Okay, so you’ve probably seen the title, suspected it was empty clickbait, and taken a look just to marvel at the audacity of the post. But actually, this is not empty clickbait. It’s an entirely genuine article, which is going to explain exactly how musicians routinely, and devastatingly, compromise their chances of success, whilst others render high achievement almost inevitable. It has nothing to do with competence, talent, or practice. The odds of success or failure are in fact primarily determined by two very simple decisions, which most musicians make instinctively, right at the very start of their journey.
Famous musicians have to make these decisions, just like the rest of us. But guess what… Famous musicians very often owe their fame to the fact that at the key moment of decision, they chose differently. Unlike the rest of us, they set instinct aside, and instead based their choices on logic. Indeed, famous musicians have often re-taken their key decisions multiple times, to fit the evolving nature of the picture ahead. In doing this, some have not only made success more likely – they’ve made it a virtual certainty.
So what are these mystical decisions? And how can they possibly increase a musician’s odds of success times 20,000 – or even more? Well, the decisions are:
- Which musical genre do I select?
- What will be my role within that genre?
Most of us don’t even consider these questions. We come into the arena inspired. We love a particular type of music, and we’ve seen/heard a sound we want to emulate. Perhaps, for example, we were mind-blown by the technical lead guitar playing of a specific rock icon. From that point forward, the two questions above were taken straight off the agenda. Our decisions were automatically made. We were going into the genre of heavy metal, as a lead guitarist.
Of course, this is what millions of musicians do. The decisions don’t typically involve logical reasoning. They make themselves. But realistically, they shouldn’t. Because in choosing to take a role that an enormous number of other musicians have taken, in a genre which is not only saturated with supply, but also relatively limited in demand, we have to fight incredibly negative odds of success. Statistically, as a young guy looking to succeed in music, you’re many times more likely to achieve as a vocalist in a boy band, than as a guitarist in a heavy metal band. Why? Because commercial demand for boy bands is much higher than for heavy metal bands, and the supply is much lower.
THE WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
In 1981, Cheryl Baker (pictured from 1982 BBC TV footage above) became part of the Eurovision winning group Bucks Fizz, who went on to be one of the most commercially successful pop acts in early ’80s Britain.
But believe it or not, the 1981 Eurovision campaign that launched Cheryl’s stardom was not her first. She’d been afforded three separate opportunities to go on TV and bid for that title. Given that she had no existing public profile or track record of pop supremacy, this could be considered truly remarkable. But it could, alternatively, be asserted that she simply understood the logic of opportunity. And that as a result, she increased the odds of her success to something bordering on inevitable.
Three years before the Bucks Fizz triumph, Cheryl had performed in the Eurovision final with a group called Co Co. The outcome on that occasion was not so magnificient, and even though the single was a UK hit, history rarely recalls the group. But even that wasn’t Cheryl’s first crack at Eurovision. As part of the same group she’d narrowly missed reaching the international climax of the contest another two years previously.
These nuggets of trivia serve as a great illustration of how Cheryl Baker’s choices in music optimised her chances of success. She sang in commercially-focused, content-driven pop groups, with a huge target audience and a very deliberate, team approach to meeting that audience’s desires. It’s one of those roles that doesn’t look very glamorous until it hits the jackpot. But the odds of it hitting the jackpot are comparatively high. Conversely, many singers would want to front a band, to call the shots, to write the songs, to work in a ‘cooler’ genre… But what they’d be missing is that all of this enormously reduces their chances of hitting the jackpot. It’s flawed instinct above logic.
Of course, I wouldn’t want to play down the fact that Cheryl Baker brought with her a raft of key attributes that matched her perfectly with her role. And neither would I want to under-stress the potency of Bucks Fizz. Partnered with the songwriting and production skills of Andy Hill, the group consistently delivered modern pop classics, bursting with musical content and value.
But the odds of success do dramatically increase in situations where the demand is high, and the supply is relatively limited. Indeed, the odds of Cheryl Baker succeeding were so high, that she nearly did it three times! And if you count a Eurovision final appearance and a top 20 hit as success in itself, she actually did do it twice.
She’s not alone either. This is actually quite common in instances where musicians make the right choices. There’s frequently a catalogue of near misses or mini successes in the period before a famous artist breaks really big.
The Specials (pictured from 1979 BBC TV footage above) effectively invented their own genre of music: Two-Tone. Such genres or sub-genres commonly sprang up early in the post-punk era, as the music business, in the UK at least, was fertile for rapid evolution and change. In the interim, industry risk-aversion and the Internet have all but killed off this kind of opportunity. But The Specials remain a perfect example of a band increasing the odds of success to the point where they had literally no competition.
ADAPTING TO SUIT OPPORTUNITY
I recently wrote an article about the early days of UK punk rock, and spent quite some time researching how the scene developed. One of the most noticeable elements of the scene’s startup phase was the almost ‘blank canvas’ approach the musicians took to their roles. Not only were some willing to switch instruments at the drop of a hat, they were also ready to instantly turn their backs on their influences, and create for the new, untapped market. Some of them were influenced by ‘dinosaur rock’, but if they’d insisted on playing it, in an environment of saturated supply and diminishing demand, would we know anything about them today? I'd strongly suggest not.
The early punks capitalised on an opportunity. Skyrocketing demand, versus supply so limited that, initially, there wasn’t even a record fans could go out and buy.
There exist many other stories about bands in trend-driven waves of success suddenly changing direction to suit the market. You can call it jumping on a bandwagon, and I suppose that’s what it is, but the way a perfectly-timed direction change increases the odds of success is almost immeasurable. The difficult part is persuading a whole band that bandwagon-hopping is the right policy. Most musicians will reject the idea. That’s why bandwagon-hopping is so incredibly effective for the musicians who do embrace it.
Just compare that situation where musicians embrace a newly identified public appetite, with the stale state of play in which everyone is treading the same, done-to-death ground. Every other musician we discover online today is trying to succeed in the field of hip hop or an offshoot thereof. I’m not questioning the validity of the genre. But what is the wisdom of trying to make a career out of a genre with unlimited, grossly saturated supply?
Hip hop, ‘bedroom-electro’, and guitar-driven rock artists are throwing themselves into random people’s faces on social media, and hardly anyone will even take the time to listen. There’s no interest. Not because the artists are no good. But because the output of these genres is now so relentless that it’s become tantamount to sonic spam. We’re all completely desensitised to it, and we’ve come to equate its persistent delivery system with nuisance rather than joy.
How has this happened? Because musicians tend to project, and select the option that most suits themselves – rather than the option that suits a potential audience. Us musicians are not typically business-minded. Very few of us research public taste, appetite, or opportunity…
STOP SECOND-GUESSING AND USE RESEARCH
Over twenty years ago, whilst I was working in a shop, the staff decided to do a survey of customers’ favourite musical styles. The shop’s function wasn’t related to music. We just thought the survey would help us get to know customers better. Prompt them to talk about their likes and dislikes. Before starting the survey, we tried to predict what our customers’ most popular style would be. None of us guessed right. We predicted we’d get a mix of heavy rock, rap, and cheesy, manufactured or over-produced chart pop. The most popular genre among our customers, by some considerable distance, was in fact reggae.
This brought about a poignant moment for me. The first musical style I’d selected to play in my mid teens was reggae, but I’d steadily been persuaded away from that style. Not by the buying public – but by other musicians. At the conclusion of this survey several years later, I realised that most musicians make the wrong decisions. They often project their love of playing a style onto the public. “It’s what feels the best to play, so it must therefore be what the public wants to listen to.” That could not be further from the truth.
So, can switching instruments (your role within a genre) really make that much difference to the odds of success? It can, but the amount of increase depends on circumstance. Moving from lead guitar to bass will statistically create greater demand – simply because there are a lot fewer bass players than guitarists, and most bands with a guitarist also need a bassist. But switching from guitar to bass when you’ve spotted an actual, cast iron working opportunity for a bassist, will of course have a much greater impact on the odds.
This is what it’s all about. Playing to the requirements of the public, rather than slavishly sticking by your personal musical ideals.
You may, alternatively, choose to move from lead guitar to trumpet and team up with other brass players to form a horn section. Brass is not a traditional rock/pop default in the way a bass guitar is, but it’s still a common feature, and the supply of horn sections is, comparatively, very limited. Thus, you’d expect a far less congested pathway to the upper echelons of the business. You have to be good, and professional, and deliver what’s on the brief. But like for like, you’re still much better off when there’s substantial demand and very little compatible supply.
The more drastic impact on one’s odds of success comes, however, with the choice of genre. Google finds over thirty million results for “hip hop” on Soundcloud. Thirty million! That’s some competition! It finds just 1,580 for “girl band”. That’s nearly 20,000 times more “hip hop” results than “girl band” results. Statistically, you might say, it's 20,000 times harder to succeed as a hip hop artist, than as part of a girl band. Whether that's true would of course depend on the demand as well as the supply, but it's clear there's a monumental difference in odds. What's that?... You’re a guy?… No problem. “Boy band” results still number less than 5,000. That affords you comparatively good odds of success, if you’re compatible, and good.
You may not be inspired by the idea of being a boy band member, and you may love the street cred cool of being the next Kanye West. But realistically, your statistical odds of becoming the next Kanye are so remote that it’s barely worth bothering. The boy band might be a reluctant choice, but it’s the logical one. Mathematically, it’s the obvious choice.
Like many other musicians, I hate business. I hate mathematics. I hate the thought of acceeding to supply and demand. But I also recognise that the laws of business dictate commercial success to a far greater extent than does talent. If, on a radio station’s playlist, there is one space for a rap artist, and ten million are trying to fill that space, then statistically, filling that space is more or less like trying to win the lottery. Someone will fight those odds and win. But nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine, will lose. It doesn’t matter how talented they all are; if there’s one space, there’s only one winner. That’s that.
Achievers in the world of music often think in these terms. What they end up doing is often not their first, instinctive choice. But it’s the choice that makes them their fortune. Worldwide fame serves as pretty good compensation.
The image heading this post is another BBC TV screen capture, showing Rachel Stevens on Top of the Pops in 2006.