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On the Intersection of Art & Commerce

Some friends and I have been having an ongoing discussion of defining success in a new music marketplace which is these days very fragmented and difficult to measure qualitatively. One of the realities of our current music business is that under the old measurements used by industry insiders to determine a company or a musical acts’ success or failure you see an industry in steep decline.

Declining corporate revenues, empty concert seats, the challenges of rampant file sharing and a frustrated consumer base with more competition for their entertainment dollar from game companies, Hollywood and even cell phone applications have taken a toll on the market for music and music fans.

I have carried with me a philosophy for a number of years that the moment you take a musical creation of your making and ask someone else their opinion of that creation is the moment that you have “sold out” that creation to commercial interest. This may be an extreme view to some people, but if you follow my logic here it also allows one to redefine the success of a commercial music venture on your own terms.

The intersection of art and commerce is the debate of our times. Does money earned alone define the success or failure of a commercial music release? Corporate music companies like EMI and Universal have had declining revenues for years now but yet we seem to be in a Golden Age for musicians where their music is heard literally everywhere thanks to modern technology.

Cell phone manufacturers are fighting to supply the market with ever larger storage specs for music players built into their handsets. The iTunes revolution continues unabated and has become the music industry’s answer to ebay, accounting for a full 25% of music sales globally on its own. Portable audio devices (both playback and for recording) have allowed the average musician from Anywhere, USA to participate as an independent in the marketplace on the same level as the corporate players.

So what does it take to define success these days? It’s all in the eye of the beholder, I say. For me, a successful music release is one that is embraced and supported by an existing fan base or the creation of a new fan base that is willing to purchase your music or your merchandise, attend your shows and share their experiences with their friends. This in turn creates more fan base and continues the cycle of success. In other words, once the music gets out there by any means available the money will follow organically, even if you use file sharing and free streaming to distribute your music.

For me, the art is more important than the commerce in defining success. It is far more rewarding to a musician to make a connection with a human being with their music. That connection over time will manifest itself commercially through many more avenues than just the sale of the physical medium in which the music is conveyed to the consumer.

The song I fall in love with that I heard on Pandora radio for free might result in my purchase of the ringtone or the download from iTunes. I might buy a poster to hang on my wall or I might go to a show when the artist comes to town so I can hear the live version of the song. If the artist offers other unique and scarce items I might be motivated to purchase them if I like the artist and want the widget they offer. All of this happens because of a first initial free experience hearing the song which under the old measurements of success would be defined as a commercial failure.

Never underestimate the power of your own existing fan base, and make every effort to secure new fans by embracing the concept of freeconomics in order to redefine artistic and commercial success. In the long run you will have a tremendously successful career if you keep your connection to your fan base alive and interactive.

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Joh Padgett

Joh Padgett

I do the music column on Saturdays and the Primordial Grooves playlist on The Seminal blog on Sundays. I also own Layman Media, a social media production company in Indianapolis and I love cheese.