At some point in the journey of becoming a professional artist, there will come a point when creating original music is a challenge. On one hand, most "creative" types like to just create and leave it at that. They prefer people appreciate their work for what it is and how original it is. Simply, they want it to be their representation of who they are or want people to see them to be.
Backing it up a bit.
When the artist is younger, a lot of times they create original music that is very similar to what is already on radio in hopes to sound professional.
We've all heard the expression, "It's about the music", and to a large extent, it is. However, in the real industry of entertainment, it's also "about the commercial viability of the music". In other words, "can this song make money".
Spencer is active in creating both secular and Christian genre's of music. His secular music is in the form of known covers, but also in the form of original music with lyrics that are positive, hopeful, and encouragement to the listener. His Christian music leans more toward a Christian audience which is accustomed to lyrics that directly speak about the Christian walk of faith or directly about God. But in this combination of creating music, there is still a balancing act between the music being something totally creative and free from commercial worry, and paying the bills.
So what makes a song commercially viable?
Well, unfortunately, there is no magic pill or silver bullet on this one, or else everyone who writes songs or performs them would be famous. There is, however, some baseline for understanding trends and how different pieces of the industry work so at least you have a better chance at creating something commercially viable.
There a key influencers that can often dictate whether a song will be a project tucked away on a track on an album project and reserved for loyal fans to appreciate, or one which will likely sell and become a hit.
In no specific order, consider these factors.
- RADIO PLAY
- Every artist I know that is serious about their career is hoping for radio to embrace their music and songs. This is a Rubik's Cube if not a 10,000 piece puzzle of a solid color picture. Radio has been changing and evolving for quite some time and presents both the good and bad of the music industry journey. I won't use this post to speak about radio in depth, but on the surface, there are gatekeepers of the radio world that may or may not officially "BLESS" a song's commercial worth. The moment a terrestrial radio station embraces and plays a song, you are almost guaranteed it will have a commercial shelf life of sales. How much or when is not a formula easily calculated, but at the least, radio playing a song is an endorsement to consumers that the artist and the song are worthy of consumer consideration.
- I would love to list the factors gatekeepers use to decide this, but (again) a later post.
- FAN SUPPORT
- This is a "DUHH" point. But it is truly important to understand. Before most artists hit radio, there is a fan base that supports the song. This isn't always true about radio, but apart from a label pushing the song to radio, it is more likely as in indie artist, fans will have paved the support road for a single to get played on radio... which turns into exposure... which turns into sales at some point.
- LIVE PERFORMANCE OF THE SONG
- Some songs find prominence and commercial success because the artist performs it so great in a live setting that it goes viral or has a grassroots movement behind it.
- ONLINE PROMOTION
- This is a tricky one. The moment a song goes onto Youtube, the consumer base that is supposed to purchase it no longer has the requirement to do so since browser makers provide a handy-dandy plugin that allows people to "rip" the music off a youtube video as an MP3 and lets them put it in their iPod for free. However, a lot of views of a music video can certainly equate exposure which may lead to sales.
- One of the key ingredients of a song's commercial viability is it's production quality. There are many ways to produce a song and budgets dictate all of them.
- Exactly "WHO" produced the song is also a key factor in whether it will be taken seriously by radio or industry executives with budgets enough to promote the song to commercial viability. So having a known producer on a track will increase it's likelihood of being taken seriously by industry gods who wave their magic wands over whose music gets pushed to the public.
- Home studios are used all the time by professional singers and artists. What most may not tell you, however, is the when it's time to MIX that song recorded at home, they outsource that to professional mix engineers, and also may go to a professional MASTERING engineer. These specialist are called upon to mix and master music to commercial standards. Like it or not, there are industry known standards about the mix of a song that any radio or label executive will hear the moment they listen. They can tell if it is worthy of commercial promotion. So, in this sense, production of the song is a HUGE piece of the puzzle.
- MARKET SATURATION
- Another element is the readiness of the market for the song. Does the song stand out from what's already available from other artists, or is the genre unsaturated and can use another sound-alike without being lost in the shuffle? As an older adult, I tend to hear top 40 music and think, "Didn't I just hear that song 2 songs ago?" Seriously, a lot of the music sounds the same to me, but in reality, consumers are creatures of habit and may be interested in other songs by an artist and it just so happens what is currently on the playlist is a new release by the artist that happens to sound similar.
- But from a "new artist" standpoint, I can guarantee you that labels are not looking to replace their current roster artists. They are interested in breaking an artist that can stand on their own two feet commercially and creatively. Labels aren't stupid. They also understand the power of the bandwagon, but if I've learned one thing so far on our journey, it's this. The cycle of production to market release is not less than 18 months in the real world of commercial releases. That's right, 18 months minimum. I've spoken to producer after producer in Nashville when working with Spencer and in their world, what they create today won't even hit the street for consumer's to hear for nearly 18 months. Now there may be some small market testing of a release before that, but when we're talking national radio, it's 18 months. So the "sound" or "style" of a song may already be 2 years old before a fan base is singing the words in their shower. As such, it's not always the song that "sounds" similar to what an artist hears on the radio today. It's the ability to predict what will be popular 18 months from now, and therein lies the problem knowing if a song will be a hit or sell well.
- Personally, I struggle with knowing how easy it is to produce a song, and use a service like CD Baby to throw it up on iTunes in 2 months time. However, just cause it's available for purchase doesn't mean you're raking in the revenues.
- MUSIC WITH A MESSAGE
- Sometimes songs that are written with a specific social message can take on a greater commercial return than those that are personal creativity projects. Taking on a story from the headlines or topic that touches a lot of lives can be a way to quickly find exposure... again, leading to sales.
- Sometimes the message is nonsense. Look at songs like "WHAT DOES THE FOX SAY" or "GANGNAM STYLE" and realize that the cleverness of the lyric and message it represents allowed it to gain market acceptance.
- WRITTEN FOR COMMERCIAL USE
- I know that younger artists don't think about this, but professional artists do this all the time. They write music that they know could be sold to TV, MOVIES, COMMERCIALS, etc. They intentionally write with licensing in mind. They will sit down and intentionally think of a product that the song could endorse or be used to promote. For example, the lyric says something about feeling excited and suddenly it's usable by Cadillac to launch their new car line on a TV commercial.
- Sadly, a lot of starving artists look at this approach as selling out their artistry. But when they have to make a choice of having a regular job or doing a career they love.. but get paid to do it... usually they will understand the importance of making their music commercially viable.
These were just a few factors that affect whether a song is worthy of consumer investment. Labels are constantly toying with this list when considering new talent. In fact, it's almost formulaic how some labels go through the process of considering an artists commercial viability. This too, is a topic for another post (label's checklist for considering an artist).
Suffice it to say, an artist who intends to make a career out of their music passion will learn at some point it isn't about the beatnik poetic lyrics and melodies they churn out in a 2 hour rampage of inspiration. It's about knowing their intended audience and how to play the game of getting attention from the industry gods who look for artists willing to submit to their canons of unspoken rules.