What are an Artist’s Metrics for Success in the Digital Age?

Last night I was fortunate enough to be on stage with Talking Head David Byrne and legendary DJ Dave Haslam at the Royal Northern College of Music discussing Byrne’s latest book ‘How Music Works’.  It was a fun event with a lot of thoughtful debate and also insight into Byrne’s approach to making and performing music.  Prior to our discussion I gave a short presentation on the state of the digital music nation to help illustrate how the music market is so dramatically different after the music industry’s first digital decade.

One of the slides I updated for my presentation was that of artist ‘success metrics’ in the digital age (see figure).

Prior to the advent of digital, and more specifically the spread of the contagion of free, the way in which artist’s measured their success was primarily through sales of albums.  But in the digital era, with album sales becoming less and less important to many artists, metrics such as total YouTube views and number of Facebook likes are becoming just as important measures of success.

As we are still in the early days of digital, the shift in success metrics does not apply in a uniform manner.  Some artists’ success metrics still look more like those of artists from the analogue age than they do the digital age.  Take a look at two of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists: Adele and Coldplay.  Both of these artists are still predominately album artists and both have had huge success with their latest albums.  Yet look at their YouTube views and Facebook likes, and they significantly trail more canonically digital-age artists such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga.  This is illustrated even more starkly by the case of Pitbull who has sold a relatively modest 8 million albums but has a staggering 2.95 billion YouTube views.

A key factor that underpins this diversity is the age of the core audiences of the artists.  Coldplay and Adele appeal more to older audiences who are still in the habit of buying albums, or who do not buy many albums anymore but do so on occasion when an album like ‘21’ comes along.

Does this mean that as we progress more deeply into the music industry’s second digital decade that the success metric balance will tilt more firmly in the favour of YouTube and Facebook?  Quite probably.  Which inherently means that album sales will continue to dwindle.  A key reason for this is that the majority of album buyers are still CD buyers, and more of these consumers are stopping buying music entirely rather than going digital.  In the UK the total number of people buying music dropped by 5.1 million between 2008 and 2011.  Against a population of 61 million that is a vast number to lose in such a short period of time.  In the US the numbers are similar but slightly lower on a per capita basis.

Until a clear path is carved for physical album buyers into the digital realm, album sales will continue to dwindle.  And that not only matters in industry revenue terms, it matters from a creative perspective as well.  I am not arguing that we try to turn back the tide of album atomization (many consumers will forever more only want individual tracks from many artists).  But what must happen is the emergence of a new generation of album products that deliver not just as much, but more value to music fans than CD albums currently do.  This means leveraging the principles of DISC (Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated) to create a new breed of album experiences.  Because the alternative is swapping albums sales for YouTube views and Facebook likes, neither of which pay the bills.