Author Hunter S. Thompson famously quipped, "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”
Paradoxically, any artist who has achieved significant fame knows the music industry’s negative side better than anyone. And in today’s industry, I would argue it’s no longer the underbelly of unethical backroom deals, it’s the destructive force of fame in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
We live in a culture that ignores most artists, and then crushes, criticizes, and spits out those few who achieve significant success. Many believe that famous musicians should be nothing but grateful for their good fortune. I believe the opposite.
If I could change one thing in the global music ecosystem, it would be societal expectations around fame and the artistic process.
Fame in the arts is a blender that leaves its subjects permanently changed, with no roadmap for navigating the magnitude of its invisible pressures. The permanent loss of privacy and the threat of dangerous fans is unseen to the masses, but ever-present behind the scenes. The gratitude should therefore be reversed – we should be thankful to any artist for their courage and resiliency, each of which must increase exponentially in direct relation to their success, often through unseen pain and error.
Why then is our societal dialogue around creative success so shallow, and why are artists pulled in so many competing directions, often leading to burnout and self-abuse?
I have a theory that the source of the problem stems from the difficulty of fitting the artistic process into the typical lens of product and customer, which in turn leads to unrealistic expectations between fans and artists.
Most businesses and industries have a clear relationship between product and customer, and the successful business serves its customers with a laser-like focus. Amazon famously has a leadership principle that the company calls Customer Obsession, which dictates that decisions should start with the customer and "work backwards from their needs."
But should great artists create art by working backwards from what they believe their “customers” need? And who is the artist’s customer in the first place? Is it their fans, their infrastructure (eg record labels, talent buyers), social media platforms, traditional media, or even the artist themselves?
The latter idea that an artist’s customer could potentially be themselves rather than their fans might sound ridiculous, but it’s a helpful thought experiment to underscore the unique nature of creative production. Whether true or not, we tend to want to believe that our great artists make art for themselves rather than in an overly calculated way. Does that mean the artist’s highest customer is ideally their future self?
Successful artists essentially become multi-national businesses, but serving customers in the arts is much more complex than our typical business language allows. By examining the complexity, we can better understand the manifold responsibilities of a public entertainer in the music ecosystem, and in turn engender empathy for successful artists who inevitably experience personal challenges as they navigate any level of fame.
1/ The Fan
The fan is the artist’s most obvious customer. The audience drives the business and rightfully should be celebrated for making the economic ecosystem possible. But solely pleasing fans or “working backwards from their needs” as customers would be a recipe for disaster for any artist, both artistically and personally.
Most celebrated musicians appreciate their fans within safe boundaries. However, large international fanbases demand more than any individual can possibly give, and unlike other businesses the artist can’t delegate their core responsibilities. There is only one irreplaceable and non-divisible central asset, a human being no less. As the successful artist faces constant and impossible demands for their time and energy output – across multiple global territories – the only possible path for survival is to not fulfill the needs of every customer. Every city can't be played, every selfie can't be taken, every interview can’t be done, and every request for time can’t be answered.
But this dynamic takes its toll on the mental health of the successful artist, who gives constantly but inevitably ends up being criticized by their own fans, their own customers. Many artists are left feeling that they’re never giving enough, never working enough, never keeping up. Just staying afloat becomes a sinking feeling. Knowing where to draw the line is a deeply personal and sometimes painful process that can only be learned from trial and error.
2/ The Infrastructure (Record Label, Talent Buyers, etc)
With success typically comes an infrastructure, and satisfying that infrastructure becomes part of the artist’s life behind the scenes. To even have a chance at fulfilling the fans’ needs, the artist often first must fulfill his or her infrastructure’s needs. Does that dynamic make the record label or publisher a customer of the artist? Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but the dynamic is worth understanding.
The record label can reject the artist’s product, just like a customer at a restaurant can send back a meal. The challenge of moving artistic creation through various departments of massive companies and out into the world is a dual role for artists and their managers, and the stakes can be very high. The artist must meet the label’s needs – financially, artistically – enough to incent the label to keep supporting them. Although in principle the infrastructure is working for the artist, often it feels the opposite, and this in turn adds another layer of artistic stress.
The music industry has an instructive job title on the live side called a “talent buyer,” and this phrase further illustrates that the artist’s customer is manifold. The talent buyer buys the artist’s performance services for a show, festival, or tour. In both cases the artist has to sell their product or service to an intermediary customer (record label, talent buyer) in order to get broader access to the first order customer (audience). The pressure of pleasing and meeting the needs of an infrastructure is an unavoidable part of an artist’s life that the public rarely sees.
3/ Social Media Platforms
The modern fan is also now part of a social media monolith that needs constant and direct interaction from the artist, a never-ending cycle which affects the life arc of creators in ways we are only beginning to understand. Fulfilling the persistent hunger of social media platforms would be a suicide mission, and I use that phrase purposefully. The world claws at artists and a safe refuge from the ‘customer' becomes essential for survival and longevity.
Is it off base to suggest that algorithms are yet another customer in the life of the modern artist? At minimum it’s a lens worth considering philosophically, in order to grapple with what the current culture expects from our artists. The artist’s personality and likeness are products that need to feed algorithms in order to compete and grow audiences. The algorithms decide what is valuable and what should be rejected (ie not propagated in feeds), which at minimum puts the social media companies and their algorithms in the structural position of a customer, and an impossibly demanding one at that.
4/ Traditional Media
Gatekeepers at radio, TV, and press decide how airwaves and magazine covers are programmed. They have the ability to reject or amplify artists, also putting this sector in a unique customer relationship to the artist and their music. Although traditional media industries have been disintermediated by social media, there are still key individuals at important media outlets who I would argue have historically been – and still are – in a unique customer dynamic with the artist.
As an illustrative example, consider the stakes of booking a performance on a significant late night or morning show. The artist is there to reach fans, but before being given that opportunity the artist must have satisfied the show and its booking staff. The bookers have a customer lens – is the product (song) worthy of amplification and will this particular artist succeed in our format? Traditionally artists know they need to win over a select group of power-brokers who need to be convinced to buy into their product and story, which adds yet another group of constituents that the artist needs to consider.
Faced with these competing and manifold customers, the successful artist might question who they're responsible to in the music ecosystem, even if just subconsciously. Where is the centre of gravity for a healthy and sustainable creative existence and who’s voice is most important?
The notion that “the customer is always right” is trite, but the phrase still holds weight in our cultural power dynamic. Fans, infrastructures, social media platforms, and traditional media all have unique power over artists. But none of these parties should necessarily have needs that supersede the artist as an indivisible human being and sometimes fragile creator. Are we therefore left coming back to the counter-intuitive idea that an artist’s ultimate customer might in fact be themselves?
Artists often say that their great creative benchmarks were written and produced for themselves – that their only goal was to create something they themselves would like, without conscious worry about the fickle consumer market. But most creators can’t earn a living from their art, so it’s no wonder that those few who do are both revered and admonished. Following one’s own highest creative vision while achieving market success is a rare balancing act, and arguably one that requires luck and good timing in addition to skill and hard work.
The pressures of fame and satisfying so many possible customers leaves successful artists burnt-out, pulled in too many directions, and prone to self-medication from mental health challenges. Creatives are vulnerable personalities to begin with, putting their deepest selves into the world to face rejection and judgement. In this cycle, it’s no wonder that the balance of fulfilling customer needs becomes much more complex than an Amazon warehouse.
So perhaps we do need to formalize our counterintuitive idea. All that’s left is for the career artist to satisfy their own needs as a first principle, with the belief that this directive will lead to a stable business where every other segment of customer – fan, infrastructure, media and social media – also gets enough of what they need from the artist. It won't be a selfie for every fan in every city, but it should be enough if we want our great artists to continue bringing their gifts into the music ecosystem sustainably.
This essay originally appeared in Music Ally.
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