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Quick Thoughts On “Obscurity”

January 21st, 2010 · 25 Comments

A few days ago, MusicThinkTank published this post in response to this post, pulling out the ‘headline’ that “in 2008, 1,500 releases broke the “obscurity line” (sold over 10,000 albums).”

The context for the quote is this (it’s from some bloke who works for TommyBoy Entertainment):

“So in the whole year only 227 of the artists were artists that had broken what we call the “obscurity line.” When you sell 10,000 albums, you’re no longer an obscure artist; people know about you.”

So this is a made-up measurement – it’s what ‘we’ (no mention of who ‘we’ are), arbitrarily decided, that selling 10,000 records makes you not obscure. Why? How? Nope, nothing. Just that ‘people know about you’. Very scientific and verifiable. ‘People’.

It’s also based on ‘Soundscan’ statistics. By Soundscan’s reckoning, I’ve sold about 3% of my actual sales across my career – that’s how many have gone through the Soundscan system. Not a single one of my gig sales, my own website sales, bandcamp sales, CDbaby sales have gone through Soundscan. So this tells us that 1500 artists have reported 10K sales to Soundscan. And that’s apparently a story about obscurity?

No it’s not. Not even close:

  • Are there only 1500 acts in the world playing music professionally? No. There are hundreds of thousands. Possibly millions.
  • Are there only 1500 acts in the world making awesome music, and continuing to be able to make awesome music? No. There are tens of thousands for each of us. And tastes differs so much around the world. There are millions of artists that are awesome to someone and keep being awesome to someone.
  • How many outlets are there for music that don’t report to Soundscan? Thousands.
  • Where do most indie artists make the vast majority of their sales? Their gigs, then their own website.
  • So just how specious is it to whack a label as pejorative as ‘the obscurity line‘ onto a statistic that just proves itself to be utterly meaningless if you, y’know, listen to music because you love it rather than make money from ‘breaking artists’.

So, the whole notion of an ‘obscurity line‘ is so bogus as to hardly be worth responding to.

If the figure here is that only 1500 reported more than 10,000 album sales to Soundscan, the REAL story is the hundreds of thousands of bands who make awesome music and are able to keep making awesome music without selling that many records through the mainstream. The old industry. The ‘established path’. That it’s quite possible to have a sustainable, successful, fulfilling, enjoyable, liberated, creative career in music without selling 10K ‘albums’ a year through those outlets. That, my friends, is proper awesome!

So why ‘Obscurity’?

Obscurity is an utterly meaningless word in this context – obscure to who? Where? Obscure meaning unheard of?

There are a lot of artists in the world who are known to millions but couldn’t sell 10K copies of a new album if they released one. Not obscure, but certainly not ‘current’.

And there are others who are selling hundreds of thousands of records, and feel like abject failures because their label promised them more and spent as though they were going to sell millions. (in the same article, the TommyBoy bloke says that of the 112 albums that sold more than 250K, HALF DIDN’T BREAK EVEN! What industry, after 50 years of experimenting, of statistics or measuring trends, or gauging audience reaction, still can’t make money on a product that sells 250,000 units?? A broken, insane industry, that’s what.)

All these two statistics prove is that some people still equate industry success with ‘gross’ figures rather than ‘net’ figures. Gimme a 300 grand marketing budget and I could fairly easily sell 20K+ albums in a year. The problem would be that that would only gross, at best, 200 grand. Net would be a lot lower. So I’d be selling WAY more records than I am now, would no longer be ‘obscure‘ (ha!) but I’d be a failure in every other sense because I’d be a hundred grand in debt, and my self esteem would be shot. Or if someone else paid for it, I’d be beholden to them for what happens next to try and get that 100K back.

Forget obscurity metrics and think about what matters – making the music you love, finding the people who share that passion, and not killing yourself with unrealistic expectations of how much money it’s going to make you.

Here’s a suggestion – 10,000 listeners is a much more creatively inspiring target than 10,000 sales. How would you get 10K listeners without spending a penny, OR worrying about earning anything. Cos 10,000 listeners and no money is a really great problem to have to try and solve… Answers in the comments :)

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Transformative Vs Incremental Change

December 16th, 2009 · 18 Comments

This was originally written for MusicThinkTank, and the comment thread there is well worth reading. But you lovely regular readers here haven’t had a chance to mull it over and chat about it, so I thought I’d repost it here. On you go :)

—o0o—

OK, I’m going to try and explain why Big Music genuinely doesn’t get what’s happening with the online stuff. It’s easy to dismiss the thoughts coming out about ‘3 Strikes Laws‘, and Bit Torrent being to blame for the death of musicians’ livelihoods etc. as being a bunch of really rich people want to keep their massive piece of the pie – and there is some of that, for sure. But there’s also an entire way of thinking that explains why they feel the way they do.

The problem is to do with the difference in response required between transformative change, and incremental change.

Sticking with the music industry, let’s have a look at some examples of both, starting with incremental change: [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Lily Allen and The Politics Of Self-Interest

September 30th, 2009 · 45 Comments

I know, I’m a week late writing about Lily Allen and her attempts to back Peter Mandelson’s campaign to have ‘persistent file sharers’ internet connections taken away. (and in the meantime, she’s taken down her anti-file sharing blog, and allegedly quit music!)

There have been a lot of responses to this, many of them suggesting that Lily (and her brothers in arms James Blunt and Gary Barlow) don’t make music worth buying so they deserve to have it pirated…

So let’s deal with that first. Your (or my) impression of the ‘worth’ of Lily Allen’s music has no bearing whatsoever on whether she’s talking sense or not. She could be John Coltrane saying this, or she could be the Reynolds Girls. It makes no odds.

What’s more important is why she’s saying it. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

How To Respond To A Crisis. A Lesson From Sungard.

June 18th, 2009 · Comments Off on How To Respond To A Crisis. A Lesson From Sungard.

I have a friend who works in Marketing for Sungardthey’re a huge, multi-national, multi-billion dollar IT Services/financial information/Software company. Massive. Bigger than big.

What interesting for us musical types is their response to the financial crisis. A situation which, naturally, they took very seriously indeed, partly because they were deeply affected, but also because it was a time when all the big finance companies were being shaken up, and previously held notions of who were the ‘big players’ could be re-jigged. It was a chance for companies to rebrand, reposition, and use the recession as a chance to do some fairly risky thinking, and ask some massive questions. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc.