Want Success in the Modern Music Industry? Discover Your Voice and Find Joy in the Process, Artists Say
If you have a dream of being a musician, the road may not be paved in gold but you can make your voice heard.
Though some of the preconceived notions of what being a rock star, rapper, or pop idol means for a person have changed over the years, the dream of becoming one, for many, has persisted. Attaining that level of stardom might seem rather easy now due to the amount of tools available for exposure, such as YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud and Bandcamp, and the sheer amount of ways people can now listen to music, including through streaming platforms, social media, and the tried and true analog resources of record, CD and even cassette players. But the tradeoff for a direct connection to potential fans is a waning attention span, making achieving longevity difficult.
Yet, with all of the world able to find the sound that makes them tick at speeds faster than a Jimi Hendrix guitar lick, the model under which the music business has tried to sustain itself over the years is at a crossroads. More people involved in the music industry in all aspects are issuing warnings to make sure that the new class of artists coming up aware of the fickle shortcomings of the past.
Veteran artists, industry personnel and rising stars all have an opinion about the expectations of the music business, what it is like to be a new artist, and what it can give going forward. Despite generational differences, the goal is still the same: find your definition of success while being your authentic self.
What Should You Expect From the Music Industry? Some Say It’s Best to Ditch Your Plans and Instead, Go Along for the Ride
While the industry has changed so much over the years, a constant has been musicians wanting to achieve success. Though success is subjective—from living comfortably, to winning awards, to selling out major stadiums—it has been a driving force that fuels many. But expectations and reality can be starkly different.
Legendary recording artist, Gloria Gaynor, whose timeless anthem, “I Will Survive,” dominated the charts in the late 1970s, says the best way to avoid disappointment is for up-and-coming music artists to curb expectations.
“I hope this doesn't sound cynical, but after having spent 57 years in the music business, I’ve learned to expect anything and nothing,” she told Inside Edition Digital. “That’s just because when you get a bunch of creative people come together, anything can happen and it’s really hard to know what to expect.”
William Ryan Key, who fronted the band Yellowcard and had a string of hits, including “Ocean Avenue,” and “Way Away,” said that in his over two decade experience, he’s learned to not expect much of anything, but the uncertainty.
“It's choose your own destiny. I've seen an incredible amount of success and I've also seen an incredible amount of failure,” he told Inside Edition Digital.
Key, like singer Qveen Herby, says owning your masters is a must if you expect anything from the business of making music.
“Nobody knows what they’re doing, but everybody wants to be a musician,” said Herby, who has 17 years experience in the music industry. “Discovering who you are as an artist is of top importance. Own your masters if you want steady income.”
Is an Artist Selling Out When They Sell Their Music Catalogs? Far From It, Say Insiders Who Think It’s the Way of the Future
In recent years, legendary and hall of fame musicians have been selling their prestigious and lucrative back catalogue. Iconic musician David Crosby sold his entire catalogue to famed music executive Irving Azoff’s new venture Iconic Artists Group earlier this year.
“Given our current inability to work live, this deal is a blessing for me and my family and I do believe these are the best people to do it with,” Crosby said in a press release.
Crosby said that factors including being unable to tour due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as low wages earned from streaming, influenced his decision that his catalogue needed to be sold, according to Pitchfork.
In December 2020, Bob Dylan sold his entire catalogue to Universal Music Publishing, which features over 600 songs up through 2020’s acclaimed “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” The massive collection of tunes is estimated to be worth over $300 million and was sold for an undisclosed price, Rolling Stone reported.
Longtime music publicist Rey Roldan, who currently runs the boutique PR firm Reybee Inc., and has represented artists like the Backstreet Boys, Sting, *NSync, A Tribe Called Quest, Macy Gray and Charlotte Church, says while selling a back catalogue is not new, it is something we might see more of.
“In terms of revenue stream, stuff like selling songs to commercials, ‘selling out,’ and selling your catalog for usage in that way, it's the currency that artists really have now. And it's a sad currency,” he told Inside Edition Digital. “Selling your art to be able to have a good life is a terrible way of looking at art. But at the same time, there's a lot of artists who are so prolific that selling their art is just one part of their artistry. And I don't blame them.”
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the plight of artists as tours were cancelled and records were shelved for better promotion. And though many musicians made music or found ways to stay active, the live music industry itself was hurt, as venues across the U.S. and the world were shuttered to stop the spread of the virus.
The scarcity of options artists have faced during the pandemic has been a long-standing issue, and one with which respected hip-hop DJ Mister Cee, who used to back the Notorious BIG, is considerably concerned.
“I hate to say this, but I think something bad is going to happen in the music industry,” he told Inside Edition Digital. “I don't know what that bad is, but I think something bad is about to happen.”
Making the B(r)and: Musicians Today Must Do Far More Than Create Compelling Art to Make it in the Modern Music Industry, Many Say
Rising musicians today have to do more than just craft catchy music; they now are their own brand, a notion heightened by the ever-increasing importance society puts on social media and taken advantage of by record companies, especially during the pandemic.
“In terms of what I think of it, the music industry is, in the most basic terms, it's a means to get art out there,” Roldan said. “That whole idea of moving units and everything, where you're actually selling somebody's art. And whether or not you stand with that morally is one thing, but on the other side, with me being a publicist, I see it more as actually amplifying somebody's voice.”
Singer Olivia O’Brien has been making music since she was 15. Now 21, she’s gained traction in the music industry after posting songs through Soundcloud, which led to a deal with Island Records.
“I think that artists have always had to have a brand for themselves even before social media. Now, social media gives us more power to control what that brand is.I oftentimes find myself not wanting to post or be active on social media because it can definitely be a lot to handle,” she told Inside Edition Digital.
“I absolutely love talking to my fans. There is nothing like the feeling of meeting them in person, seeing their faces and hearing their voices. It makes everything I do seem real and feel worth it,” she added.
And long before the coronavirus was even a thought, social media was the avenue through which artists like Arctic Monkeys, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and Halsey found success.
Gaynor, much like Twitter’s new heroine, Dionne Warwick, found a new generation of fans during the pandemic thanks to social media.
“I get a lot of younger people writing to me as well as fans of artists from other genres and even other media outlets. I have a lot of fun having direct contact with my fans through these social media platforms,” she said. “During the pandemic I’ve worked with my management team to launch my ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor merchandise shop online with lots of fun clothing designs that I’ve created to inspire and encourage everyone. I’ve also been working on building my YouTube channel at so that I can share more music and performances with my fans around the world. ”
Roldan, who is Gaynor’s publicist, as well as Key’s, says using social media was a great tool to help close that generational gap. He says Gaynor took to TikTok at the start of the pandemic to show that if you wash your hands to her tune, “I Will Survive,” they will be properly sanitized.
“She wanted to do something that would get the message across that everybody needed to be careful, because she's a very conscientious, and a very kind woman. And one of the things that we started to notice was the fact that you had to wash your hands. We started to realize that the chorus of ‘I Will Survive’ kind of fit perfectly into that 40 second period,” he explained. “She made a video of her washing her hands to ‘;I Will Survive,’ and that went viral. It was huge. It was massive. That opened her up to a whole entire generation that I could actually latch into. She didn't do it for any promotional purpose, to sell records or anything like that. She did it for a completely humanitarian kind of reason.”
Back in the day, the idea of living a life of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” seemed to be the goal for many breaking in the industry, but now everyone is held to higher accountability.
“My husband and I always joke that the rockstars in the ‘80s had it best, no cell phones, no internet. They could do all the drugs and anything they pleased and nobody would know about it. That being said, you can’t really be an a**hole now. Artists have to give a f*** and think beyond just making music,” Qveen Herby said. “On social media, you can choose to never speak, just post mysterious pictures or develop a voice and speak constantly to your audience, helping them get through their day. Decide what you want to offer as an artist and focus on that.”
How do Musicians Make Money? For Many, the Hustle Extends Far Beyond Their Music
In the middle of 2020, vinyl records outsold CDs for the first time since 1986, according to RIAA. “Vinyl grossed $232.1 million of music sales for the first six months of 2020 while CDs only accounted for $129.9 million USD. Physical sales also saw a 23 percent drop, most likely due to COVID-19 pandemic,” HypeBeast Reported. Streaming continued to dominate the industry, making up 85% of revenue in the first half of 2020, making over $4.8 billion, compared with $4.3 billion during the same period in 2019, The Guardian reported.
Roldan was not surprised to hear that vinyl was selling well. He oversaw the promotion of vinyl reissues of many artists in recent years, including The Cranberries, The Roots, the Spice Girls and Peter Murphy.
Consumers are “returning to the fact that they can actually hold music again,” he said, adding, “I think that's opening it up to a whole new generation, and it's becoming a whole new revenue stream.”
But album sales and streams are not enough to make a living. Musicians now have to find other ventures to try and make capital.
“You may have some heat, but then eventually, it starts to wear off. So you better do everything in your power to make the best out of your success while it's still hot,” Mister Cee said. “Whether it's owning other businesses, whether it's just venturing off into other things besides the music.”
It is no wonder that Rihanna pushed into the makeup industry, that Dr. Dre has made a fortune through his Beats by Dre headphones or Jay-Z is as known for his business acumen as he is for lyrical prowess. And many others are following suit.
“Three years ago I also invested in starting my own cosmetics brand, so that has helped along with merch sales to survive this pandemic,” Qveen Herby said.
William Ryan Key launched a Patreon channel to help generate income when he wasn’t able to tour due to the pandemic. He says it has given him much success and is part of the reason he’s been able to sustain himself after having to cancel a 2020 tour that would have been lucrative.
“[I am] super lucky to have [people who] stuck with me for 20 years and still want to hear everything I do, whether it sounds like Yellowcard or not,” he said. “I knew there were enough of those people, those core fans that would support something like that.”
He says doing that is allowing him to pursue another avenue in the music industry: film and television scores.
“I want people to know these things because there's a misconception that you had a song on the radio 15 years ago, you're a millionaire and you drive a Lambo. That's just not reality,” Key added.
Finding new fans after established success with a previous generation can sometimes be difficult, but as important as having a core group of supporters is working to attract those who may never have before come across your work, as Gaynor did when she leveraged TikTok. Making older artists appeal to younger fans and vise versa is a difficult task but there are clever ways to do it, Roldan explained.
“My goal is always to build out. I always say to my clients, ‘My goal isn't just to work your music straight forward and just go towards the music press, but it's actually to work it out sideways as well,’” Roldan explained. “What I mean by that is, you have an artist like Chuck Ragan, for example— he started out in the punk world, then he went into the folk world. Being able to work that transition between punk and folk is a little bit different, because it's two different types of journalists. The punk kids love the speed, and love the attitude. The folk journalists love the story. They love that sound. They love the tones, that kind of thing. So it's a different way of talking about music.”
When not touring or making music, Chuck Ragan is an active fisherman, which inspired Roldan to seek out opportunities to have him featured in fishing publications.
“People who have read articles on Chuck in ‘Field and Stream’ had never heard of Chuck Ragan before,” he said. “After they read that article, and know that he's actually a top shelf fisherman, and they realize now that he's a musician, they've gone out and sought out his music. And now he has a whole entire new audience.”
Roldan, who also reps Engelbert Humperdink, took his “sideways” approach to promote the iconic crooner to younger audiences.
“You have somebody who's 85 years old, and he was somebody who everybody's grandmother, and mother, and aunt absolutely loved … When you're trying to sell somebody like him to that younger generation, you've got to find the right angle,” he said.
Roldan, who once repped blues great Buddy Guy, recalled how over 20 years ago, he got Buddy Guy into the newsletter of the sandwich chain Subway. It was a relationship that might make no sense on paper, but it helped put the musician in every Subway sandwich shop across America. As a result, Guy grew in popularity.
“Which then translated soon after, the next record we did with Buddy Guy was, Johnny Lang, a young blues slinger, that kid, he was 16 years old at the time. Buddy Guy, elder statesman. We decided to put them together to bridge those gaps,” Roldan said.
Still, it’s not an exact science. The opposite happened when former Beatle and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul McCartney collaborated with Rihanna and Kanye West in 2015. That same year, McCartney worked with West for the single “Only One.” Rather than discover McCartney’s decades-long and trailblazing career, some younger fans thought McCartney was lucky to hit it big with an industry icon like West. “I mean, there's a lot of people who think Kanye discovered me. And that's not a joke,” McCartney told GQ in 2018.
But it’s not entirely surprising, as different eras see different genres soar to popularity. “Each generation brings in their own kind of music,” Gaynor said.
“Not that they throw away the music of the previous generation, but they bring in their own and listen to it much more. My mom’s generation primarily listened to jazz, while listening also to some of the big band music and blues to which her mother listened,” she continued. “I listened to all of that, plus the rock and roll music, and R&B music that came in with my youth.The next generation was listening to all that I listened to, but mostly to House music, then came rap music, and well, I’m not sure what’s primarily being listened to by young people today. So, the cache of music for each generation to listen to and reference becomes richer with time.”
So, What Is Success in the Modern Music Industry?
It’s a question that doesn’t boil down to one or even a dozen answers. Mister Cee says that it's easy for artists to make it in the business, because there's so many different platforms to leverage to become successful. “You don't need a record label, you don't need radio, you don't need any of that, like how you used to say 10, 15 years ago,” he said.
“I personally find a lot of music from social media but I also utilize tools on streaming services like radio features and personalized/curated playlists,” O'Brien added. “Streaming services have also become another form of social media with the amount of ways you can share music with others.”
But Mister Cee warned that the quick rise in popularity can lead to an even faster fall.
“It's harder to maintain the success, because most of the music are throwaways. You listen to it for the moment for a good couple of weeks, and then it's onto the next record,” he added. “And so that's the give and take, you could become successful quicker, but your success can die quicker.”
As fast as success can come or the accessibility of success may be greater in 2021 than it was in the past, some vets say they would not want to be younger stars today.
“It seems to me that too much emphasis is put on the packaging and other things that have little to do with the artist’s actual talent and not enough on the talent or the artist,” Gaynor said.
Qveen Herby joked that young people today wanting to break into the industry should “run away,” but said for neophytes should strive to carve their own path and find their own voice in the business many categorize as bizarre.
And even those still reaching for the stars, like O’Brien, say to be fearless.
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be even less afraid to accept constructive criticism. It is so important to learn how to differentiate the bullying and haters from people giving you genuine advice,” O'Brien advised.
And above all else, if this is your goal to make it as a musician, Key says there’s no room for doubt.
“You're young, you know what's up. There's enough YouTube videos for you to watch of how to launch your career from your bedroom in 2021,” Key said. “But take that spirit of, there's never enough shows, there's never enough miles you can drive. If you want it, there's no plan B.”
Every quarter, the award-winning journalists at Inside Edition Digital dig into a specific topic, going deeper than daily news cycles allow to bring you The Issue, a series of articles and videos on a specific subject. For more of The Issue 3, where we're diving into generational change, click here.
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