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.