like a big success until you discover it took $250 Million to make. Sadly few artists consider the costs of success when measuring themselves against others. They measure outputs (views, plays, followers) without considering the inputs they require (Budgets, Relationships, Time). Because the investments made don’t get advertised like the returns, many independents assume those investments didn’t happen.
Consider this… ARTIST A will make it a point to promote his video reached one million views while concealing the fact he spent $45,000 to accomplish this. Meanwhile ARTIST B having generated only 10,000 views with $150 Facebook ad will feel insecure because ARTIST A’s video received 100x more views. However, that insecurity is completely unwarranted because Artist B is comparing returns instead of Return on Investment (ROI). If we compare the CPM for the two videos (how much it cost per 1,000 viewers) we quickly find out ARTIST B was 3x more effective given his budget. A lack of fundamental business knowledge like this keeps many aspiring artists blind to their own successes.
ARTIST A: $45,000 Budget / 1,000,000 views = $45 per 1,000 views
ARTIST B: $150 Budget / 10,000 views = $15 per 1,000 views
This inability to see their own progress is often the root of great frustration, disappointment and in extreme cases, depression. To often I come across talented individuals who are making great strides given their circumstances, but because they haven’t attained this objective measure of success (Stardom), they feel they’ve accomplished nothing at all. If a successful video release is measured in millions of views, what kind of pride can one take in having a video with .01 Million views (10,000). To cope with this inadequacy, artists often attempt to buy success in order to mask their self perceived failings.
3. You Can’t Buy Real Results
You can buy a Million Youtube views for around $3,000, but what is that really worth when those views aren’t attached to real people with an interest in your music? If I write you a check for $2 million but only have 48¢ in my account, what is the value of that check? Independents become so obsessed with the appearance of success that they spend the majority of their money, time and energy trying to LOOK successful instead of BEING successful. It’s impressive to say that your single went gold, but would you buy 500,000 copies of your own music just to make that claim. That’s effectively what many independents do by purchasing Followers, views, posts, cosigns, etc. They waste real resources to bolster vanity metrics.
Another extreme of paying for results, comes when artists invest into legitimate services and platforms expecting guaranteed outcomes. Many make the mistake of believing they’re paying for results and not services. Worldstar doesn’t sell views, they sell visibility. Publicists don’t get paid for media placements, they get paid for attempting to secure them. Because so few people understand these subtle differences, many get disappointed due to their own assumptions. Even if a company has done great things for others, that doesn’t mean they can do the same for you. Past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.
As much as people claim to want honesty, this isn’t the type of practical information most artists are willing to pay for. They want magic bullet. They want to be told how spending money on this ONE last thing will miraculously fix all of their problems. They have no desire to hear that a particular service only plays a role in a much larger plan that requires additional time, money, and well managed execution to be successful. If they hear that, they’re taking their business elsewhere. Through these spending habits, independents have conditioned people to sell them dreams... because that’s the only thing they’re willing to buy.
In order to earn business, too many industry professionals sell possibility as probability. They routinely overstate potential gains and understate associated risks in order to win clients. This growing trend of legitimate businesses overselling themselves provides effective cover for the frauds. Having normalized the “Super Major Rock Star Promo Package”, the scammer’s pitch doesn’t sound that different from the legitimate proposals of well established industry veterans. The only difference is, the scammer will be able to invest more time and effort into making the artist feel comfortable enough to spend their money, since they won’t actually be doing any work.
Whether it’s spending money on views for validation... spending money with businesses based solely on what they’ve done for others, or getting fooled by these Instagram industry gurus, attempting to buy results never ends well. For all of the promises made, these hail mary attempts rarely, if ever, bare the fruits of success.
So what’s the solution?
Give up… I know you probably didn’t expect that, but it’s the only way to truly solve the problem. You can give up and stop doing music, or you give up and keep doing music. People who weren’t really passionate about the art will stop, that’s a plus! Those who love it, will never really quit. They’ll just give up on success. They’ll stop investing money, time, and any real effort because everything is a scam. Their career may go no further than it is, but they’ll be able to do what they love and have somewhere to channel their frustration. This is the path that many take. You’ll see them online tearing down successful people, screaming Coast 2 Coast is a Scam, Worldstar doesn’t work, and breaking down how the illuminati or industry plants are subverting “real” music. Blaming everyone else helps them rationalize and cope with their own lack of success
If you don’t want to go down that road, there’s another less explored option. Don’t give up on success… Just give up other people’s idea of it. Simply put, run your own damn race. If you just want to do music as a hobby, there’s nothing wrong with that. Music is fun way to creatively express yourself. There are plenty of people who paint, play piano, and do photography because they love to do it. Only in urban music do we belittle a person’s creativity if it’s not fueled by a desire to make millions of dollars. Even if you do wish to make money, set your own benchmarks. Success is simply meeting the goals you set. If you never actually released a record, doing that is success. If you’ve never performed in front of a crowd of strangers, whether or not you suck… simply DOING that is success. Acknowledge every victory, no matter how small, because each one sets you up for the next.
For clarity, I'm not saying don’t dream big. Mediocrity is never the goal. But if you're going to shoot for stardom, I ask you to imagine your career as a race where stardom is the finish line. When the starting pistol sounds, you don’t attempt to leap all the way to the finish line with one enormous stride. Instead, you put one foot in front of the other and start running. Each step you take presents an opportunity to trip, stumble, and fall. So each stride is actually it’s own small victory, positioning you a slightly closer to your ultimate goal. After successful execution of enough steps, you’ll find yourself in a position where the next stride, which is no bigger than any that preceded it, is the one that puts you across the finish line. Whether the race you’re running is a sprint or a marathon, the only way to run it is one step at a time.
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