Independent Music DIY #2: What’s in a Genre?

The first decision we had to make early on was: genre of music. The artist was clear: “It doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. At the end, each song may end up being very different. You take the call.”  

By this time we were deep into our study of the industry, how it works, business models, feasibility and so on. There is a lot of data available if one looks for it. But just as one cannot take creative direction from outside of yourself, you can’t set a business goal for a new initiative by looking at market size. Going by market size, the best bet would be to create an R&B/ Hip Hop or Rock track. As per the mid-year 2023 Luminate report, R&B/Hip Hop accounts for the largest share of the total market with 25.9% of total album sales (album + TEA + SEA On-Demand). Rock accounts for 44.2% of total album sales (physical and digital), while it comes a distant second on streams. While Upamanyu does listen to a good bit of R&B, Hip-hop and rock, the music he creates is not in the genre since it’s not his mode of self-expression at the moment. 

The online streaming metrics were interesting and represent the glamour of present day music and also the most daunting challenge. Track Equivalent Albums (TEA) are accounted as 10 digital tracks equal 1 album sale. Stream Equivalent Albums (SEA) are even more fun; 1250 Premium Streams = 1 Album, while 3750 ad-supported streams = 1 Album. 

The second decision was: how would the song be produced? Upamanyu decided to release a single and the support he requested was a professional producer who would respect his musical vision and production, and enhance his creation and arrangement rather than a musician/producer who wanted to take the music into his own directions because of experience or an understanding of what people want. Upamanyu knew he had to find his audience and while he wrote for anyone who had experienced what he had, he was also representing GenZ and younger generations. It was a call that made sense artistically, but also business wise since the data was quite clear – except for well established big name music producers, no one really could guarantee success since no one was tuned into what works and what doesn’t. New sounds cannot be created by people who hove old ideas. “I am a nobody in music, just starting out. If I can’t be myself now, I won’t be able to be myself later.”

We are blessed to have a vast network of musicians, artists and producers in our family and circle of friends. We reached out and spoke to several established musician-producers across cities and zeroed in on Shitalchandra Kulkarni who not only has a consistent track record as an artist and producer, but is also a wise music educator working with younger musicians. He became our first advisor and gave us generously of his time, listened to the first song, spoke to Upamanyu at length to gauge where he was and then gave us his recommendation with his reasons. “He has talent, clear ideas and combines composition, songwriting and singing. It is best that he work with a producer who is open to his musical genre, is confident in his own self and will take risks stepping back to give him creative freedom and yet take technical decisions to make high quality tracks.”  He gave us four recommendations. Eventually, Upamanyu met Onkar Tarkase. The two of them connected, discussed his vision, listened to the song and within the hour the fifth, very critical, member of the team came onboard as co-producer.

The third decision we took was to create an information interface comprising a website, official social media accounts and contact emails, all of which provide a level of credibility to media, industry at large, and centralises artist related information. For most of the year, our role as exec producers was limited to planning, legal agreements, scrounging for funds, scheduling and facilitation – weekend work. After the first track was ready, we got to put on creative hats to script and produce a bare-bones music video with no budget – that took a Saturday. For distribution we signed up with TuneCore. While setting up the first release we had to commit to our genre, and we went with Pop as primary genre. We waited the mandatory 4 weeks, submitted the track to playlisters through the distributor and for consideration to their promotion partners. Meanwhile, we also took a paid service to run a series of anonymous pre-release reviews through TuneCore (100-odd listeners who were asked to give their opinion), and the sample market agreed with Upamanyu’s original statement: the music was in-between genres. Subsequent submissions to playlisters provided the same result: while most liked the song, it just did not fit into their playlists. We took the technical and musical feedback in stride since we understood it was subjective – some would like, some wouldn’t.

In situations such as this, separation of roles is most helpful. If the artist has to worry about all this, they may never get any song completed. Or they may start modifying for the market. Or… it leads to a lot of uncertainty. As a result, many musicians create a lot of tunes, and keep working on it, improving it over and over… and never really releasing enough music to the market. 

After the first release, beyond the euphoria, the metrics were depressing. Less than 1000 streams across all platforms after three months, which meant less than 1 album sold (assuming the streams were premium). If I remember correctly, the earning was 42 cents (34 Rupees) after 3 months. Yay!

It was clear that creating a brand image, and giving a single or an album a fighting chance to reach an audience wider than 100 people (which is the reality of most music releases in the world today) was going to be a big big mountain to climb. 

To be continued …

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