Reigning The Digital Market

Upstream Music Fest + Summit Keynote Summary

Musicians today share the same dilemma: Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the industry, or you’re an aspiring artist recording tracks in your bedroom, the question is the same: “How do l get people to listen?”

Keynote speaker and President of the independent label, Kill Rock Stars, Dr. Portia Sabin spoke on the challenges of the new digital market landscape at this year’s inaugural Upstream Music Fest + Summit in Seattle. She was joined by Amaechi Uzoigwe, manager of Run the Jewels, and Tunji Balogun, VP of A&R at RCA.

The industry landscape is much different from how it was 10 years ago. A musician’s career is no longer linear: write music, join a record label, reach people and get famous. The internet has taken a wrecking ball to the old structure, and that has had its pros and cons. On one hand, music consumption has landed in an awkward space. Consumers have gone from buying physical copies of music, to in many cases, downloading and streaming content for free. That has raised a long-standing debate on the value of music in the digital market as artists struggle to earn fair compensation for their work. On the other hand, artists have more control over their careers than ever before.

“The power is moving away from the labels,” Tunji explained. Artists now have the ability to make connections and have direct conversations with their fans in the digital market through social media. They can shape their own narrative. Removing the middle man presents a new challenge, however. Although consumer tastes are more varying, allowing for more experimentation and mold-breaking genres, their attention is consistently aimed at what’s new.

Portia Sabin Digital Market Keynote at Upstream Music Fest + Summit Portia Sabin Digital Market Keynote at Upstream Music Fest + Summit

“Enhance your story,” urged Amaechi, “Give them a ‘reason why’, and create something compelling.” Fans need an engaging story to follow, and they respond to authenticity. That puts more responsibility in the artists’ hands as well. It’s important to have something great to share. “Work on the music first.” Social media and marketing are secondary. Fleeting as consumers’ attention is, an artist needs to be flexible and willing to pivot their styles and approach. “What you’re doing may not be working,” Amaechi added. Sometimes what an artist is trying just doesn’t land with their audience. Finding the commonality in your artistic vision and what resonates with your audience takes practice.

There’s a new dynamic in the industry, and it’s easy to get lost in one aspect or another while attempting to drive one’s career forward, but there is one sentiment that remains true: “Nothing comes to you, you have to go and get it.” The work is the same as it has always been. The difference now is artists now hold the tools as opposed to labels.

What, then, is the purpose of record labels in today’s climate? It’s an interesting question, and one I didn’t expect to ask. They’re a powerful ally, but are they responsible for an artist’s success? What do you think?

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