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The Shattered Hit Record Model

We’ve all heard the complaints about the current Music 3.0 music industry model: physical product doesn’t sell anymore, download sales don’t make up for the shortfall, and streaming music cannibalizes sales and pays a pittance in royalties. Then let’s heap on the accusation that music today is so formula and soul-less and generally a shadow of what it once was.

A lot of industry vets actually believe this, and like everything, there is a hint of truth in it all.

But then how to do you account for Mumford and Sons’s new album Babel being the biggest release of 2012 so far with sales of over 600,000 in the first week of release? How do you account for the fact that there’s been over 8 million listens of the album on Spotify so far, shattering the record for number of streams in a week? How do you account for the fact that new records by superstars Green Day, No Doubt, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Madonna and Pink have only sold a quarter (if that) of what Babel sold, despite wider ranging publicity campaigns? How do you account for the fact that the Mumfords did this all without a hit single?

When it comes right down to it, there are two principles at work here that are perennial. They’ve worked in the previous eras of the music business and they work now:

1) Your music is your marketing. I preach this in the Music 3.0 Internet music guidebook and it holds true on any level. An artist can only build a brand by repeated listens, either through radio airplay, torrents, piracy, streams, downloads and anything else you want to put in here. The more people hear your songs, the more likely you’ll find an audience for them.

Music is a marketing tool for the artist. If no one hears it, they won’t buy it, or buy merch, or go see an artist in concert. If you limit the way they listen, you limit your marketing ability.

It’s important to remember that most major artists never made their fortunes from the sales of music itself. In fact, there are numerous studies that show that record sales were never more than 5% of a major artist’s revenue stream. For an artist to cut off Spotify because of the peanuts for royalties pay scale totally defeats the purpose of the service to an artist’s brand, as Mumford experience brilliantly illustrates here.

2) Best-selling, long lasting music goes against the grain. Record labels love to follow trends, but they rarely set them. Music history is made by artists who refuse to follow the “hit” formula and choose to follow their hearts and their art instead. Most major artists that have a long lasting career are initially outliers that the industry broadly rejects (the biggest case in point is The Beatles), only to be found by the audience directly.

The English folk music of Mumford and Sons is so far away from the mainstream that the fact that they’ve had a hit with their first album (Sigh No More) and look to have an even bigger one with Babel is a shock, but it proves the point. The audience found the music before the industry did, and the music doesn’t follow what’s currently considered the norm.

And how about Adele? Her 21 now has sold over 24 million worldwide and is about as far away from what’s considered the mainstream today as you can get. But people the world over love it because for exactly that reason. It comes from the right place - the heart.

The moral here is that so many of the industry “truisms” aren’t actually true at all, but the two above do seem to stand the test of time.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (15)

mumford and sons is a huge radio band. do your research!

October 11 | Unregistered Commenterjoe blow

What's so facinating about Mumford & Sons is that they were signed by a Major Label in the UK
Island / Universal. None of Universal's labels in the US (A&M, Island, Geffen, Interscope, Def Jam, Mercury) thought it had any possibility for the American Market and all passed on the act which is how Glassnote - an independent label ended up with them

The other factor going for Mumford is that its fanbase is made of real music fans, not popular culture fans that are more drawn to the acts you mentioned like Minaj, Bieber, Pink & No Doubt.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterRitch Esra

Mumford & Sons may have sold 600K copies of Babel in the first week, but sales dropped 79% in week two. This reinforces the author's point that a best seller that stays atop the charts for weeks is the exception rather than the rule. But let's hope the music industry doesn't swing all the way over to creating "product" designed for a smash debut.

The film industry is already there. The only data point that strongly correlates with big box office numbers is a strong opening weekend. You either open big or you go really small. Hit films that build their audience over time — My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Slumdog Millionaire, for two — are the outliers. Ths alone has killed the careers of mid-level stars like Nick Nolte and Debra WInger.

And what of the book industry? Naked Heat by Richard Castle debuted on the New York Times bestseller list two weeks ago, ranked just above the debut of Mitch Album's The Time-Keeper. Trouble is, Richard Castle is a fictional character, a mystery author, on a TV show, the ghostwritten book was obviously a publicity stunt for the start of the new season, and the book was gone from the List after one week. Whither credibility?

I applaud Mumford & Sons and enjoy their music. Please don't let their success bring the second coming of The Archies.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterTom Dennehy

Thanks for the great article.

Mumford and Sons may have had a lot of radio exposure but the basis of this article is what I've said for years, that you should trust your music to do the marketing. Forcibly trying to grow a fan base is important, but great music will spread itself in many cases.

I have just linked to this article from a short blog post on my website which talks about the importance of focusing efforts on the work you are doing NOW, and not focusing on the outcome. Welcome to have a read here:

Recording studio blog - Focus on the work (not the outcome)

I also agree that going against the grain is a good idea. I worked as A&R for a time and I can't tell you how my ears pricked up with 1 in 100 CD was original! Be original, love your music, make it for yourself only and share it opening with the world!

October 12 | Registered CommenterDarren

I have long believed music should be free. It should be a gift to the listener and a way to gain a following.

I love what the internet has done to the industry as a whole. I love that an "artist" can no longer make one hit track, fill the rest of the disk with garbage, sell the $20 CD as whole (glorified tied-selling in my opinion), then buy a $20m mansion at age 25 and retire. It's an insult to the consumer.

The mass availability of free and next to free music has allowed me to discover many artists that I otherwise wouldn't have. Once I'm hooked on the music and respect an artist, he/she then gains my devotion, loyalty and with it compensation for a long time, maybe forever. I have "stolen" a few songs from an artist then signed up on their website, followed them on Twitter, bought $60 tickets to their show and bought a t-shirt. And the next time they're in town, I'll do it again.

Let's keep artists honest. Let's force them to make good music now and stay relevant in the future. Let's ask they interact with fans and gain our love. That they form a stranglehold on us that motivates us to support them. Let's make music FREE FOR EVERYONE.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterDustin

How are Mumford and Sons so far from the mainstream? They do not in any way, shape or form go against the grain. What is original about any aspect of their music or brand? They are just any other popular guitar boy band wrapped up in clever, oh-so-earnest, folky packaging.

Your argument is a poor one.

October 12 | Unregistered CommenterTighe Coone

What the author fails to realize is the reason for the disconnect between hit records and actual sales. "Hit" charts like Billboards Hot 100 are heavily weighted by airplay statistics, and that airplay is bought rather than earned. As long as radio continues to dictate tastes rather than reflect them, hit records will continue to be nothing more than infomercials, a crass, paid for cash grab with an inferior product

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Vasey

Excellent article. And you bring up some very intriguing points. But I'm thinking, or perhaps hoping, that people aren't buying the Green Days, Madonnas, etc. because they are tired of that stuff now. They want something other than some teen pop star V8.4 or woman who dresses half-naked or head to toe in meat for attention. They want music with substance. Adele and Mumford both have substance. And both are incredibly talented. They are the new trend-setters.

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterMars

@Tighe - they use banjos. and mandolins. on records that have had worldwide airplay (hits.) and lots of other instruments and arrangements that you don't hear in pop/rock music.

When I first heard them I was really impressed that they'd taken folk and made it thoroughly modern, with swearing. Great band, great album. Yet to judge on the second one, sounds like more of the same, though not as good.

'popular guitar boy band?' grow up and lose the jealousy.

I think the author makes 2 very valid points that really do stand up, though i'll roll them into one:
concentrate on making fucking brilliant, original music that you want to make, and eventually you'll get somewhere. I'll also add, steal the best bits from all your favourite artists and roll it all up into one big juicy sound that you love.

October 13 | Unregistered Commenterdaznez

Music should be free? While you're at it, why not make food, electricity, gas, health insurance, my rent, cars or any product free? I bet you are eager to run into your bosses office (assuming you have a job) and let him/her know that you are going to work for free from now on because musicians work for free. That's the problem with the music industry and our society as a whole. We have devalued music and musicians to the point that the bar has been lowered so low that we get what we deserve. Crappy music being promoted by greedy money hungry labels. In other cultures, music is worshipped and appreciated to the point that the artists are treated like royalty. No offense, but until we as a society stop glorifying Television sponsored shows that shove their idea of popular music down our throats,
we will continue to swim in this cultural abyss of inferior musical product and the art of music will be lost because people think that musicians should work for free. There won't be any musicians left because they will have starved or
dropped off the face of the earth. If you love music, then love the musicians who have already sacrificed so much just to do their craft. Don't devalue them and think that they should be working for free. Just as in any business, if they are no good, then they will go out of business, but if they are good then they should be paid just like any other trade. I do however agree with the authors two main points that the music is your best marketing tool and good music is good music no matter what time or genre.

October 13 | Unregistered CommenterCowboy Surfer

I loved the article and couldn't agree more with comments about new role models like Adele and Mumford and Sons being somewhat off beat from mainstream "looks" but at the same token I still think that artist here is a salesperson but what he/she is selling a song-product and what makes the artist have staying power will be determined solely on the power of the song they are singing. That is why I noticed over the years people doing covers mostly do well:))

"Music history is made by artists who refuse to follow the hit formula and choose to follow their hearts and their art instead". True, but I hardly doubt Mumford and Sons is going to ignite a pop culture explosion. At the root of true music revolutions are bands/artists that are visionary, yet decadent and controversial. They all evoke that element of "I can't believe what I'm hearing and seeing!" And that's definitely not Mumford and Sons and Adele.

October 16 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Great article, but Dustin needs to take his hippy dippy "All Music Should Be Free" nonesense, move out of the hippy commune, and GROW UP!

October 16 | Unregistered CommenterWalkAMile

Everyone wants it for FREE. However, I've heard Mumford on local radio, getting daily plays, and that just doesn't happen by magic. Someone, somewhere, is still either contributing to a station, or a music director, or something. The station I refer to is "listener supported" read: They Need Money! So, I would BET, that some money has exchanged hands and not just listeners requesting Mumford. Good story, but how many that DON'T fit this model? Millions. What I'm saying is this - in order to get played you gotta be pretty good, have some connections, or grease the palm (contribute) something - it just doesn't happen unless they are doing LIVE shows every night and selling enough CD/s Merch etc to generate new listeners. Sure, FREE is good, except for the songwriter or artist who doesn't get squat! MOST online music sites do not pay the correct royalties, IF they pay any at ALL! Pandora, Spotify, name 'em, youtube, etc. I believe it is a way to find new artists, but like all other fun stuff, you should have to pay for it. Last time I went bowling? It cost me a few bucks. On the spot. Not so with music. Pandora's box (no pun intended) has been opened and you can try the FREE approach, just don't expect to be the next Mumford, because you and I do NOT know what's going on there. It just does NOT happen, like performing and in walks Ahmet Ertegan with SONY and signs you. There is no free lunch, so Mumford? Good luck, as I like your music, too, but how did you pull it off? Just a hunch. Oh, and commenter Dustin - how much $$ have you given back compared to how much music you LIFTED for FREE ? I bet you have come out ahead- so was your computer FREE, as well? It is still against the law to infringe on copyright law, though now it's almost impossible to enforce. I think that is why so much music has turned into little more than watered-down junk, with autotune, and very little creativity due to the fact that a serious artist realizes - hey, I just wrote a hit song, but in order to be successful, I need to give it away FREE. Yeah, that really inspires people, like working a job for FREE. That's the trouble, everyone wants everything for FREE - and, sadly, you get what you pay for. If music is truly an 'industry', then it should make money - how about giving cars away for FREE! I'm in! The real problem is that music IS free and it's not hard to find. That's why I only buy CD's now. It supports EVERYONE involved with the making of that music. Why don't YOU work for free for a while, see how that works for ya?!

October 16 | Unregistered CommenterKC

Dustin, you are obviously not a musician and to say music should be "free" shows how ignorant you are about the arts. As cowboy surfer said, go to your boss and tell him/her you're going to be working for free from now on. Let us know how you pay your bills working like that. Your notion about artists is ridiculous, Dustin.

October 16 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

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