Written by Paul Adler
The music industry today seems, to the casual observer, a veritable “Chicken Little” scenario, with all its members and participants, heads craned piously upward, scurrying about as if the sky were falling—the firmament of their reliable, decades-old business model crashing about them. From the haughtiest record company executive to the lowliest basement-dwelling ensemble, everyone in the music business is struggling to shore up their respective rungs on the industry ladder. However, as apocalyptic as the situation may seem, this can be an exciting time for newcomers to the music industry; we’ve all heard of the myriad merits of self-promotion and utilizing the internet, of the tales of insta-stardom, courtesy of YouTube. Many involved in music have conjectured this might be a viable business model for the nouveau-cottage industry of the music business as it stands in 2012—that the model of the self-promoted solo artist has become far more conducive to success than than of the traditional band.
When one considers the dichotomy of the solo artist versus the traditional band setup, the former might start to look slightly more appealing in light of the collapse of the music industry’s overall business model. Consider the ubiquity of online utilities available for self-promotion and contrast this notion with the stereotypically “traditional” path to success as an outfit or ensemble, paying special mind to the logistical and pragmatic difficulties of achieving tangible success as a band. The reality of the new music industry is, simply put, that being a solo artist might just be easier than putting oneself in a band setting. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the meteoric rise of solo artists spanning all genres of contemporary music. From EMA to The Weeknd to St. Vincent, Owl City, and yes, even Justin Bieber, we’ve seen solo artists emerge and set themselves apart from the milieu, garnering cults of personality by using social media and a variety of online tools to popularize themselves (before being picked up by record companies, that is).
On the subject of the so-called “cult of personality,” it seems dually fitting that we should see a shift in the collective attention of the music-consuming portion of society to more solo artists as social media shifts, simultaneously, toward more overtly egocentric platforms (see: Facebook, Twitter). Add to this the relative ease with which many DIY artists record, produce, disseminate, and promote their music and the appeal of being a solo artist becomes obvious.
In contrast to the facile nature of existing as a solo artist, being in a band can prove a somewhat trying ordeal. Think of a band as a relationship—the members are all significant others with their respective shares of issues, conflicts, and obligations. Forming a band is akin to dating, with potential members comparing interests and skill levels, seeing if their personalities mesh, and considering any logistical problems having to do with being in the band itself. Whereas solo artists have only themselves to consider and worry about, each member of a band needs to be concerned about the other members: will [name here] be able to make it to practice today? Does [name here] know all the music? We have a show, Friday! Is [name here] going to have his equipment ready and be able to get to the venue on time?, et cetera. Furthermore, should a band find themselves lucky enough to get picked up by a label or signed to a booking, management, or promotions company, these companies will then be privy to these “family matters,” so to speak, and no music industry professional likes dealing with a prima donna outfit of quarrelling members who can barely manage their own affairs, let alone ensure that the group as a whole has the capacity to move forward.
Should the band itself fail, a breakup can be just as messy as the breakup of significant others, with parties taking sides, disputes over shared property, and other various pitfalls. This point can be especially valid in light of the fact that a solo artist never has to break up with his or herself. Being in a band with the goal of commercial success is a full-time job, with each member’s financial, logistical, and personal responsibilities to the group itself; conversely, solo artistry can run the gamut from being a hobby to being a career, and doesn’t involve the “relationship” aspect one can expect in a band setting.
What happens when band relationships turn sour…
However, there are indeed two sides to the proverbial coin in both the band and solo setting. While problems similar to those one would encounter in a romantic relationship are liable to arise within a band, it would seem the old addage that “two heads are better than one” would be readily applicable as well. Should they utilize the strength of their numbers, the traditional band setup stands to provide advantages a solo artist would be hard-pressed to find, such as having additional manpower to cover tour, recording, and merchandise expenses, or to promote the band itself. A solo artist would also be at a significant disadvantage in terms of self-promotion, as one would assume creating awareness of one’s music would be more easily and efficiently done by five or six people, versus one person. The collective creative brainpower of a group of people versus a solo artist could be seen as another perceived advantage to the band setting, although it would seem that many solo artists have a specific “vision” for their craft, while bands tend to make their writing genre-specific because common tastes are usually a touchstone between members.
From an overarching standpoint it would appear that, especially with regard to the past decade, the model of the solo artist has become the norm and the traditional band setup has become the exception. We are no longer experiencing a mode of popular culture that hinges around rock music; successful music, even pop music, that used to rely on the tenets of rock has given way to popular music that relies on undertones of hip-hop and electronica. In the 80s and 90s, groups and solo artists that achieved success used rock as their medium (see: 80s hair metal bands, Madonna, Pat Benetar, Nirvana, Michael Jackson)—now, success comes through musical stylings other than rock (see: Skrillex, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Kid Cudi). By and large, there has been a noted change in the tastes of our culture.
Think of the past year, in which we’ve seen many solo artists emerge, but few bands, and the bands that have achieved some tangible levels of success have either faced a years-long uphill struggle or have, in plain view, been assembled by record labels. These are groups like Mumford & Sons and Foster The People, who’ve worked for years to achieve some modicum of commercial success—these are also groups who (like Paramore, when two of their main members released statements regarding their respective departures) were exposed, via a mordant blog post, as an outfit built deliberately by a major label around the solo artistry of their frontwoman. These bands are the exceptions. More common have become tales of solo artists striking pay-dirt as a result of their own work ethic: Adam Young of Owl City self-produced and sold over 200,000 units from his parents’ basement before being approached by Universal Republic in 2008; The Weeknd has self-released three separate mixtapes over the past year, garnering international attention in addition to being short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize and collaborating with Drake on more than a couple songs.
Besides the obvious nature of dealing with finances—one artist clearly earns more, proportionally, than a group of four or five—it should be clear, at this point, that the more viable business model is that of the solo artist, especially when taken in light of the sociocultural and economic developments of the past decade. Social media and our collective cultural shift away from music in which a more traditional band setting is a requisite have helped to set the stage for the solidification of the solo artist as the recommended model for achieving commercial success. However, this notion is not meant to detract validity from the traditional band setup but should be viewed as an informed caveat to those who wish to pursue music as performers; it should further serve as a reminder that we, as conscientious members of the music industry and the music-consuming community, need to pay close attention to the direction in which cultural tastes are moving and learn to exploit these trends in favor of propelling the industry, as well as the craft itself, forward.
Indie Ambassador TV is an educational series produced by Indie Ambassador. Through our video panels, industry profiles and articles, artists and music professionals can educate themselves on general business topics, new technology and current industry trends.