If you have been following along with E&A Talk, you will have heard George Howard and me discuss the feasibility of making a living via streaming royalties (listen to this episode at 49:51). The traditional “music industry” has the music release cycle at the center of the business model. From the single, EP, or album release comes merch, a touring schedule, music videos, and more.
The problem with this release-centric model is that it works primarily for only one party: the record label. And what does the record label control? Marketing.
While there are now various revenue streams open to artists, many of which require thinking outside of the release cycle (I’ll go deeper in a minute), record labels are not incentivized to put their marketing budget and expertise towards these activities unless they are tied to a release, thus granting them participation in the revenue.
As a result, artists have been stuck in a traditional release-centric business model because it is the precedent set by all major artists that emerging artists look up to, and it is the model championed by labels because they (usually) only participate in release-based revenue.
So, how do artists get out of this? Why do they need to get out of this?
THE PITFALLS OF A RELEASE-CENTRIC MODEL
Here’s what happens in a release-centric model:
- Production: Artists are quiet during the recording of an album and disconnected from their fans.
- Pre-Release: As the album nears completion, artists start to tease the album and reconnect with their fanbases.
- Release: Labels and artists pour advertising and promotional dollars into the album release.
- Post-Release: Artists go on tour, sell merch, are excessively promotional for three months.
- Repeat: Then the artist is quiet again until the next tour or music release...6-months or a year later.
This means that between cycles artists are making limited income, usually the long tail of their most recent release, and have to recapture their fans once it’s time to release music again.
Why does this model work for labels and not artists? Because labels have 10-20+ records coming out per year, giving them a constant stream of new revenue opportunities, whereas artists are doing one, maybe two, releases per year.
ARTISTS AS MEDIA COMPANIES
What if artists diverted from the traditional release cycle? What if artists thought of themselves as a media company with year-round programming rather than as a one-release-per-year talent?
Let’s create a hypothetical situation. Imagine an artist whose main output is a weekly series with supplemental content released around each episode.
Each week they come out with an “episode” of an ongoing “series”. Maybe that is a vlog, or pre-recorded performance series, or a deep dive into one of their songs. This is distributed to multiple platforms: YouTube, Instagram TV, Facebook.
Immediately following the debut of this episode, the artist does a live stream hang with fans on YouTube, Instagram Live, Facebook, and Twitch. This live stream hang is then recorded and distributed as a podcast and made available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, etc. Throughout this series of content, the artist is gently promoting their music, merch, and any upcoming events or performances.
For fans that want even more, they can pay $5 per month for access to the artist’s Patreon, which gives fans unreleased demos, behind-the-scenes content, a monthly bootleg performance download, and a discount on merch. In a word, a fan club.
And this happens all year round. As a result of this content output, things like Spotify streaming numbers are less important than “total active fans”. The annual revenue per fan (ARPF) goes up because the artist has more consistent monetizable activities than if they were only irregularly releasing music.
Of course, the artist can take breaks. Even with a few one week or two week breaks per year, this content keeps fans engaged on an ongoing basis. And once new music is available (still a big event in this scenario), there is an active audience ready to listen to and buy the music, rather than a passive audience that has to be recaptured and promoted to.
TENT POLE CONTENT
This sounds like a lot, but if we look at the series as tent pole content and everything else as derivative content, this becomes a very achievable content strategy.
Each episode of the series is the focus of the week. Let’s say it takes eight hours to create the episode (you could probably do it in less):
- Weekly Series Episode: 8 hours
- Writing, filming, recording, editing, etc.
- Post-Episode Live Stream: 30 minutes
- Distribution of live stream to podcast: 30 minutes
- Patreon Content: 2 hours
- Supplementary Social Media Promotion: 2 hours
Total time spent: 13 hours
Assuming a standard 40 hour work week, that leaves 27 hours for writing, performing, giving lessons, and whatever else pays the bills.
For the next few weeks...months...years, I will be expanding on this thesis that “artist as a media company” is the best business model, especially in comparison to a release cycle model.
From YouTube-native artists to Patreon memberships and Twitch streamers to direct to consumer (DTC) mattress brands, I will be exploring the world beyond a release cycle — writing and talking about it on this blog and on the E&A Talk podcast. Click below to subscribe and follow along!