In an era when a growing number of artists are eschewing corporate music contracts in favor of maintaining more control over their careers, educational tools for artists are the new table stakes for staying competitive as a music company.
Over the past five years, the landscape of artist education has become more and more crowded and saturated. You may have noticed, for instance, that every indie distribution and artist-services company now seems to have its own blog dedicated to education.
The blogs of CD Baby
, Symphonic Distribution
cover everything from recording, publishing and management contracts, to logistics for setting up a home recording studio, to best practices for influencer marketing, depending on which audiences these companies are trying to target. Both AWAL and Spinnup have even given the same exact title to their latest series of educational posts, i.e. “Decoded” (here are links to the former
vs. the latter
). More explicitly education-oriented platforms like Heroic Academy
, Dotted Music
also run their own online publications. (Full disclosure: I have gotten paid to write for a handful of these blogs in the past.)
Interestingly, the indie-services world is jumping on the artist-education bandwagon much more aggressively than streaming services are.
The one exception is the Spotify for Artists
franchise, which offers a steady stream of educational, pro-artist-independence content, including but not limited to its polished video series The Game Plan
and live event series Co.Lab
. In contrast, the blogs of Pandora
focus more on product updates than on artist education; Tidal
’s blog takes a more explicitly cultural approach, working with the likes of DJBooth on content partnerships; and Apple Music and Amazon Music don’t run any educational blogs at all, presumably because their brainpower is concentrated on more lucrative revenue streams.
Where streaming services are competing more directly with distribution services, and with each other, is around some form of data transparency for artists.
In the wake of Pandora launching
its AMP suite of analytics and marketing tools in 2014, almost every other major service has since rolled out a similar dashboard. Spotify’s Fan Insights
(now simply Spotify for Artists), YouTube’s Music Insights
(now YouTube for Artists) and independent data-analytics platform Soundcharts
all launched in 2015.
An even greater flurry of activity took place in 2017—the year Spotify rolled
its artist dashboard out of beta, Bandcamp launched
its brand-new analytics and fan-messaging app, AWAL unveiled
its own data-analytics app for clients and SoundCloud doubled down on better analytics
for “creators” on its site, months after laying off 40% of its staff.
By 2018, any other subsequent data-dashboard announcements—e.g. Spotify adding
publishing analytics, Apple Music for Artists launching
as a very
late mover—seemed rather predictable and, at worst, uninspired.
To be clear, this is a net-positive shift: providing greater transparency to artists should be treated as nothing more than a company’s admission ticket to gaining the music industry’s trust, instead of a flashy piece of news that deserves its own headline.
In short, educational blogs and data dashboards seem to have become two of the primary resources companies leverage to lure in artists as customers, and that artists are leveraging on their own to make business decisions.
But when it comes to more holistic, entrepreneurial education that equips artists with the appropriate mindset to chart their own creative and commercial paths, I think there’s still ample room for growth and improvement.
You can be collecting all the data from all the streaming services in the world on your dashboard, but if you don’t know how to translate that information from a pretty visualization on your computer screen into decisions that get you closer to your goals, then what’s the point? You can know about all the music startups in the world, but how do you actually make decisions about which startups will be the best partners for your specific needs?
At large: based on an artist’s unique positioning, how do you figure out what kind of knowledge and information is actually helpful and effective, and how do you go about obtaining it?
This is a question I’ve gotten in many forms at music conferences. For instance, during a work trip last week, I met with the University of Oregon’s Music Industry Collective
, and one student asked for advice on how to keep up with digital trends and cultivate a “tech-forward” mindset as an artist manager. Others have asked me what types of publications to read, or where they can learn about best practices in digital marketing for music.
While I’m certainly not in a position to be giving artists foolproof advice on how to run their careers, I do have firsthand experience trying to navigate and digest today’s technological landscape in a systematic way, from the perspective of a writer. I thought I would take this week’s newsletter to share some of my philosophy around this navigation, in a way that is hopefully helpful for artists.
The tl;dr version of what you’re about to read can be boiled down to this: In today’s volatile, fast-changing technological climate, digital literacy is a way of thinking first, and a body of knowledge second.
The difference between the two is subtle but essential. A body of knowledge is something you can collect piece by piece in some kind of physical or metaphorical box. The emphasis is on volume. In contrast, a way of thinking is a muscle that you must train regularly over time, and that performs better the more you feed it the right “nutrients.” The emphasis is on agility and strength.
Hence, maximizing digital and strategic literacy as an artist, manager or any other kind of creative or business-minded person involves creating the ideal environment for yourself to hone and toughen the appropriate mental muscles, based on your unique needs—not just racing to amass the biggest imaginary box of “facts.”
Of course, being able to distill fact from falsehood is essential for staying informed and sane in the first place. But as more and more players than ever try to break into label services, distribution and other verticals of music, today’s artists have more leverage than ever in the deals and partners they choose. As a result, the north star that artists and their teams rely on to make decisions has become increasingly crucial.
Below is the first out of four pillars that I’ve found essential to honing my own sense of digital and strategic literacy that I think could be helpful in a musical context. The remaining three pillars will be included in the next send-out on Monday. I’d love to hear any feedback you have on these ideas—simply reply to this and it’ll go straight to me!
1. Build and seek frameworks that are modular and customizable, rather than prescriptive and one-size-fits-all.
Several blog posts in the realm of “artist education” are really in the business of selling artists and audiences on a highly specific vision of success that falls in line with a given company’s core business.
This is neither good nor bad; it’s simply the goal of good content marketing. And education through a content-marketing filter can still be valuable in its ability to spread awareness of particular tools, news, product features and techniques.
But as in any industry, perhaps the worst thing you can do as a creative enterprise is end up chasing other people’s definition of success, instead of your own.
I would love to see a wider diversity of models celebrated, studied and scrutinized in educational material about the music industry. An artist earning the majority of their revenue from YouTube, a classical musician making 90% of revenue from live shows and a songwriter
pulling in a comfortable salary from adverting syncs after getting dropped from two label deals might all be earning the same income on an annual basis, but each have vastly different strengths, pain points and career goals.
What’s more, the vast majority of educational artist content being churned out about the music industry works under the assumption that full independence is the only viable path forward (because the companies writing them are trying to attract independent/unsigned artists as customers). In reality, there remain several artists today who see inking a major-label deal or competing on a show like American Idol as their next stepping stone, based on their own goals and definitions of success.
That is completely legitimate in the right situations—yet there’s very little educational material about how to navigate those types of corporate environments effectively, in a way that feels creatively empowering (probably because there are stacks of NDAs involved).
We know about all the tools available for unsigned artists—but how can you best prepare yourself for all the mental and commercial challenges that come with a bigger deal? How do you stay true to your own definition of success in an environment where so many other vested interests are colliding?
Some of the most compelling pieces of educational content I’ve seen about music—and about any industry for that matter—offer deeper-level strategic frameworks that would help each of these different artists gain clarity on what success means for themselves, then make decisions about their investments and partnerships accordingly.
This process obviously requires much more time and real estate than just a single blog post, but some of the tools to facilitate that process can be packaged in a more digestible manner.
One example of a useful model I saw recently that’s aimed at helping artists direct their decisions on their own terms is AWAL’s visual framework for “spending smart.”
The full model is available on the AWAL website, but one of the screenshots toward the top of the post is attached below: