KES Transactions on Innovation in Music

Publisher Future Technology Press
Vol. 1 No. 1 Special Edition - Innovation in Music 2013
Article TitleThe Slow Burn: Questioning the discourse surrounding popular music success and exploring opportunities for entrepreneurship in 'the long tail'
Primary AuthorMarcus O'Dair, Middlesex University
Pages 247 - 262
Article ID im13bk-022
Publication Date 17-May-15
AbstractA decade ago, I was on retainer with the band Passenger. We had a major management deal, with IE Music, yet our 2007 debut album went largely unnoticed; we once played a gig to a room that was entirely empty, other than the support band and the venue staff. This year, long after my departure and the re-invention of Passenger as a solo act, he has achieved his first international number one, created largely at grassroots level through busking across Europe and Australia.

The story of the overnight success that is in fact years in the making is nothing new. But while it is easy, in an era of reality TV, to believe that success is as instant as Nescafe, the slow burn is in fact more relevant than ever. I know from my own subsequent musical career, with the Ninja Tune act Grasscut, that good press cannot be relied upon to sell records. With the rise of social media, however, artists have more chance than ever to build up a loyal following (or, to borrow Seth Godin’s term, ‘tribe’), even if they operate within a relatively niche market. To borrow from two other influential popular theorists, Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell, it takes time to stand out in the long tail – but if you have the stamina to move gradually towards the head, you might just reach tipping point.

In a post-Top Of The Pops world, what is the definition of a hit? And what about the acts who have never had a hit, such as the jam-band Phish? Despite almost no radio support, they have in their 30-year career become one of the most lucrative touring bands in America. Although musically poles apart, both Phish and Passenger can attribute their success in part to an ability to pivot, a notion that is central to Eric Ries’ Lean Start-Up model. Just as Ries would advise, they launched early on a limited scale, then tacked in the winds of consumer feedback before making the major investment needed to reach an audience beyond the tastemakers.

Selling your soul at the crossroads may still work – but, now more than ever, it is not the only option. And while reality TV might create the one-hit-wonders, it is the KBO Factor, not the X Factor, which offers the greater chance of longevity.

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