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5 Steps to Becoming a Number 1 Artist
By Randy Young - 05/18/2010 - 09:25 AM EDT

Why settle for good when you can be great?

The world of music has changed. Everyone used to compete for the same positions on the same charts. To get your music to the people, you made a record, promoted it to radio, radio played it, and people bought it. Getting to number #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 or Album Chart, or maybe having the top-grossing tour on Pollstar was the goal. Mainstream was the only stream.

Unfortunately, one side effect of this system was the eventual stifling of creativity and risk taking. A sea of lowest common denominator music was churned out because every album had too large of a budget requiring too large of a return. It had become a "hit driven" industry. Marketing and distribution was too expensive and inefficient – if your album failed, you were dropped as an Artist.

Then the Internet came along and the music industry as we knew it was shattered. The mainstream is no longer the only stream; it is one among thousands. The market for music has gone from being one giant market on a mass, national scale to thousands of tiny "micro-markets" on many different scales. Now anyone with access to a net connection can distribute music. The ability to distribute music has been given directly to the Artist. Although it's easier to get your music "out there," the amount of music available has made it much more difficult for people to discover new music that appeals to them.

But just because something is old doesn't mean it is no longer useful. I believe the hitdriven model can and should still be applied, but instead of just a few #1 spots (rock, country, hip-hop, Latin, etc.), we have thousands upon thousands of smaller markets, all with their own best of the best slot.

Number 1s do better

When a market meets certain conditions, you end up with what's called a powerlaw. In his book "The Long Tail," Chris Anderson lists three specific conditions for a powerlaw. They are:

  1. Variety (many different things)
  2. Inequality (some things are higher quality than others)
  3. Network effects (word of mouth and reputation which tend to amplify differences inquality)

With a powerlaw in effect, the majority of power tends to go to those at the top with a dramatic decrease in power as you go down the chain. The phenomenon is often called Zipf's law. According to Wikipedia, the law is named after the linguist George Kingsley Zipf, and it states that given some sort of defining world (be it a region or set or collection of works), the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. This means the most frequent word occurs approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, which occurs twice as often as the third most frequent word, etc.

When we apply this to the old music industry, we can see that the number one act often sold twice as much as the second, and the second sold twice as much as the next, etc. For any Artist in the long tail (that is, further down the list), you were pretty much out of luck.

But one of the great characteristics of a powerlaw is that it is fractal. That means that if you zoom in on any point on the curve, you will see smaller powerlaws. So a big powerlaw, like the whole genre of rock music for example, is made up of thousands of niche micromarkets or subgeneres like alternative, classic rock, metal etc., each with its own powerlaw in effect, with its own unique head and tail. Anderson refers to this phenomenon as “Tails within Tails.”

So now as in independent Artist, you have been given the ability to survive and even thrive in this long tail by finding where you sit on this tail – your own "tail within the tail". So you need to find your region in the tail and be the best in it.

What are you best at?

One of the major differences between a top legacy artist like a Bruce Springsteen or a U2 and the ones that didn't endure is the ability to get through the times when it would be easier to quit and walk away. Author Seth Godin refers to this concept in his great book "The Dip." The Dip is the period of time between when you start something and when you become the best in the world at it. It is also the point in any process where you need all your resources and all your strategies to pull you through and make whatever you are doing the best it can possibly be.

As Artists, we've all felt the Dip at some point. Be it writing a new song, starting a tour, recording a new album, or growing a business relationship, these things start out fun and exciting and then get tougher and less fun until they become extremely difficult and not fun at all. That low point is the Dip.

The key to getting through the Dip is to know exactly what you are trying to be the best at. Now there is a key distinction here that you must understand: we're not looking for tricks or quick fixes. This is about developing an understanding about what you can be the best at. It is not the same for every Artist. You need to explore your own passion and vision. Some people want to sell the most music, some people want the best live show, and some people want the most expressive songs. You have to find your own quest.

And just because you have been doing something for years doesn't mean that you can be the best at it. This is the time to be brutally honest with yourself and face facts and consider all the factors involved. Can you be the best singer? The best songwriter? The best performer? This means facing the reality of what you CAN be the best at and what you CANNOT. Great Artists don't just rub their hands together and tell themselves, "Okay, now it's time to get passionate about my music!" The best Artists go the other way – they consistently do only the things that they can get passionate about.

People often refer to the "curse of competence" – sometimes you are good at writing, good at singing, and good at performing. But that's not enough. Just because you are competent at something doesn't mean you can be the best in the world at it. Great artists discover what they can be the best at – and it might be something they're not even doing yet.

The Bullet Concept will help you focus your decisions and find what you can be the best at.

The Bullet Concept - 5 Steps to Becoming Number 1 with a Bullet

Step 1

Design Your Artist Life Plan

Be clear about your direction as an artist on a broad scale. Are you on the right track? You should have your overall goals and direction laid out. Read the article "Designing an Artist life Plan” to help get you started.

Step 2

Define Your World

Find your tail within the tail. Refine and clarify your ideas. Out of all the things you do as an artist, what is the ONE single thing you do best? Remember that this is an iterative process -- you must constantly reassess both what you are the best at and the world you work in. If you cannot be the best at your core craft, then DO NOT make that the basis for your Bullet Concept. So if you are an artist, but not the best performer, maybe you can be the best at fan interaction. Explore concepts that go beyond musical genres and classifications. James Brown was "the hardest working man in showbiz." So if you are a guitar player, but you know you can?t be the best guitar player in the world, you have to look at something else. Maybe you are the most entertaining guitar player in the world? Maybe you are the hardest-working guitar player in the world?

Look at this outstanding attribute or ability and expand on it. Is this something that can be defined by geography (regions, towns, cities, your school), opinion (charts, reviews, contests) or sales (ticket sales, merch sales, music sales)? Often it will be a combination, but there will be one predominant definition. Find it and write it down. This is what you are aiming for and what you need to be the best at. For example:

  • Defined by geography: Maybe you are a band from a small town – become the #1 band in that town, then move on to become #1 in a bigger region.
  • Defined by opinion: Maybe you are a songwriter and you need to find a way to become the best in your style or genre, or become the best at a type of song (ballads, story songs etc).
  • Defined by sales: Maybe you are a performer and your world is defined by your live show – the most entertaining show fans can see. Go for the most ticket sales in your style of music.

Another strategy is to find a role model and use that person to pace your progress. Is there someone currently achieving what your are aiming to accomplish? Seek them out. You might be able to emulate some of their strategies.

Step 3

Build a Map of Your World

Once you've defined your key ability or outstanding attribute, break it into chunks and simplify it so you can build a clear and actionable plan on how to become #1 at it. Look at similar artists on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. See what they are doing and how they are engaging their world. Use Google Alerts to set up a feed of what is going on in your world. Get informed and start developing ideas and act upon them. So if your outstanding attribute is to be the biggest selling rock band in all of North America, this is probably out of your reach right now. So find the tail within that tail, something you can realistically be the best at, and once you are, choose the next tail up.

In other words, your meta-tail is defined by the current #1. If they have sold 5 million units, you need to find a world in which you can realistically compete in the short term. Look for a similar artist, maybe regionally or somewhere online, that is #1 at something and see what you need to do to surpass them.Also, what kind of rock? Alternative? Pop rock? Classic rock? Hard rock? Keep breaking down the genre until the size and scope of the genre is more manageable.

Examine geography as well. North America is a big place, which means there is even bigger competition. Go small enough so that you can measure the performance of the current #1 competitor and surpass it. Start as small as possible and achieve the #1 spot

You also need to determine who populates your world. Who are the taste makers? Who are the influencers? What are the filters? How do people discover and get access to new music in your world? And most importantly, who are your fans?

Step 4

Face the facts.

Confront the brutal facts and quit everything that doesn't encourage growth in your quest.. Build a to-do and a NOT to-do list.

The first is an old-fashioned to-do list. This is a list of every action you need to complete in order to become #1 in your world.

The second is a NOT to-do list. this is a list of all the things you need to STOP doing in order to focus on your quest for #1.

If your quest is to be a #1 rock band but you want to "show how much versatility you have," STOP that immediately until you are #1 at SOMETHING. Then and ONLY then have you earned the right to focus on marketing your versatility. It is okay to quit – in fact it is a MUST – but make sure you quit the right things so that you have the time and energy to focus on what you really want.

Step 5

Measure progress

You need to develop a profit plan. This step can and should certainly be about more than money, but it has to be more than simple positive visualization like "I am the best I can be." Set real milestones and hit them. Your profit can be new fans, critical acclaim, new show possibilities, etc. You need to find out how to measure your return for your efforts. Ask yourself what part of your plan will provide the means to sustain this drive to become #1.

If you want to do this for a living and quit your job to make music, at some point you'll need money to survive and cash flow to be able to make a living. I often suggest that your profit per fan is a good way to measure your return. It is certainly not the ONLY way – just a way that works well for me. This is how it works.

  1. Choose what you feel is an appropriate amount per hour that you would like to make.
  2. Determine the number of hours you invest in your work (Practicing, recording, doing business, etc.).
  3. Multiply the two for your weekly investment. If this is a band or partnership - repeat this for each person involved.
  4. Add up all the cash invested per week. This is money you are using from your sales or even from other sources. Add this amount to your weekly investment

So let's determine a rough weekly figure:

Let's say you are solo and put in 20 hours a week on the project (including a show), and you would feel comfortable making $20 an hour making music. You have invested $400 worth of your time. You also had to invest $100 per week in expenses - strings, instruments, subscription fees, ads, office supplies, etc. – whatever you need to keep afloat. So you would now need $2000 a month in income just to keep you making $400 a week. Divide this by the number of fans you have let?s say you have 1000 - that means you would need to make $2 per fan per month EVERY month to stay afloat. Is that realistic with those numbers? In my experience with my Artists at ArtistDevelopmentStrategies.com, not quite. What you need to look at is what is your average return per fan based on your ACTUAL income, and project that to get an estimate about how many fans you would really need to survive. So if you find that with your 1000 fans, your actual income is more like $500, then your average return per fan is $0.50 and you would need roughly 4000 fans to hit your goal. This reveals what you need to focus on.

There are no shortcuts

Becoming #1 at something doesn't happen overnight. You'll need to persevere and get through the dip. Over time, things will build up and the momentum will become infectious.

Try these steps yourself, and see how things turn out. I'm sure that in no time you'll see your life as an Artist has improved.

And remember to keep living the dream - no matter what.

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