I’ve discussed, and will continue to tell everyone that artists, big and small, are a brand, and music is their product. Underground music, much like that gorgeous cross-body in a high-end shop window, is a luxury product. Following the rabbit warren of Bandcamp or iTunes recommendations is luxurious time you take out of your busy day, time just for you. You should enjoy yourself, and receive impeccable customer service.
I like to compare iTunes/Apple Music, Spotify, and others to department stores. Once you licence your beautiful craftsmanship to be sold there, you have very little control over how they place it (is it on a shelf at eye-level? Is it flung into a pile? Did they put it on sale without asking you first?), unless, of course, you have enough industry sway to demand a front-row shelf to your specifications. You also have to trust that the department store hires the best employees to give customer service as possible. Them not doing so can dilute your brand’s reputation.
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The alternative, of course, is to have your own store. Many artists have both. On your own website, you control the fan experience from start to finish. They learn everything about your sound and artistic vision. Just like a brick-and-motor shop far off high street, while you may get less foot traffic, your customers aren’t likely to get distracted by another brand’s merchandise, and they’ll probably spend more as well, once they know who you are and what you stand for. It’s hard to build super fans if all they do is download, without looking you up on social media.
To continue this analogy, let’s say that the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where hit songs are both played everywhere and scrutinized by the music loving public, is the equivalent of a big North American shopping mall. No matter if the price point of that clutch is $20 or $2,000, one has to admit that a single-brand store in this building is considered “mainstream.” Contrary to popular belief, not every handbag-making company’s long term goal is to have a store in the mall, just like not every professional musician plans on composing songs that will land them a #1. Sure, the money would be nice, but some acts just aren’t made to be pop stars from the very beginning. May it be because their songs are usually 11 minutes long with changes in time signatures, they have a niche sound that will never get played on AT40 radio, or they simply don’t want to betray their fans in 3:20; those are all valid reasons. One can have a successful music career and an extremely loyal following without ever performing on Good Morning America – we’ve seen it time and time again.
But all this aside, every company, even those that rank on a Forbes list, started out with someone’s dream about creating art. They sewed in their basement, recruited their friends and family’s support and now are a business. The same is true about musicians. Each and every one of us started by learning a few notes and practicing for hours and hours. Each song, EP, album, is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Customers with a love for quality will see that, and support you. As creators of something, we’re biased to believing that that thing is necessary to people. No one (not even me) needs a new handbag. And if you try to think objectively about it, no one really needs a new addition to their huge album collection. But of course, humans aren’t rational about art, especially the masterpieces we create, and that is the beautiful thing about it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you brand yourself and your music clearly, people will know who you are and what you stand for. Fans will turn into customers. You need never “sell-out” unless you want to, and it is the next logical step to growing towards your goals. Niche boutiques can be very successful and even more fulfilling when it comes to creative control. Go offer your fans a piece of craftsmanship that’s worthy of being in a department store window display, with the luxurious customer service a small business can give. If you need me, I’ll be having my breakfast in front of said windows.