Marina's Big Failure

For too long we've defined success in the music industry by popularity and sales. Neither of these are values that are inherent to art, so its not difficult to see why artists get discouraged at points throughout their careers. With constant pressure to be the next big thing, ride out trends, fill stadiums and shift units, we can't be successful unless we are the biggest and the best. Right?

Marina Diamandis is angry, feeling "more like a failure than a success". This is despite the launch of her career as Marina and the Diamonds with an album applauded by many, nominated for a plethora of accolades and winning an MTV Europe award. Her debut peaked at number 5 in the UK and made a splash in charts around the world. To many, this would be an achievement. But to Marina, she's a flop.

According to her interview on Australian radio, Marina's ambition is "to be one of the best artists of her generation". Great - but what does this mean? How does she define this success?

In the new industry, with decreased volume of sales, meaningless charts and more and more choice along the long tail, artists need to be able to articulate what success means to them personally. They must establish a vision for their work, with milestones to achieve along the way. For many this will continue to be money, fame, popularity. These artists will inevitably find their work unfulfilling with each missed goal. Only so many can reach the superstardom of The Beatles, Madonna, GaGa - this doesn't mean that other artists should just pack up their kit and go home.

A sustainable career, that allows the artist to continue to stay self-motivated, needs to have more than just goals. The vision must be supported by the artist's own understanding of what success looks like. In doing this they must get to know the feeling of success to them personally - not just create a list of achievements. 

Marina wants to be the best of her generation - this may take decades to fulfil. Will she be miserable throughout her career until she is informed that yes, indeed, she is now the best artist of her generation? It sounds like she has a destination she wants to achieve, but still does not know how she wants to feel.

We become deluded into believing that our success is measured by criteria established by others. Its not your parents, your boss, your label, or your fans that give you success. Only you can define and ultimately recognise it.

The biggest failure is to not take the time to set out what success means to you up front - if you can't establish that, how will you ever feel successful?


His Master's Voice

2011 starts with the news that HMV have announced their intention to shut 40 branch locations this year.

The alarm bells are not only the poor Christmas trading - but the rumour that the company was having trouble meeting their bank loans. 

Over the past few years, it's been clear that record retail - in the form of physical sales - has been shrinking; not only the amount of HMV's shelf space devoted to CDs, but the disappearance of chains such as Fopp and Virgin Megastore. In the case of HMV, I'm neither surprised nor disappointed.

From an artist and a label perspective, HMV's approach to retail is in no one's favour but their own. Their margins are massive and yet they demand one of the highest discounts on PPD than any of the other retailers. This is the set rate that a distributor sells CDs at to stores. HMV then request a discount of 20% or more, depending on the relationship they have with the retailer. Independent stores would get this discount, but because of the size of HMV, the discount is granted.

Distributors love HMV because they buy in bulk volume. HMV has over 250 locations - so each album release could get a hefty minimum order. The problem for the label is that distributors make their commission up front - labels pay around 20% for every unit shipped. If HMV don't sell your album in a few weeks, they return them. And the distributor keeps the commission.

It gets worse. HMV orders weekly, with each store putting a separate order in to the distributor. So even though you may have returns from the Glasgow branch, the next week might see orders from Bristol. The same CD returned to your distributor could be resold to HMV, and then even returned again. 

As an artist having your CD in HMV once gave you credibility. But once the discount was applied, you weren't making much in revenue from your sales. Then taking into the account returns - well, you could find yourself losing money on a release.

This distribution-retail relationship has always been one of my biggest issues with the record industry. Digital music has none of these problems - music is shipped and sold on demand. With this in place and available to all, there is no need for physical product or record stores like HMV.

If you're one of those who still insist on buying a physical album, there are great independent stores and Amazon who you can go to. For artists, get your CDs out of HMV now - there's no prestige in seeing your work sink with the ship.

Image from Flickr by Max Sparber