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The New Music Gatekeepers: Fans & Workload

It’s the most common frustration I hear uttered by independent artists and promoters: The workload.

How can I find the time to do all this social networking and guerrilla marketing stuff?

I’ve got so much on my plate already, how am I supposed to add even more to my overflowing to-do list?

I hear you. I know. And ISN’T IT WONDERFUL?

Huh? What in Jehovah’s name is so wonderful about being overburdened by all that needs to be done to succeed with music?

I have a good answer. Let me explain …

You’ve heard of “gatekeepers,” right? In decades past, the gatekeepers of the music industry were A&R execs at major labels, prominent artist managers, radio station program directors, music magazine editors, big venue talent buyers, etc.

You needed to get the approval of some of these “special people” to have half a chance at fame, fortune and success with your music. If they didn’t deem you worthy, you were damned to struggle in obscurity for the rest of your days.

I exaggerate to make a point, but that’s the power that many aspiring artists gave to these gatekeepers in the past. Sadly, many artists still grovel at their feet today.

But now there are new gatekeepers. You can also call them “filters.” And it’s these new filters that help weed out and determine who is to be highly successful, moderately successful, and not very successful at all.

(Of course, “success” can be measured in many ways. There are no right or wrong definitions. But for the sake of this article, let’s say that success is the ability to support yourself financially from your music-related income.)

One type of new gatekeeper are music consumers. You must get a response from at least a small slice of people in the marketplace to gain traction and grow your career.

Chris Anderson spells this out wonderfully in his book, The Long Tail. He describes the industry gatekeepers of old as “pre-filters.” They decided who was worthy of being exposed to a wider audience. There was a weeding out process *before* the music was produced and distributed to the general public.

Nowadays, Anderson says, there are “post-filters.” Because of the Internet and digital technologies, practically everything is made available to the public. And now music consumers decide what is worthy of their time, attention and money.

If you can break through the clutter and find your audience, and if what you create inspires fans to rave about it to their friends, your notoriety and career will grow.

I love that concept. But there’s another new filter that has become more obvious to me in recent years. And that has to do with effort and workload.

The truth is, not everyone embraces marketing, publicity and social networking. In fact, a large percentage of artists have disdain for most marketing activities and curse the long list of things they must do to promote themselves effectively.


And it’s not just because the workload problem means there will always be a demand for my books :-) What I really like about it is how it has become a new organic filter that thins out the number of artists who succeed at higher levels.

Yes, the Internet and digital technologies have created a more level playing field. I’ve been saying that for years. But we need to clarify something:

It’s more accurate to say that all artists now have “equal access to the field.” How you play your role once you’re on the field is a whole different ball game.

Just showing up does not guarantee you a full-time income. Some indie artists do amazingly well, some do moderately well, and many continue to struggle — no matter how many opportunities and low-cost tools are at their disposal.

It really comes down to a new “survival of the fittest” paradigm. Only a small percentage of artists have that rare combination of musical chops, stage presence, likeable qualities, marketing smarts, communication and social skills, discipline, drive, passion, etc.

Sure, there are ways to lighten the workload, involve your fans, and pay people to do design work and other technical tasks. But the most effective artists are hands-on with many aspects of their promotion. It’s something they accept and embrace and make the time for.

So I encourage you to reevaluate your relationship with marketing, social media, and your growing to-do list. Find a way to incorporate them into your life! Yes, it takes effort. Yes, it can be confusing and frustrating. YES, it’s what you need to do to make an impact with your music!

This is certainly not the most uplifting article I’ve ever written, but let me ask you this:

Wouldn’t you rather have every artist’s success be based on their unique ability to create remarkable music and find an ideal audience that supports them … instead of success being based on what a small group of industry gatekeeper insiders feel is worthy?

I’ll take the new filters and gatekeepers any day!


Reader Comments (10)

Well... I suppose things may indeed be that much more self-directed than they used to be, but it seems to me like this is additional work that needs to be done on top of traditional business-relationship-building. Are bands no longer trying to get in with booking agents, promoters and record labels?

I'm not trying to be a luddite here or anything, but the folks I have seen succeed (financially/famously) in music seemed to do so by attracting the interest of key players from different places in the industry and getting their music to work for them. All the web 2.0 stuff happened as well, but that was more of a prerequisite to success rather than their primary doorway.

I wasn't aware of what it was like in the 80's, so maybe things really have changed a lot. But the traditional gatekeeper rolls that non-musicians have played in the industry seem alive and well... they just seem to be more diffuse. But I suppose thats a sign of progress.

April 28 | Unregistered CommenterJustin


Sure, the label infrastructure is withering away and all, but now those taste-makers and gate keepers all have other jobs. They're booking agents, publicists, venue owners, music journalists, talent buyers, sponsorship co-ordinators. There's still a very real network of powerful people that you've got to reach the radar screens of.

Maybe my perspective is skewed, coming from hip hop, which is a much more collaborative genre. I'm not contented with gathering my own little fan base, there's also artists I plan on working with in the next few years, and I am absolutely dealing with gatekeepers on that path.

I think any serious artist is, regardless of Teh Internets revolutionizing our promo hustle, regardless of the self-organizing nature of fanbase today.

April 28 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Although I am the first one to say that digital music can't be marketed, I agree with just about everything Bob wrote here; with one exception...

Gatekeepers are going to remain firmly in control of mass-exposure opportunities as far into the future as any of us can see. And, mass-exposure is required to more-easily earn reoccurring revenue within this industry.

Everything else is spot on. Work hard, promote, network, etc... It's all the stuff that's necessary to running a small business.

IMHO, the reason artists should read this post (twice), visit Bobs site, and consume his books is because he's right. The fittest survive and grow, and the timid shrink. You are probably not going to promote yourself to fame and fortune, but if you learn how to survive (earn a decent living) until the day you create the song that opens the gate, than you have done something that that quitters failed to do.

What's changed between now and five or ten years ago, is the ability to gain access to gatekeepers without having to mortgage your future (plus wine, dine and blow) to obtain entry. Razor-thin profit margins are forcing all gatekeepers to make data-driven decisions instead of relationship-based ones that are often misguided (consider the failure rate).

In other words, the market traction information (plays, shares, downloads, streams), the social tags, and the computer and professional analysis attached to each of your songs; all compared to every other song in the marketplace is what's going to democratize access to every gatekeeper. So yes, you should never have to grovel at anyone's feet again. Your songs and all the data attached to them will do the groveling for you...

April 28 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Digital music absolutely can be marketed - but not by you! :-) It can be given away for free, consumed and then marketed by your listeners! And best of all, it's mass, and it's free. All you need is a great song that reaches a few people... they will tell three of their friends, who will tell three of their friends.

Watch any of the most popular videos on youtube, not many are created by major marketing gurus. They're done by average shmo's like me :-) And if they're good, they spread... simple as that. So focus on making something that's great, and success will follow.

My songs are all free at :-)

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterMike Hirst

I'd rather have art created by people who are great at art, rather than kinda good at art but great at marketing. I'm willing to bet that the types of people who are fantastic at socializing, marketing and 'being everywhere' are not even close to the people who are going to create the modern masterpieces. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but in general I have yet to meet a person who is world class at everything they do.

You can't argue that things aren't moving closer and closer to the reality that Bob descibes...but depressing.

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Your observations are excellent and right on point. Your comments are the same as those I have advocated to my clients for years even before the advent of the opportunities provided by the internet. Artist who want to achieve long term success in the industry have to be willing to go through the heart break and ultimate joy of building their own fan-base and not depend on one manufactured by a major conglomerate. I will definitely be following your future writings. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

Attorney Cross

Do you think Nirvana would have broken if they had to rely on Kurt Cobain's bean-counting skills? They were already doing it themselves when Sub Pop picked them up, wallowing in obscurity just like many great artists until someone "noticed" them the old-fashioned way - at gigs and thru the grapevine. If the new paradigm requires the truly unique, gifted, and right-brained among us to become shrewd businessmen (and social butterflies!) in order to simply attract attention to our craft, then mediocrity and mass-disinterest will inevitably infect popular music as those artists continue to wallow in self-imposed obscurity while lesser artists pass Go. IMO this is exactly the direction modern music is currently headed in, so Bob's definitely onto something there.

April 29 | Unregistered CommenterPat

When there were billions of dollars in profits sloshing around the ecosystem, you could have people sitting in bars all over the world looking for the Kurt Cobains that were wallowing away in obscurity. Now, you (the person seeking talent that is) better hope Kurt pops out on your song analytics report while you are farting in front of your flat screen...

I like the direction modern music is headed.. It seems to me that there is no direction but all directions..

April 29 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Thanks for all the passionate feedback. I'm glad to see a diversity of opinions here.

I could have added more to the "New Gatekeepers" post, but it had gotten long enough. One thing worth noting is this ...

An A&R guy from Geffen once described the role of today's labels and artists this way:

"A major label (or some other powerful corporate entertainment entity) can take the right artist's career from 60 to 120. But it's completely up to the artist to get from 0 to 60."

I'm not implying you will always have to do everything yourself for your entire career. But to get to the point where you can attract a supportive business partner (like a label) you'll need to create a modest success story on your own.

In other words, you must be willing to meet your corporate savior half way. And that takes work, and wearing many hats, and embracing new technologies, and becoming someone that people want to hear and work with.

You can look at this reality as depressing and exhausting. Or you can eagerly take it on and be grateful for the opportunity you have now that eluded previous generations of musicians.

The choice is yours :-)

April 30 | Registered CommenterBob Baker

Neil Young said "artists should be in a good place to write music". So as an artist, maybe the Internet bean-counting is not for you, not at least until you know you have a world-beater on tape. At that time you may send an email out. How refreshing.

July 20 | Unregistered Commenterbeancounter

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