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.

8 thoughts on “What are an Artist’s Metrics for Success in the Digital Age?

  1. Mark, as usual your insights are well founded upon industry trends and measurement values that makes you stand out out among industry analysts. I would add however to your point about the “emergence of a new generation of album products”, that the new album manufacturers are the artists and companies that seek to derive monetary benefit from their product, but the new album creators are the consumers that create playlists based on wanted material rather than “got” material. This trend or reality has been present for years, long before the digital age. As long as we’ve had access to the technology to make our own cassettes, CDs, and now DVDs consumers tailored much of their listening experience to songs they liked. Its what was played on personal Walkmans, portable CD players, and car stereos. What the digital age made easier, less cumbersome and financially expedient is forcing the Recording industry to rethink the whole process. Unfortunately most have not awakened to the notion that the one artist “album concept” is not as popular now as the “single song” concept. Yes it’s less money overall but it’s more inline with what consumers have been doing since the days of “reel to reel”. Many are trying to find a viable solution to dwindling profits resultant from the above facts and are now considering more value added experiences to the equation. The tragedy may be rather, that while time forces us toward the challenge of tomorrow we’re still somehow thinking that the “good ole days” are just around the corner. The reality is that “tomorrow can never wear yesterday’s shoes”.

  2. Interesting, but ten years into the ‘new model’ there doesn’t seem to be much demand out there for anything other than the ‘traditional’ role of recorded music. People just use it like they used to (without having to pay, usually) Bjork tried something new with the app of her last album, but even muso/industry people I know who got it (to check it out, usually) admitted that pretty quickly they were bored by it, ignored all updates (especially if they had to pay for new content) and generally thought that the idea wasn’t worth following up. Most folk I know loathe having any form of content ‘pushed’ at them, from Facebook updates to artist emails. Not convinced the world wants any more from artists than what they’ve already got. Adele is the epitome of a ‘trad’ artist and she’s cleaning up, as are Mumford & Sons. Mash ups, interactivity, social media games seem to be a niche activity among mostly young males, few of whom will pay for any of it. I’m really not sure the world needs a new form of music product. They’ve got it already, and it’s free. Musos may need one (they’re mostly skint) but few punters out there will take it up. They’re perfectly happy with free, or nearly free, recorded music

  3. I’m not even trying to light a spark of interest or getting my kid an instrument ; what kind of parent would send their kid down the road of a life as a music pauper ??? No mention about what role government could play in re-establishing Intellectual Property rights into this situation . Tech companies have made billions supporting the illegal exploitation of our cultural past all the while ruthlessly pursuing the dismantling of incentives creators need to fashion our cultural future……. Ain’t life grand …

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