I sometimes get approached by aspiring recording artists looking for help, and I’ve broadened my skill set from a songwriter to music producer. One of my long-term goals with Leet Music is to be serve as a music / label and publisher for artists within the anime, video game and “otaku” music genre. This article outlines my plans and how I hope to benefit from it.
What is artist development?
Recording artist development is how an publisher (record label, etc.) partners with an emerging artist to create a music product for the first time. Often the artist will provide creative assets like vocals, sometimes the music and lyrics, and the publisher invests in the business of music production, assets like graphic design and music video, as well as promotion and distribution of the record. In exchange for assuming financial risk in the project, the publisher often takes the lion’s share of the earnings from the music.
If the product is a success then the publisher turns a profit and starts paying the artist a percentage based on the terms of the contract. If the product turns out to be an extremely successful release then the artist will usually be able to broker a better deal with a publisher for their next project. If the product is a flop and the publisher never recoups their investment then the artist usually will not receive any royalties. The relationship is similar to that of an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist.
Investing in the career of an emerging artist is extremely high competition and high risk. Even at the major record label level only 1 new artist out of 20 turns a profit. The costs of recording an album and making a music video are very high. Often seeking press and promotion requires established industry relationships and credibility. Because of the amount of competition and cost of product development, artist development is a dangerously big bet.
Breaking a new artist pays dividends when it works. If the song / video becomes popular then fans become extremely attached and loyal to the artist. Future releases will have a built-in fan base eagerly awaiting. Opportunities to perform and tour, as well as partner with other businesses become more available. With new releases and new fans banking on the success of the past, it adds up to a lot of money over time! The artist turns into a brand and franchise and that can be the basis of a life-long career.
Because of the high costs of artist development, the publisher needs to strongly believe that the end product is going to be a commercial success, capable of recouping the development funds and turning a profit. This means that publishers are extremely cautious about working with new talent. They tend to dedicate the most resources to a project they believe in the most, and do little or nothing to support a project with expected middling results.
For a small publisher with limited financial resources, the best way to approach seems to be focusing on a small product category and aiming to become a leader in it, rather than trying to be everything. Sub Pop produces alternative music. Death Row produces gangsta rap music. Fueled By Ramen produces emo music. This helps carve out an identity for the publisher to be recognized by fans rather than merely a department of a large conglomerate. For someone like me with a background in video games, anime and convention performances, it makes the most sense to continue to focus on anime, video games and the “otaku” genre right now.
To establish a new artist, the product is an extremely high quality pop song. It needs to be so good that it’s capable of being somebody’s favorite song. The song release is then accompanied by a music video to amplify the promotion, as well as a full album to add artistic depth and commercial value to the release. Nobody knows which song is going to reach a critical mass all the time, but some songs obviously stand a better chance than others. In order for the artist to have a sustainable career they need to be capable of producing further hit songs, putting on an entertaining live performance that will entice fans, and be attractive to partnerships with other brands.
I’ve thought for a long time about what I need in order to feel justified investing time or money in a new artist’s career, and I believe it to be a combination of 3 things: mass-market sales, live bookings, and work for hire projects. The “holy trinity” consists of:
1. Mass market sales – The easiest way to break a new artist is to release the video on YouTube, release the song on iTunes and other digital stores. As discussed in my YouTube article, if the song / video package is a hit then people everywhere are going to find the song, talk about it and want to buy it. With the internet as a promotion and distribution tool, it’s easy to get a lot of people to discover a song, but they don’t pay much money for it. Getting 10,000 music streams in a month or even 100,000 video views in a month is not enough money to recoup the costs of an album or to earn a living from. People buy music singles and albums on the internet, but as a rule the conversion rate is extremely low, less than 1%.
2. Booking – The artist has to be a great performer that fans will want to meet and to watch. This means that they need enough music (album) to carry a headlining show, as well as the agility to perform outside their city. The more popular an artist is (in terms of how many people they can bring to the show) the more likelihood that they are going to get booked to perform, and the better deal they will get in exchange. Between appearance fee and merchandise, it’s possible to make a lot of money quickly from a great performance. If you can convince the booking manager that an artist is going to be a large draw and and get them personally excited about it then this is a great opportunity.
3. Work for hire – Corporations and organizations which produce media need music. In order for music that matches their message they are willing to pay money up-front to license a specific song, or for the artist to create a new theme song for their product. I’ve produced a number of theme songs for video games and other media as work for hire projects, and I want to work with artists that I will be able to convince my clients to invest in. The client gets a (high quality) custom theme song for their product, as well as a promotional boost from the artist’s following. The artist gets a promotional boost from the synchronization and promotion of the game, as well as the opportunity to get paid to make a song without having to sell even one copy!
The biggest mistake in artist development is spending money in the wrong places. I follow the rule “Pay to play doesn’t pay.” Often bands will spend money to perform at a festival once, or invest in travel costs of a long tour. If you compare the return on investment for a show / tour compared to a music video, the video reaches an undeniably larger audience. I won’t spend money artificially inflating the popularity of a video or social network page. If the music video does it’s trick, real fans (not robots) are going to find the song without you having to pay them to do so. I also don’t see value in paying for internet radio “airplay.” Unless you have the money to play the song on mainstream commercial radio then the promotion you’ll receive is nebulous. As this article explains, mainstream radio is exclusive to major record labels and not for someone like me to chase.
Despite the lack of recognition in the music industry for this kind of music, I believe that if I can accomplish all three of these goals then this is a big enough prize to focus on. Internet communities like Tumblr and 4chan have proven that it’s possible to get a lot of fans excited about a music video quickly even without tv and radio support. Cultural blogs like Wired and Kotaku are capable of providing critical commentary and legitimacy in reaching a critical mass. Conventions like Comic Con, Penny Arcade Expo and Otakon offer opportunities to perform in front of traditional fans for this kind of music. RPG and visual novel video game genres offer the opportunity to custom theme songs which are mutually beneficial.
Often the quality of the song dictates the destiny of the project as a whole. Choose wisely.
Matthew Myers www.leetmusic.com is a recording artist and producer most well-known for creating “otaku band” LeetStreet Boys. He has also composed music professionally for Ubisoft, Winter Wolves games, numerous game developers and multimedia clients since 2006.