I spend a lot of time discussing with my friends what I think is wrong with the music business. I don’t think I’m unique in that regard. This industry is filled with brilliant, creative humans, most of whom care deeply about our future as songwriters, producers, artists, and labels, and we tend to talk about how we see things evolving, or not evolving, as it so often seems.
However, in an effort to illustrate what could be better, I will not dwell on what I see wrong, but instead focus on what is awesome, in the hopes that more of said awesome happens! I formed many of my ideas about music, culture, and fandom in the 90s. I watched Dave Matthews, Phish, The Roots, and Tribe Called Quest, all of which had tremendous success speaking almost exclusively to their core fan-bases. The general audience that (sometimes) came later via radio play, was usually ushered via a hit song. Suddenly they had access to an audience.
Today, when I take a screenshot of our global musical scene, I see a return of root and core fan-base success stories. I see artists telling their stories, building and growing their perspectives and legions organically, before labels and radio catch on.
Examples of ‘newer’ artists who have done this are Ed Sheeran and Drake. It’s quite simple really: these guys are hit artists that have hit songs as a by-product. That’s not to say they don’t write ridiculously catchy tunes, but in my mind, what makes them successful is themselves.
In fact, I wonder if a hit song for Drake could be a hit song for Justin Timberlake, or a hit song by Ed Sheeran could be a hit for any other artist? I believe the answer is no. What was a hit for Bowie was most likely not going to be a hit for Aretha, and what is a hit for Alicia Keys would most probably not be a hit for Pink.
Of course, there are examples of soon-to-be hit songs making the rounds, being cut by one artist instead of another, and going on to become huge radio smashes. There will always be exceptions, but a smash isn’t always sustainable, and what I’m interested in discussing is why fan bases emerge in support of particular artists; why their core fan base, that certainly listens to the radio, suddenly focuses in on one artist in particular, lifts he or she onto their collective shoulders, and helps to usher them onto the world stage. What makes them stay there is that original fan base.
That idea that we need to be focusing
on is: hit artists vs. hit songs. As an industry,
we need to celebrate the weird and odd, the
strange and awesome. We need to continue to
look for Jay Z, (who, up until Empire State of
Mind, had never had a #1 Billboard song) or
The Weeknd, who sell out theatres in every
city, but haven’t had a Top 40 radio smash
yet, or Time Flies, who sell out 4,000-seater
college shows all around North America, while
waiting for radio to catch up. The axis around
which success spins needs to be a human
being, not a song.
Fan-bases, armies, legions, movements - whatever you want to call them - form around great humans. At that point, sure, an anthem can combine the core fan-base and general audience into a world-base. And that’s a beautiful thing.