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When ‘If Anyone Else Likes It, It’s A Bonus’ Isn’t Enough

What would be the worst-case scenario for you as a musician? You might think it’d be having precisely zero fans, or having people actively hate your music. But unless the hatred reaches Rebecca Black levels, at least it’s feedback you can use to improve what you do.

In truth, the most damaging situation is having a small, gradually growing fanbase, getting decent feedback, but not seeing how it’ll ever take off enough to generate a decent income any time soon. This scenario will mean you keep on doing what you’re doing, because it seems to be kind-of-working, and you’re worried about making major changes and scaring off the fans you’ve already got. Do you recognize yourself in this description?

In startup circles, this scenario is known as ‘the land of the living dead’, and it’s damaging because it gives you just enough encouragement to keep pouring resources into something which is doomed not to find a large enough or enthusiastic enough market.

Musician = Startup

A musician faces a very similar challenge to that of a startup. Eric Ries, the author of influential book The Lean Startup, describes a startup as “a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Every element of the definition rings true for musicians: they’re human, their music is the new product, and there’s great uncertainty about whether it will find an audience.

The difference is that the product is extremely personal to the musician - you could even say that they are the product. And the motivation for making music is seldom 100% commercial - people start out making the music they want to make, not the music they want to sell. How many times have you heard an interview where a musician says, “I make music for myself and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus”?

If that’s genuinely the case for you, fine: all you can do is put your music out there in exactly the way you want to, and see if anyone likes it. But if you want to make a living and reach as many people as possible, you should start thinking a lot like a lean startup.

Bringing Science to the Art

Lean thinking involves conducting data-driven experiments to learn what works and what doesn’t as quickly as possible. The company identifies ‘leap of faith’ assumptions (about what the market wants, and how adoption of the product will spread), then builds the simplest, quickest version of the product that allows those assumptions to be tested.

This early version is called the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). By exposing real customers to the MVP, the startup can gather some baseline data, then make tweaks to see if they improve the key numbers or not. Eventually, they need to decide whether to persevere with making incremental improvements, or decide it’s not working and ‘pivot’ to a new strategy.

Towards Minimum Viable Music

Most musicians dream up a vision of what people will want, build the product (record an EP or album) in its entirety, and then see if anyone wants it. That’s risky, because if it turns out there’s no demand for it, a lot of resources have been wasted.

Luckily, musicians now have a huge number of tools available to release Minimum Viable Music to the world, and empirically measure the results.

By uploading two tracks to Facebook exactly a week apart and seeing which receives more likes and shares, you can test which people like the most. Timed comments on Soundcloud allow people to tell you exactly what they think about each part of a song. Bashing out two choruses on YouTube can help you decide which to finish and record properly. And putting a demo track up on Bandcamp in exchange for an email address allows you to test whether people care enough to give you their data in return for access, without the bigger leap of asking for money.

Importantly, this isn’t just ‘listening to fans’ - although that would be a start. This is using data to accept or reject theories about what people want and how the word will spread, and adjusting your strategy accordingly.

Selling More, or Selling Out?


Is this ‘selling out’? Does judging art based on numbers totally miss the point of what it’s really all about? Possibly. But then, artists have always reinvented themselves based on feedback. The difference is that now, we’ve got the tools to get hard numbers and personal opinions from a global audience, quickly and extremely cheaply.

Musicians are also notoriously cagey about releasing a product that’s less than perfect - it’s hard enough to persuade them to play an unmastered version to a friend, so isn’t releasing a rough demo to the world several steps too far? Again, possibly - but it’s something artists really should get over. Those early fans will be hugely tolerant of imperfections, and will have the vision to see the potential. Even more, they love feeling like they’re part of the creative process.

So before you spend a year and thousands of dollars recording a rock opera about dinosaurs based on little more than a hunch, stop and think whether you could gather some data first to test the market. Unless “if anyone else likes it” really is just a bonus.

Is altering your musical output based on feedback ‘selling out’? What are your tips for testing the water before committing a lot of time or money to a project? Let us know in the comments.

Rob Dix is a writer, artist manager and co-founder of Toto Merch.

Reader Comments (8)

I've been told about a time in the music industry where labels would nurture an artist's growth. Try different songs at different venues to gauge audience reaction. Allow artists a few albums to 'Find Their Voice".

What is being described in this article is nothing different. It's just now the artist gets to do their own development. They get to use real data in a matter of weeks rather than gut feel and applause meters over the course months of tours.

But like you said sometimes you just want to make music you love and if anyone else enjoys it all the better.

April 24 | Unregistered CommenterTucker

I can definitely relate, being a part of the living dead and all.

It can get quite overwhelming thinking about all the avenues to take your music, but doing some sort of calculated measurements is important to figure out what's working. In general, I've been thinking of my email list as an indicator of success, but recently I've been rethinking that idea...

I recently pulled my subscription to Jango after spending around $200 in promotion when I learned how impossible they make it to really connect with people who like your music.

Was the $200 wasted resources? Maybe. In general, I think that their system is flawed. But overall it was a learning experience. Sure, some people trickled into my FB and Twitter followers, but were they from Jango? I have no way of knowing.

I think my talents can be better aimed at remix contests and targeted projects on sites like Indaba. Only time will tell though. I think that allowing yourself to be happy in making the music is an important step in being at peace with not succeeding (i.e., making a living from making music).

April 24 | Unregistered CommenterMark

What is your intent as an artist? Is it to make money? Is it to have a ton of fans and girls? These are base cravings. Simple urges for simple folks. If your intent is to make music and test it to see if it sells then you are doomed to dumb down your art, and thus your creative voice to the least common denominator. (MVP) Be your fucking self, and don't listen to this bullshit. The internet has done a great job of killing the record labels, let's not become the same slimy scum that we are stomping out.

This is a very good idea for start-ups because profit is the end goal. The record industry did market test musicians, that shit was weak. The Beatles made better music after they broke free from their captors.

I hate music that has been market tested and catered to me. HATE. The notion is insulting. But sadly it is just excepted that you are being sold. People just give up on trying to see integrity in this world. It's just easier to sell out. No art in the history of culture has been memorable, magic, or magnificent because the creator wanted to please the dummies.

Refine YOUR VOICE and learn to communicate your vision without barriers. Be confident and wise and they will come to you. Do you respect and love the artists who made the most money, simply because they made the most money? Or do you love music that opened your mind and hart because you were perfectly touched, not by pandering but by naked truth, pure creativity, and an otherworldly grasp of the divine.

Touch the soul... or add to the rot. They can take everything away, every possession, friend, and freedom; but they can't take your integrity. You have to give away your integrity.


April 25 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

@jesse: your words are so true and perfectly express what i felt reading this article. mozart, beethoven, van gogh died in poverty - their art lives on forever.

Yet Shakespeare owned his own playing company and tailored his plays to the peasants that came to see them... Great artists live and die in poverty because of their own choices. Art has always been about money. Don't let the romantics tell you anything different.

April 27 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

I hear you Jesse! Although we want to make money, we can do it in other ways while staying true to our music. I'd like my music to live forever, yet I don't think I will die in poverty. I may not get rich in music, as most artists, even those who try to cater to the 'commercial sound' may not, but I will remain true to the art. It is all a business model, and I believe we can stay true to our art form, and make money from it. It's a matter of business sense and how you market your music. If that wasn't so, we wouldn't hear some of the terrible things they play on the radio.

April 27 | Unregistered CommenterInfinite Music

"LIKES" and "FANS" do not a sale make.

April 27 | Unregistered CommenterBuck Baran

Is it wrong to say that it makes me feel like simply breaking down? It's so sad.
This IS my job. Because I WANT IT TO BE. Therefore it is. And I ain't making a dime.
I want to. You are right, Buck. Likes and Fans do not get you real appreciation.
What IS real appreciation? When people say, "I like you enough to pay for you to live doing this."
How do they say it? They buy it! Or at the least, you know, give you something.
I have had a few hundred people hear my songs and only about 10 unique people even SAID something. Sure, I get some likes and plays and whatever. And everyone wants to hear a super-finished product. I do not have the tools. I'm not ever going to have the tools at this point.
I have a wife and two kids. I do not want to spend my life away from them. That's what signing that stupid 1040 tax form does. I... hate it. I want to play my guitar while sitting next to the garden we made next to our little log cabin watching the kids run around and we're sipping on a little wine. And then I go out and talk to people and help them. And then I go to bed feeling accomplished and conscience-clean and having thoroughly enjoyed my day. I do not want to work in law, where precedence is just a legal term for "excuse". I do not want to work in health, where the answer to everything is a needle and a pill bottle. I do not want to work in law enforcement, putting people away simply because they got caught. I have worked all manner of retail and construction and auto; you know, just name it. And I AM the renaissance man of working. You say "JUMP" and I don't ask how high, I just jump the danged highest I can, and I will jump higher than you've ever seen, you will rub your eyes, you will put a marker up on the wall just to make sure you're not crazy. These things my bosses have done and do you know what me and my family gets for it? JUMPER HIGHER, LONGER, FOR LESS - be a man, take care of your stagnating family! Ooooh.... No. I want my garden. I want my log cabin. I want our enjoyment. I want to play the music I like to play when I want to play it. I want to see my kids grow up having BOTH PARENTS - a danged societal ODDITY, almost an abomination these days. I don't want my wife to serve other people. Not as a job. We want to serve others, but we want to do it VOLUNTARILY as we see fit, how much we see fit, and in what manner we see fit. And I SING about this stuff all the time. I have written happy songs - just not nearly as many as I should be allowed. I am a man who thinks circumstance shouldn't govern your life... but you know, there are times when it really does. There are times when it gets to that point that you say, "God, haven't I tried hard enough?! I pay attention, I learn, I grow, I push on, and push on, and push on; but when is enough enough?"

So... do I feel tempted to compromise my particular originality? WOULD IT EVEN MATTER IF I DID? I have a KORG D1200mkII, 3 cardioid microphones, an Alvarez RD8C acoustic electric, and a chair that hurts my back - inside the middle room of this crummy place which I duct-taped and screwed in bed-lining and cardboard which folds around to attempt to MIMIC some semblance of a ........recording studio. This is what I have, this is what I'm gonna have, I won't have anymore.

So I give what I have, given the conditions (a house full of rowdy people at all times - and how do you ask people in such a small space to hush?) - and I spend everyday trying to make new webpages and connect with people and record what I can record - I write songs like a machine. I can do that, yes, yes, I can. I can come up with unique acoustic arrangements, yes, yes I can. To create in a recording what I do live, unplugged, in your face... that is just an entirely different matter. And, as of late, I've resorted to adding a few effects on that KORG to try to mask some of the inevitable mistakes, minor as they may be, because a recording eats your brain alive over the silliest things - and that KORG LCD screen is absolute..I mean.. LCD? REALLY? I turn the machine on and the screen is blank 75% of the time. I'm driving blind on a machine and I have no idea how to re-record over only a portion, so every take is a full take. Brand spanking new. I know people use software, but you gotta have good equipment for that still. Etc. etc. my excuses and complaints yes, they are reaching to HIGH HEAVEN.

Point being, I am trying everyday, pushing, and pushing, doing the best I can and well... Nothing yet. Not even close. Go to that website and listen to the first song. Not only does it describe how I feel, but you'll get a good example of what I mean. That is what I can do - I do not and will not have the ability to give them professional production with my situation. It simply won't happen. Lawrenceburg, TN.

May 1 | Unregistered CommenterBardd

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