Thinking about the difference between aiming to please a few big clients versus aiming to please lots of little clients.
From a business point of view:
Many small entrepreneurs think, “If we could just land Apple, Google, or the government as a client, we’ll be all set!”
Software companies often do this. They hope to make some technology that a huge company will want to build into every product, or install at every employee’s desk.
But there are many problems with this:
- you have to custom-tailor your product to please very few specific people
- those people may change their mind or leave the company
- who are you really working for? are you self-employed or are they your boss?
- if you do land the big client, they practically own you
- by trying so hard to please the big client, you lose touch with what the rest of the world wants
Instead, imagine if you designed your business to have NO big clients - just lots of little clients.
- you don’t need to change what you do to please one client - only the majority (or yourself)
- if one client needs to leave, it’s OK, you can sincerely wish them well
- because no one client can demand you do what they say, you are your own boss (as long as you keep clients happy in general)
- you hear hundreds of people’s opinions, and stay in touch with what the majority of people want
Now, let’s think of this from a music point of view:
Some musicians think, “If I could just land a deal with Interscope or Warner, I’ll be all set!”
But look at the above lists again. It all applies.
The dangerous thing about the record deal mentality is you start changing what you do to please the one or two people at companies who have shown an interest in your music.
It not only hurts your music, but puts you on shaky ground when (not if) that person leaves the company.
By making a plan to only please your fans, labels be damned, then not only do you stay in touch with what people love, but it puts your career on much steadier ground.
Derek’s point about pleasing one’s fans vs. pleasing the key people at the label is noteworthy.
A core component of the Internet are the variety of mechanisms that allow artists and fans to find one another. That connection opens the pathway to communication and feedback which in turn has changed the artist/audience dynamic. Simply put, its pretty easy for artists to find out firsthand whether or not they are pleasing their fans. This can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, some artists are able to ingest this feedback without impact on their creative drive. Others are bothered or upset by fan feedback, and begin to question their decisions. Still others find that it opens up rifts between band members by using fan feedback to bolster or refute arguments.
One example that I blogged about a couple of years ago was a grassroots movement among Phish fans who called themselves the PLM which was an acronym for People for a Louder Mike. These fans felt that bassist Mike Gordon was not mixed loudly enough at Phish concerts and used the Internet to lobby for a volume increase (the movement was also featured in the January 1998 issue of Bass Player magazine). Long story short, Mike’s bass presence at shows DID get louder which is what the fans wanted. That said, the band did report that at the time Mike’s sound and presence in the mix was a big bone of contention between various band members, and the PLM certainly added fuel to the fire. But that story had a happy ending...others certainly didn’t end as well. I recall several bands that I’ve worked with over the years who were brought to the brink of breaking up over fan comments on their bulletin board or guestbook. So while the notion of prioritizing fans ahead of potential label suitors can be seen as sound advice, the actual success of making/keeping those fans happy isn’t always easy, and should be carefully considered in any artists overall creative strategy.
Nicely put, Derek.
I see this a lot with artists who see 'the big hit' as their ticket to success, and so alter what they do in order to get radio airplay. I'm all in favour of thinking about your target audience, but I think that appealing to a large niche of listeners is a far better and more reliable approach than focusing on the tiny niche of people that are the gatekeepers to the mass market.
But I wonder how this could apply outside of the record industry. Say, in the case of artists who wish to tie in with brands, make soundtracks or jingles, or otherwise work in a way that tends to favour a 'few large clients' approach.
Is there a long tail of clients that could apply, for instance, to someone who makes the theme music for games?