The Rihanna Challenge

*As featured on Hypebot*

It's easy to say, “No one will care about Rihanna in five years." But it's important to note that this isn't about Rihanna's career, it's about the careers of many.

It's the difference between the support of crowds and tribes. It's the difference between blind faith and something to believe in. Do you truly believe that if piracy ended and your CD had an end-cap display that your career would magically be different? Or do you believe if you keep making remarkable music, engaging your audience, and building your tribe that over time you can make a change?

Four questions illustrate this reality:

* If Rihanna left her major label, could she sustain her career in The Musical Middle Class?
* If radio stations slowly quit playing her singles, how long would it take for you to notice?
* If Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart quit selling her CD's, could she rely on digital distribution?
* If she had to rely solely on the support of her fans, would their relationship be able to last?

When you take away three pillars that a major artist's career is build on, it's hard to imagine...

their place without major label budgets, massive radio play, and big-box retail distribution. The reality is that major labels are in the same economic storm as the rest of us, radio is slowly losing it's audience, and that music floor space is shrinking everyday in favor of more profitable items. If you think about it, five years is a long time in music.

It's hard to destroy the status quo; if that's what you are. If no one cared when you weren't being played on radio, if no one noticed your CD wasn't on display, then it's not clear that you have a tribe. In The Musical Middle Class, it's hard to rely on crowds, because they come and go with passing trends as they get older, but the followers of a tribe grow together. Rihanna is great with the members of music crowds, but with music tribes it's unclear if she resonates.

Two general examples of a much larger segmentation:

The members of music crowds:

* Still consume major label music
* Still hear about new music on the radio
* Still buy music off the end caps at Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart

The members of music tribes:

* Develop complex tastes and has a hard time digesting mainstream
* Hears about new music through friends, recommendations like Amazon, and music blogs
* Buy music from Indie stores, iTunes, Amazon, CD-Baby, or TuneCorner

The crossover members of music crowds who do use iTunes don't know what to do when they can't buy your single. They heard Kid Rock's “All Summer Long” on the radio, went online to buy it, and didn't know what to do. The Hit Masters provided an answer to that demand, overtook the original on The Billboard Hot 100, and peaked at #19. The publicity from refusing to be a part of iTunes and leading a strong music tribe allowed him to take Rock N Roll Jesus 2X Platinum, but it took 19 years and 9 albums to do it. Five years from now, people will still care about Kid Rock because despite his mainstream success, he still connects and leads a music tribe.

The Rihanna Challenge:

*What artists do you think won't be around in five years?
* What artists could survive on their audience without the three pillars ? (larger budgets, radio play, and store distribution)


Tooth said...

Artists that will not be around in 5 years: Fall Out Boy, New Kids On the Block, Ciera...To tell you the truth I don't listen to enough low quality music to make a comprehensive list.

Artists that can survive off their fanbases: Flaming Lips, Wilco, TV on the Radio, Sigur Ros, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead...

courtney said...

Well written.

I don't know who won't be around in five years, because like Tooth, I don't listen to enough mainstream to be really well-versed in it.

Who will? Well, I can tell you who I'll still be listening to: Anything Chris Thile is doing (he was in Nickel Creek and is now a part of the Punch Brothers), Cadillac Sky, Jason Mraz, Miranda Lambert-- these people have had mainstream success but they also know how to do it "the hard way," and will continue to do so when the mainstream starts to run dry.