Here’s what I wonder:
I wonder why marketers don’t consider the internal process (or the heart) of the artist when they offer theories and speculations on music sales.
Maybe it’s too hard to do. Mystery, after all, is not marketing.
In Seth Godin’s The Dip blog, there’s a riff by Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby. In the riff, Derek encourages musicians to cut through the foggy cloud of the world’s attention by finding a niche. He then gives a few examples of people who did just that.
Great. It’s good to get ideas. Let it be known that Derek Sivers has created so many services to help artists with their careers that he’s kind of the Steve Jobs of indie music.
As an artist, though, I can’t help but notice that business types often look at trends after they happen. After the artist has walked along many paths towards this success. And rarely are marketers accurate in their assessment of how niches happen.
Niches happen because of the passion of the artist. Niches happen because the artist shows up, writes her heart out, says yes to opportunities, makes a lot of wrong turns, hands out lots of free CD’s, writes lots of emails, keeps on noticing who’s listening, pays attention to what makes her happy, and goes in that direction. It’s just as creative as writing a song. Maybe not always. But certainly most of the time.
I appreciate marketing genius. And I get that most artists need help with the business side of their work. But marketers approach an artist’s niche success as if that artist sat back, planned to be attractive to a certain demographic, and then molded her product and message around that market.
I’ve never met a single artist who did it that order.
Here’s one example: My friend Steve Seskin wrote the song “Don’t Laugh at Me” with his friend Allen Shamblin. They wrote it because Allen’s daughter came home from school one day in tears after getting teased during recess. In Alan and Steve’s hands, her story became a huge hit recorded by Mark Wills.
Fast-forward a few years. Peter Yarrow (of Peter Paul & Mary) hears the song when his own daughter plays it for him after hearing Steve play it at a campfire at Kerrville Folk Festival. Peter flips out over it. (He never heard the radio version.) Peter raises a half million dollars and creates an educational curriculum called “Operation Respect” based on the message of that song.
At a time when songwriters are losing publishing deals left and right, Steve’s career path moves away from Nashville and into a steady schedule of teaching conferences and educational programs. He’s so good at it that he’s now the author of two children’s books with another on the way. He just finished taping a PBS tribute to America’s teachers – which features everyone from Peter Paul & Mary to Judy Collins to Rosie O’Donnell to Odetta. It also features Steve and Allen’s song.
On the phone tonight, and I mentioned this niche thing to Steve. I said, “You know — I could see a songwriter saying to a music marketing expert, ‘I just lost my publishing deal, and I don’t know what to do.’ And I could see the marketing expert saying, ‘Look at that Steve Seskin guy! He created a niche market for himself!’ as if one day you decided your songs would appeal to teachers and that you should find a way to get out there in front of more teachers and schools. And the truth is — you couldn’t have planned this if you’d tried!”
So I asked him, “What do you think makes niche market success?” Steve paused for a moment. Then he said, “You know, I think it’s about quiet positioning versus pushiness. I think it’s about letting things happen rather than making them happen. I’ve found that I always have better results when I back off a little bit.”
Niche happens. You might have to learn the business of your art. But you don’t have to let business determine your art.
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