Competition. By, Bob Lefsetz

Posted on January 17, 2022 by


There is none.


What I mean is music is no longer a zero-sum game. Used to be if someone else got attention, you couldn’t. You were always struggling, swimming against the tide, believing someone else had your job, and that is no longer true.

Forget number one. There is a game in the Top Forty, in the Spotify Top Fifty, but in truth very few are playing it, and the audience you desire probably isn’t paying attention whatsoever.

As for being number one on those charts… With all music at all fingertips 24/7, someone can listen to your music as well as number one. It’s not like there’s a restricted pipeline, which can only sustain a few tracks.

As for terrestrial radio… Yes, there are a limited number of slots, but that game is also small. Despite protestations by the radio groups, despite bogus massaged listening numbers revealed, the truth is the young, active market does not listen to commercial radio. Because no one wants to sit through the commercials, and terrestrial radio is almost always months behind. So terrestrial radio is for the most passive of customers. But it represents a large group of people when it’s impossible to reach a large group of people, so the major labels, which have terrestrial radio locked up, still focus on it. But that’s positively retro, positively twentieth century. And chances are radio doesn’t play the kind of music you make anyway.

You’re on your own. But that’s a good thing. If you’re shooting towards a destination, a big hit that will reach everybody, stop dreaming. NO ONE has a hit like that anymore, NOT EVEN ADELE! You can escape anything quite easily if you so desire, and the truth is most people don’t want to listen to most things, active music listeners have favorite genres, play to these people, not everybody else.

Same deal with concert tickets. Sure, maybe a festival will take money out of the pockets of fans in an area, but so many have no desire to go to the festival. And if someone else is playing across town the night you do your show, chances are your audience doesn’t intersect, you can both do great business, assuming the raw desire is there.

There are more shows than at any time in history. By a huge measure. Used to be there was a system, where you worked your way up from clubs to theatres to arenas. Now some hit acts never play live. And the system is broken. You can play an arena on your first album, because your audience knows. And there’s no backlash like in the old days, saying you don’t deserve it, that you’re moving too fast, BECAUSE EVERYTHING MOVES FAST TODAY! This morning’s news is not relevant tonight and there’s an endless smorgasbord, a plethora of people fighting for your attention all day long. And it’s always new things. Nobody can keep up. Which means you can’t know everything. If you’re criticizing someone for being ignorant the joke is on you, because I guarantee they know stuff you do not.

So you want to start small.

Used to be you wanted mass exposure to reach the most potential customers. Now you build your audience one by one, and you feed it so it sustains. You don’t play by any rules but your own. You leverage your relationships in your vertical. And hope to rise when you get an opportunity for exposure.

As for your lucky break… At best, you’ll have a series of those. But if you’re unknown and you’re sending your single to tastemakers, the joke is on you. They don’t care about you, those gatekeepers at the relatively mass outlets don’t want to take a chance on a complete unknown, because even if your track is good they doubt you can support it. You don’t have a machine, you don’t have a label, can you even perform live? You can make yourself feel good by hiring a PR firm, spend your money, but it means nothing. Even if they get you exposure. Most people don’t get their news from major outlets anymore. Everybody has got their own personal way of divining the news. And the only way to penetrate it is to be great and hope they pass your music along. As for virality…, Name the latest “Gangnam Style.” It doesn’t exist, that’s a dead paradigm. Hell, videos have never meant less in forty years. We’re back to audio, on streaming services. Sure, you can shoot a video for YouTube, just don’t spend a lot of money on it. People want to see how you look, they might want to sample your music, but when was the last time someone sent you a cool YouTube video? I can’t remember. They’ll send a cool TikTok, or Instagram Reel, but those are bite-sized, and the focus is never the music, but the antics of the people or animals or landscape in the video. The music is secondary, and you can only succeed if your music is PRIMARY!

The old saw of getting your music in a commercial… Like I said, the active audience does its best to never see them. Youngsters don’t even have a cable subscription. As for a synch… Payment is lower than ever before, because the visual creators know what they have, they dictate, and they know they have endless choice. Sure, if they want a hit song…chances are the performer won’t license it. Or if they’re willing to, the price is prohibitive.

But the layer of household name stars is…nonexistent. Maybe Adele, maybe the Weeknd, but as big as Abel’s streaming numbers might be, as much as his audience talks about him, I’d posit at least fifty percent of the country doesn’t even know his new album is out, never mind being familiar with the music.

The labels have never had less power. Their power was in distribution, now everybody can distribute. As for signing with an indie label…take that bad deal with no resulting effort on your behalf. (That’s sarcasm…) You think you want someone else to do the work, but YOU have to do the work. It doesn’t necessarily have to be you, it can be a team member, but they have to post on social media and answer fans’ questions and… If you make it they will not come, believe me. You’re lucky if you can get anybody’s attention. And you do this via greatness. And most people are not great out of the box. So you don’t want that early mega-success anyway.

You can make a great record, you can be great live, but you’ve got to be great somewhere that people can hear/see you.

But this is also liberating, because you can screw up, tests limits, you think since you’re playing in public you’re hurting your career by making mistakes but the truth is no one cares, almost no one. Except for the trolls. Lindsey Vonn broke down because of haters who said she was ugly and out of shape. You can’t take these people seriously, that’s their goal, to make you feel bad, so you will stop. But don’t ever stop, at least not until you want to.

There’s so much going on that everything is niche. “Spider-man” is niche, most people didn’t see it and don’t care. The institutions want you to think we’re still living in the last century, when entertainment was scarce, when you had to eat what they fed you when they wanted to feed you. But now the individual is in control. And every individual is different. And gather enough of these individuals and you can earn a very good living, despite most people being completely unaware of you.

Don’t get discouraged by the hype, the statistics, the charts. That’s all Oz, and the truth is everybody lives in Kansas, endless open land far from the power of the coasts which no longer have that power. Everybody’s got access to cable, everybody has the internet, everybody has a smartphone. Check TV ratings, THEY’RE AWFUL!

But there are constantly surprising breakthroughs, like “Squid Game,” which you’ve got to have a Netflix subscription to see, which is in Korean, which the creator couldn’t get made for years. Don’t get discouraged by no, don’t stop playing. But stop dunning people to pay attention. The penumbra, the hype, has never meant less. The public makes stars. It gloms on to stuff and blows it up. And the truth is no one has control over this process. As for the labels working with TikTok… Whenever the labels get involved it’s on its way out, like with ringtones and “Guitar Hero” and the truth is most TikTok hits are spontaneous anyway. And everything always evolves, that’s how Facebook got left behind. As soon as you learn today’s lessons, they’re yesterday’s.

There is no center, never mind it holding. You’re a cog in the wheel. Lower your expectations and get to work.

But most people don’t want to work that hard. Which is why you have an advantage, assuming you’re spending time writing and creating off the grid. Social media comes LAST! The wankers put social media first, which has burned the audience out, being hyped on so much substandard product, it takes a lot to get people to pay attention, and no one can force them to. This is what you’re up against. It’s easy to play, but harder to sustain yourself, build an audience and survive, than ever before. It’s like those acts bitching about streaming payouts by talking about CDs, the physical world. The physical world is HISTORY, as are its metrics. In a controlled environment based on physical product the second tier player can be sustained by the label, but that model’s dead and gone.

You won’t hear tomorrow’s stars bitching, BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE THE TIME! It takes a lot of time and effort to complain, and it’s easy to do, put that time and effort into your music, which is hard to do. The irony is the audience is always foraging for great. But there’s no direct pipeline to people anymore. You’ve got to make it and then it wends its way, or it doesn’t. If it’s great that does not mean it succeeds. Great is a nascent fire, barely more than kindling, it’s your responsibility to stoke the flame. And sure, if you have a bonfire the usual suspects will come along to make deals with you, buy you, because they’ve lost the ability to do what you just did! They don’t know how to develop acts. And they’re not that good at sustaining yours. They just push what hits, and if it doesn’t, you’re no longer a priority, but your hands are tied by a contract.

It’s hard to get rich in today’s music business, but you can have an impact, focus on the latter as opposed to the former.

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