Quick Thoughts On “Obscurity”

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 🙂

25 Replies to “Quick Thoughts On “Obscurity””

  1. Great post Steve, I was waiting for your reply as soon as I read the post you referenced.

    It’s strange that this only gets really applied to art. If I open a shop in a small town and it serves the needs of the town perfectly am I somehow a failure because it’s not Tesco? If I write a blog is it pointless unless it’s read by millions?

    This is just more Big Media not really getting that the Social Web now allows people to be more selective in their communities, rather than them being restricted geographically any more. It’s something that’s been happening for > 15 years and they still don’t get it (and probably never will).

    1. that’s something I’m constantly confused by – this idea that for Musicians, it’s perfectly normal for them to feel trashed when their wildly speculative hopes for their careers are somehow brought down to the level of everyone else… As though playing music and paying the bills isn’t enough of an awesome life-WIN. No, I must be famous and loaded or it’s not fair… Pure #balls 🙂

  2. There’s another side to obscurity. I’ve never bought a single one of your songs or albums. But I’ve paid to seen you perform. How does TommyBoy measure that?

    Here’s another side of obscurity – I couldn’t tell you who was number 1 at the moment.
    I bet a lot of people who aren’t obsessed with music / the charts couldn’t. I’m sure, who ever they are, they’ve sold 10K units this year – so are they obscure?

    The other side (of this metaphorical triangle) is time period. Songs, like blog posts, exist in a long tail. One day, you may have found that you’ve sold enough albums to get a number one – if they’d all been sold in the same week. Where does that fit in to the obscurity theory?

    1. Thanks Terence, more smart thinking from you, as usual. 🙂

      The longevity thing is so vital – sustainability is a way more useful measure than gross earnings in a year. This last month I made enough off the digital sales of a four year old album to pay our council tax for about 3 months. That’s way more useful to me than the thought that if I were to borrow X-thousand pounds, I *might* be able be break through an imaginary obscurity line. To everyone who listens to me in whatever format – including the 20 people who were at the gig you came to play to see, I’m not remotely obscure 🙂

      New measurements of both depth and breadth of interaction are being entirely ignored by the gross-income obsessed record industry. Part of the reason is that most of those ‘debts’ are imagined – the debt is to the label who spent that money on themselves and billed it to the artist. So the records are tanking, but the label is still worth billions. It’s a giant scam.

  3. Cindy and I were discussing the “Kindle Wars” this morning, comparing it to The Music Biz.

    It used to be that the artists were beholden to the marketers. Now the Marketers are striving for relevance and clinging to the notions that made them rich.

    I think there are more and more people who understand marketing is now a supportive role, and not a managerial one, who have an on-going understanding of the evolving Social Network form of distribution. I can see this being a lucrative peripheral music career that has a place right now.

    I know I can’t keep up with half the stuff Steve does. I read the things you do and feel like…my Dad, or something!

  4. Some great insights from a perspective that is so different from a record executives that they probably think you have gone mad. Not putting an emphasis on earning money at the forefront is an alien concept and I am afraid it is a concept they will never understand.
    I would, however, disagree with you on one point. After 13 years in retail music (pre-Internet/mp3, Yikes I’m old), I can tell you that the music industries model is not broken. It is not broken because it serves the music industry very well. It just happens to do it at the expense of the artist.

    1. hi Kevin,

      I touched on that in my reply to Terence – it’s broken because of what it does to music, and because very few people make money within it – it generates MASSIVE amounts of money, but that wealth resides with very few people. So it’s not sustainable in terms of people paying their bills and staying in business. There’s just a steady stream of people who, pulled in by the lie, are willing to be chewed up and spat out by the machine. It’s tragic.

  5. You’re not a properly famous until my mum knows of and dislikes you. And that’s fact.

  6. I was surprised that most of the musicians who did break through the so-called (absolutely thumb-suckingly bogus) “obscurity line” were signed to indies and that there where 19 who made it on their own.

    That’s great news and reason to be optimistic!

    I agree with you Steve, the logic is flawed and I’m glad you’ve countered with this sensible post. Soundscan? Nielsen? Give me a break!

    Artists should choose their own values and define success for themselves rather than frustrate themselves with the values handed down from on high by people with their heads stuck in the past.

    Forget the lucky-draw of the passe game played by dependent artists.

    Make yourself!

    1. David, I hadn’t seen that, thanks SO much for posting it. Brilliant. Great statistics. He still buys into a bogus notion of fame/success/etc. but the stats are worth their weight in gold, and back up just what I’m saying here, but with real numbers ‘n’ everything 😉

      1. Actually, we modify the idea of “success” by leaving it alone. It’s up to the artist to decide what success is. TuneCore’s always been about access, freedom, choice, easy infrastructure, the kinds of things that in decades past were shrouded in mystery and behind locked doors.

        But let me put my spin on Jeff’s argument, given your ideas of success. Okay, let’s buy the definitions of “success” as Tommy was presenting them: there’s STILL plenty of that happening and being completely missed by SoundScan.

        It’s the very fluid nature of “success” that’s changing how people buy music, how they make it, and what they want to do with their lives around music.

        You’re questioning the arbitrary nature of the stats as they’re handed to us by the legacy industry–that’s a great impulse, and this was a really fun read.



      2. Thanks Peter, I was a little unfair to you guys – Jeff was answering the post on its own terms and recognising that even there it fails. Excellent point that I’m really grateful to you for making. Thanks very much. That post is possibly the most damning I’ve ever read for the nonsense statistics that get touted about the ‘state of play’ in music. You guys (and everyone else making it possible for artists to sell their music and make it available in ways that avoid ‘the machine’) are helping to change the rules massively, and the end result will be a much more gradual incline between poverty and riches in music, rather than the cut-off point sitting comfortably right between Elton John, and some homeless drunk dude with a broken guitar… 😉

      3. Bingo! That’s the democratization of the music industry. There will ALWAYS be superstars, and always be people who never make a dime. Sometimes that’ll even coincide with those whose music is good and those whose music is just awful. But with real access, real freedom, and letting people in on fair terms, it can sort itself out in a fair way.

        Thanks again!


  7. OK, 250,000 units. Cost of the physical product… let’s be generous and say $5. That should leave around $10 per unit or 25 MILLION dollars to cover promotion, studio time, shoe shines and bananas for the monkey. Really can’t break even? Idea, fire everyone, start over.

    1. Hi Bill, I think youg maths is slightly off – it’d be 2.5 million by your calculation, and nobody is netting 10 bucks a cd unless selling all 250K of them at shows, but your point still stands. If you can’t make money off a quarter of a million sales, you’re definitely in the wrong business…

  8. Quick notes:

    a) Awesome post. I think the case needs to be made more often that it is always possible to make a living doing what you love (be it music, visual art, social work, teaching, whatever) if you’re willing to work at it. One of the great lies of the music “industry” is that you need to be famous to make a living at music. You don’t need to be Jay-Z to make a living rapping any more than you need to be Mr. Holland to make a living teaching music.

    b) FYI: your CD Baby sales (of physical cds) ARE reported to Soundscan.

    c) I really like the idea of 10,000 listeners and no sales. We’ve just started being able give away your music for free as downloads, FYI. Give it a shot and let us know how it goes!

    1. Hi Ben,

      thanks for the reply – I’ll actually revise my statement about Soundscan, in that don’t think *any* of my sales are recorded by them – a few are reported, but I’m pretty sure Soundscan don’t have the info to turn whatever data they get about me into anything meaningful… And it means so little anyway, that I couldn’t ever be bothered to register it… 🙂

      Re: ‘free’ I REALLY like the ‘pay what you want’ model – giving listeners the chance to express their gratitude direct to the artist – I’m unsure how well that would work on a 3rd party site. It might, but I’m not sure. the reason I’m using Bandcamp as my main platform for digital and physical sales right now is that the page is skinnable so that the links from my site take my listeners to somewhere that is still recognisably my own space…

      The big value I’ve had from cdbaby over the years has been the internal search – CDbaby has brought me a whole load of listeners/Cd buyers that would never have found me any other way… that community aspect has been really strong…


  9. A really interesting article, and I appreciate all the great comments. I confess I don’t know much about how music gets counted, but I know what I like and if that counts for anything, I’ll buy albums, digital downlaods, and concert tix for my favorite indie friends. Part of my is happy that they remain ‘obscure’ although I do have one friend who has a song all over t.v. these days. I am happy for him and his family, but kinda miss the small coffee shop concerts.

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