Build Your Own Platform and Prepare for the Long Haul; True Success Never Comes Instantly
|By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)|
A few months ago, I heard a story about comic Louis C.K. and his self-distributed one-hour online comedy special, Louis C.K. - Live at the Beacon Theater. At that time, I didn’t have all the details; I hadn’t heard of C.K.’s show until two months after he had initially released it. But as a casual fan of his work, the murmurs and word of mouth about the show peaked my interest. As a DIY advocate, I was also interested in hearing more details about how the show came about. Was it really independently produced and released? Was it really released from his own website? What payment options did he make available to consumers? And, was the show a success or not?
Several weeks ago, I read a mention on Twitter of an interview that Louis C.K. did on the talk show “Fresh Air”. This lead me to hit up the “Fresh Air” website. There, I did a quick search of “Louis C.K.”, and the results yielded a link to his his interview, which was available for instant listening and on podcast. In the interview, C.K. confirmed that he produced the special with his own money, edited it entirely, and released it independently from his own website. In exchange for two streams and two downloads of the unencrypted, high-definition show, fans were asked to pay just $5 directly to him via PayPal. C.K. explained that he went this route because he wanted to see if releasing a video of himself could make money. But he also revealed that TV comedy specials he had done in the past had netted him no money at all. “I've never seen a check from a [TV] comedy special,” he says in his interview with Terry Gross, host of “Fresh Air”. Clearly, he went this route also because he wanted to eliminate the middle man, no? Finally, C.K. expressed that the project was a success, revealing that he “made all of his money back and then some.”
Now, here, I want to make a couple of points of context—about the anatomy of a sale—before I go on:
• Louis C.K. independently released Louis C.K. - Live at the Beacon Theater in early December, 2011. It got on my radar in February, 2012, nearly two months later—not the first week of its release.
• I first heard mention—word of mouth—of Louis C.K.’s special on Twitter, not a paid advertisement on television or radio.
• Because Louis C.K. was already on my radar, when I heard that he had a new special, I was interested in learning more.
• I was able to learn more about Louis C.K.’s special by tuning into an archived episode of the talk show “Fresh Air”, a show that is heavy on my radar.
• After listening to Louis C.K.’s interview on “Fresh Air”, I wanted to purchase his special, which I did less than 24hours of listening to the interview.
O.K., end of context…
It’s important to note that the way in which Louis C.K. rolled out his special exemplifies, in both broad and specific ways, how music projects are now sold. Although, the instant-hit, first-week sales paradigm is certainly still in play, most music releases, especially those from independent recording artists, make their sales over an extended period of time. This difference is in how core fans and casual fans of large and smaller acts make purchases. For big, major label backed releases, there’s typically a large push to attract both the core fan and the casual fan alike within the first week of release. In these cases, first-week sales (good or bad) often narrate the level of success (or failure) of the music release.
For smaller, independent releases, first-week sales aren’t as critical. For one thing, core fans of independent artists don’t always go for the first-week sales crunch. Because they already have a fluid connection with the artist, they maintain an unwritten revolving commitment to buy the releases. This revolving commitment is understood to mean that the fan may not buy the album in the first week or even the first month of it’s release, but that he or she will indeed buy the album at some point, usually within the first 6 months of the release or sometimes longer. Also, because smaller, independent artists lack a major national/international marketing and promotion push, the rate of casual fan discovery takes longer for them.
While bigger, major label-backed artists rely on a heavy push for their releases, most smaller, independent artists simply build something that they trust (or hope) people will gravitate to. In other words, smarter independent artists know how to follow the maxim, “Build it, and they will come”.
Louis C.K. followed this maxim. He built his brand and offered a project directly to his fans, and they came. He didn’t wait for approval or validation; he just built it! With his own imagination, wherewithal, and money, he put together his comedy special and released it to the world on his website. I’m not sure how much emphasis C.K. placed on first-week sales. I know he did some press in the weeks leading up to the release, but that was minimal, and it was certainly not a 4-month, full court marketing blitz. Either way, I get the feeling that he knew that his "Beacon Theater" project was the sort of thing that would scale over time.
The Radar: Why Most Music Releases Scale Better Over Time
Right now, there's so much music, so much information in general, that one can hardly find the time to get through new releases in a year, let alone the first week it drops. In fact, when you think about it, in an age of ultra accessibility, the idea of buying or listening to music projects in the first week of their release is an antiquated practice that has outlived its usefulness.
I don’t know about you, but throughout the year, I find myself playing catch up. Each month, I miss a number of potential great releases, not because of a lack of interest but because of the overwhelming amount of releases. Add to that the sheer amount of noise that's tossed around, and the task of keeping up with new music becomes even more daunting. But that’s the problem. Discovering great music shouldn’t be about keeping up with mounting release dates; discovering great music shouldn't be a task. Discovering great music should be an enjoyable, rewarding journey. And I’ve found that the only “new” music that I can check is the music that makes it on to my radar. (Louis C.K. made it on to my comedy radar more than four years ago, yet I only recently purchased something from him.)
I circle back to the "new" music that stays on my radar with a strong signal. For me, and I suspect many others, hearing music as soon as it's released is less important than hearing it at all. With more choice than ever before, I can tune into “new” music on my schedule, not the arbitrary release schedule of 10s of thousands of different artists. So for me, and I believe most others as well, the probability of me hearing “new” music and buying it (or something else from the artist) depends on whether or not the music/artist can get a strong signal on my radar. The greater the signal on my radar, the more likely I will purchase…eventually.
The Instant Success Problem; the Similarities Between Comics and Beatmakers; and Why Forming Groups Might Be the Best Way to Go
There is no such thing as instant success. Peel back the curtains on any success story, and what you’ll find is a more humbling set of facts. Everything from arduous practice hours, to tons of money spent (and lost), to creative failures, to opportunities that fell through, to lost and made business connections; it’s all there behind the curtain of instant success.
Louis C.K.’s story, like most comics, is a story of endurance. Countless hours of practice (writing bits and honing his style). Long and late nights. Numerous dead-end gigs. False-starts. Rejections. You name it, he’s gone through it. And through it all, like other comic success stories, he carved out a lane for himself—his FX show, Louie and his aforementioned comedy special being the most recent testaments to that fact.
There are plenty of stand-up comics chasing after success. For most of them, the idea of success is divided up into a series of reachable plateaus—develop your own style and type of bits; get noticed; earn a following; get noticed again by “TV people”; get a TV special; land a writing gig; land a television show. Of course, the order of some of these plateaus could be rearranged, but you get the picture.
Like stand-up comics, there are loads of beatmakers. And, like comics, serious beatmakers spend countless hours practicing, studying, and developing their craft. Beatmakers drop long, late nights without a second thought. We optimistically field dead-in beat sale offers and collaboration work that never takes off. We absorb false career starts and fast-talking music insiders and posers. And we endure rejections on a multitude of levels. Yet with all of this, why is it that most beatmakers fail to simply carve out their own lane?
The main reason is that most don’t even try to carve out their own lane. Why? Well, that’s easy to figure out. You see, in beatmaking, the idea of success—that most beatmakers envision—centers around two things: a beat placement or a beat sale. For nearly two decades now, the dream of landing coveted placements has given off the illusion that all one needs to do is make a beat (quality debatable), get it placed, and success instantly follows. In lieu of successful beat placements, a number of beatmakers have turned their focus to selling and leasing beats at unprofessionally low prices, often dragging down their brand and profile rather than raising it. (Check out, “Don’t Market Your Beats Like a Pack of Cheap Steak Knives”) Finally, a small number of other beatmakers have gotten into music licensing, but that’s a different article. But what you haven’t seen much of, however, and what I strongly advocate for, is beatmakers forming groups.
The music business is certainly different than the comedy business. Hundreds of comedy clubs exist all over America. There aren’t any beat clubs. And stand-up comedy, like the movies or a sports match, or a music concert, is an event that people pay money to go out and see or watch at home on the tube. Beatmaking, by itself, can’t make such a claim. Live beat showcases and battles don’t move the needle much at all. Those events, the best of which sometimes tout acclaimed A&Rs and “celebrity” beatmakers as judges and offer some level of placement/career assistance, are usually populated by some music insiders but mostly by the participants and their friends and family. In other words, these aren’t shows in the traditional sense; those beatmakers who participate are not being paid. In fact, in some showcases, they’re actually paying the showcase organizers to participate. A legitimate investment for some beatmakers, no doubt. But what if beatmakers just formed groups (or became solo rap acts) and bypassed the song and dance of beat showcases and the precarious world of beat placements?
Two years ago, I took in a show during the 2010 CMJ Showcase here in New York. Among those on the bill who I had come to see (and would have paid for, had I not been comped at the door with a press pass, thanks to Michelle over at Audible Treats) was Diamond District and Nottz. Formed by Oddisee, a beatmaker (producer)/rapper, Diamond District is made up of solo rappers XO and YU. And Nottz, one of the most prolific beatmakers (producers) to date, rocks solo. Both performances were worth the attendance (Diamond District’s set was especially impressive). More importantly, both acts proved the point that I’ve been making for years—That beatmakers could form rap acts and put themselves on.
Rather than limit the idea of success to placing beats with artists (which often attracts unnecessary middle men), or selling beats for less than their true value, beatmakers should expand their focus to include building new music groups. As a basis for success in beatmaking, beat placements are, for the most part, not sustainable. Being a part of your own group, with control of your music and direction, presents a much better chance for career sustainability than chasing after beat placements. Oddisee’s CMJ showcase and other tour opportunities over the past several years are proof of this.
There is, and will always be, room for a dope new act. Music consumers thrive on a fresh slate of new music. And there’s never been more music consumers in the world than there is at this moment. So instead of tossing your best beats into a bottomless pool of other beat placement chasers, why not use them to start a new act? A new act that you’re a central part of, not a marginal character. What’s the worse thing that can happen? A few show/tour dates and some record sales? Either way, whether you build a new group or create a series of beat tapes, the idea is to build something of your own, then get on someone’s radar. If you do so, eventually the success will come.