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Each One, Teach One | How the digital era influences artist development, branding and strategic partnerships

A look at some digital music lessons from the last decade to keep in mind as we enter 2020.

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As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.

The past decade in the music industry has been undeniably revolutionized by the introduction and mass embrace of streaming. As millennial and prior generational memories of selling compact discs out of trunks and illicit fire sharing late into the night begin to feel increasingly distant, it’s difficult not to get wrapped in on how much power there seems to be in numbers. While there has always been a competitive spirit surrounding sales in the music and entertainment industry, it seems as though with the streaming era, the fixation on data has only intensified. However, as we remain constantly inundated with streaming numbers, chart placements and social media influence; it is important to not lose sight of what is at the heart of it all: human connection.

Finding the balance between a data-driven approach and one rooted in authentic artistry is going to be a prominent challenge as technology continues to evolve. One of the most interesting things to watch in the streaming era as it enters 2020 and beyond will be seeing which artists find success in experiencing sustainable longevity in their careers, and which of those whose impact appears to be more fleeting comparatively despite putting numbers on the board.

The digital music revolution has influenced every facet of the industry in one capacity or another. With the barrier to entry much lower than in decades prior and an immeasurable amount of resources available on every corner of the internet, music strategy commonly now centers on a precarious combination of beating algorithms, creating engaging content, and going viral; whether purposefully or incidentally. While there are countless examples of virality propelling the careers of artists forward in monumental ways, the seemingly calculated phenomenon raises a plethora of questions regarding how to properly leverage one’s data and exposure once the spotlight turns on, and how to continue to take things to the next level. This is where the digital age further reinforces the importance of artist development, branding, and strategic partnerships.

The past decade has taught or further reinforced a handful of integral lessons about music and business alike, many of which should be kept in mind as the intersection of technology and culture continues to mold today’s contemporary music landscape. Let’s take a look.

First and foremost, yes numbers are important. But, so is what you do with the data.

Let’s say everything goes according to plan and you’ve got a certifiable banger on your hands. How do you use streaming data to work in your favor? While the answer and approach looks a bit different for everyone, one that shouldn’t fall by the wayside is in seeing the location or city of where your core group of supporters are. That way you can leverage your data to create an experience your engaged core audience will appreciate, such as in the form of a local concert series or other focused activation. It is important to keep an eye on your streaming data, as it should help inform other decisions, but it shouldn’t be the only factor gauging success. The importance of knowing your niche and nurturing your base cannot be understated.

Artist development absolutely still matters.

With pressing factors to consider such as how much engagement you’re receiving on Instagram or how many streams your first single got compared to your second, it is all too easy to get caught up in what the numbers are doing and lose sight of why you got started in the first place. Finding success as a developing artist is much more than feeding into algorithms or creating music that may be deemed a fitting inclusion to a playlist, and this is why artist development still matters.

While the name itself is relatively broad by definition, artist development is essentially a daily practice covering everything from being proficient in the musicianship aspect itself, establishing one’s larger-picture goals or messaging touch-points, the live performance component, and in identifying one’s individual strengths and voice. Artists who put their heart and soul into their work are often rewarded for doing so, even if it may not appear that way in the beginning stages of one’s career.

Many of today’s industry leaders echo the reminder that there still must be an emphasis placed on discovering and creating music that resonates with the listener. As such, being able to come correct when the time comes often is why some of our favorite artists have slower, steadier rises to the top. The aspirational goal of becoming an “overnight sensation” has much higher stakes when the artist isn’t ready for it. The idiom that it takes ten years to get the one year that changes your life still rings as true as ever in the digital era, and being able to be prepared for when luck meets opportunity remains invaluable advice. Being able to go viral is one thing, but being any percentage of ready for it can make a world of difference when the time for increased visibility and fast-paced change comes.

Being an artist is entrepreneurial by nature.

Streaming has shown us the importance of learning the modern music business model, ranging from understanding the ins and outs of all contractual agreements to ensuring that a social media presence doesn’t include any reputation-damaging missteps to having a tactical approach to multiple platforms. Viewing one’s artistry as a business can be a difficult thing to get a handle on, which is why it is important to build a team around you that can further amplify and execute your vision. Being able to understand the business aspect of being an artist, all while focusing on developing one’s work, is no easy feat. However, the better you understand the industry, the better equipped you’ll be to play the game and overcome different challenges.

Translating success from URL to IRL is not as easy as it seems, but is a necessary component to building a sustainable career.

Having a million streams on Spotify is not synonymous with selling out a concert venue. Now more than ever, we’re seeing artists with many commas in their streaming counts who haven’t yet figured out how to translate that digital success into the physical world. It can be an overwhelming task and a tricky thing to navigate. As such, it is important to hone your craft as a live performer, as well as make sure that you are ready to receive the blessings online visibility can afford you.

This is also where getting creative about your branding efforts comes into play, as this can help convert a fan who presses the like or follow button into one who will come see an artist perform when they’re in town. Being able to not only win over the attention of a new listener, but truly captivate them, is what makes a huge difference between simply collecting streaming numbers and actually being able to put on a successful live show or fund the next endeavor through merch sales.

Understanding the power of your brand is an integral part of leveraging strategic partnerships.

Streaming has sparked countless conversations laser-focused on the infrastructure of an established record label and what it means to be independent in today’s industry. Now, those lines are as blurred as ever with all sorts of strategic partnerships taking place that tend to look a lot different from the traditional record deal.

Through partnering with other businesses strategically, such as starring in an advertising campaign, launching an exclusive merch collaboration or signing a distribution deal; one’s career can be taken to the next level in a variety of ways that don’t require much compromise or take away from what an artist has already built. There is no linear pathway to success, and being able to get creative with business, marketing and branding decisions is increasingly importance, as streaming helps provide artists with more control of where they want to take their career next.

While streaming data is at your disposal and should be considered accordingly, ultimately, your artistry should remain in your hands.

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