This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Keith Jopling in which he dives into some of the key insights he has gleaned from talking to artists as part of his side-hustle ‘Art of Longevity’ podcast (which you should check out if you haven’t already done so!)
This year I had the pleasure of working with one of the greatest songwriters in history. Bjorn Ulvaes commissioned MIDiA to produce the report ‘Rebalancing the Song Economy’ at a time when the UK government was making a formal inquiry into the economics of music streaming. Bjorn was amazingly articulate (of course he was, check out his ABBA lyrics) on the challenges for songwriters today, but one thing he said really haunted me. During the press interviews (and in his Ted Talk) Bjorn told the world “I don’t think ABBA would have made it today”. Imagine if ABBA hadn’t ever broken out of Sweden?
Meanwhile, as part of the UK inquiry, another great lyricist, Elbow singer Guy Garvey, eloquently told MPs “If musicians can’t afford to pay the rent… we haven’t got tomorrow’s music in place.”
This concern about the artists of today not replenishing those of the past is one of the reasons I have become fascinated with longevity in today’s music business. Longevity has to be the primary goal for any serious artist, yet achieving it in today’s music business means working miracles. The volume of music and the number of artists creating and releasing it makes today’s ‘market’ ultra competitive.
The Art of Longevity podcast is now two seasons in and I’m becoming even more fascinated by how music artists can continue to succeed despite the music industry constantly shifting around them.
What I’ve discovered this time around is that there is no ‘mainstream’ music industry to aspire to at all (something that has changed since Elbow first gained real success with their fourth album ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ in 2008). Chart success for example, does not equate to being in the mainstream. These days most establishes bands can focus their efforts and get a number one or two album but a week later, the world has moved on. Most artists understand this. Success is a relative term best defined by you – the artist – on your terms and no one else’s.
My guests in season 2 were: KT Tunstall, Ed Robertson (of Canadian legends Barenaked Ladies), Fin Greenhall (Fink), Los Lobos, Mew and Portico Quartet. Between them they have amassed 150 years of commercial and creative viability and they are all still going strong – perhaps stronger than ever. The seven lessons learned from my conversations with them are:
- HAVE THE CONFIDENCE TO DISRUPT YOURSELF BEFORE THE INDUSTRY DISRUPTS YOU
The mainstream no longer exists but in the 80s it sure did and in 1987 LA rock band Los Lobos discovered it by accident. Their cover of Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ (the theme song to a surprise hit movie by a first-time director with a largely unknown cast) became a smash number one hit in a dozen countries. How do you follow that? With an album of traditional Mexican music of course! Thing is, Los Lobos knew how much of a fluke La Bamba was for them and that they had little chance of successfully repeating it. So they didn’t try or let anyone convince them it was a good idea.
When the Danish rock band Mew first had breakthrough international success with their 2003 album ‘Frengers’, they had arrived in a place most bands (especially from non-English speaking markets) dream of: signed to a UK major label and on a European tour with R.E.M. Their next record wasn’t a mainstream follow-up to Frengers however but an ambitious indie-rock opera – a nod to progressive rock that no other band (on a major label) dared make in 2005. The band never entertained any notion of building on the success of Frengers with a more mainstream record. Yet the dramatic and complex follow-up album became a classic and a fan favourite, and ended up presenting the band with its only number one single in their home country, ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’.
- WELCOME IN THOSE LITTLE DETAILS THAT MIGHT CHANGE YOUR DESTINY AKA TRUST YOUR STUDIO TEAM
Back in 1992, the Barenaked Ladies song ‘One Week’ finally broke the band in the USA and brought them international fame too. Although Ed Robertson had written the song and taken lead vocals duty (including that famous dexterous rap) Ed thought the idea of the record label, to make One Week the lead single for their new album, to be a joke. Then, the record’s producer (Susan Rogers) suggested the drum loop “wasn’t very cool”. Because of Susan’s input, the band changed the drums, a tweak which transformed the song and in effect, the band’s entire future. You need to be receptive to those little suggestions, accidents and tweaks that might turn out to be pivotal.
That same year (1992 was a good one it seems) when Los Lobos hauled themselves into a downtown LA studio with six new songs and teamed up with producer/engineer partners Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the band was exhausted from the previous album and gruelling tour. Yet out of these sessions came the album Kiko, the band’s first genuine masterpiece. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos told me it was by tiny details that Froom and Blake were able to elicit a performance from the band that made the difference:
“Tchad (Blake) could even take the mistakes and turn them into something that sounded genius. When we got together and listened to the record in sequence, we were all stunned”.
It was the beginning of a decade of innovation that the team of Mitchell & Blake brought to recording production for Lobos and many other artists. Many of their now highly sought after sounds are available commercially as samples. Those producers and engineers really do make careers.
- EARN THE RIGHT TO SAY ‘NO’ AND RECOGNISE WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR CAREER
After Fink made ‘Perfect Darkness’ (album number four) the band had earned the right to say “no”. No to playing small shitty venues. No to rushing out a follow-up record. No to some (of the many) sync offers that came rushing in. It was at that point, after seven years of saying yes to everything, that the band began to realise they had created something of real viability and were in it for the long game. They hadn’t hit ‘the big time’ (that might come later) but they earned the right to make their choices, including ‘no’.
After the phenomenal success of her debut album ‘Eye to The Telescope’, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall began to feel the pressure from her label to “make another one of those”. In fact, KT began to get the feeling she was picking up a reputation for being “difficult” because she did not want to just repeat her debut. KT was hardly the first woman in this situation and she won’t be the last but, she stuck to her guns. Firstly, how would that be even possible when her debut was a decade or more in the making? KT had to navigate multiple challenges: make the sophomore record she wanted to make and fight off the insistence that she fit the mould of ‘female singer-songwriter’ that had become popular at the time (ironically down in part to KT’s success). In the end, her second album was a somewhat compromised product, with good songs but too much pop polish.
Be ready to turn down what doesn’t feel right for you, even if those around you think it is.
- BE YOUR OWN COTTAGE INDUSTRY
A common pattern with artists that have achieved longevity is that they tend to get started under their own steam. One of the best things about how the music industry has been transformed by technology, is that you can simply upload your songs onto the platforms and get working your socials, hard. However, is this really just the modern equivalent of the field of dreams approach? Build it and they will come…
In reality it’s much harder of course. Many of the artists I’ve spoken with on The Art of Longevity gained early success without relying on any institutions at all – neither media or technology. Instead they have literally taken matters into their own hands. So often this is because those artists believe they are destined to make a career in music – maybe because they don’t feel they could do anything else.
Portico Quartet spent their early years busking along London’s SouthBank. I bought a copy of the band’s very first, self-pressed four-track CD for £5, one of 10,000 sold. Recently the band’s saxophone player Jack Wylie told me:
“We’d go off to buy big stacks of blank CDs at Maplins and we bought this burner machine that could do eight at a time. I think we managed to do 200-250 a day. As a student, it meant we could make a living without working in a bar”.
When I ask artists what advice they might pass on to those artists starting out now, most are pretty vexed (what do you say?). So much of success in music is still down to luck. But the point is, you need to make your own luck. With those SouthBank busking sessions, home CD burner factory and the Hang drum, Portico Quartet created enough word of mouth to amass an early dedicated following thousands strong. What followed was a Mercury Prize nomination and so far, an 8 album career.
- TAKE YOUR TIME
British indie wonders Alt-J took 2019 off from music altogether. Their prodigious drummer Thom Sonny Green was recently asked by The Observer if he worried they would be forgotten about. He admitted that he “thought about it every day”. In this day & age FOMO drives everything. The creator equivalent is ‘FOBF’: fear of being forgotten.
But FOBF doesn’t bother Adele. And it doesn’t bother Jonas Bjerre of Mew. Over 25 years Mew has made seven studio albums which is one every four years. That’s not something Spotify would advocate as an operating model for bands these days, is it? But the truth is – there is no point racing your way to the front of an endless rush of music. The pandemic showed the true colours of many artists. Some quietly went away and took time out to work on their craft or take a break, while others couldn’t drag themselves away from social media and online duets. You cannot make memorable songs by fidgeting and frittering away ‘content’. Well you can, but the more confident way through is to quietly focus on your art. The fans will welcome you back long after the ‘followers’ have forgotten you existed.
- HAVE OTHER PURSUITS OF MEANING OUTSIDE OF YOUR MAIN MUSIC VEHICLE
In life there are four elements: work, family, relationships and you – and a balance has to be achieved. Artists struggle with this balance. Between the intensity of writing and recording and the hard graft of touring, the obsessive element to being a musician makes work-life balance impossible. When bands achieve ‘fame’ (the ‘stratospheric rise to the top’ phase of Brett Andersen’s longevity curve) balance goes out the window altogether. Everything is work hard, play hard and burn out. Some band’s take to it and others don’t but for a while, everything looks amazing – records in the charts, video shoots, press interviews, international travel and a different hotel every night. The rock & roll lifestyle still exists, but expect it to last and you will be heading straight for the crash.
As Ed Robertson told me: “The best part of the roller-coaster is the ride back down”. Jonas Bjerre of Mew makes videos, film scores and many other types of visual art. KT Tunstall took time out to make film scores (attending Stephen Spielberg’s school to learn the art) and musicals. In this day and age, you need more than just your album-touring cycle to engage your fan base anyhow, so you can invite them in on your other creative projects too. What matters is that you make the time to regenerate, make the art you need to make and that you keep in touch with your fans. Everything comes back around.
- GET EVEN BETTER LIVE (AND STREAM IT)
Yes, it comes back to live once again. Without exception all of the artists so far I’ve spoken with for The Art of Longevity have honed the craft of performance. But the emergence of live streaming has meant a new way to connect with your audience and practice the art of performing music that way, without having to submit fully to a life on the road. Live streaming presents a new way to be creative and to connect with your most loyal fans. It’s a different experience to the visceral contact of a real life show, but the format is here to stay so invent another aspect to your ‘brand’.
The first seven secrets to longevity are on the Song Sommelier blog. The Season 1&2 archive for the Art of Longevity is on the podcast page