The Incredibly Small Number of ‘Breaking’ DIY Artists

Just how many DIY artists are really breaking into this market?

Tough question, though Tommy Boy (and New Music Seminar) founder Tom Silverman recently investigated the issue using 2008 sales figures from Nielsen Soundscan.  Silverman counted 105,575 new album releases that year, and found that just 225 of those were new artists surpassing the 10,000 unit threshold for the first time.  Of that, just 14 were do-it-yourself artists, unaffiliated with a major, indie, or other entity.

Or were they?  After digging deeper, Silverman realized that 14 was way too high.  Right off the top, Silverman nixed two from the list after confusing the names with other, previously-successful artists.  Silverman then eliminated another after discovering a partnership with indie hip-hop group Tech N9ne.  Another hip-hopper was crossed-off after a massive marketing spend came to light.

The list kept shrinking.  Another was boosted by American Idol, and another America’s Got Talent.  A ‘few others’ were on ‘small labels with big budgets,’ according to Silverman.

And so on.  “What does this say about the Chris Anderson ‘Long Tail’ promise?” Silverman blogged in Musician Coaching.  “Clearly the ease of making and distributing music does not benefit ‘breaking’ music.  Breaking music requires mass exposure which requires luck or money or both.  I can say with great authority that less new music is breaking now in America than any other time in history.  Technology has not helped more great music rise to the top, it has inhibited it.  I know this is a bold statement but it is true.”

So what’s left?  All of that sounds deflating, though Silverman pointed to opportunities at lower sales levels.  Whether artists can truly monetize smaller audiences remains an open question, though certainly, life goes beyond the recording.  “In the meantime, artists can still make a very good living without selling 10,000 albums by careful cultivation of their fan relationships,” Tommy Boy surmised.